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A True Independent Spirit Known for Her Generosity, Best Selling Novels, and Collection of Cowboy Boots: An Interview with Caroline Leavitt

She wears so many hats: novelist, essayist, interviewer, book reviewer, as well as being an award-winning senior instructor at UCLA Writers Program online. And that’s just a partial list of her talents. Although admittedly obsessive and compulsive to a degree, I found her relaxed, open and a joy to interview.

MaryAnne Kolton: Will you share some information about your childhood? Favorite books, family life and who first encouraged you to read?

Caroline Leavitt: I grew up in a working class suburb of Boston, Waltham, where it was uncool to be Jewish, smart and sickly, and I was all three. I had terrible asthma as a child and while the other kids were out playing, I was in the school library reading and dreaming up stories. I was bullied a great deal, but reading was an escape for me. I used to beg the librarians to find me books about kids with asthma, and while they couldn’t, they did give me Mrs. Mike, a wonderful book about pleurisy, and lots of 18th century novels about TB! My parents both encouraged me to read and I still remember when my mother had a show-down with the local librarian who refused to let me take books from the “adult section.” My mother marched in and told her that I could read whatever I wanted, even Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and that the librarian was not to shoo me out of the adult room any longer!

Both my sister and I read for hours and we also wrote books together. We always had the same story, about a young girl like us, who was orphaned but had millions of dollars so she could run around the world having adventures. We illustrated the books, too. I have to say that reading and writing saved my life. I wasn’t that little girl with asthma anymore when I was lost in a story. I could be anything and anyone.

MAK: I’ve read that your home life was also fraught with brutality and intermittent abandonment. How do you see this less-than-ideal childhood affecting your work?

CL: What an excellent question. I’m really glad you asked that. Well, in my work, I try to both understand and rewrite the story of my life. I’ve written some terrible mothers—but I’ve tried to make them sympathetic or at least understandable. In putting these characters into print, I reduce their power over me in a way. I often have felt that if I couldn’t write, I would have gone insane because there was just too much pain growing up. When I wrote Sam in Pictures of You, a little boy with asthma, it was incredibly healing for me because in giving this little boy so much compassion, I got to heal my own shame and fear about growing up sickly. And of course, raising a child—giving him the exact opposite childhood I had—has been the most healing of all. It’s like getting a second chance to do it right, to break the cycle, to give my son everything I so desperately wanted for myself. I get to see the results, too: a happy, well-adjusted, confidant, talented boy!

MAK: Since you mention it, your most recent novel, Pictures Of You, led to what sounds like an idyllic relationship with Algonquin Books. Would you care to tell us how much and why you adore them so?

CL: I tell everyone I am the poster girl of second chances. I’ve had four publishers go out of business just as my novel was about to come out. (The novel died). The last two publishers I had were big huge ones that gave me two and three book deals, and they did no promotion or publicity, never returned my calls or emails, and one editor even handed me over to her 21-year-old assistant. (I was lucky. She was a great editor.) When I turned in Pictures of You to my then publisher, they declined it, saying, “It’s just not special. We don’t get it.” I knew my career was over. I had 9 novels out there, and though they all (except for one!) got fantastic reviews, my sales were so poor, I could probably buy a week’s worth of groceries with what I made. No one really knew who I was, so who would publish me?

I cried to my writer friends. One of them was at Algonquin and she said, “Want me to ask my editor?” She did, the editor liked the idea of the book and wanted to read it, and three weeks later, I had a sale. Algonquin did amazing things that no other publisher did for me. They invited me to come in and meet all of them. They told me they were going to change my career. And they did. They got that novel into 4 printings 6 months before publication. They turned it into a NYT bestseller, and they are STILL promoting it nearly two years later, which is unheard of in an industry that usually gives writers three months. At a party, one of the marketing people told me, “You know how we are different? Other publishers look at sales figures and say, ‘Hmmm, this author isn’t’ doing so hot. We should drop her/him.’ But we look at it, and say, ‘Hmmm, this author isn’t doing so hot. What can we do to promote this book better?'”

I call them gods and goddesses. They are all so warm, so respectful of their writers, and my editor, Andra Miller, is brilliant. Plus, I know and love a lot of the Algonquin writers. Many were like me—rejected by their publishers, or unhappy with their publishers—and then suddenly, their lives changed. I adore all of them. Anything they want me to do, I do, because every decision they’ve made has been golden. When they first decided to make POY a quality paperback, I was panicked. I said, “But it won’t get the reviews,” and they said, yes it will. That paperback got more and bigger reviews than any hardback of mine, including from places like Newsweek; Vanity Fair; Elle; O, the Oprah Magazine and so much more. I went from having no sales to being a NYT bestseller. Amazing. Totally amazing.

