The Joy of the Work: Q&A with Author Caroline Leavitt

Image: Caroline Leavitt

In this interview, author Caroline Leavitt discusses the unique challenges of embarking on a book tour during a pandemic, her indefatigable and unapologetic enthusiasm for writing and publishing after all these years, the importance of writers helping writers, the writers who helped her when she was an emerging author, and more.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of twelve novels, including Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, and Cruel Beautiful World, some of which were on the Best of the Year lists, as well as Indie Next Picks. A New York Foundation of the Arts Fellow in Fiction, and a Sundance Screenwriters Lab finalist in pilots and feature, she is also a book critic for People Magazine and AARP. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Salon, New York Magazine, Modern Love in the New York Times, Real Simple, and more. She teaches novel writing online at Stanford and UCLA Writers Program Extension and works with private clients. To learn more, visit her website.

KRISTEN TSETSI: Your protagonist in With or Without You, Stella, goes into a coma. You recently published a piece in The Daily Beast, “I Was in a Coma and No One Will Tell Me What Happened,” explaining that you wrote Stella’s experience, her consciousness during, and her memory of, her coma, because you had been in a coma, but one that you had no memory of, and “I wanted someone, anyone, to experience what I had and remember it, so I could process it.”

What you say you do remember, such as the terror you would experience when you saw things that turned out to have connections to your hospital stay, sounds absolutely horrifying. What did it take for you to go back there—how did you do it, what was your process? And how did it feel?

CAROLINE LEAVITT: When I first told my agent I was going to write about coma, she said, “What, again?” because I had written an earlier novel, Coming Back to Me, about a woman in a coma who remembers nothing. But it hadn’t healed me, because there was nothing for me to grab onto and process. I still had these terrible triggers that would flare up. Certain smells or colors reminded me of something in the hospital I couldn’t remember and I felt unnerved. I still hate going to sleep at night because I’m so terrified about what might happen.

The funny thing is that originally I had not planned to go so deep. I was going to write about a woman who has a near-death experience and wakes up with a healing ability, but I couldn’t grab onto it. Something wasn’t working.

Then I was thinking about this longtime couple my husband and I knew who were the perfect couple until, after 17 years, the guy suddenly had an abrupt personality change. He became a weightlifter, dragging trucks by ropes in his teeth! His body and his mind changed, and they divorced.

So I was thinking about that, and I started to research, and BOOM, there was coma popping up. And then after all this time, my husband was talking about the pandemic and he said, “I haven’t felt this kind of dread since you were sick in the hospital,” and when he said that, it surprised me, because he had never wanted to talk about it.

I began to think more and more about my coma, about how it still unnerved me. Then I thought, well, if writing about a woman who couldn’t remember anything about her coma hadn’t helped, what if I wrote about a woman who remembered everything? What if I were able to process my coma that way?

I wrote and wrote and wrote and it was disturbing and terrible and then I’d remind myself Stella wasn’t me. Stella was able to not only remember and process everything, she was able to heal for the better. And that was my lifeline.

A piece of writing advice I love and often use comes from you. If there’s a stuck point while writing, you said, have a character say or do something completely unexpected or take the story somewhere unexpected. (Using that advice added an entirely new dimension to a relationship I was writing, which in turn generated a larger idea for their story as a whole, so I’m ever-grateful to you.)

Did you have an opportunity to use that trick/technique while writing With or Without You?

I’m so happy that was helpful!

Writing to me is all about shaking things up when you feel stuck. I’ve printed out my manuscript in another font or another color to trick my mind. I’ve also read it out loud. But I always wonder, when I get stuck, how to push my characters to their limits.

I had to figure out Stella’s personality change and her coma talent, and I kept researching and nothing seemed right. First I thought, maybe she’s suddenly a great athlete, but it didn’t feel like a good choice, because I kept thinking, well, so what? Then I thought she would be a writer, and then while she was just drawing circles, because I had no idea what she would even write about, I started to remember that R. Crumb, the famous underground comic, had a brother who drew in circles, and so I gave that to Stella. Then suddenly everything opened up and she was not only drawing people beautifully, but she could see their inner lives. It was something I just never expected.

