Author Caroline Leavitt reveals the fears behind her middle-of-the-night writer anxieties, the contents of her colored book tour folders, her reaction to the praise her latest novel is receiving, and more in this 5 On interview.
Caroline Leavitt (@Leavittnovelist) is the author of eleven novels, most recently Cruel Beautiful World. Two of her previous novels, Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, were New York Times bestsellers.
Pictures of You was named one of the best books of the year by Kirkus Reviews, San Francisco Chronicle, and Bookmarks magazine, and it was also a Costco “Pennie’s Pick.” Is This Tomorrow was an Indie Next pick, was long-listed for the Maine Readers prize, was a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick, was named a best book of the year by January Magazine, and was winner of the AudioFile Earphones award.
Caroline is a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and People magazine. Her essays and stories have appeared in Real Simple, Modern Love in the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Manifest-Station, and more.
The recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts grant, Caroline teaches novel writing online for both Stanford and the UCLA Writers’ Program Extension. She also works with private clients.
Fun facts: Caroline is also a professional namer with Eat My Words, and she wrote Wishbone books for kids.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: Cruel Beautiful World receives this praise in a BookBrowse list of the ten most-anticipated fall novels: “Veteran novelist Leavitt has been writing since the 1980s but really came into focus in the last fifteen years. Expect her to reach ‘overnight sensation’ status with Cruel Beautiful World.” Other reviews have been equally effusive. Does the anticipation being generated—and would that kind of “overnight sensation” success—make you nervous about expectations for the books to follow, or are you simply excited, or … something else / a combination of the two?
CAROLINE LEAVITT: It makes me want to have an IV that floods my system with Valium all the time. I’m terrified because I never know what people are going to respond to. I honestly dug deep and wrote this particular book—well, at lot of it—for my mother and for my sister and for my own failures at trying to fix or repair fissures in our relationships. So it’s deeply personal on that level. And also, these are just premonitions from critics—what if it doesn’t come true? You never know what is going to make or break a book.
And also, this makes me nervous about my next book. I need to get into the zone and just keep myself really really calm and hopeful.
You shared recently that you were up in the middle of the night worrying about your writing. What kind of writing worries do you have when you’re lying awake in the dark?
I worry that I am a fraud. I worry that I get reviews and attention because people feel sorry for me because they know I am a fraud, but I’m also a nice person. I worry that I didn’t do a good enough job and I will be skewered. I worry that I can’t write anything ever again because I am a fraud. I worry that I am not good enough. Another popular worry is that the literary community is laughing at me and they don’t think I am literary enough.
Obviously, I am very neurotic.
You write novels and essays and book reviews, you teach writing, and you have a husband, a son, and a robotic cat. When you’re working on a novel, how do you manage your writing time? Is there a schedule you stick to, or do you write around everything else? When you take a day off, is it a day you’ve planned in advance, or does it happen because the writing just isn’t cooperating that day?
I love that you mentioned Leon, my robotic cat! Thank you! I work really hard. So does my husband. We have a rule that we have to leave our offices, which are on the top floor, by ten at night. I always start with the novel first, because that is what obsesses me, but I can’t write for more than four hours without feeling depleted. Then I do book reviews, which I love, and usually after dinner I will check in on my classes and private clients. And it doesn’t matter to me if the writing isn’t cooperating—I still do it, but I have to bribe myself with copious amounts of chocolate and coffee!
You’re currently writing two novels simultaneously. Related to that, you posted recently on Facebook that ever since you were young you’ve felt like you have to hurry up and do things, that there isn’t enough time. If you were to die tomorrow (cutely and painlessly licked to death by turtles), how would you feel about where you are now as a writer? Would you be satisfied that you had achieved what you set out to achieve, or is there a project you have in mind that is important to you to complete before the turtles come for you?
Ha! I laughed at the turtles. Yeah, I’ve always had this feeling. I’ve had a few brushes with death. In ninth grade I had a terrible secondary lung infection, and they were not sure I would live. After I had my son, I had a rare blood disease and was put into a coma and was in the hospital for months and they never thought I’d survive. But I did. So I can’t help but feeling that I have to cherish every second and do as much as I can and be as kind as I can.
