Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of nine novels. A book critic for The Boston Globe and People, her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Psychology Today, More, and more. She lives in NYC’s unofficial 6th borough, Hoboken, NJ, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their teenaged son, Max. She also has a wonderful blog where she features interviews with authors (warning: her blog is dangerous to your to-be-read pile!)
Caroline is giving away a signed copy of her latest novel, Pictures of You, to one lucky Deb reader! Stay tuned after the post for details on how to win! (Dawn N. won the contest – 2/6/11)
Caroline Leavitt takes the Deb Interview!
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Never, never, never give up. I know so many stories of writers who have had a zillion rejections and then suddenly, they were able to publish. Being a writer means sitting down and writing every day or at least five days a week, and when you aren’t writing you are thinking about writing. Don’t wait for inspiration, but prime your subconscious by continually honing your writing skills.
Publish where you can. An agent found me based on a short story I published (for $50!) in The Michigan Quarterly Review. Send stories out to every contest you can think of (Poets & Writers is a great resource.) Don’t be discouraged. So much is out of our control—but we can control how hard we write and how determined we are to get better.
What are the hardest and easiest things about your job?
The bliss is that I get to make up stories for a living. I get to work at home, with my husband across the hall from me, and I can do the thing I love, living other lives in other worlds. When I first start a novel, it’s honeymoon time. I love the first chapter, the setting of the conflict, the introductions to the characters. Usually, I’m terrifically excited because I know the question the novel is asking and I can’t wait to answer it. Everything seems new and exciting. Flash forward six months to a year. I’m in writer’s hell. I’m deep enough in the novel so I can’t stop writing, plus that dramatic question the novel is asking still has me caught, but the novel now feels flat. The characters seem cardboard and I’m tense and miserable and impossible to be around. I’ve been here in this place before, so I know I write my way out of this, but there are many days when I am actively suffering, and even the best chocolate won’t get me out of it. I know it’s all part of the process, but it’s agonizing. All I can do is write my way back into the joy.
Do you have any phobias?
Oh, do I have phobias! Pictures of You actually began because of my driving phobia. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been afraid of cars. Like all sixteen-year-olds, I got my license (all I had to do was drive around the block and they gave it to me), but I couldn’t drive. I was panicked about getting into an accident and killing someone or killing myself. So I simply didn’t do it. But I don’t even like to be a passenger. I’ve tried brush up lessons, but the last time I did, the teacher looked at me, shook his head and said, “Caroline, you are the absolute worst driver I have ever seen. Some people aren’t meant to drive, and I think you may be one of them.”
I thought by writing about this phobia, I might heal it, but I was mistaken! I gave one of my characters my phobia, but I still don’t want to drive, and I still am anxious every time I get inside a car.
What’s your next big thing?
I’ve sold my next novel to Algonquin, tentatively called The Missing One until I can think of a better title, and I am obsessively writing it now. It’s set in the late 50s and early 60s in a suburban Boston neighborhood and it’s about the yearning for missing fathers, Cold War paranoia, and a crime that takes place with a vanishing child, which ends up targeting a single mother and her son.
Has anyone ever thought a character you wrote was based on them?
Sigh. Yes, although my novels are never based on people that I know. My first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, was about a family living in the Boston suburbs dealing with mental illness. They were called Ben, Bea and Rozzy Nelson. They were all made up, though some of the mental illness details were based on a friend’s sister and so much was very first-novel autobiographical. The book was about to be published and there was all this splashy buzz, when I suddenly got a letter from a lawyer. A family-Ben, Bea and Rozzy (I won’t tell you their last name, but it’s similar to Nelson) was suing for invasion of privacy. They said the situation in the book, from what they had read in the pre-publication publicity, sounded very much like their lives and they wanted to stop the book from being published. I was appalled, but my publisher at the time took it very seriously. I didn’t want to change anything, but my publisher didn’t want this to go to court, and eventually I had to change the names for the paperback edition to Lee, Len and I insisted on keeping Rozzy as Rozzy. I had no idea who these people were, but I was so upset.
In my essays, I do write about people I know and real situations, but I am careful to never use their real names or any distinguishing physical characteristics. That protects you! Recently, though, I wrote a piece, “The Grief Diet,” in an anthology, Feed Me, about an actual person. This was about a controlling and very toxic ex who wouldn’t let me eat while we were together, and the reason I stayed with him, was because I knew if I left, I would have to grieve the man I really loved. I changed his name, his appearance, all the details of this man, but then another ex surfaced, claiming he knew this was about him and he wanted to suppress the essay, as well as my blog! The lawyers of the anthology brushed him off and told him to go away, and I was very relieved when he did. People can see themselves in all sorts of ways that you don’t intend.
More about Caroline and Pictures of You!
I’m the author of Pictures of You, from Algonquin Books. A literary mystery, it’s about the colliding lives of four different people after a mysterious crash: a photographer fleeing her philandering husband who’s gotten his girlfriend pregnant; a wife and mother running from her life; a young asthmatic boy with a secret; and a husband who is desperate to understand what his wife and son were doing with a suitcase three hours away from home. It went into three printings before publication and is the January book club pick for Costco, BJ’s, and The Nervous Breakdown. It’s been lauded in Vanity Fair, O Magazine and Elle so far, and it’s sold to The UK, Australia, New Zealand and Serbia! I’m about to embark on a tour and I hope people will check my website and come to see me! I promise to draw pictures in their books!
If you’d like to win a signed copy of Pictures of You, leave a comment below. We’ll announce the winner in our February 6th News Flash!