Writers on Wednesday: Caroline Leavitt talks about being a ‘fall chicken,’ list-maker, fixer, mapping out stories via the Truby method, songs that influenced the 1960s & 1970s and so, so much more in her stellar CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD

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.Leavitt_CruelBeautiful_jkt_2MB_HR.jpg

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 summeroflovecolor.jpgand 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, 220px-san_francisco_be_sure_to_wear_some_flowers_in_your_hair_sheet_music_1967who 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

Kent State massacre, May 1970. This is 14-year old runaway collapsing at the body of a student shot by the Ohio National Guard  minutes before. The photographer won a Pulitzer for this image.

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.

the_beach_boys_1965L.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*** 

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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]  



Write On, Wednesday: Interview with Amy Impellizzeri, Author of LEMONGRASS HOPE

By Leslie Lindsay

I’m thrilled to introduce you to a new book, a new author! One you’ve just GOT to read. Layout 1 (Page 1)

Amy  Impellizzeri is a debut author of LEMONGRASS HOPE, just the mere mention of the title slipping from my mouth makes me feel, well…nostalgic, hopeful; it exudes intrigue and evokes another time and place. Say it. Lemongrass Hope.

Before the book, Amy worked tirelessly as a corporate litigator. She now advocates for entrepreneurial women, and is at work on her next book, Lawyer Interrupted (due out in 2015) which takes non-fiction delve into the cutthroat world of corporate law. She’s also a mom and wife.

But back to Lemongrass Hope. Critically-acclaimed, it’s a mutilayered bittersweet romance that will leave you with perhaps more questions than answers. At the very least, it will have you questioning the power of fate, destiny, and second chances. Read my review here. [https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1073361165]

L.L.: Amy, thank you so very much for taking the time to be with us today. I have to say, I am reading Lemongrass Hope right now and it’s written in such a way that really propels me into the narrative. You write so effortlessly about women, wives, mothers…and it’s very relatable. If you were to compare your writing with other female authors, or books that take on some of the same themes, who might you feel most aligned with?

Amy Impellizzeri: Thank YOU! What a wonderful compliment. I read so many genres and writers, but I have to say that there are certain women writers – like Kelly Corrigan, Jojo Moyes, and Liane Moriarty – who write in such a way that I just know, if they lived down the street, we’d have coffee. Do you know what I mean?

And I LOVE the compliment that my story and writing are relatable, because the connections that I have made as a result of Lemongrass Hope are the very best parts of this entire journey.  

L.L. Let’s talk about the book a bit. So, I am reading and nodding my head. I get 4-year olds. I’ve so been in a coffee shop where my kids have wrecked havoc on the store, my nerves, and everything else. I’ve been to the beach with my kids and I’ve questioned past choices. Did you wake up one day and say, “hey—I’ve got to write about this?” How did Lemongrass Hope evolve?

Amy Impellizzeri: Oh, I love that. It’s funny, because all of those completely familiar, relatable scenes involving Kate’s kids might as well have happened to me too, although each one is truly fictional. Everyone asks about “The Question Game,” in particular and the truth is: I made it up. Just like I made up all of those scenes between Kate and her kids. But the “Question Game” is like a caricature of every frustratingly poignant car game/ “why”/ “I spy”/ “where’s waldo” game we’ve all played with our kids, and of course, it played well into the underlying themes of Lemongrass Hope.

The simple truth is that Lemongrass Hope evolved from an idea that came to me at a time in my life when I was really obsessed with second chances and roads not taken – mostly in my professional life. I had just taken what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical from my 13-year corporate law gig, and I was re-evaluating the decisions I had made up to that point. I think my subconscious was working in overdrive at the time, because I had a surreal dream that ultimately led me to deciding to explore the theme in the context of a unique love story. And what I have found from the beautiful way the novel has been received is that – even more so than the coffee shop and beach scenes – this longing for and confusion about second chances and the decisions we do and do not make – are an almost universal human experience.