“Writing is lonely work” is a popular writer’s lament. Do you think writing is lonely work?

I love this question. Because the answer for me is, oh no, never!  I actually don’t think it is at all!

I’m surrounded by people/characters I love in my work, and living in their world is amazing. I tend to get into a kind of zone, so that if my husband says, “Caroline, the house is on fire,” I won’t hear him or see him.

I’m just in that other world.

I love anything quantum physics, and who knows if when I am in the zone of writing, it really is another world I am inhabiting? If light can be both a wave and a particle at the same time, which is supposed to be impossible, maybe this can be true, too, and isn’t that incredible?

My watercooler is social media, so I am always grabbing chats with friends or other writers every few hours, plus my husband works at home. Plus again, I’m just so grateful that I get to do something I love so much. How amazing is that? I never take that for granted.

A lot of the writers I see on Twitter have (or exhibit) a fiddle-dee-dee calmness about Author Life after a while. Even when talking about writing, they come across more like writer stereotypes with raised eyebrows, corncob pipes, and some bitterness and cynicism rather than people who are bright-eyed and enthusiastic about writing.

But you, in the previous answer and always, even after so many books, seem bright-eyed and enthusiastic. Excited. Wowed by the whole process. What excites you about all of it, even now?

Oh, what a lovely thing to say about me! Thank you.

I tend to look at the world with a sense of wonder. I know from my own life (let’s see, fiancé dies in my arms two weeks before our wedding, I go into coma three days after giving birth to my son, ninth novel rejected as not special, then it becomes NYT bestseller…) that things can change in a nanosecond—and that means things can change in WONDERFUL ways, too.

I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to do something that I am passionate about, that I love, and that I’m good enough at to be published. I have held job-jobs and I was always fired, or I didn’t fit into the corporate culture (one performance review, a “competent plus,” said that I needed “to dress more coherently”), and I was pretty unhappy. But truthfully, who knows what is going to happen next? I could sink into obscurity and never publish again, or I could get a movie deal.

What matters is the work—the joy in doing it. Every day, I stop and think, I’m so lucky that I get to be a writer, I’m so lucky, and I’m so grateful.

I know you recently experienced a change in editors at Algonquin. How long did you have your previous editor there, and what’s it like when that kind of change happens to someone so firmly established at a publishing house?

Algonquin is my home! I’ve had about five other publishers before them, including the really big ones, and Algonquin was the first place where I really felt seen, taken care of, and cared about. All the editors and marketing and sales and publicists know the authors, and it really is like a family.

Before I got to them, my ninth novel, Pictures of You, was rejected on contract by a different, big publisher as “not special,” and they didn’t want to see anything else from me, so I was sure my career was over. Then a friend got me to this fabulous editor at Algonquin, Andra Miller, who was virtually a “soul sister on the page.” Algonquin took that “non-special book” and got it into six printings before it was even out, and on the NYT bestseller list its second week out!

I did three novels with Andra over a period of about six years. Then a great opportunity came her way and she left, and I cried and cried and cried—and I was frightened. How would I write with someone else? What if it didn’t work out? Who else would be my editor?

But then, legendary editor Chuck Adams asked if he could work with me, and I was so honored that I instantly felt better. Of course, I was also scared, because how would this work? Turns out it worked beautifully.

Chuck is so, so smart and intuitive, and so incredibly kind and gentle—and he’s also really, really fun to work with and he helped me solve so many issues, including backstory. Best of all, he bought my next book after With or Without You, which I am writing now.  I’m totally indebted to him, and I’ve already told him he can’t leave!

What is your next novel about, or what does it explore (as much as you’re willing to say), and what prompted it?

This is from Publisher’s Marketplace, because it’s too hard for me to explain what it’s about right now because I’m still writing it!

NYT-bestselling author Caroline Leavitt’s DAYS OF WONDER, about a young troubled woman, released six years early from prison for a crime she and her then 15-year-old boyfriend may or may not be guilty of, struggling to reinvent herself as she searches for the baby she gave away when she was incarcerated and for the boyfriend who might have betrayed her.