If I died tomorrow? I think the thing I’m most proud of is my son. I never thought I could be a good mother, and then he came along, and he’s cracked open the world for me. He’s twenty now, so I know he’d be okay. I’m proud that after zillions of horrific, brutal relationships, I finally found someone who is funny, kind, adoring—the whole works. But the real thing I’m proud of is that I changed myself. I grew up in a very troubled family. And my way of protecting myself from that as a kid was to withdraw or to use anger to push people away. I began to realize this when I was in college, and I worked really hard to change, to be a kind person. And I feel that I was able to do that. Being kind, helping others—that’s why we’re here, I think.
Before the turtles come (And could you throw in some cute leopard turtles? The baby ones that are tiny?), I want to finish these two novels. And because everyone has to be happy or I won’t be happy, I want Jeff to already have found a loving, kind, doting woman who will be with him, and I want Max to succeed beyond his wildest dreams in the film and theater world.
What would it mean to you to have one of your novels adapted for the screen, and are you one of those writers who can easily say, “The book is my story, but the movie is yours—have at it,” no matter what they do to change it?
Ah, Hollywood, breaking my heart at every turn. I’ve had about four options on work of mine. One, Into Thin Air, was supposed to be Madonna’s directorial debut, then she went off to go on tour. I had a deal pending at Sundance where Vera Farmiga was going to direct and star in Pictures of You, and then she was handed Bates Motel. Gillian Armstrong loved Is This Tomorrow, but she wanted a script. So I began to learn how to write scripts myself, and I got good enough to become a finalist in both Sundance Screenwriters Lab and in the Nickelodeon Screenwriter Fellowships. I’m writing a pilot now with the debut novelist Gina Sorell—and she’s brilliant, so I’m learning a lot.
I know people in Hollywood—producers, directors—and I have an amazing manager out there, but while they are always happy to read my work, they want to see actors attached. Or they want the story to be less internal. Or more internal. Or with car chases. But I’m always hopeful. Or foolhardy.
5 on Publishing
You’ve prepared several different folders for your Cruel Beautiful World book tour. Why so many, and what goes in them?
I always prepare folders for a book tour. I’m totally OCD. I get confused easily by disorder, so rather than have everything on my tour (there are about forty places now, confusing me), I put each event in its own cheerful folder—everything to do with it goes in that folder—and the different colors of each folder help me differentiate. When I go on tour I take only the folders I need, and when I’m done with the events, I can toss them. Plus, I have to admit, the colored folders are kind of pretty.
On the covers, I write the date first (so I can order all the files by date, from first to last), then the event, the time, and the address. I always put a contact phone number on the cover so if I’m in a panic about something, I know who to call fast! That makes a quick and easy visual for me. Inside, I’ll put the printouts that have to do with the event. Maybe it’s my speech. It might also include hotel reservations, plane tickets. I always include my itinerary of the days I’ll be at the event. What time is the author breakfast and where is it? What do I do next? What happens the next day? Since eating is important, I also include a sheet of restaurants I might want to try in whatever area I am. And I don’t forget to include things I want to see—and people I want to see—if I have any time.
I start to fill these folders out as soon as I have the information. As time goes on, I’ll add more to each folder as I get new information.
Of course, I also have all this on my calendar, but it doesn’t make me feel as secure as the colored folders do!
One byproduct of writing publicly is reader reaction, good or bad. In an interview with BookBrowse, you mention a time you received negative feedback on “Dating the Birth Mother,” a Salon article you’d written (someone wrote that someone like you shouldn’t be allowed to adopt, in one case). Have you received harsh reader emails or letters in response to any of your books, which deal with some intensely personal issues, and—more generally—how sensitive are you to attacks that get personal, and how do you handle them?