L.L. Let’s talk about the past. They say those who dwell on the past are depressed, the ones who think about the future are anxious, and the ones who live in the present are the ones who are truly happy. Can you speak to that and how it relates to Lemongrass Hope?

Amy Impellizzeri: Well, I think there is a little truth in all of that. But I’d like to think Lemongrass Hope explores my own feelings on the topic which include honoring the past, and hoping for the future while truly trying to live in the present.

L.L.: Looking at the structure of the book, you start off in third person, that is, everything is, “When Kate first met Benton…” and then we shift POVs towards the middle of the book to first person, “I asked myself again if I should trust this man I haven’t seen in fifteen years.” Was this intentional?

Amy Impellizzeri: Yes! Thanks for noticing and picking it up. In Part II, we shift to 1st person, which makes more sense in the context of the entire novel. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that I very much wanted the reader to abruptly feel the change in Part II, and to feel that he/she had been an observer – along with Kate – in Part I.

L.L.: I understand you worked with beloved bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt on the editing of Lemongrass Hope. She’s fantastic, I know because I’ve seeked out her services. Can you give us some highlights of working with her?

Amy Impellizzeri: That’s a great question. There are so many highlights. She is an amazing mentor and brilliant writer and I would scribble notes furiously every time she and I would talk about Lemongrass Hope, or anything else for that matter.

She was a fan of the book from the beginning and validated my hope that the idea for Lemongrass Hope was an original one – she even called it (and the ending) “spectacular.” So, I never really recovered from that, of course!

But she also made me do the work. She had me flesh out the character arcs for the principal characters, revise and revise until the structure of the book was clean and right. Caroline-as-editor is like your best teachers in high school – the ones who refuse to tell you the answer but who keep pushing you to find the answer on your own, and then celebrate right along with you at the end.        

L.L.: In fact, you penned this amazing essay for Ms. Leavitt’s blog, on the angst’s of a first-time novelist. I’m going to share it here.  I am so humbled by your humility and annoyance at writing, but also your tenacity. Can you touch on that a bit?

Amy Impellizzeri: That essay really draws from a time when I was as close as I had ever been to scrapping Lemongrass Hope – tossing the whole thing in the garbage. There was a structural glitch in the book that I couldn’t quite get right, that in hindsight, seems so obvious, but at the time, seemed insurmountable. And so when Caroline said, send me an essay for the Blog about “the writing,” I knew instantly what I would write.

For me, the writing is not the hard part. The putting it out there is the excruciating part. In this sense, being a “first-time novelist” has been equal parts daunting and exhilarating, but I am truly savoring every moment!

L.L.: I could probably ask questions all day about writing and the book, but we both have other tasks to tend to! One last thing—and maybe the most important—if you were stranded on an island, what book would you take to read, what would you want to eat over and over, and if you could write (assuming paper and pencil, laptop), what would you write about?

Amy Impellizzeri: Ok – now I’m daydreaming about peace and serenity on a desert island – bliss! (But not really, because I write best when life is swirling all around me.)

I would take Life of Pi, of course, because I could read that book over and over again – and it seems like the perfect “stranded-on-an-island” read!

I’m hoping I could find a “Jack’s Bar” on the island for perfect conch fritters and island beer, because that would be my dream diet, and besides, I’m not really all that good at fishing and foraging!

And I would write the next novel that is swirling around in my brain – which I think is about nature versus nurture and the way that even though we are all connected, we don’t always need to use that connection as a crutch … we can break free from all that connectedness, if we truly want to. A desert island seems the perfect place to explore that theme!

L.L: Thanks so much for being with us, Amy!!


