By Leslie Lindsay
From the New York Times and USA Today bestselling novelist of PICTURES OF YOU, IS THIS TOMORROW, and GIRLS IN TROUBLE, Caroline Leavitt returns with her eleventh novel, a stellar read intersecting family, new love, and an anxious time in American history.
Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Manson Murders, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD (Algonquin Books, Oct 4 2016) is at first blush, a coming-of-age tale, but the story grows immensely darker, about the perils of young love, controlling partners, and responsibility.
Sixteen year old Lucy is about to run away with her much older High School English teacher to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that has dire consequences for she and her older sister, Charlotte.
Like most novels, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD is based on a smidgen of truth, a real-life crime concerning a girl who sat in front of Ms. Leavitt in a high school class for two years, who had a relationship with a thirty-year old man. It began for Leavitt as a ‘what-if ‘question, the kind that often propels a story from merely thinking about them, to getting them on paper.
Join me as I chat with Caroline about her inspiration and process behind CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD.
Leslie Lindsay: I understand that CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD has been percolating for some time, that the seeds for this novel first sprouted when you were sixteen. But it wasn’t ready to be written just yet. Can you tell us more about that and why, might some stories have to incubate before getting to the page? And do you know whatever happened to that girl in your high school?
Caroline Leavitt: I have been wanting to write this for so long, but I didn’t have the knowledge I needed. I was sixteen and sitting behind this wonderful, funny, smart girl in study hall, and we always talked. I was dreaming of going to Paris to be a writer and having all these adventures and romances, but she was—to my surprise—engaged, and to a much older and “sort of controlling” man. I just didn’t get it. When I got out of high school, I found out that she had decided to go back to school, have a life, break up—and her boyfriend murdered her, stabbing her 43 times.
I was haunted and really upset, but I couldn’t write about her because I didn’t understand how she could have stayed with someone like that. Didn’t she see signs?
Fast forward ten years. Two weeks before my wedding, my fiancé dropped dead of a heart attack in front of me. The grief was cataclysmic. I cried so hard in my apartment that neighbors called the police—twice! I roamed all over the country talking to psychics, came back and decided I couldn’t grieve anymore. I decided to get into a relationship, despite my friends and family and my grief counselor’s warning that this was the worst idea ever.
My new boyfriend was at first kind, but gradually became controlling. He spoke in such a soft, gentle voice that I began to believe everything he told me—that at 95 pounds I was too fat and needed to diet, that my black clothing made me look dead and I should wear pastels, that my friends were nuts and I shouldn’t see them. Why would I stay with someone so controlling? Because if I left him, I’d grieve, and that seemed so much worse. I began to understand my high school friend and I finally got up the strength—when he rewrote part of my novel-in-progress without asking—to leave.
But it wasn’t until four years ago, when I saw an online posting from my high school friend’s sister who was still looking for answers to what happened, that I got the missing piece. I added a sister, I changed the relationship and what happened, and suddenly the book began to make sense to me.
L.L: You do a wonderful job with character development. In the case of CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, did the characters of Lucy, Charlotte (the older sister) and Iris (the older mother/aunt/caretaker) come fully formed, or did you carefully cultivate them? Were they composites at all of anyone in your life?
Caroline Leavitt: What a great question. It took about 18 drafts to get it right. At one point, Lucy, Charlotte and Iris were all angry at one another and my genius editor Andra Miller said, “find the love, too”—so I did, and it changed everything.
I have to admit that Iris is based on my mom, who was jilted at 19, married a sullen brute on the rebound (my father), and went into independent living resigned to her life being over—and instead, like Iris, she bloomed! Her story is not really Iris’, but my mom fell in love “for the first time” at 93! She and her beau Walter had four wonderful years together until she got dementia and then he died. But dementia is a sort of gift for her because she thinks Walter is still alive.
Charlotte and Lucy are not my sister and I—but the feelings of “us against the world” certainly were. I also will admit that like Charlotte, I make lists and that like Charlotte, my biggest task in life is to learn to stop trying to fix everything, to just let life wash over me. It’s hard!
“Two sisters — impulsive Lucy and sensible Charlotte — make decisions that will haunt the rest of their lives. Set in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, Cruel Beautiful World is a riveting novel about love and loss, secrets and lies, and what it means to be a family. Its twists and turns will keep you reading late into the night.”
—Christina Baker-Kline, author of Orphan Train
L.L.: Reading CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD was like sitting on a sun-soaked porch and having the wind whisper a story in my ear [and how I relish in that; thanks for the early copy, Algonquin!]. It’s at once alarming and beautiful, thought-provoking, and richly told, but it has a dark undercurrent. Could it be that that is how the world was in 1969 (that was a little before my time, so I can’t say)? And would you call this historical fiction? IS THIS TOMORROW was set in the 1950s, do I sense a theme?
Caroline Leavitt: Ah, I’m no spring chicken (I call myself a fall chicken). I was really young in the 60s, but not in the 70s, and I definitely felt and saw the change. The 60s were all goofy and wonderful. You were “going to San Francisco to meet some gentle people and wear flowers in your hair”—and I was dying to go but couldn’t because I was too young. But my sister, who is older, took me to all the Be-Ins and Love-Ins (which were the same things—big celebratory parties with balloons and free food and music, held outside in some park–) in Boston and schooled me in being a hippie. Everyone had such hope that there was going to be real, lasting and profound change—and it would be peaceful change, too. I hitched everywhere by myself, barefoot, in full hippie regalia, and I never had a problem. Even something like drugs was done as a spiritual quest, and hoards of people were “going back to the land” to farm and be one with nature. There were also all these free schools popping up where you could learn whatever you wanted, when you wanted. Everyone thought they were building a Utopia. Of course, this was what it was like for middle-class suburban kids, not for those living with the terrifying racism and horrific poverty of the time.
