It’s all about characters and coincidences for J. Courtney Sullivan as the story of The Engagements came alive.
To write a novel is to experience self-doubt on a highly regular basis. One day you sit before your computer screen, typing page after page, feeling as though you are writing the greatest prose ever created. But chances are the next morning, when you go back to read it, you’ll think every word but two are lousy. How then to go on?
For me, I know it’s the right thing when aspects of the story keep popping up in my life – when I can’t get the characters out of my head and see traces of them everywhere. As I was writing The Engagements, this was particularly true. It was the most complex book I’ve written and there were plenty of frustrations and false starts. But I felt buoyed by strange little guideposts along the way that seemed to say, “keep going”.
One of the main characters, Frances Gerety, was a real woman who wrote the line “A Diamond is Forever” for De Beers in 1947. Because of antitrust laws, De Beers was forbidden from showing diamond jewellry in their ads, so instead they used fine art images. Some were pre-existing works by the likes of Picasso and Dali, which De Beers purchased for their collection. Other pieces were commissioned. One of these, a painting of a court jester by Andre Derain, caught my attention while I was doing research. I made a copy and taped it to the wall beside my desk. A year later, still in the midst of writing the book, I was in Paris researching another character — a French woman named Delphine. One morning, my husband and I visited the Musee de l’Orangerie to see Monet’s water lilies. We were about to leave, when I decided to go to the ladies room. I descended a flight of stairs and took my place in line. There, in a small square frame, was Derain’s jester. I took it as a sign.
That afternoon, we walked around Montmartre with a guide I had hired to help me fully realize the particulars of Delphine’s day-to-day life. Her husband, Henri, is a luthier and a collector of antique stringed instruments. In Montmartre, I came upon a beautiful brick house and decide I would base their home on it. I took a few pictures, walked around the corner and saw a dim and intimate luthier’s shop, just like the one I had imagined.
Then there were the annual reports. In 1982, Edward Jay Epstein wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly called “Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Diamond?” It chronicles the ways in which the advertising agency N.W. Ayer (where Frances Gerety worked) helped De Beers create the obsession with diamond engagement rings. Epstein quotes from confidential annual reports that Ayer presented to De Beers. The quotes are fascinating and I wanted to include the reports in the book. But it was important to me that I see the originals. For two years I searched, following leads that took me to the archives at Harvard and the Smithsonian, among other places, without luck. Days before I had to hand in the novel, I went to Frances Gerety’s former house. I had reached out to the current owner, who invited me for tea. She gave me several boxes to take home. They contained the only things Frances left behind when she moved: Hundreds of photographs and, to my amazement, the annual reports.
Perhaps these coincidences were just that — coincidences, and nothing more. But they helped to shush the doubting voices and quash fantasies of jumping ship to become a kindergarten teacher or a florist (my dream backup careers.) For that I am grateful.
Evelyn has been married to her husband for forty years but their son’s messy divorce has put them at rare odds; James, a beleaguered paramedic, has spent most of his wedded life haunted by his wife’s family’s expectations; Delphine has thrown caution to the wind and left a peaceful French life for an exciting but rocky romance in America; and Kate, partnered with Dan for a decade, has seen every kind of wedding and has vowed never, ever, to have one of her own. As the stories connect to each other and Frances’ legacy in unique and surprising ways, The Engagements explores the complicated ins and outs of relationships, then, now, and forever.
J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels Commencement, Maine and The Engagements. Maine was named a Best Book of the Year by Time magazine, and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. The Engagements was one of People Magazine’s Top Ten Books of 2013 and an Irish Times Best Book of the Year. It is soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon and distributed by Fox 2000, and will be translated into 17 languages. Courtney’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, and the New York Observer, among many others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.