The story behind Friends and Strangers is one that J. Courtney Sullivan knows intimately. The novel's conceit — its early stages, at least — came to her six years ago while she was visiting Smith College (her alma mater) on a book tour. Sullivan points out that it was drizzling rain, as it tends to be during moments of literary genesis, when an SUV pulled up to the crosswalk in which she was standing.
"It dawned on me that it was this woman whom I babysat for my senior year of college," she explains. "This woman was a big reason why I had moved to New York and started my career. I looked her in the eyes and she didn’t recognize me. She just kept driving."
Sullivan came back to the city and described the encounter over dinner with a friend, the novelist Jami Attenberg, who urged her to use the story as the inspiration for her next book. Novels have a way of deciding their own fate, so the idea was shelved while Sullivan worked on her 2017 release Saints For All Occasions. Three years after that dinner, while pregnant with her first child, she began to write what became Friends & Strangers (on shelves June 30).
The two-hander alternates between the stories Elisabeth, a journalist with several successful books under her belt, and her nanny, Sam. Elisabeth and her husband have recently relocated from their bustling Brooklyn neighborhood to a small college town upstate — and not the hipster enclaves an hour's train ride from the city, but upstate upstate. Sam is a senior at said college, taking on part-time jobs to keep up with the lifestyles of her wealthy school friends. Elisabeth has a new baby and is struggling to acclimate to motherhood (nearly) alone in a new city. Sam has an older boyfriend in London and is struggling to balance her desires for a life with him and her need to be a college student. Sullivan created their stories out of her own experiences and her memories of her former nanny gig.
"She had just moved from New York to Northampton," the author explains of the woman in the SUV. "She was experiencing all of these things: leaving the city, not knowing people, the new role of being a mother. I had taken a year off from school, I had lived in London, acquired an inappropriately older boyfriend, and thought I was really sophisticated, and had outgrown college in some way."
As the novel jumps back and forth between narrators (readers of Kiley Reid's blockbuster Such a Fun Age will recognize this feeling), Sam and Elisabeth grow increasingly close, blurring the lines of a traditional employer-employee relationship. Sam confides in Elisabeth about her relationship with her 30-something British beau and her confusion about her future, and in turn, Elisabeth feels increasingly maternal towards her. That dynamic is ripped from Sullivan's memories of her Smith College babysitting gig.
"We had this friendship that was maybe outside the bounds of what a normal babysitter-mom relationship should be," she says. "The younger woman looks at the older woman, wondering, what parts of her life do I want, and what do I not want? And the older woman remembers what it’s like to be younger woman and thinks it gives her an opening for unsolicited advice."
Before Elisabeth's unconventional relationship with her nanny takes off, she spends her time poring over her BK Mamas Facebook group (she joined before her move upstate upstate). Hours of the day are given way to scrolling through forums about breastfeeding and, often times, vent sessions about highly personal drama that her fellow group members spill onto the digital page. In the book, it's a place for Elisabeth to disappear to, but in real life a not-dissimilar forum offered Sullivan a virtual lifeline. It's called BoCoCa Moms, named after the portmanteau describing the upscale Brooklyn enclaves of Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill, and Carroll Gardens. Women take to the page to solicit advice — or simply make contact with the outside world during 3 a.m. feedings — and often wind up sharing their frustrations and, yes, secrets.
"I found it really fascinating that these groups tend to be where women congregate and talk about their innermost lives," Sullivan says of her decision to incorporate it into her novel. "You’re alone in a room typing tings out so it feels anonymous, but it’s really not at all."
Sullivan isn't nearly alone in her tendency to pull from her own life to draft her fiction, but sometimes the accidental similarities can border on eerie. She describes it as a bit of a fulfilling prophecy; she writes something in a book and it seems to happen. For this interview, we speak by phone, two months into quarantine, while her family is taking respite from their very full Brooklyn apartment at an uncle's-friend's-house in Albany, NY. Swap Elisabeth's husband's new job for a global pandemic and the moves are almost identical, even down to the locale that Sullivan jokingly points is upstate, but not the cool part.
"I’m imagining ten years from now, someone being like how did you end up living here?" she riffs. "And responding, well we came here during Coronavirus and just never left."