I was interested in memory (again), and who we are, and it was precipitated by a friend of mine who had a best friend she loved—everyone loved this friend!—and she introduced me, and I loved her, too, and then my friend told me that this woman had been sent to prison for murder when she was just 15.

My mind exploded! Here was this amazing, amazing woman and she had done something so terrible when she was so young, and even though America is always saying how much we love second chances, this woman felt the need to keep her past as much of a secret as she could.

How long, on average, does it take you to complete a first draft, and how do you know when the story is one you’re prepared to spend that much time and energy working on? Have you ever started and abandoned a novel because it just didn’t end up fueling you the way you thought it would?

Wow. Another great question. The truth is that my novels are usually percolating for years before I’m able to actually write them—mostly because I don’t know how to tell the story yet. It takes a lot of wrong starts. I abandon a lot of false starts, but the story always gets to get told—sometimes in the wrong way, so I have to start yet AGAIN, but it gets told.

I used to panic when I felt a story wasn’t fueling me, but now I know it’s just my pesky subconscious roaming around and that the next day will be better. I’ve come to love the moments when I feel, “What the hell am I doing? Why didn’t I go to dental school? This is the worst thing I’ve ever done”—because I know that my subconscious is digging a little deeper, excavating, and in the next day or two, it will show me at least a glint of something gold.

You spend a lot of time, and you put a lot of energy into, helping other writers. You blurb their books, you interview them on your blog CarolineLeavittville, and more.

Writers helping writers is also something you frequently write about on Facebook, and it makes me think you must have received similar help as you were coming up. What was the most helpful thing, or what were the most helpful things, others did for you when you were emerging as an author?

I had so much help!

My two biggest fairy godmothers were Jodi Picoult and Annie Lamott. Jodi Picoult initially said she was too busy to read Pictures of You for a blurb, but that she would try, and she read it, blurbed it gorgeously, and then, without telling me, raved about it in the print edition of Newsweek! People would email me and say they had gone to see Jodi, and in front of a 500-person crowd she told people about my book! We’ve become friends! And I don’t know why I did this, but one day when I was really blue, I thought, “Annie Lamott would understand this kind of sorrow,” and I wrote her a letter. And she called me! We became friends. She interviewed me for my book launch, and now she emails me authors she wants me to promote, and I always do. For a lark, I invited Lisa Scottaline to a reading, never expecting anything, and when I got to the bookstore, the owner told me she had called to say she couldn’t make it and had bought 12 hardbacks of mine! We, too, are now the best of friends. Adriana Tragiani did this amazing thing at a library talk. There were 100 librarians there and four authors, and she went last, and the first thing she did was hold up all our books and talk about them and tell everyone to buy them. I adore her. Gail Godwin has been amazing. I told myself that if I were ever in a position to help someone, I would pay it all forward.

Sometimes it was just someone tweeting to me that they had read my book, or that they liked it. I almost feel that it is karmic. I started my interview blog to help writers because I felt I had been helped and also because I had a hunger to know other writers, and it soon ballooned. Writers really do help writers, and it is a truly wonderful thing. It creates a better world, and it makes you feel so freaking good. Plus it helps the indie bookstores and readers, too.

A Mighty Blaze, the book initiative I co-founded with Jenna Blum, promotes this kind of culture. We try to put authors with other authors for interviews, to have “authors interview bookstores,” too.

With this week’s release of With or Without You and our talk of interviews and blurbs, I’m reminded of you telling me in an earlier interview about the colored folders you would prepare for book tour visits to brick-and-mortar stores. What’s it like to have a new novel coming out during a time of isolation, face masks, no gatherings…?

It’s so strange! I am actually busier than ever! Before, the day might be rush to the airport, get to the hotel, calm down, do an event. Now, it’s rush to the shower, Zoom an interview for an hour, have a free hour, then Zoom a festival, wait an hour, then talk to someone on the radio.

There are gatherings on Zoom, with people asking questions and showing their faces, which I love, but I’ve traded the anxiety of missing flights and trains with Zoom not working.

Oh, and those neatly organized colored folders? A total mess now! Those author outfits I bought specially for tour? In the closet, because who wears a dress now when you can wear yoga pants?

Thank you, Caroline.

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