By Leslie Lindsay
A thoughtful, incisive meditation on what it means to transform, following a coma, with intimate and complex relationships hinging in the balance.
~WEDNESDAYS WITH WRITERS|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
New York Times Bestselling author
One of She Reads’
“Most Anticipated Reads of 2020”
Public Library Association Buzzed Book
Starred Kirkus Review
A Fall Title of Note, Publisher’s Weekly
Good Morning America, A Zibby Owens August Book Club Pick
One of Popsugar’s Incredible Books of August
Bustle Best Books Out This Week
One of LitHub’s Best Books to put on your TBR pile right now
Caroline Leavitt’s books always inspire and intrigue. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU (Algonquin, August 4th 2020) is no exception, but this one seems much more interior than her more recent novels, and perhaps that’s because it almost has to be–one of the main characters is in a coma. Told with precision and insight and emotion, this is a literary examination of what happens when life is altered by a single tragic moment, a clear delineation between ‘before’ and ‘after.’
Stella and Simon are in their early-forties, they’ve been together for some time and Stella is getting restless: are they ever going to get married? Buy their apartment? Have a child? Simon is restless, too, but in his own way; he is a bass player and songwriter for his band and still yearns for freedom and fame. Is their life at an impasse? The night before Simon is to leave town for a gig that could re-start his career, he and Stella argue, and then they take a pill together, to ‘relive the old times,’ only Stella doesn’t wake up. She had been fighting a cold and so, in addition to the mystery pill and wine, she also had Sudafed on board. Stella is in a coma, derailing Simon’s plans to go on the road.
While hospitalized, we get a good dose of backstory–which I always love–I think it speaks to the character’s motivations, providing the reader with an insight not always provided in the ‘real time’ narrative. Simon is at Stella’s bedside, as is her mother and best friend, Libby, also a doctor at the hospital.
Two months later, when Stella wakes from her coma, she has a significantly altered personality. She wants to draw.This newfound talent seems to come from nowhere, but, the doctors assure them that sometimes this happens. I found the brain and neurological insights quite fascinating, all of which are peppered throughout the narrative. What’s more, Stella is drawn to painting portraits of people. She seems to see within, beyond, capturing their innermost feelings and desires, even struggles. She becomes a sort of sensation, eliciting a bit of jealousy from Simon.
WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is told in such lush, yet stark prose from the POV of these three main characters; there’s a tragic beauty here, a filmy cohesion much like what it might feel like to be underwater, in a dream…in coma, touching on such topics and themes as self-discovery, insecurities, reinvention, loyalty, and more. Leavitt shines when depicting intimate portrayals of relationships, fragmented families, desire, and the grit to keep going.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Caroline Leavitt back to the author interview series:
Caroline! Welcome back. I always love chatting with you because your passion for all things literary is so evident. But first—inspiration. Often your books are born of an event or circumstance that happened in your life. In CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD, for example, you knew of a girl in high school who ran off to a commune with a teacher. You always wondered about that, so you wrote fiction about it. In WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, you experienced a coma yourself following the birth of your son, Max. This is a different kind of story, a different kind of coma, but still…can you talk about the inspiration, please? And why, do you think so many of our stories need to percolate before we dive in?
Great question. For me all my novels sort of hibernate for years, or maybe germinate is a better word for that. I simply didn’t know enough to write it at first, so my first book about my coma (Coming Back To Me) was very much about someone like me, who couldn’t remember, and it was a much darker book than WITH OR WITHOUT YOU. I kept having these PTSD things going on—certain smells would give me panic attacks, the stripes that had been on the hospital curtains set me off. And then I kept having them—less, but I still had them. Jeff, my husband, went to Norway as a journalist for a week, and I kept all the lights on and watched movies until 7 in the morning, and I thought, this has to stop. So a friend of mine who was a psychologist told me that I needed to create new memories, that the brain doesn’t really know the difference because if you tell someone under hypnosis that they have a flame on their arm, their skin will blister. So I started to create Stella. Unlike me, she remembered EVERYTHING in her coma, which made her calmer. Unlike me, she came out a changed personality with a new talent, and writing about that just filled me with this incredible sense of wonder. I began thinking about my coma differently. I know this sounds off, but I began to be grateful for it, because having gone through that, it made me braver, more compassionate.
Stella wakes up from her coma and has this newfound artistic ability. She wants to paint. Portraits! She’s never painted before. She’s astounded with this new talent. What’s more, she can seemingly ‘see’ what’s on the inside of these folks. Can you give us a few ‘fun facts’ about comas, because I found the brain science within the narrative really fascinating.
