Caroline Leavitt Throws Stones at Her Own Characters: An Interview

"I love books and movies that grab you from the get-go, and I always believe that a book is a question that demands an answer, so I like starting that way. But my writing always starts with a question that haunts me -- How do we know the ones we love?"
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Stack of books.
Stack of books.

The New York Times "Modern Love" column had already turned her down twenty times, but no matter: She lobbed in another submission -- about her pet tortoise. And when her ninth novel was turned down by her publisher, she picked up her manuscript and accepted an original issue paperback offer from Algonquin. The beginning of the end of a literary career that started with winning Redbook's Young Writers Contest and included a New York Foundation of the Arts Award, a National Magazine Award nomination, and a Goldenberg Prize for Fiction Honorable Mention? Not so fast. That tortoise appeared in print on Valentine's Day. And that ninth novel -- Pictures of You -- was a Costco "Pennie's Pick," a San Francisco Chronicle Editor's Choice, a top book of 2011 according to BookPage, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Kirkus, and a New York Times bestseller.

Now Caroline Leavitt's tenth novel, Is This Tomorrow, is out from Algonquin -- and is already an Indie Next pick. Her script of the novel has been named a first-round finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab competition. And she was gracious enough to spend a little time answering questions for me:

Meg: So I definitely gained weight reading this one! All the yummy pies, and I'm a pie baker, too. Growing up, my mom made me birthday pies rather than cakes. Are you a baker? Have you made all these pies? Where did the wonderful-sounding combinations come from?

Caroline: Research! I am an indifferent cook but I can make pie. I put out the word on Facebook that I needed to talk to someone who knew about pies and pie making, especially in the 1950s, and I was put in touch with master pastry chef Gale Gand. She instantly told me that cold hands make for the best crusts, and I was fascinated. I also looked at a lot of vintage cookbooks from the 1950s, which were a lot of fun. Nothing like recipes for Meatloaf Trains and Overnight Salads to whet your appetite! (Not really... )

Meg: One of the things I love about Is This Tomorrow is the riproaring opening. And when I think about, every novel of yours I've read starts with that kind of opening: something extraordinary happens, leaving the reader just having to know how and why and what. Is that where the writing starts, coming up with that oh-so-compelling circumstance?

Caroline: I love books and movies that grab you from the get-go, and I always believe that a book is a question that demands an answer, so I like starting that way. But my writing always starts with a question that haunts me -- How do we know the ones we love? How can an outsider find a way into a community determined to be closed to him/her? I'm also a big believer in throwing stones at your characters, because that's when they reveal themselves -- when they are in the deepest trouble and forced to act.

Meg: One of the things I love about Ava, the main character -- or the main adult character -- in Is This Tomorrow is that she is so very real: flawed and imperfect, but so easy to connect with. Where does she come from?

Caroline: I grew up on a street where I was an outcast. I had three strikes against me: I was Jewish in a Catholic community. (I heard a lot of, "Where are your horns?" and "Why did you kill Christ?" growing up.) I was smart in a community where only 10 percent of my high school went on to college. And I was sickly as a child with asthma and was often bullied for it. So I knew what it felt like to be an outsider and I wanted to write about it. But there was one family that was even more outcast on our block: A divorced sultry mom and her two kids. That was my model for Ava.

Meg: You do kids so well. Jimmy with his crush on Ava, Rose with her crush on Lewis -- both of which are typical and yet also fresh. What gives you such great insight into the minds of kids?

Caroline: Um, I never grew up? I remember those years so vividly because I was so unhappy during most of them. Plus, I think that for me, having a son has been the most profound experience of my life. I have been so grateful for that that I pay deep attention to every moment. So much of Ava's feelings about Lewis, especially when she knows he's growing up and going to leave her, have been mine. There's something so poignant about the way a parent can love her child, all the while knowing that you don't have kids to keep them.

Meg: And relationships. You are the master at delivering these very messy relationships. That, I suppose, comes from your pre-tortoise-owning days?

Caroline: Oh, I've had terrible, terrible relationships! The fact that I ever got happily married to a great, normal man is kind of a miracle. I had a nervous breakdown at 17 when my first love left me, and he was a typical bad boy, albeit a charismatic one, with a string of broken hearts trailing behind him. I seemed to always have my heart smashed in college (of course, I always eschewed the nice guys for the bad boys). My first husband was a serial cheater. And of course, there was the guy I bought the tortoise with, who also didn't want me to eat, even when I was 95 pounds! It made me do a whole lot of thinking about what goes into a relationship and why I didn't have the kind I wanted. I have great sympathy for people in bad relationships and I'm fascinated by why people endure them, why they can't realize they deserve so much more.

Meg: What else should I be asking you?

Caroline: Question: You've had a really checkered career, finally finding success with your 9th novel, Pictures of You, which became a NYT and USA Today bestseller. Do you feel like a success finally? Answer: No. I don't. I spend a lot of time telling my inner critic to shut up. I worry that my success is a fluke, that I just got it because people either feel sorry for me or they like me, and that everyone will soon realize I am all smoke and mirrors. But I stay hungry and keep writing, because what else can I do?

Meg: And what's next?

Caroline: I sold my next novel Cruel Beautiful World (thanks to my 16-year-old son for the title) to Algonquin on the basis of a first chapter and an outline. It's set in the early 1970s, at a time when the peace and love moment of the 60s was just starting to sour. I'm excited about it, and scared, too. But that sounds like the right feeling to have to me.

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