'The Friday Slot' - author Caroline Leavitt








I first met Caroline through Facebook - her husband, Jeff Tamarkin, is a music critic, and is Facebook friends with my brother, who's in a country and western band. When Between the Sheets came out in paperback, Caroline asked if she could interview me about it for her blog, http://carolineleavittville.blogspot.co.uk/.   I was honoured - and my decision to hold this weekly series of interviews with authors, publishers, editors and so on, was inspired by what she does on her blog. It seemed to me a very generous thing to do, to give your space over to another writer for a while, and I wanted to emulate it.

So I can move over today and give this space to Caroline! She's based in New Jersey and is that much-coveted thing, a New York Times bestseller (for the excellent Pictures of You - more of that anon...). She's written nine novels in total - Girls in Trouble, Coming Back to Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines and Meeting Rozzy Halfway, as well as her latest, Pictures of You.


She's also written for Salon, The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post, amongst others; she writes reviews, most recently for The San Francisco Chronicle; has been a judge for the Writers' Voice Fiction Awards; is a senior instructor at UCLA's Writers' Program, and somehow, in the midst of all this, finds time to mentor privately. She's been likened to Alice Munro, and can count Jodi Picoult as one of her fans.    


I found Pictures of You one of the most intriguing novels I've read in ages, and loved the 'what if' premise. I don't think I could summarize it any better than this review from one of my favourite magazines, BUST, so here's a snippet of what they said: "Pictures of You tells the story of two women, Isabelle and April, both of whom are fleeing their normal lives. Their cars collide in a horrible crash one foggy evening on Cape Cod. One of the women dies; her young son and the other driver survive. The dead woman’s son, Sam—deeply in denial about his mother’s passing—will not answer questions about the crash. So his father, Charlie, is left asking why his wife’s car was parked the wrong way in the middle of the street with no headlights in a thick, dark, fog. Also, why was Same found in the woods—not inside the car—after the accident? And the nagging question that haunts him the most: why did she have a packed suitcase in her backseat? He’d thought they were reasonably happy. Leavitt is at her best when describing the slow spiral of mourning and the lasting effects of grief. Her carefully rendered descriptions of her characters’ post-crash feelings, actions, and motivations seem spot-on..."


It was also reviewed by Vanity Fair, O, the Oprah Magazine, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Publisher's Weekly, amongst many, many others, and praised as 'emotionally wise' 'deeply moving', a 'brooding, beautiful novel'. So after all that to whet your appetite, it's time for a frank, honest interview: 


LM: You write bestselling novels, review, judge fiction, work as an instructor for the UCLA Writers Program, mentor - do you think multiple roles are valuable to you as a writer? Do you think that writers should embrace the opportunities for doing more than writing, or do you find that your other roles get in the way of your time for writing? How do you balance it all out?



CL: I definitely think it all helps. Teaching has made me a better writer because I've had to look at all kinds of writing and figure out what works and why, and what doesn't and how to fix it. Plus, I think it's just good karma! Being a critic made me look at reviews differently. It really brought it home that a review is one person's opinion and it also connects me to the writing community. I now look at my work as a critic, author, and teacher, which gives me, I think--and I hope!--deeper insight. How do I balance? Well, I'm obsessive-compulsive and really really fast at everything, except writing my novels. I'm also supremely grateful that I can work at home and earn a living and I no longer have to work at a day job, as I once did, which was a total nightmare. You learn to balance your time, and be very, very grateful for it.

LM. Pictures of You is a New York Times bestseller - although you're the author of nine novels altogether, do you see this one as your 'breakthrough' title, the one bringing you into the major league? How has it affected you so far? 

CL: Ah, yes, I'm the poster child for second chances. I had four publishers go out of business just as my books came out. The books all died. Pictures of You was supposed to go to another publisher than Algonquin (I won't mention them by name) as the second of two books, and the editor called me up and said, "Sorry. The book just isn't special enough. We aren't going to publish it. We don't get it." I cried. I was hysterical. I called my agent. I knew my career was over because who is going to want to publish the ninth novel of someone who has had virtually no sales at all, despite great reviews? My agent told me not to worry, friends rallied, and one friend, the writer Kate Malloy, suggested her editor at Algonquin might be interested. I sent her a synopsis, she read the book--and Algonquin bought it, telling me, "We're going to change your life."

And they did. They made that "not-special" book go into four printings six months BEFORE publication. It was a Costco Pennie's Pick, A San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick, on the Best Books of 2011 from the SF Chronicle, The Providence Journal, Bookmarks magazine and Kirkus Reviews, as well as being a USA Today bestseller and a New York Times bestseller. 

It was all Algonquin. They support their writers. They sent me out on a 30 city tour (I had never had a tour before), and they are still promoting that book even as they gear up to promote Is It Tomorrow, my new novel, which will be out in May. 

My life has definitely changed. People who didn't return my calls now call me. People know who I am now. When people asked me what I did, I used to say, "I'm a writer?" with a question mark. I don't do that anymore. But I'm very realistic. I know fortunes can change in a heartbeat. I never take anything for granted, and I work harder than I ever did before. I can help more writers. And I branch out. I just won a first round slot at Sundance for their screenwriting lab! And one of my essays is about to be optioned for film by an Academy Award winning producer. It all seems incredibly exciting to me and miraculous. So I tell people to never ever give. NEVER. GIVE. UP. Because look at what happened to me. And if it can happen to me, it can happen to you.

LM: Tell me a little bit about what inspires you. Pictures of You focuses on family, and the threats to the family that exist in the world - is that something that's always concerned you?

CL: I'm definitely obsessed with the gnarled bonds of family. With tragedy. With the way life can spin out of control, and how people can come out of that, or not come out of it. Writing about all of these things makes me seem safe. Ha. Ha. The joke is probably on me! 

LM: Your next book, 'Is It Tomorrow', is due for publication in May. You're very active on Twitter and Facebook - how essential have you found social media to be for you in general? Will you spend time promoting your next book than any others (i.e. do you find you spend more time promoting than ever before?)    

CL: Social media is absolutely essential. I've made more contacts and gotten more readers, and made more friends there than anywhere else. I'm always dipping in and out. It's like my water cooler! I think readers feel they want to know writers personally, and this is the way to do it.  Algonquin has genius publicity and promotion. I've had to do so much less than I ever had to do for any of my previous books, so I feel that I am actually promoting less--and in a smarter way.



Comments

  1. Lovely interview, Lesley. I'm a big fan of Caroline's and was fortunate to get a day in the sun on her blog, as well. Great question about whether writers should embrace different roles in their professional lives other than writing. And I loved Caroline's response. I think it's all the other "stuff" we do in life that ultimate strengthens our skills and sharpens our insights as writers.

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  2. Thanks, Jessica - Caroline's great to interview, as you can see, and I really appreciated her honesty about her career. Too many writers don't want to open up about difficulties, but those are so important to hear about.

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