Amy Impellizzeri is a reformed corporate litigator and author. In 2009, she left corporate law to write and advocate for women entrepreneurs, joining the executive team of an investor-backed startup company, ShopFunder LLC (formerly Hybrid Her, named one of ForbesWoman’s top websites for women in 2010 and 2011).Amy’s debut novel, Lemongrass Hope (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2014) is an Amazon Best-Seller. Oprah’s very first Book Club Selection Author and NYT #1 Best-Selling Author, Jacquelyn Mitchard, has said “Lemongrass Hope is that fine and fresh thing – a truly new story …. Amy Impellizzeri is a bold and tender writer, who makes the impossible feel not only real, but strangely familiar.”Amy’s first non-fiction book, Lawyer Interrupted, is due out in 2015 (ABA Publishing), and her essays and articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Glass Hammer, Divine Caroline, and ABA’s Law Practice Today, among more.
Please, check out Amy’s links, get the book, and more:

Buy the book! http://www.amazon.com/Lemongrass-Hope-Amy-Impellizzeri/dp/1939288533

Like me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ImpellizzeriAmy

Follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AmyImpellizzeri

Get updates on my website: www.amyimpellizzeri.com

Write On, Wednesay: Special New Series (1/5)–Defining HOME featuring Caroline Leavitt

By Leslie Lindsay  (image source: www.alphabetart.com 9.4.13)

I have a giant grin on my face today.  Other than the fact that I have the house to myself, a laptop, brain (let’s hope), and basset hound at my feet, I have a new series to share on Wednesdays!  It’s all about the concept of HOME. 

Ever notice how nearly every book you read has some element of home buried deep within the words on the page?  Your reading material may have something to do with big green monsters eating every chocolate chip cookie and then running off to school, but I would wager that those monsters began at say…home?!  The book I just finished reading (Tanya Chernov’s A REAL EMOTIONAL GIRL) had almost everything to do with home (but was largely masked by her grief over her late father).  The next book I picked up, BRAIN ON FIRE (Susannah Cahalan)  might really be about her lost month of insanity, but delve into the pages, and you see an underlying theme of home…her junky New York studio, her childhood home, it all makes an appearance. 

So, I’ve gathered up a handful of great wordsmiths to tell me, in their own words, what defines “home.” 

Each week, I will share a new passage on home.  So, gather ’round, make yourself comfortable and get ready for Caroline Leavitt, Amy Sue Nathan, Karen Brown, Tanya Chernov, and Matt Wertz to tell us their ideas of home…

Today’s featured author…Caroline Leavitt!!  Caroline is a New York Times bestselling author of ten red shirt gardennovels, her most recent IS THIS TOMORROW?  (Which revolves mostly around the concept of ‘home,’ in 1950’s suburbia).  She hosts a robust blog in which she features many authors and their books.  And now…take it away, Caroline!

“For many years, the word home to me meant my parent’s house. Stuck in Suburbia. The rooms coldly silent or torn apart by arguments. I couldn’t wait to leave, to live a life as different as I could imagine. I rented a tiny shoebox apartment in Manhattan, with a slanted floor and barely a kitchen, and when friends gamely said, ‘You could do something with this to make it homey,’ I laughed, because I had no desire to be domestic. As long as my dwelling looked nothing like my family’s, I knew I was safe.

Ah, but then I fell in love. Jeff was the kind of person who took one look at my fridge, with its one carton of yogurt and one loaf of bread, and made a date of shopping, assuring me that it could be fun. Falling in love was a surprise, but suddenly, my tiny apartment wasn’t big enough for us, the rents in Manhattan were too high for the three bedroom we wanted, and we began to look elsewhere. I wanted to look for apartments in Brooklyn or Hoboken, but In the early 90s, you could buy a whole brownstone in Hoboken for 200,000. You could buy a three story 1865 brick row house for $125,000, one with fireplaces in every room, with rosettes on the ceiling.

Houses. I knew what that meant. My parents’ life had unraveled in a house.ITTUSE

I was terrified to move in. I thought that we’d start to argue, that I’d be tied down and domesticated.

Instead, something else happened. Jeff filled the kitchen with food, the rooms with furniture, and my life with love. I began to like having people for dinner, having a kitchen big enough for two to laugh and cook in it. And slowly, I began to realize something. That I didn’t have to turn out to be my mother. That family is not always genetic. And that love can make the house you were most afraid of into the home you love.”