But then the 70s hit. The kids who ran away to San Francisco to meet those gentle people? They were living on the streets. The kids who dropped out of school to farm? They had no idea how to grow crops and they were starving, too. The Peace Movement turned ugly, with groups like The Weatherman and SDS and The Black Panthers—all advocating violence and guns. There was Kent State and the infamous sign at universities “They can’t kill us all” and I began to wonder if maybe they could.
No one hitched anymore. People were dying from harder drugs. And then I entered Brandeis a year after two students, Susan Saxe and Katharine Ann Power had robbed a bank “for the revolution” and killed a cop—the father of 9 kids. They went underground and were on the
FBI’s Most Wanted List for years. The Brandeis students I talked to who were there at the time said they were so unsettled, hoards of kids left school to drive up to Maine and stay there for a while.
I was in Madison the day the National Guard in silver riot gear lined the streets because there was a student protest over a student being caught—the kid had blown up a building and killed a professor. I was walking back to my dorm (I’m a pacifist and could never condone blowing up anything), they began to tear gas, and I was so terrified, I ran back to my place and bolted the door.
But more than anything, there were the Mansons. The Beach Boys were the sunniest group around but they actually inadvertently led to the Sharon Tate murders.Sharon Tate murders. Dennis Wilson picked up two pretty hitchhikers and took them home. They began to talk about gurus. Dennis’ was the Maharishi, and the two girls said, “Our guru is Charlie Manson.” Dennis met Charlie, they wrote songs together—one is even on a Beach Boys record, but not credited to Charlie. Dennis introduced Charlie to Terry Melcher, a record producer, who nixed Charlie. Furious, Charlie began to be threatening. Dennis and Terry cut off ties, and Terry was so frightened, he moved out of his house—the same house that the Mansons approached to do their murders.
It terrified me, seeing those girls in the news. They were all pretty and singing and happy and holding hands. And Charlie was everything to them.
I definitely think this is historical fiction, but my next two novels are set in the present.
L.L.: Let’s talk structure for a bit, because this can be tricky for a writer, even if she (or he) has plot points in mind. I find structure tough because there are so many directions a story can go, so many possibilities and then…the characters sometimes take over, wrinkling your smooth narrative! Can you speak to this, please?
Caroline Leavitt: Oh, boy. Structure. That’s my thing. I used to write very loosey-goosey, following the muse, and I would end up with 800 pages and have no idea what the heck I had written. Then about ten years ago, a student of mine told me about Truby story structure. John Truby is a Phd from Yale who worked with movie studios and read a zillion books and mapped out their structure and he discovered that the best stories have a deeper moral component. I liked that idea. So I began to study his stuff, and I sort of stalked him until I met him.
I map out everything before I start. That takes me about 6 months. Then I show it to three story structure people I know and that means more rewriting. Then I show it to writers I respect. More rewriting. I end up with a 40 page “writer’s outline” and I know that as I write everything is going to change a bit. And that’s okay! What never changes is the basic moral idea. For me, in CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, that idea was that sometimes you cannot change or fix things, no matter how much you want to. Sometimes you have to let life wash over you. That informed every decision that I made. If it didn’t have something to do with that, then it had to go!
And I will say that I end up doing at least 20 drafts before a novel is finished.
L.L.: What do you hope readers take away from CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD?
Caroline Leavitt: I want people to understand what I just said above, that sometimes you cannot fix everything, and that is all right. We are all human.
I also hope people see and feel the incredible hope that was in the sixties and how it soured and failed, but then there was hope again.
I want people to think about all the different kinds of love there are—controlling and dangerous, saving and nurturing, sisterly love mixed with conflict, friend love.
I hope readers will feel that after reading my novel, they see the world a little differently.
L.L.: What’s got your attention these days? What gets you out of bed? It doesn’t have to be literary.
Caroline Leavitt: Oh so, many things. My husband, who is playful and funny and smart. My son who is at college studying to be an actor. My writing. Other writers. My friends. Really, my mother and sister call me Pollyanna, because I tend to have this very positive outlook on everything. I’m always looking for the joy!
Of course, I’m worried about the election, and the world in general. And I’m fascinated by quantum physics.
L.L.: Did I forget to ask anything?
Caroline Leavitt: Ask me how the songs of that era informed the novel! If you go look up Young Girl by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, you’ll see this truly terrible view of older man/younger girl, which is in my novel. The whole stupid song blames the girl! With lines like, “You’d better run, girl. You’re much too young, girl,” the song is indicating that he is about to attack. And that was a very popular song of its day!
L.L.: Caroline, always a pleasure to chat with you. Thanks so much for popping by! All the best with CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD.
Caroline Leavitt: Thank you so much! I hope I didn’t go on too long. I’m honored to be interviewed by you!
***You can connect with Caroline through these various social media channels***
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of eleven novels,including the New York Times bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her essays and stories have been included in New York magazine, Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She’s a book critic for People, The Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay at:
[Cover and author image courtesy of Algonquin Books and used with permission. Author photo credit: Jeff Tamarkin. “Hippie Caroline” photos courtesy of C. Leavitt’s personal archives and used with permission. Scott McKenzie 1967, Kent State 1970, The Beach Boys circa 1964 image(s) retrieved from Wikipedia on 9.9.16]