Inside Faith Sullivan’s lively brain is a detailed map of Harvester, Minn., a place that does not exist. (Readers of Sullivan’s five Harvester novels might disagree.)
Harvester is a farm town, a bit like Lakefield in southwestern Minnesota, where Sullivan grew up, and a bit like Pipestone, where she went to high school. But it is its own distinct place, and in her mind Sullivan can walk down any of Harvester’s shady streets, mount the steps of any of its houses and know who will open the door when she knocks.
This is her literary territory, and novel by novel, she is creating a patchwork portrait of Harvester, telling the stories of the people who lived there in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Her books are less sequels to one another than they are companions, overlapping in time and with minor characters in one book springing to the foreground in the next.
“I think we’re seeing [William Faulkner’s] Yoknapatawpha County here, in our part of the world,” said Emilie Buchwald, one of Sullivan’s early editors. “We’re seeing her create more and more of that landscape, filling in the people. And she does that with such an exquisite eye for detail.”
Sullivan’s newest Harvester novel, “Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse,” published this week by Milkweed Editions, is perhaps her most ambitious. It spans 68 years, the entire life of the main character, Nell Stillman, a bookish schoolteacher who played a minor role in the first Harvester novel, “The Cape Ann.”
Those who read “The Cape Ann” will know that in this new book, Nell is headed for tragedy.
Not ‘women’s books’
Sullivan is 81 and looks 20 years younger. Maybe 30. She is slender and lively, with gray hair, bright dark eyes and a laugh that can only be described as joyful.
The walls of her Minneapolis home are crowded with art — a huge, creepy painting of a house that looks eerily like hers, perhaps in Bizarro World; a woman’s portrait, its paint cracking, the gesso peeking through (“Maybe it’s like the picture of Dorian Gray,” she says); antique books she strung with ribbons and hung above the couch.
It is here where Sullivan hosts her twice monthly writers groups, and here where Women Who Wine occasionally meet. (The social group includes writers Kate DiCamillo and Lorna Landvik; they “have supper and drink a lot of wine and yell and laugh and carry on,” Sullivan said.) And it is here where Sullivan writes — for many years on a manual typewriter that her husband, Dan, salvaged from the Los Angeles Times newsroom, and now, reluctantly, on a computer.
While Sullivan’s books are about small-town life, they are literary and nuanced, more akin to Kent Haruf’s stories about Holt, Colo., than, say, to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.
They should not be dismissed, said Milkweed publisher Daniel Slager, as “women’s books” or “regional fiction.”
“Some of my favorite American novels are regional,” Slager said. “I suppose one could call William Faulkner a regional writer — most of his fiction is mining one county in rural Mississippi. But I think where the particular becomes universal is what I’m really interested in.”
The characters in “Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse” would be thought entirely ordinary in real life, Slager said. “And yet, in Faith’s hands as a novelist, they’ve become extraordinary. That’s obviously the gift of great novels in general, but it’s done less often for women.”
Novels about women are far too easily dismissed, Buchwald said. “We tend to put war and violence and stories that have to do with male pursuits at the top.
“Faith should have national stature. She writes about topics that everyone can relate to: human relationships. How we hurt each other. How we love each other. How we let each other down. This is the essence of what human life is about, and she does it so well.”
An accidental author
Sullivan never planned to become a writer. She graduated from Mankato Teachers College in 1956 with degrees in history and education and motored off to Cambridge, Minn., for her first teaching job — which she hated. Anything would be better than that, she thought, and she later took a job in an employment office. It was OK, but it was still nothing she loved.
Her college friend Dudley Riggs hired her to act in his Brave New Workshop, where she met Dan — then a music and drama critic for the Minneapolis Tribune, and a comedy writer.
She and Dan had three children and moved first to New York, then to Los Angeles, before eventually moving back to Minnesota. It was in California where Faith got an idea for a novel. “It plagued me,” she said. “But once I started writing, I thought, ‘Oh, my God. Why haven’t I been doing this all my life? This is what I really want to do.’ ”
She wrote three novels, all nationally published, before creating Harvester. “It was the year after my grandmother died, and I wanted to write about strong women before the feminist movement,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t have a story, so I sat down and made a list of things that I had wanted to write about that had not fit into previous books.
“One was growing up Catholic. One was a World War I veteran who was still suffering — because in every town where I had family in southern Minnesota, there was such a veteran.”
Bit by bit, the story came together. “And hence,” she said, “ ‘The Cape Ann.’ ”
Published by Crown in 1988, “The Cape Ann” has not been out of print in more than 20 years. It was a national bestseller, a perennial favorite of book clubs and beloved by readers. Everyone clamored for a sequel.
Everyone, that is, except her publisher.
It was another Milkweed author, Bill Holm, who told Buchwald about Sullivan. So Buchwald read the manuscript of “The Empress of One,” the second Harvester book. “My thought was what a fantastic storyteller she is,” Buchwald said. “What a profound knowledge of people.”
Buchwald bought the manuscript. The book was awarded Milkweed’s National Fiction Prize in 1996, and Milkweed has been Sullivan’s publisher ever since, publishing the subsequent Harvester novels, “Gardenias” and “What a Woman Must Do.”
When “Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse” opens, Nell Stillman is newly widowed, with an infant son named Hilly. Over the years, she finds her calling as a teacher, she falls uneasily in love, and Hilly goes off to war and returns traumatically shellshocked. Through it all, Nell sustains herself through reading — primarily, the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse.
It is a book that starts out sunny and grows progressively darker. “I think the flip side of darkness is the survival of hard times,” Slager said. “This is a novel about the power of reading and the power of literature. There was so much to rescue it from the darkness.”
The book took 10 years to write, partly because Sullivan is such an enormous fan of Wodehouse herself. “I’ve been reading his novels for 40 years,” she said, and during the writing of “Good Night” she reread many of them — though not, she adds, all 92 of them.
Her next novel, she said, will be quicker. And yes, there will be a next one; she is at work on “Ruby,” the story of a Harvester orphan girl who makes a brief appearance in “Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse.”
After that, “I have two more Harvester novels in my head,” Sullivan said.
And the patchwork portrait fills in a little more.