For more information on Caroline and her writing, please see her website:  http://www.carolineleavitt.com/home.htm

[Special thanks to Caroline Leavitt for providing this piece, photos, and her literary enthusiam.  This is an original work by the author and not to be taken as your own.]

Write on Wednesday: An Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Caroline Leavitt

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. ITTUSE

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. 

red shirt gardenCaroline 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:

  • http://www.carolineleavitt.com/
  • 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.  

Fiction Friday: What are YOU Reading this Summer?!

By Leslie Lindsay

Instead of throwing out another excerpt of what I am writing today, thought I’d share a few of my must-read summer selections.  Whether you’re going away to a tropical location or just sitting comfortably in an air conditioned library, I am sure you, too have a love for reading. 

Here goes!

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan.  Who doesn’t love J. Courtney Sullivan and her epic stories of girlfriends in college (Commencement), East Coast Irish-Catholic families (Maine) and now her lastest, THE ENGAGEMENTS?  This one is a slice of American–and Product DetailsFrench–marriage.  Cascading through time, going back as far as 1947 and ending with “present-day” 2012, we meet a host of characters, from Frances a single woman in the 1940s-50’s who coined the phrase, “A diamond is forever” to 1972 and the scandal of divorce, moving right along to 1987 and the world of paramedics and a family struggling financially…to 2003 where we delve into a world of music and all things French and finally wrapping things up with a gay wedding of 2012. 

Caroline Leavitt’s IS THIS TOMORROW also hits my Summer reading list.  Loved this portrayal of a single Jewish mother raising a son in the 1950’s suburbs of Boston.  When one of the son’s friends goes missing, the entire community is baffled.  Part history, part suspence, part women’s fiction, we are thrust into a world of secrets, lies and Product Detailsdisillusionment.  The books transcends time and culture with the advent of a male nursing assistant in 1963, as well as single–and dating–Jewish mothers of the 1950’s.  According to Ms. Leavitt, “I was an only Jewish kid growing up in the Christian suburbs and I wanted to write about that.” 

HE’S GONE by  Deb Caletti truly resonated with me.  Wow.  This book was packed with wonderful description and imagery, gritty and compelling language, and with a Product Detailstwist I didn’t really see coming.  Well, parts of it I did.  What would happen if you woke up one morning and your spouse was just gone?  This is what Dani Keller experiences one Sunday…a day turns into two and then a week.  Where is her husband?!  This one reminded me a lot of last summer’s GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn (which, is another must-read). 

THE LONGINGS OF WAYWARD GIRLS by debut novelist Angela Brown.  While this author has published short stories (and poetry, I believe), she now has her first novel coming onto the scene July 2nd.  This one is also set in New England summer suburbia  where the days are long and the longings are…well, it’s all about the split between adolesence and childhood.  Looks captivating. 

SISTERLAND.  A new book from author Curtis Sittenfeld.  A to-be-released any day book, this one is definitely on my to-read list.  Twin sisters just happen to be psychic.  One of them is named Kate (my daughter’s name) and it takes place in the St. Louis area (my hometown)

 To See what the Editors of Writer’s Digest of Reading this Summer, Click here: 


Write On, Wednesday! Writing about Home

By Leslie Lindsay

Lately, a lot of the books I have read for pleasure have this underlying theme of home–and so does the novel I am working on.  Coincidence?  Perhaps.  We tend to be better writers when we read content that interests us–and that’s written in a compelling manner.  We also tend to gravitate towards information that may have some connection to what we are currently working on, struggling with, or have an innate interest in–it’s all the power of the subconcious. 

So, what have I been reading? 

  • THE GLASS WIVES by Amy Sue Nathan.  Home and family shifts for Evie Glass, but she still remains rooted in family. 
  • IS THIS TOMORROW by Caroline Leavitt.  A 12-year old boy goes missing in 1950’s suburbia. 
  • WHAT ALICE FORGOT by Laine Moriarty.  This one is actually a re-read.  Since the main (suburban) character loses her memory, I was drawn back to this one as research for my novel-in-progress, hoping to glean a few instances I may have…ahem…forgotten.
  • BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell.  This guy always fascintates me!  His other books line my bookshelves, too.  Okay, it really doesn’t have a ton to do with “home,” but it has a lot of great information on priming, which is the psychological term for preparing yourself/your unconscious for generating ideas, feelings, concepts.  Will it help with my novel?  You bet!

