Novelist Faith Sullivan is the doyenne of the Twin Cities’ literary community and, as do many other writers, I want to be just like her when I grow up. She already is the person I’ve always wanted to be.
We met years ago at a book signing for “The Cape Ann,” the first of Faith’s six novels set in Harvester, the fictional town based on tiny Lakefield in southwestern Minnesota, and Pipestone, where she attended high school. We hit it off initially because I’m such a fan of her work, and what writer fails to be charmed by an appreciative reader? Harvester’s residents have become so real to me that Faith and I gossip about them as if they were our own neighbors.
I’m particularly drawn to Faith’s insightful portrayal of life in a small town — markedly different from my own background as the eldest of a military family dragged around the world in service to my father’s career — and by the compassion she so clearly feels for her characters.
As a young person, Faith found herself surrounded by strong, intelligent women, and she brings them to life in her novels. She eavesdropped on her grandmother’s bridge club and sewing circle, and absorbed stories about the struggles women endured before the feminist movement. The military taught me to shut up (“Men don’t like women who are strident, dear,” my mother used to warn). Wives and daughters were expected to be beautiful and dutiful and to keep our opinions — assuming we had any, which was strongly discouraged — to ourselves.
As Faith makes clear in her novels, mother-daughter interactions between women who aren’t actually related tend to be much less fraught than those of blood relatives, because we have fewer expectations and are less inclined to criticize. Friends can reflect well on one another but generally don’t operate as extensions, as mirror images. My own mother, both enmeshed and competitive with my sisters and me, was given to such helpful observations as, “You’re not going to eat that, are you?” and “You’re not going to wear that, are you?”
Faith is unfailingly supportive and encouraging; she knows how to mother writers, does it well, and thus she is much beloved by all of us here in Minnesota — and by me in particular, because I’ve been hungry all my life for maternal affection.
When Faith asks, “How are you?” she really means it; she genuinely wants to know. Faith teaches by example — gracious, generous, kind. Devoted to her readers, Faith estimates that she has visited more than 1,000 different book groups; she’s been known to drive 100 miles each way to meet with clubs that may have fewer than 10 members.
Faith always sends thank-you notes; she’s been known to thank people for their thank-you notes. I have good intentions on that front but rarely follow through. I do, however, save every letter Faith sends me. Most of them begin, “Darling Girl ... ”
Faith doesn’t do e-mail or Facebook; her husband, Dan Sullivan (a former theater critic for the Los Angeles Times), handles e-mail but eschews social media. I communicate pretty much exclusively via computer and have been accused (accurately) of over-sharing on Facebook, so I know that if I want to get in touch with her, I have to pick up the phone.
We’re both without family nearby. The Sullivans’ three children, all writers, live on the West Coast and my three siblings are “Back East.” Thus we’ve learned to rely on each other for holidays. Faith and Dan come to my home for Thanksgiving and Easter — Faith always sends a generous check to cover the cost of groceries — and they usually host Christmas Eve.
Years ago, Faith showed up for a party here with a hostess gift, a pillow embroidered, “Daughters are a blessing … especially mine.” I treasure this, as I do Faith’s friendship. An unkind mother’s criticism is withering, but the love of a good surrogate can be restorative. I should know.
Kit Naylor is co-author of “The Lincoln Del Cookbook,” published in September by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Faith Sullivan has completed her sixth Harvester novel, “Ruby and Roland.” The new book is a farmland romance, set around 1916, and as she says, “not just another roll in the hay.”