Ah, yes. I’ve gotten better at this. After the birth of our son, I couldn’t have any more kids because they weren’t sure the blood disorder would come back, so we thought we’d open-adopt. The whole process was so demoralizing and devastating for us that we gave it up after a year. And part of writing that essay and my book Girls in Trouble was to try to get people talking about why there isn’t more dialogue with both birth parents and adoptive parents about really important things. You’re going to be jealous. You’re human, so of course you will, whether you are the birth or adoptive parent. Adoptive agencies don’t always tell you what is going on. So when that piece and the novel came out, the adoption agencies were furious with me because they felt I was telling people not to adopt (not true), but the birth mothers made me their heroine, and that was wonderful.
I used to fall apart at personal attacks. I had one Kirkus review for my third novel that began, “More psychopathology from the previously white hot and now tiresome Leavitt.” I cried and wouldn’t go out of the apartment. Becoming a book critic myself has helped me tremendously. I know that a review is one person’s opinion. I’ve reviewed books I’ve loved and every other critic hated. I’ve hated books that were critics’ darlings.
I try to read every review just once and consider it. Is there something I can learn from it? Then that’s okay. If it’s just mean-spirited and nasty—and some of them are—the only thing that makes me feel better is to write the reviewer a charming note that says: “Although you didn’t like my novel, I’m deeply appreciative that you took the time to write a thoughtful review.” Then I feel better. Otherwise it can eat away at you. There is this wonderful Martha Graham quote (I think it’s her) where she says the critics may try to eat away at you, but you go on creating.
You’ve said that, if your current publisher rejected a book, your agent would then try other publishers—and that if those publishers rejected it, “It would go in a drawer, I would be deeply upset and cry, and then I would start writing something new.” If you felt it was good enough to submit to publishers, why would it sit in a drawer with so many publishing options available?
Because a lot of wonderful books sit in drawers. Sometimes the timing is wrong. Sometimes you may be ahead of the times—or behind them. You never know.
Of the TV interviews you’ve done, which one stands out in your memory (for any reason—exciting, nerve-racking, educational, odd), and why?
Oh, this is a great question! I wrote this essay “High Infidelity” for an anthology edited by Victoria Zackheim. It was about a summer when my marriage was breaking apart, my sister-in-law was sleeping with her shrink (who, in turn, murdered her dog), and everything fell apart in a colossal way. So I was asked to be on the Today show twice! And it was funny. The first time was in my home, and all I own is black clothing, and they said, “Oh no, no, you can’t wear that. We have a black backdrop.” I owned nothing else. Luckily there was another woman from the anthology there, and she loaned me this wonderful little beige jacket! But the second time was in the Today studio. They took me to hair and makeup and said, “Oh no, we love curls, but they have to be TV curls.” I had no idea what TV curls were, but they sprayed my hair to an inch of its life.
So there I am on the Today show. Big deal, right? And I happen to look at the monitor, expecting to see the legend under my name, “NYT Bestselling Author Caroline Leavitt.” Instead it says, “Her husband cheated on her and her best friend knew it!” I felt nauseous. During the break, I asked if she could at least say that I was an author, and the producer said, “Sure! Of course!” So I looked at the monitor and it said, “Her sister-in-law arranged trysts with husband and girlfriend!” under my name.
I laughed it off, started to walk home, and then two women jumped up from a bench. “You’re the woman from the Today show!” one shouted. And I said yeah, I was, and she said, “So your husband cheated on you?” That was my Today show fame!
What embarrassing mistakes have you made as a professional writer approaching professional people, whether early or later in your career?
Oh, I have a doozy. I wrote a letter to the head of Sony wanting to pitch some movie ideas. He said, great, I’d love to have you come in. So, in my haste, I wrote, “I’m so glad, because everyone knows that nobody makes movies like HBO.” Needless to say, they never called me in.
Now I tend to just be honest and tell the truth. I’ve written to writers I admire just to tell them I admire them, not expecting anything. Sometimes I will write, “I’d rather hammer my hand to my forehead than annoy you, but….” I tell myself everyone is a person. Everyone is also broken in some way, and that’s the part that might be making someone sharp with you. I’m fearless with email. I’ve approached actresses, directors, and I would say that 99.9 percent of them have been wonderful. You just have to take the risk, and if it fails? Well, it’s a funny story.
Thank you, Caroline.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.