By Leslie Lindsay
One of my favorite all-time authors is Caroline Leavitt. She writes with such grit and honesty that it is completely refreshing. Her latest book, IS THIS TOMORROW (May, 2013) is set under the backdrop of 1950’s suburbia. Ava is a single, Jewish mother raising her thirteen year old son in an all-Christian neighborhood when one of the son’s buddies goes missing. Part suspense, part literary fiction, this book will resonate with those who enjoy a good, multi-layered read.
Leslie Lindsay: Many of your stories have an underlying theme of unconventional families. In PICTURES OF YOU, the young father is recently widowed and raising a son. GIRLS IN TROUBLE features a young woman who gives her baby up through open adoption and then weaves herself into that new family. Ava portrays a single Jewish mother in the 1950s. Traditional? Not in the least. Can you share how you are inspired to write about families that are less than typical?
Caroline Leavitt: “Probably because my own family had its issues. My parents had a terrible marriage. I had a desperately unhappy childhood and adolescence. I’m most interested in the connections between people. To me, nothing is more important than how we do—or don’t—relate to others.”
Leslie Lindsay: I understand you started writing at a young age and then got more serious in high school. Did you have a mentor? And when did you finally get the nerve to submit to agents?
Caroline Leavitt: “Not only did I not have a mentor, but most people told me no along the way. My high school English teacher told me, “Pardon me, but you don’t write that well.” At Brandeis, my advanced writing professor called my work “garbage” and told me I’d never make it. I never listened. I kept fighting, sending things out, never letting the rejections get to me, and when I finally published my first novel, MEETING ROZZY HALFWAY, it was a sensation, and I sent the novel and my first NYT review to that professor! He told me he had known I would make it all along, that he just was trying to thicken my skin. I laughed and never wrote back.”
Leslie Lindsay: And now you are a mentor! Can you tell us a little about your on-line/distance learning classes and critique services?
Caroline Leavitt: “I teach beginning and advanced novel writing online at UCLA and Stanford and love it. I also do private developmental editing with clients. My classes are really intense but I love them. I try to get in the trenches with all the writers and teach them what works for me and give them all the things I’ve learned along the way. I look at whole manuscript with an eye to structure. You can’t teach talent—you either have it or you don’t. But you can shape a book and structure it so a good story can really become great. I end up with twenty pages of detailed notes for clients and we talk and talk and talk.”
Leslie Lindsay: Will you share a bit about your writing routines/processes? When you sit down at your laptop to work on a manuscript, how do you usually proceed? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Caroline Leavitt: “I plan everything out. I don’t believe in the muse. John Irving is my hero, and like Irving, I have to know my final destination, my last line, my character change. It’s like you are driving in the woods and you have no map, but you know you want to get to Denver. Having that destination changes everything. I rely on John Truby story structure, which shapes a story by means of the moral choices a character makes, and the reveals that come along the way.”
Leslie Lindsay: Does writer’s block exist for you and how do you usually get over it? For example, right now I have no desire to work on anything manuscript related. But I know if I open up that document and start looking at it again, I’ll be sucked into the story.
Caroline Leavitt: “I never have writer’s block. I literally don’t. I always want to sit down and write. It’s when I get sucked into something else and I can’t write that I get crazy. I’ve been on tour for three months and unable to really have sustained writing, and it’s made me nervous and depressed. Now I’m home and I’m just starting to flex that writing muscle again.”
Leslie Lindsay: What are you reading now?
Caroline Leavitt: “Early Decision by Lacy Crawford. An arc about the whole college admissions process—something my family is just entering into with my son. It’s making me so nervous to contemplate all this, but I’m hoping the novel will act as Xanax.”
Leslie Lindsay: If you had an afternoon to sit in the library completely unencumbered, how would you spend your time? Writing, researching, reading? A little of all?
Caroline Leavitt: “Reading. Definitely reading. And for pleasure, not for review.”
Leslie Lindsay: Finally, what do you hope readers take away from your books?
Caroline Leavitt: “I most want people to feel, to somehow come away changed in some way. With IS THIS TOMORROW, I hope people will think about what it means to be an outcast and how someone who feels outcast can build community. All my novels deal with outcasts in one way or another, and all of those outcasts are struggling to connect. I also want people to know that even though life is terrible and tragic and horrifyingly random, it is also beautiful . Actually—my title of my new novel, which will be out in 2015—is sort of the way I see things. It’s called CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD. The world is both, no?”
Leslie Lindsay: Thank you, thank you Caroline for your beautiful words or writing wisdom and inspiration. It was a joy to have you.
For more information about Caroline and her books, please see her website:
- Leslie’s top picks: GIRLS IN TROUBLE, IS THIS TOMORROW, and PHOTOGRAPHS OF YOU, two of which were personal reading group selections.
- All photos in this post were used with permission and are from the archives of C. Leavitt.