Since today’s topic has to do with writing about home–a concept woven into many books and so dear to our world, I wanted to emphasize–and share–some of the techniques I learned from the Writer’s Institute in Madison this past spring. 

I attended a session called “The Trail of Breadcrumbs:  How to Find the Way Back Home.”  It was taught by Angela Voras-Hills, (a Madison writer, editor, & intructor) and it really got me thinking about my childhood home.  While I realize not every project that encompasses “home” will have to do with childhood, this particular class did.  Some tips I gleaned:

  • Home is where you are your truest self
  • Home does not always equal house
  • Home is a psychological journey; it’s dynamic
  • Tie in regionalisms to your home story.  (“A schmear of horseraddish” was used as an example in class.  What other regionalisms might you incorporate for your hometown?)
  • Incorporate sensory details.  How did that see/feel/taste?  In writing we use auditory and visual details a lot…throw in something lovely, but unexpected.
  • Try to leave out the nostalgia. You must be slightly detached to make “your” memories of home come alive to a reader who didn’t experience it first hand.

So what are you waiting for…Write On, Wednesday!!


Write On, Wednesday: Sharpening the Saw

By Leslie Lindsay

We writer’s need continuing education like the rest of us.  Writing may not be life or death as in my former career as an R.N. where we needed to do annual competancies, CPR re-certification, and CEUs….but it is just as vital.  And I do mean that in all ways–vital to making our writing stand out, and vital to the inner writer–those of us who feel we may die if we don’t get our daily word count in.  Of course, we aren’t going to die, but well…our words tend to atrophy.

So, I am gearing up for a season of conferences and retreats.  Ha!  I say that as if I am going to be shipped off to a writer’s colony or something.  Alas, I am going to just two events this year (at least that I know of).

This weekend, is the Spring Fling Conference held here in Chicagoland (http://www.chicagospringfling.com/) It’s really geared towards those who write romance.  Folks like Fern Michels, Nora Roberts, & Carly Phillips (I only know those names because I am sitting here at the library where the stack of romance novels stare back at me.)  Well, I don’t write romance.  Or, maybe I do?  Actually, I think all of women’s fiction has a little bit of romance laced in, anyway.  I am more along the lines of Caroline Leavitt, Anne Lamott, Jodi Piccoult, maybe even Emily Giffin and Jennifer Weiner.  But, I am registered to go and really excited to learn some news ways to hone my craft.  It can’t hurt, right?

In June, I head out to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for an entire glorious week of learning, writing, and solitude.  It’s the “Write by the Lake” retreat.  (http://www.dcs.wisc.edu/lsa/writing/wbtl/).  It’s  actually my first time at a “retreat.”  I am a retreat virgin!  I can’t wait.  It’s going to be great.  I am enrolled in a class entitled “Ways to Write a Bestseller.”  Yeah…guess I am starting at the top, huh?  But, why not?!  We all want to write a bestseller.  Again, I figure: it can’t hurt.  So maybe I won’t churn out a NYT bestseller, but I may learn something in the process.  We’ll see….

What will you be doing this spring/summer to push your writing to the top?  Perhaps it’s time to formulate some goals.  Here are some ideas:

  • Write daily
  • Write a certain number of words daily (500-1000 is a good start)
  • Do a certain amount of research daily (be careful here–it’s easy to turn an entire day or more into “research” when in fact you are just checking your Facebook page)
  • Take a writing class
  • Publish a newspaper or magazine article
  • Start and maintain a blog
  • Polish up your query letters
  • Query an agent

Really, the list is endless.  Make a plan and actualize it.  Write on, Wednesday!