MAK: “…as they got closer, she saw all these bright bolts of color… ‘What the fuck?’ Luke said… “They’re my clothes.’…her favorite blue dress, her winter coat, and all her junk jewelry sparkling among the dandelions… the yard was a Jackson Pollack of clothes. Then the door banged open, and there was Nora… Her arms were full of clothes and she stared hard at Isabelle and Luke, then opened her arms so the clothes tumbled out onto the front steps… ‘You don’t follow my rules, you don’t live under my roof.’ Nora shouted.”

In this bit from Pictures Of You we hear from one of the “terrible mothers” you mentioned before. There is often a fair amount of tension in most of your novels. When you are writing these scenes are you as angst-filled as the objects of the abusive characters appear to be?

CL: I am. To me, the most terrible and terrifying thing is to be cast out by your mother, the one person who is supposed to love you unconditionally. The whole “You don’t follow my rules, you don’t live under my roof” argument is one that robs you of your own individuality. It’s as if Nora wants to live through Isabelle, and if she can’t, then she rejects her. Certainly, I felt terrible writing this scene, but there’s also the desire to have others see it, to have them understand that there is sometimes a heavy price to pay when you are determined to shape your own life. I should say that I love my mother and she loves me and she never threw me out of the house! But we did have huge arguments about how I was going to live my life, and my mother was deeply upset when I did not follow the path she wanted for me, and I did feel rejected sometimes because of that. I used to tell people some of the things that happened to me growing up, and no one believed it, but when I write about it, or about the feelings I had, somehow they do.

MAK: In your novels, most of the characters have a sense of being many-layered. How do you keep the layers from overlapping and have you ever wanted to delve more deeply into the psyche of a character than you allowed yourself to do?

CL: Another great question. I do a whole lot of work on my characters as I am writing, pages and pages that never enter the novel. I have letters the characters write to me or to each other, I have stories of their whole childhood—and sometimes only a line is used—arguments and conversations they have. I was about to say, no I’ve never wanted to delve deeper because I know the characters so well, but then I remembered, in Pictures of You, there is a moment, when April stands in front of the car as if she knows it’s coming for her, and for the first time in my whole writing life, I really didn’t know what was going on in her head. I felt she was alive. I knew everything about her and even though she isn’t a particularly likable character, I felt great sympathy for her. I knew she was alive and breathing on the page, but she was so confused inside that it was disturbing to me—almost as if there was a “danger ahead” sign stopping me from going further.

MAK: You have talked at length about your attempt to adopt a second child, which in turn gave birth to your stunning novel, Girls In Trouble. Do you ever find yourself “over-mothering” your son, Max, because of the circumstances surrounding his birth and the knowledge that he will likely be your only child?

CL: I worked really hard to give my son the kind of childhood that I wished I had had for myself. I wanted him to feel respected, lavished with love, but because I had grown up with a mother who smothered me a bit, I wanted to give him independence, too. I wanted him to be able to make his own decisions about a lot of things. Of course it was hard for me! I adore my son and I always wanted to spend all my time with him, but I made sure to keep those feelings to myself. It’s hard now that he’s 16. He has his own life. He’s going to be going to college, and though part of me thinks, “Go to school in NYC! Live ten minutes away! When you marry you can live next door!” I know that isn’t a healthy way for me to be. So I tell him to go out there and experience the world, the way I did. To have adventures. And to know that I and his father will be here supporting him.

As far as not having another child, it’s funny but Max was adamant about NOT wanting a sibling. We could have tried to adopt again internationally (we had tried domestically), but every time we brought it up to Max, he was really unhappy about it. And then, as two writers, we thought, well, could we afford two children? It began to feel like the right decision to have just one. The right one.

MAK: Some authors need complete silence in which to write. Others listen to music. Still others find the clamor of family and pets thought-inducing. What about you?

CL: I work best in my office that is right across from my husband Jeff’s office. I can look out my door and see him working! I love to blast music, but often the same song over and over and over, and it doesn’t even have to be good music or music I like. I’ve been known to write whole chapters on the Carpenters. (Yes, I admit it.) For 20 years, I had a tortoise sharing my office and I found the clicking of his jaws to be really comforting.

MAK: I can envision hundreds of would-be authors running out to buy tortoises as we speak… or not. Okay. It’s time to talk about the boots… go for it!

