Support for LAist comes from
We Explain L.A.
Stay Connected

Share This

Arts and Entertainment

LAist Interview: Felicia Sullivan, author of The Sky Isn't Visible from Here

Stories like these are only possible with your help!
You have the power to keep local news strong for the coming months. Your financial support today keeps our reporters ready to meet the needs of our city. Thank you for investing in your community.

5b2c5a384488b300092803d2-original.jpg

New York author, media maven and baker extraordinaire Felicia Sullivan is in town this week to read from and sign her Brooklyn-based memoir of family addiction, recovery and hope in The Sky Isn't Visible from Here. Sullivan will be reading tonight @ Pi Restaurant next door to Book Soup at 7pm and tomorrow @ Vroman's at 4pm.

Your book is an intensely personal look at your life. The reader not only sees your mother struggle with drug and alcohol addiction, but we see you struggle with - and ultimately overcome - these vices as well. How difficult was it to write this book? What compelled you to write it?

Writing the book from both a personal and craft perspective was incredibly difficult. Personally, I was trying to come to terms with what I had experienced as a child while also struggling with a drinking problem, all the while trying to achieve what writers set out to do – write a good story that is their own. Returning to the past – memories of the years I had spent as my mother’s daughter, my mother’s caretaker – was indeed painful, but necessary. For years I was adamant about not returning to this dark country, but living this way wasn’t necessary healthy because the past consistently crept back in my life and the harder I tried to deny it (self-medicating, living a life of my own invention), the more difficult bearing the weight of these two lives became. Ultimately I knew that confronting the past was the only way I would move beyond it.

Support for LAist comes from

In some way or another, I’ve always written about my mother. When I was eight I published a haiku that likened my mother’s voice to thunder. She’s always been my subject – I can’t really recall a time in which my work hasn’t revolved around her – the one person I couldn’t, but desperately wanted to, understand. For years I was working on a novel of lifeless, unlikable characters that did mildly interesting things. I was writing a safe book because I was afraid to commit my memories, this horrific life lived, this very unsafe book, to paper. I was ashamed of my past, of living in poverty, of a mother who loved and terrorized me. I had lived a life of my own invention for so long, I couldn’t imagine otherwise.

At one point the weight of these two lives – the accomplished, in-control professional and the frightened child who never really mourned the loss of her mother – were becoming difficult to bear. Something had to give. One afternoon a friend of mine and I were trading stories about our mothers and we realized that we had both been shamed into secrecy. We were made to feel shame by our mothers, our impoverished upbringing, and a culture where not loving your mother is unthinkable.

I wrote this book as a testament to my strength, as a celebration of my survival and recovery, to demonstrate that alternative families are possible, and that love – the most sacred of emotions – is not unconditional.

Writing a personal book in the privacy of your own home is one thing - but having it out there in the world is quite another. What has it been like for you to have this book now widely available for all to read? What has surprised you the most post-publication? To be frank, I thought I would be more prepared for releasing this into the world than I actually was. For the first month, I entered what my friends lovingly termed “the first book depression” – a combination of realizing that professionally, my book wasn’t going to land on bestseller lists, that I wasn’t one of the “It” girls, and personally, the fact that I would not be prepared for all the emotional craziness that would ensue. I work in publishing and I’ve been with this material for over four years, so logically I knew that people would come out of the woodwork, a multitude of questions would be asked, that the book would go out into the world like a whisper, but still. You want to show that this – your child, this super-fine thing you’ve slaved for years on, the thing you’ve watched shape and grow – is available in bookstores right now! You must read it! And in the same breath you want to tell people: here is my life, but you can have some of it, but not all of it, because then it becomes less mine. There are limits to how much access a person should have, and I worked hard to create these boundaries for myself. Yet a rare few–particularly during Q/A’s and radio interviews–want to knock those walls down.

But there have been a few pleasant surprises – high school friends and people with whom I’ve lost touch have congratulated me on the publication of Sky – and a few unpleasant ones, but the experience overall has been a positive one.

