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'The Cliffs' explores a house through the centuries of women who passed through


The central character of J. Courtney Sullivan's new book, "The Cliffs," is a house - an old Victorian house which sits high above the sea in Maine. But like so much of Sullivan's work, the heart of this multigenerational story is women and how often their stories are discarded or lost. If the central character of "The Cliffs" is a house, the protagonist is Harvard archivist Jane Flanagan. Jane returns to her hometown, site of the house in question, after an episode at a work party that has led to her being put on leave from her job and from her marriage. In an effort to fill her days, she begins documenting the history of the house for the new owner, and it is through telling these stories of the generations of women who lived there that Jane manages to begin to understand her own story.

KELLY: J. Courtney Sullivan joins me now. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

J COURTNEY SULLIVAN: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: This Victorian house in your book was inspired by a real house that you saw? Tell me about it.

SULLIVAN: It was. So probably 10 summers ago now, my husband and I were in southern Maine, on vacation with our dear friends, Mike (ph) and Melissa (ph), another couple, and we came upon this house - beautiful, purple, Victorian house, on a cliff, overlooking the ocean, fully furnished - you know, down to pictures on the shelves and books on the tables - but clearly abandoned. And, of course, for anyone who, you know, once loved reading "Hardy Boys" or "Nancy Drew" or R.L. Stine, like, what could be more irresistible than this?

KELLY: Yeah. You want to creep around the porch and figure out what the heck is going on in there.

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. And I did learn, like, there's two kinds of people. There are the people like me and Melissa, who are like - an abandoned house? We must explore it.

KELLY: (Laughter).

SULLIVAN: And then there are people like our husbands, who are like, this is trespassing, actually. But we kept going back every summer, and it - we developed a relationship with this place to the point where, you know, to some degree, we felt like it was ours. And then, one summer, we get there, and it's gone. They have demolished it, and the new owners put this enormous sort of McMansion in its place.

And I was so bereft - you know? - when I went home, I started writing about the house itself, right down to all the furnishings. The banister had caved in at some point, and there was a dollhouse in the corner and little details like that. And then the actual physical details were fictionalized when I added in all the characters - the women who had lived there over many, many centuries.

KELLY: Well, and you've kind of just mapped out the opening pages, where your character - your fictional character, Jane - has the same experience it sounds like you did - spots this big, purple house, abandoned, yet fully furnished, on a cliff. Tell us how her relationship with that house grew.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. So Jane - as an adult, she is an archivist. And she has her dream job, which is at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard. And the Schlesinger is this magical place that chronicles the lives of American women. And I discovered it when I was writing my novel, "The Engagements." I went there and did research on one of my characters. And from then on, I thought, oh, I really want to incorporate this place into a novel because it is so in sync with what I write about, which is this idea that the moment a woman is born will determine so much of who she's allowed to become.

And Jane herself is really preoccupied with that. She's very intelligent. She comes from a family of women - very strong women and very strong-willed women - and she doesn't see the goodness in her family, necessarily, when she's in high school, when she's a teenager and first discovering this house. And the house is her hideaway from all of that...

KELLY: Yeah.

SULLIVAN: ...And she really just goes there to read and be alone. But coming back to her hometown 20 years later, having made her own colossal mistake, she sees it all sort of in a different light, including the house.

KELLY: She goes all the way back to the 1600s. And among the things she unearths are the stories of all the women who have lived on this land and in this house. Do they have anything in common - all these generations of women, going all the way up to Jane?

SULLIVAN: Oh, my goodness. It's so funny because I feel like they really do. And I love that these women, through time, for the most part, never meet one another. But I do envision them as being sort of in conversation with one another. For example, one of the women, Eliza, is raised as a Shaker at Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine, which still exists. Eliza grows up there when it's much more robust. And there's also an Indigenous woman, Kanti, who is the first woman on that land in the book.

And at some point, I just started looking around in my research, you know? Did the Indigenous Abenaki people in Maine ever cross paths with the Shakers? And they did. There was a famous winter market at Poland Springs, and these were two groups who came and sold baskets. And so I was able to kind of imagine what it would be like for Eliza, who is a Shaker, who other people are looking at and thinking, oh, they're sort of unusual, to see these Native American people and wonder what they might have in common.

KELLY: I'm listening to you, and I'm thinking, it's so delightful - the stories of women interweaving. You're telling me about what Jane discovered as she went back through history, and you're doing the same thing, as the author and creator of all this - going back through the history and figuring out the stories of women that were told and not told.

SULLIVAN: That's right. Before I was lucky enough to start writing fiction full-time, I was a researcher at The New York Times. And I loved that job, but I always imagined it would be so dreamy to just not have to do research anymore and just write fiction. And what I found immediately was I love doing research. It's my favorite part of the process - and sort of unearthing stories that may have been forgotten or may just not be known because there are so many stories. So to sort of pluck one out and tell it again, I feel like it is so important.

KELLY: I asked you what these generations of fictional women in your novel share in common. Do you share something in common with them, J. Courtney Sullivan?

SULLIVAN: Oh, my goodness, so many things - every one of the women in the book deals with things that most women deal with. So whether you're talking about an Indigenous woman who is living her life when colonists first make contact with what becomes New England or you're talking about Marilyn, who is an artist in the early 1960s and trying to sort of navigate what that looks like while also being a mother - yes, they each live in a certain moment in time, but they all think a lot about motherhood and about love and romance and this sort of yearning. And they all have suffered great losses as well.

And Jane has this in common with all of them. And she comes to learn, too, that there might be a reason why she's been drawn to this house in particular all her life. And I think that does tend to happen. You know, I think, as novelists, we're sort of called to write certain stories, and we may or may not know why. We may learn later why. But these women - at every moment in time, we've dealt with, you know, the specifics of our moment, but also just these sort of through lines that connect us through the centuries.

KELLY: Ah. That's the author J. Courtney Sullivan. Her gorgeous new novel is "The Cliffs." Thank you so much.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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Elena Burnett
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Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.