Hoboken mother, wife, teacher and fearless fictionista Caroline Leavitt cracked the NYT Bestseller List with her ninth novel, Pictures of You. Leavitt never runs from the truth when discussing this probing novel about two runaway wives praised by Jodi Picoult as “heartbreakingly honest.”
TA: How old were you when you came out of the closet as a writer?
CL: As soon as I could hold a pen, I wrote stories. They were always about a ten year old girl named Jo whose millionaire parents were always away so poor Jo was at a boarding school with a mean headmistress. I got into those stories and my older sister would often write them with me, and we’d decide on plot. Once we decided the headmistress was going to die, and I cried and cried and couldn’t stop, and my sister finally said, “Okay! Okay! She doesn’t have to die!”
TA: What did you like to read as a kid? As a young adult?
CL: I loved the Oz books and fairy tales and the All-of-a-Kind Family books. As a young adult, I loved A High Wind in Jamaica. My sister’s boyfriend gave me a real reading education: hee brought me Richard Price’s The Wanderers, A Clockwork Orange, J. D. Salinger, and more.
TA: What was the first dirty passage you read in a book?
CL: I found my mother’s copy of Fanny Hill when I was ten and promptly told all my friends! I didn’t quite believe any of what I was reading.
TA: Every one always wants to know: How long did it take to write this novel?
CL: Four years. About 20 drafts. Seriously.
I wrote ten drafts, showed it to friends and they all had comments. When I finally gave it to my agent, she said, “I love it! Now let’s get to revising it.” She had me revise five times. Then Algonquin bought it and they said, “We love it! Now let’s revise.” But I never minded because each rewrite made the book sharper, deeper, richer. It was work I absolutely loved.
I have a deadline now: two years. I’ve been working much harder and been more panicked about meeting the deadline, too. But it forces you to work smarter, to really look at the novel as a whole.
TA: Rate on a 1-10 scale how much of your writing is done with an eye to earning money (versus for The sake of The Art or for its own sake)?
CL: Well, you’re talking to someone who never made real money on her novels up until this one! I’ve always had extraordinary reviews and sort of terrible sales, but being a NYT bestseller hasn’t really changed anything internally. I’m still the same writer grappling with a new work and having the same worries and insecurities and terrors over it.
So I’ve learned that it is the writing itself that is the reward, the drug, the great pleasure. Now that Pictures of You is a bestseller, you’d think that would change, but actually, it’s still the writing that really matters to me.
TA: What’s your process? Morning or evening? Quiet or distracted? Computer or long-hand? Has this changed since you’ve had a child?
CL: Computer at home. I always carry a notebook with me so I can fuss over the character arcs on the subway. When my son was born, he slept in a bassinet near my desk. He’d sleep for two hours while I worked, then he’d wake and I’d feed and play with him, and then when he went back to sleep, I’d work. It was a lovely time!
ABOUT THIS BOOK:
TA: What was the first kernel of an idea for your book?
CL: I’m phobic about car crashes and I was thinking so much about what it would be like it you killed someone and it wasn’t your fault. How would you ever forgive yourself?
TA: What character/scene/storyline ended up on the cutting-room floor?
CL: Oh! You’re talking to a person who had 20 drafts! Huge sections were cut. Originally, Isabelle’s boyfriend was her high school teacher rather than a car mechanic. Nelson the tortoise came late to the party. All these additions came about because of the constant revising and rewriting. The subconscious was just brewing.
TA: Do you hate any character in your book? Which do you love? And with whom do you most identify?
CL: Great question. I adore my characters but in this book, although I loved and understood April, I would not want her to be a friend of mine. I just couldn’t trust or depend on her. I felt great sympathy for her, but she made so many bad choices that it’s hard to consider her likable. There are parts of me in all of the characters, but I suppose the one that is most me is Sam, the way he deals with bullying, his imagination and his drive to do the right thing. I just loved him, but so much of him, too, was what I remembered about my son when he was nine.
TA: What came first, the premise or the characters? Did you know the full plot before you began writing or did it appear to you?
CL: It always starts with character. Character is king! Through the character comes the action. For this one, I kept flashing on a woman, fleeing her life, throwing things out of the car, and then getting lost in the fog. I then had to figure out, well, why is she fleeing her life? What happened? And what’s going to happen in the fog? But it all came out of that one image.
TA: Do you outline?
CL: Yep. I think structure saves lives. Or at least it saves mine. I always have a six to ten page synopsis of the book. But it changes as I write, so I am always rewriting that synopsis for the whole book. Mostly it is my life saver, so when I panic that I can’t figure out the book, that I am lost, I can then pull out that outline and say, “ta duh!” and prove to myself that I know how to tell a coherent story.
TA: Who would play your characters in the movie? Or why wouldn’t you want your book translate onto a silver screen?
CL: I know that movies are different than novels and I don’t care how they change it. It’s just a different media. I never cast a movie in my head (and I have had four or five film options, including for three days, interest from Madonna). However, I do want to be the diner waitress if there is a movie, the one who snaps at Charlie and tells him that he and Isabelle are like ghosts; that they come in and don’t eat and then they leave.
TA: Did you start out with the same title? If not, what were the others?
CL: Another great question. I wanted to call the book Traveling Angels. A traveling angel is a John Truby story structure term about a character that comes into the midst, changes things in a good way, and leaves, which I thought Isabelle was. But my publisher, Algonquin Books, said it wasn’t strong, no one would know what a traveling angel was.
Then I wanted to call it Breathe, which I thought fit, because Sam has asthma, and all of the characters are holding their breaths. Nope. I made up lists and lists and my wonderful editor finally named the book for me, after a Cure song! My new novel that I sold to Algonquin was called The Missing Ones and my editor already told me the title has to change!
TA: What’s that novel about?
CL: It’s set in the late 50s and early 60s, the time of paranoia and Cold War. It’s about a crime in a suburban neighborhood and the impact on a young divorced woman and her son.
TA: Do you ever get stuck when you write?
CL: I am thrilled that I don’t get writers’ block. I always have other ideas perking. I always stop when there is more to write so I will look forward to it the next day (an old Hemingway trick), and I know that I need to write in order to be happy.
TA: What’s the most useful piece of advice you ever received about writing? And about marketing and selling your book?
CL: Don’t write to the market, write to your heart–i.e. write what obsesses you and don’t worry about your readership. If you really dig deep within, you will touch a universal chord. Be brave and daring. When people say you can’t do something in terms of marketing, go ahead and do it anyway. Also, help other writers without asking for anything. Do it because it’s good karma. Over the years, I’ve helped so many writers and suddenly this year, I’ve had writers do amazing things for me because they remembered how ten years ago, I did something for them! We’re all in this together. The key is wanting other writers to be successful, too.
TA: What was the most evil thing any body said in a review?
CL Oh sigh…”Psychopathology masquerading as fiction from the previously white hot Leavitt who has no one but herself to blame for this unholy mess.” My third novel. I hadn’t wanted to write it. My heart wasn’t in it. When I saw this review, I cried for weeks.
TA: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
CL: The ability to heal both physical and emotional wounds.
TA: Has your writing practice affected your personal relationships? If so, how?
CL: I’m lucky I’m married to a writer who understands the demands of the career! But I did have a long-term relationship with a writer who once went into my computer and without telling me, put in some Marx Brothers jokes, because he said, “it was too serious.” I broke up with him immediately.
TA: One thing most people don’t know about me is…
CL: I’m phobic about driving. I have my license but I don’t drive.
TA: What is your all-time favorite book?
CL: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I think it’s just a perfect book. Haunting, moving, so, so sad.