Q/A sessions for memoirs seem to be some of the toughest I've ever witnessed. Readers are given such direct access to your personal life and they often ask inappropriate or downright mean questions, almost as if the book is fiction and the character isn’t you. Have you had to field any bizarre questions so far on the book tour? Publishing a memoir right now in a society that encourages and celebrates full access, where people’s privates are hung out for display, never ceases to fascinate me. Some are of the mindset that if you publish a memoir everything is fair game, and I’m not sure I agree with this. There are parts of my life that I deliberately chose to leave out of the book (for various reasons), and I’m sometimes shocked by the personal questions people ask. One gentleman asked if my mother had “jungle fever” and whether I’d be angry if my biological father (whom I know nothing about) were black.

However, I like to think that questions come from a place of benign curiosity, that people aren’t trying to be invasive or malicious, so I’m pretty good-natured about it and try to bring as much levity as I can into the Q/A. So far no awkward silences or episodes of me hurling my shoe across the room, which I think is a good thing.

5b2c5a394488b300092803d6-original.jpg

With all the hoopla over fake memoirs - the most recent from an LA writer - how did you approach your memoir? How did your publisher approach the marketing of it? Has there been any backlash about the memoir as genre that you’ve experienced? Writing this book was at times frustrating. Because I was trying to render the most accurate portrayal of my life with my mother, I was consistently confused – caught between the memories my mother created and the events that actually happened – and found myself second-guessing events that had happened. In the cases where memory wasn’t reliable, I chose to keep those chapters out of the book. In other cases, such as in the chapter “The Burning I Don’t Remember”, I make a point to highlight how powerless I was against the history my mother invented for me. I have scars on my legs but I don’t remember how they got there. Do I believe my mother’s story that they were burned in a bathtub and a hospital trip that I don’t recall? Do I have any other option?

Essentially, I wrote this book as honestly as I could, given the limitations. My mother tended to overuse certain phrases and I was in keeping to how she, and other characters, spoke and what they would say. But memory is a tricky thing, it’s infallible, and in the end, I wrote the book and the events in my life as I remembered them. My publisher knew this and completely supported me in all stages of publication.

Support for LAist comes from

Regrettably, many published memoirs resemble reality television in book form – look at me! me! me! without all the context, without a consideration of how to craft one’s story into art, but I tend to ignore the noise, and I remind myself that memoirs have always been written, will continue to be written, and it’s those writers who elevate the genre, who have managed to make art out of their life, will remain long after the chatter.

Were there any memoirs you read either before writing your book or after that you feel are particularly well-done? Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Paula Fox’s Borrowed Finery, Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Marguerite Duras’ The War, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, Luct Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, etc, etc, etc.

You’ve run the successful literary journal Small Spiral Notebook, you’ve run the fascinating literary series Writers Revealed and you co-founded the Non-Fiction series at KGB Bar in New York. You have single-handedly brought the work of many writers to the attention of many readers. What’s next for you? Any new shows, journals, series planned? Thank you! I spent over seven years of my life publishing and promoting emerging authors—giving their work an audience so that it could read and appreciated—and while that experience has been incredibly gratifying, and I’ve met so many extraordinary people, it’s time for me to move on. Being a writer is only one part of who I am, and I felt that my involvement in all things “literary” became suffocating because it didn’t allow me to explore other outlets for which I’m most passionate. I do indeed have one of many ventures planned and the first incarnation celebrates home cooking: www.cravethedish.com is all I’ll say for now.

You hold an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia and have penned some excellent fiction. What’s next for you on the writing front? Fiction? Non-fiction? I have a few projects in mind. One is a satire of our technology, instant-access age. I keep telling people that it’s White Noise meets American Psycho without all the gore. It’ll be a sweet relief to return to fiction. A few other projects are brewing – a light-hearted memoir told with recipes, and perhaps a return to my novel, The Business of Leaving, which I had abandoned four years ago in pursuit of Sky.