Oh, it is TOTALLY fascinating. One woman woke up and she was speaking fluent Mandarin. She quit her job and moved to China. Another man, who couldn’t find Middle C on a piano if you paid him, woke up a virtuoso and began playing concert halls. My fave story is about a man who woke up convinced he was a famous actor, and it took him six months to believe well, maybe he wasn’t. I researched with this scientist who told me in coma, everything rewires and refires and anything can happen. Who knows? It could be cellular memory from generations back!
“Old secrets, healed wounds and surprising futures. One character’s coma is only the first surprise in this satisfying story of middle-aged love.”
~STARRED Kirkus Review
I think WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is a lot about reinvention. It’s about self-discovery. It’s about, going home. And since home is such a fascination of mine, I have to ask about the Silverwood, the fictional home in Woodstock, NY and also, the childhood home Libby goes back to. Can one ever really ‘go home?’ It is more of a feeling, or a place?
I love that you asked that question because home is a fascination of mine, too. I called the house I grew up in the horror house because I was so unhappy and I always thought it was haunted. It took me a very long time to move into a real home. All my apartments were transient and I didn’t want to fix them up because home to me meant bad times. But then I got married and we both liked this big old house and renovated it and I began to realize that I LOVED the house. I still do. I think you can go home as long as you realize it is NOT the home you lived in before, that things are different depending on how different you are. Simon hated Silverwood, because of things that had happened there, but to Stella, when she went up there with him, she felt happy. And Libby—I think home is always going to traumatize her. I think we reinvent ourselves with our homes. I never would have ever imagined that I would have a home with adult furniture and decorations and that it would feel so welcoming to me!
One thing I love about you is your love for backstory. It helps, I think, to understand our characters and where we’re going with the story. But it can be a headache, too. And it can slow down the pacing and tension of our work. Can you talk about how we can make backstory fabulous and why we writers tend to get ‘stuck’ in it?
Another excellent question. I went from an editor at Algonquin who loved backstory to one who did not, and we had long discussions and compromises about how to do it. I learned something incredible from my editor. The trick to backstory is that it has to trigger something, and while the character is remembering the past, just the act of remembering is going to change them, and trigger something new in the present. If you look at it that way, it’s a lot easier to weave it in. But I still LOVE backstory with a passion. You just want it to amplify your main narrative line, like branches on a tree, rather than taking it over.
I know you’re writing a new column for PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, “Runs in the Family” and I’m so jazzed about that because, oh gosh, yes—I get it. There are these legacies and truths we were told to believe and maybe they don’t actually exist; or maybe they do. Perhaps it’s about breaking free? Back to that theme in WITH OR WITHOUT YOU of reinvention.
It is!! It is definitely about reinvention and breaking free. So much of what we’re told, or how we’re molded as we are young starts to define us, but it doesn’t have to be OUR particular truths. We can break free. I know this is true, because I did it, and I created a family of my own, with a husband and son, and we raised our son completely the opposite of how I was raised. I wonder though how he feels about how he was raised! But it is fascinating to me. I was told growing up to stay safe, stay at home, that I was bashful and I should not be independent. And I didn’t’ realize I was none of those things until my teens when I began to be wild and strong and brave and my parents were very, very unhappy about that!
Caroline, this has all been so great. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
Q: So will you give me anything if I buy your book?
A: Yes, as a matter of fact I will! If you show me your receipt at my biz email email@example.com, I will mail you a handpainted bookplate, make you a small watercolor of your favorite coffee cup, or write you a letter from your favorite character!
Thank you for these wonderful questions.
For more information, to connect with Caroline Leavitt via social media, or to purchase a copy of WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of 12 novels including Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and With or Without You, which is a Good Morning America pick and a best book from Popsugar, Bustle, Aarp, People Magazine, Lithub, and more. Her work has appeared in The Millions, Modern Love in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, The Daily Beast, and more. She has a column/blog on Psychology Today called Runs in the Family.
She teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA and to private clients, and she is a New York Foundation of the Arts Fellow in Fiction, as well as a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in pilot and in feature film. She is also the co-founder, with Jenna Blum, of A Mighty Blaze.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir, about growing up with a mentally ill interior decorator mother and her devolve into psychosis. Leslie’s writing & prose poetry has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, Coffin Bell Journal, and others. Her cover art was featured on Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; CNF in Semicolon Literary Magazine; the 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available late this summer. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
Querying MODEL HOME: Motherhood & Madness a Daughter’s Memoir. Available soon: 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA from Woodbine House.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1.]