CL: When I first signed with Algonquin, they gave me something no other publisher gave me—a tour! To 30-some cities. I was anxious that I do well, and I had some speaking engagements in front of 500 people, and I knew I needed a talisman, something that I could put on like a superman cape that would make me feel confidant and strong and cool. Plus, my wardrobe is all New York black. So I began to look on eBay and I saw this pair of red cowboy boots. They were only $14 so I got them. As soon as I put them on, I felt different. I felt kick-ass strong and interesting. The first day I wore them out, two people stopped me in the street to ask about them. When I put them on for tour, I became the kind of woman who wore red cowboy boots. My nerves vanished. And the more I wore them, the more, suddenly, I became known for wearing them—so much so that I began to call my tour the Red Cowboy Boots tour. When I was interviewed by Anne Lamott in California, and filmed, the one thing people wanted to know about was my red boots! Since then, I bought up three other pairs on eBay, and I splurged and got a pair of green Old Gringo boots (these are the boots that feel like slippers—you’ve never worn a more comfortable boot) embroidered with flowers, but I’m waiting for my new tour to start to wear them! Oh, and I’m calling the new tour the Isadora Duncan Long Scarf and Old Gringo cowboy boots tour!

MAK: We know you have a new novel in the works and we know you have seen the potential cover. How about a title, a release date, a paragraph, a sentence?

CL: Title is IS IT TOMORROW, which is the title of a very old jingoistic 1950s pamphlet about how tomorrow could bring about the horror of (gasp) COMMUNISM! I loved the title and wanted to use it. It will be out May 7, 2013 (things could change) and all I can say about it is that it’s set in the 1950s dream of suburbia, where a divorced Jewish mother and her son are somehow targeted when a boy (her son’s best friend) vanishes. It’s about being an outcast, about paranoia, about boys and their fathers, mothers and sons, and how people are not who you always think they are. I was really influenced by “The Killing”—a show I began to watch when Pictures of You was part of a book tie-in for the show. I was obsessed with the way that show kept leading you down roads where you thought you knew how things were going to turn out, and then suddenly, there was a reveal, and everything reversed.

MAK: Caroline, thanks so much for sharing the information about Is It Tomorrow, (sounds like a grand read—can’t wait) and for being so forthcoming and generous with your answers here.

Caroline Leavitt is the author of nine novels: Girls In Trouble, Coming Back To Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. Various titles were optioned for film, translated into different languages, and condensed in magazines. Her new novel, Pictures of You went into three printings months before publication and is now in its fourth printing. A New York Times bestseller, it is also a Costco “Pennie’s Pick,” A San Francisco Chronicle Editor’s Choice “Lit Pick,” and it is one of the top 20 books published so far in 2011, as named by BookPage.

Her essays, stories and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, New York Magazine, Parenting, The Chicago Tribune, Parents, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies.

She won First Prize in Redbook Magazine‘s Young Writers Contest for her short story, “Meeting Rozzy Halfway,” which grew into the novel. The recipient of a 1990 New York Foundation of the Arts Award for Fiction for Into Thin Air, a 2003 Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellow Finalist, and a semi finalist in the Fade In/Writer’s Net Screenplay competition, she was also a National Magazine Award nominee for personal essay.

Caroline has been a judge in both the Writers’ Voice Fiction Awards in New York City and the Midatlantic Arts Grants in Fiction. She is an award-winning senior instructor at UCLA Writers Program online, where she teaches “Writing The Novel” online, and she also mentors privately. A book critic for The Boston Globe and People, she won a 2005 honorable mention, Goldenberg Prize for Fiction from the Bellevue Literary Review, for “Breathe,” a portion of Pictures of You. Caroline has appeared on “The Today Show”, “The Diane Rehm Show”, German and Canadian TV, and she has been featured on “The View From The Bay”.

Caroline Leavitt lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, New York City’s unofficial sixth borough, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their teenage son Max.

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MaryAnne Kolton
MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, The Toucan Magazine, Lost In Thought Literary Magazine, Anatomy, Her Circle Ezine, and Connotation Press among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was shortlisted for The 2011 Glass Woman Prize. Author Interviews with Leah Hager Cohen, Siobhan Fallon, Charles Baxter, Alice Hoffman, Dan Chaon, Tupelo Hassman, Carol Anshaw, Lyndsay Faye, Kathryn Harrison and Charlotte Rogan have appeared most recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Her Circle Ezine, The Literarian/City Center and January Magazine. MaryAnne’s public email is maryannekolton@gmail.com. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter and at her blog site maryannekolton.blogspot.com.
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