Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Her Story: Caroline Leavitt

I'm thrilled to start a new feature on my blog: bringing authors' stories to you. And I can't think of a better way to start than by interviewing Caroline Leavitt. Her most recent novel is Pictures of You (Algonquin), which came out to rave reviews and quickly became a NY Times bestseller. I had the pleasure of meeting Caroline at a book festival and we correspond online: she's funny, fearlessly honest, and generous to a fault on top of being a knock-out writer. Below, she explains how that fearless honesty made Pictures of You possible, and her tale of getting this book to publication is an inspiration for us all.

How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

I was a lonely little girl with very bad asthma who spent a lot of time in the library, escaping in stories. I discovered early on that I didn’t just want to read stories—I wanted to write them! Writing saved my life, opened up my world, and once I started, I never stopped.

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?

As a child, I adored this book Mrs. Mike, about a young woman who goes off to Alaska with her husband, and A High Wind in Jamaica, about British kids taken aboard ship by pirates! I read everything—fairy tales, Oz books, my mother’s books, too. When I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it cemented it for me. I had to be a writer!

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?

I’m a book critic for People and The Boston Globe, and I have a column at Shoptopia, so right now I love it when I’m surprised. I’m partial to debuts. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby is my favorite book) and there are so many wonderful writers out there!

Tell us about your book.

Pictures of You is about a car crash and how it impacts the lives of four different people: Isabelle, a photographer fleeing her philandering husband; April, a wife and mother fleeing her life; Charlie, a husband who comes to realize he never really knew his life; and Sam, a young asthmatic with a terrible secret.

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?

I’m totally phobic about driving. I have my license (all they made me do to get it is drive around the block), and I keep renewing it, but I gave up driving years ago after the third driving instructor sighed and said, “Caroline, some people just aren’t meant to drive.” I kept thinking how would I function if I got in an accident and killed someone? And what if it wasn’t my fault?

The asthma theme came later. Sam just appeared on the page. I had had a very shameful childhood being sick and the last thing I wanted to do was write about asthma. I never talked about it to anyone (I have very, very minor asthma now) and I certainly didn’t want to write about it. But Sam kept coming back. A writer friend of mine told me, “If you don’t want to write about it, it means you should.” So I did. And in giving this little boy my compassion, I ended up healing my own shame!

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

I had a first chapter that I thought worked that was obsessing me and that kept me going. I always start novels needing that first chapter because it becomes my lifeline, my proof that yes, I can do this! But of course, I felt despair and I always worried that the book was not going to work and that my career was over! I’ve come to realize that’s just part of being a writer.

Do you have a “path to publication” story that you’d like to share? Funny agent/editor encounter? Publishing etiquette you didn’t know until you entered the business? Tip for newly published or aspiring writers?

I’m a rags to riches story. Pictures of You was my 9th novel and although my previous novels have all had stellar reviews, the sales were so small that I probably could have bought groceries with them and that would be that! My last publisher rejected Pictures of You, saying, “We don’t get it. It’s not special enough.” I cried, of course. I knew, too, that after 8 books that didn’t exactly sell well, my chances of getting another publisher were nil. But my beloved agent kept telling me not to worry.

And then three weeks later, Algonquin bought the book. They told me they were going to change my life. Right from the start things were different. They not only returned my calls and emails right away, they made them to me! The whole place is brilliant, from my beloved editor to my beloved publicists to every beloved person there. They gave me my first tour—30 cities! Six months before the book came out they were pushing it, and the book went into 3 printings months before publication, into a 4th printing shortly after, and it was on the New York Times Bestseller list, the NAIBA bestseller list and it became a San Francisco Chronicle Lit Pick and a Penny’s Pick at Costco—and it sold to seven countries. I was used to publishers working for me halfheartedly for three months and then stopping, but Algonquin never stopped. The book came out in December and they got me on summer reading lists and they are still working for me! My next novel is with them, and they truly are an Edenic paradise for writers.  I tell everyone I am the poster child for second chances, but I know I couldn’t have done it without the amazing gods and goddesses at Algonquin. (The tip is that your publisher DOES matter AND never, ever give up.)

What is the most surprisingly thing you’ve learned about yourself since getting published? The most unexpected?

I used to think of myself as a very private person—but I discovered while on tour that I love to get in front of people and talk about my life!
What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?

Birds of Paradise by Diana Abu-Jaber.  She’s just a brilliant writer.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and eight other novels. A book critic for People and The Boston Globe, and a book columnist for Shoptopia.com, she is a senior writing instructor at UCLA Writers Program online and she mentors private clients. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com

1 comment:

  1. Hey! So happy to see this, Alma - I'm appearing with Caroline at the Brattleboro Literary Festival in October! And just got this book, which I'll be reading on the plane tomorrow en route to Bcon.