But who’s to say really. I think I know what will come next when I actually turn on my computer and start typing.

Your book covers the excesses of the dot com era and the inevitable bust. You capture so perfectly that rise and all those flush with cash that lived the high life and have since had to recalibrate. You’ve become a champion of living well but within your means and have been featured on Fox Business News with your best tips to pinch pennies these days – yet I know you appreciate a fabulous handbag and an incredible pair of shoes as well. How/when do you reign it in and when do you splurge? A few weeks ago I was catching up with my father, lamenting over my student loan debit, credit card bills and the like, and he sighed and said: you’ve been singing this same tune since you’ve graduated college. I don’t know a time when you haven’t been in debt. Suffice it to say that was a wake-up call, and I’ve made conscious attempts to be mindful of my spending. I believe in balance rather than deprivation. So it’s been a lot of Suze Orman (ok, there I said it!), a lot of spreadsheets, charts and tallying of receipts. And when I started to project out what I spend on certain items per year, I almost choked on my oatmeal. And I realized that it’s only when you’re really ready to confront your debt, head on, is when you can finally get out of it. So while I make some splurges and know what items I tend to spend a few extra dollars on (wardrobe bones, food), I’m pretty frugal in all other aspects of my life.

What’s your advice for those who need to start reigning it in during our current economy? Think long and hard about the words “need” and “want”. Think about what convenience means for the short term (spending $10 on lunch) and how that impacts the long-term ($3000/year) – is convenience worth it? Host clothing/home item/book/cd/dvd swaps, nix the alcohol if you do go out for dinner, brown bag it, chip in with your coworkers for a snack bin, pay yourself out of your paycheck first, be vigilant about checking your credit score, cut corners when you can, don’t panic over your 401K investments as you’re in it for the long haul, and try to avoid the impulse, emotionally rewarding buys – they’ll be your future peril.

Any great books you’ve read that you secretly wish you’d written? Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer, Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Recent great reads? I feel saying this might be considered criminal, however, I’ve only just discovered the genius that is Ali Smith. I’m knee-deep in The Accidental, and I absolutely love it.

What about Los Angeles is appealing to you? I love Los Angeles because it is the antithesis of New York – a place I’ve called home for the whole of my life. I love the clean food, the warm weather, the palm trees, the healthy, green lifestyle, and the burgeoning arts scene in downtown L.A., the forward-thinking web development companies, and the very vibrant literary scene. I’m starting to realize (and thankfully so) that New York isn’t the center of it all.

When visiting in LA, what are your favorite things to do? Places to go? I love Urth Caffé, City Yoga, the Farmer’s Market, all the shops and restaurants on Montana in Santa Monica, the cafés in Echo Park, and all the terrific hiking! But mostly, I just spend time with friends, driving, cooking and catching up over long teas.

As a self-proclaimed foodie, what LA restaurants do you love? Which ones are you eager to visit? Although I am a foodie, I’m budet-conscious and tend to cook at home. When I visit, my friends and I tend to hit the farmer’s market for the evening’s festivities. But when I’m in town, I always run, literally run, to In N Out burger!

What books and writers conjure up LA for you? I’m not sure that I can give you an appropriate answer as I’m not born and raised, and what I know of Southern California are the impressions I’ve had from my many visits. I’m also not sure one can encapsulate the whole of a city through a singular writer’s impression of it. However, I can say the following writers have evoked an L.A. that is inspired, intriguing and wholly artistic: Joan Didion, A.J. Albany, Kate Braverman, Dana Spiotta, Susan Chi (unpublished), Bret Easton Ellis, Cris Beam, Nathaneal West, and I’m sure there are so many I’ve missed.

What food dish captures the spirit of LA for you? Anything Mexican, anything green (local/organically produced), anything hamburger.

To keep up with Felicia and her many endeavors, check out her blog.

Author photo by thompson photo