Feature: Melissa Sullivan
Many already have fully formed ideas of Jackie O’s identities – fashion trendsetter, champion of the arts, historical preservationist. So when we came across Melissa Sullivan’s historical fiction submission that viewed the First Lady icon from a different perspective – from the man who was her lover and architect to JFK’s memorial – we were fascinated. “I loved how strongly ‘Dear Jacqueline’ evoked a moment of grief, but also inner strength from Jackie O. It painted such a vivid portrait of a strong woman dealing with the worst moment of her life,” said Laura Lamb, Sum's fiction co-editor.
We caught up with Melissa Sullivan to learn more about her process for writing the story of the First Lady, her affair, and the burial of her presidential husband. Read the full piece, “Dear Jacqueline”, in Issue #01.
Sum: Where are you from?
MS: I am from the liberal North East of the U.S. and have lived in the peripheries of Boston and New York over the years. Currently, I am established in the wide-lawned suburbs of Philadelphia, where I entertain myself by imagining my neighbors are spies or maybe just small-time dealers of illegal homemade wines.
S: What was the inspiration for “Dear Jacqueline?”
MS: I came across a review of a new biography about Jackie Kennedy that revealed she had had an affair with John Warnecke, the architect who she had hired to design JFK’s memorial. As soon as I read that, ..
I had an image of a Jackie, standing in her black veil over her husband’s grave, while a man who loved her looked on from just a few feet away. The story built itself from there.
S: What is your writing process normally like?
MS: For short stories, I usually start with a person I’ve seen or read about who seems to be in a dramatic or at least interesting situation. I start writing from their perspective, to try to understand what it must be like to be in their particular shoes. Then, in order to have an actual plot, I try to get them to a place where they need to make a decision about their situation. In subsequent drafts, I go back and try to cut until I only have what is essential to the arch.
I also rely on my weekly writing group to help me clear out all of my literary “throat clearing,” as we call it.
S: In writing anything that blurs fact and fiction, how do you make sure not to stray too far into biography fact or into total fiction?
MS: The thing I love most about history is the gaps. While much has been written about the Kennedys and Jackie in particular, there is still a lot that is unknown and, perhaps, unknowable. In “Dear Jacqueline,” I was able to take a moment that actually occurred (the burial of JFK with Jackie and her lover in attendance) and imagine what it was like to live in these characters’ bodies for those few minutes of time.
With Jackie, it was particularly interesting to think about her private reactions, because she was one of the early adopters of the “branding” approach to politics, where she understood that the image she projected was more important than the lived truth. For example, I loved the detail that though she was a chain smoker, she tried to never smoke in public and actually forbid journalists to take photos of her smoking. From that one item, I could imagine how in control she felt she needed to be and how that must have weighed on her.
S: What upcoming projects are you working on?
MS: At the moment, I am looking for representation for my latest book, a novel of domestic suspense set in the Philadelphia suburbs that explores what happens when family members fail to reveal their truths to the people they are supposed to trust the most. I am also channeling my political rage into a new short story about a small Illinois town frozen in 1965.
Melissa Sullivan's “Dear Jacqueline” is available to read in Issue #01 now.