Friday, December 31, 2010

A 1/2 Dozen for Novelist Caroline Leavitt

Here's a Half Dozen for bestselling, critically acclaimed novelist and screenwriter and book critic Caroline Leavitt.

Now sometimes the novelist skims the directions and instead of answering a Half Dozen questions from the batch I send, she answers ALL OF THEM! Leavitt's mistake is our goldmine ... Here she explains that

inspiration is really "kickstarting the subconscious"

and she tells us about her previous jobs as a switchboard operator, a daily lunch-supplier to a 500 lb. woman ( two cheeseburgers, chocolate cake and a diet Coke), a fashion-copy writer and a professional namer for Macy's.

and suggests that instead of falling in love with a writer you should...

"Run! Run away!"

and gives us advice for down-hearted writers, maybe even permission ...

"This is part of the deal, this black-souled, down-hearted mood."


And now the much much much more than a 1/2 Dozen with Caroline Leavitt:

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I'm obsessed with the quantum physics idea of parallel universes. Imagine, everyone I know on another plane! I'm also obsessed with the late 1950s and early 60s, which is where my new novel--the one I'm writing--takes place.


I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Inspiration, when it came, came after weeks of staring at the screen and writing and suddenly things began to happen. But I think it is simply kickstarting the subconscious. I don't believe in a divine idea springing forth! Oh, that that were true! I think you just sit down and do the work every day and sometimes the pieces come together in wondrous ways. (And sometimes they don't.)

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I love to write. I hate starting at the page, but I love that moment when you are in the "zone" and the characters are alive and you don't hear the doorbell or even the person you love calling your name.


What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Run! Run away! Seriously, you have to learn not to take silence personally. Not to take the writer's need for lots of time alone personally. And you should know you are with one of the most fragile-ego types in the universe.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

If you can, marry another writer. My husband works the same long hours I do. He knows that sitting at a desk staring for hours is indeed work (and he knows that it is necessary to take off and go to the movies in the middle of the day sometimes!)

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Write every day. Never give up.


Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

It all depends on the publisher. I'm convinced. This is my 9th novel and outside of my first, the only one where I have not been ignored or humiliated. Algonquin went to work seven months before the book was even out and they got it into three printings before publication and a Costco pick with raves from Vanity Fair and O Magazine to boot! Someone there told me, "The difference between us and other publishers is other publishers say, 'Oh, that writer's sales are down. Let's let her/him go.' We say, 'Oh, that writer's sales are down. Let's try other markets to pull them up." To say I worship my publisher is putting it mildly.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

This is part of the deal, this black-souled, down-hearted mood. And from it great things can happen. Pick yourself up, sit at your desk and work. Put it into your characters.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I used to cry and parse every sentence. What did the critic mean by "like" and why wasn't the word "love?" When I became a book critic, I came to realize how personal criticism is and to take everything--good and bad reviews not as fact, but as suggestions. Of course, I still memorize my good reviews and weep over the bad ones. I can't help it.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was a lonely little girl with terrible asthma and stories saved my life. I spent a lot of time in the library because I couldn't go out and play with the other kids and I began to want to write stories as well. The first time I did (Adventure with a Lion! It was about a little girl who gets caught in a lion cage and saves her own life by offering the lion the last of her Oreo!) my teacher urged me to read it to the class. I was afraid the class would make fun of me, but instead they listened, their heads in their hands. It was the moment I knew what I wanted to be--an author.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I read everything I can get my hands on, plus I'm a critic so I always get books in the mail. The books I am passionate about now are ones I am about to review, so I can't mention titles. But I did read and love DIRTY SECRETS by Jessie Sholl about her mother's hoarding.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

I hated the minimalists. Hated anything experimental. Style over substance made me want to pound nails in my head. It made me realize that I wanted my readers to feel, to have their hearts pummeled.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

What other aspects of my life? I'm kidding. I used to write with my son in his bassinet by my desk. He'd sleep for two hours, then wake for two hours and I'd devote myself to him until he slept again.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I've had so many jobs! I was fired as a telephone answering service switchboard operator (There were two Dr. Foots, and I gave the wrong emergency message to the wrong doctor), I brought a 500 lb. woman her lunch every day ( two cheeseburgers, chocolate cake and a diet Coke.) I wrote fashion copy and was a professional namer for Macy's, a job I loved (Bohemian wrapsody. The Indian print skirts new possiblities....), and for a few years I wrote movie copy for Columbia House Video club. They were a nightmare. They told me any mistakes would be mine because they would know I was thinking of plot and not video! They also made a friend take down a rave NYT review of my book from her bulletin board because "it was not about videos." When I left I told them I had to leave because it was for "spiritual reasons not physical ones." Proudest moment of my life. I learned that I could work at home, teach, do freelance, and be a writer. I'll never ever get another onsite job!

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

It helps me in my own work. I like being able to figure out what works and what doesn't. Plus, it's really exciting when when of my students gets an agent and then a book deal! I LOVE it.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

Yes. At Brandeis, I studied under this writer who told me I would never publish anything. When I did, I sent it to him, along with the great reviews. He insisted he was just trying "to make me angry to get me to write harder." Um. Yeah.

What’s your take on touring?

This is the first time I've really toured and I ADORE it. I love meeting the booksellers, I love talking to readers, love having an escort when I have an escort, and am just thrilled the whole time. Of course, being from NYC, I worry about bedbugs in hotels, though.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?


I believe in something--I'm more spiritual than religious and my characters always talk about God or psychic phenomena or things they don't understand but know are there.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

I think people are hard wired to love stories. At least that's what I keep telling myself.



Caroline Leavitt is the author of 9 novels, most recently Pictures of You, which went into three printings before publication, is a Costco "Pennie's Pick," A Nervous Breakdown Bookclub Pick, and which won raves from Vanity Fair and O, the Oprah Magazine. The recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant, a Goldenberg Fiction Prize, and a National Magazine Award nomination, she is also a Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellowship Finalist and she was a judge for the MidAtlantic Arts Foundation. Her work has appeared in New York Magazine, Psychology Today, More, and more. She teaches writing at UCLA Writers Program online and lives in NYC's unofficial 6th borough, Hoboken, NJ, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin and their teenaged son Max.

Visit her at her web site and her blog CarolineLeavittville
where she confesses to being a
novelist, screenwriter, writing mentor, namer, book critic, knitting addict and chocoholic.