“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”

–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

 

“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”    

–Dictionary

 

With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.

Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.

If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.

Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.

Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”


carolineheadshotI hear there’s a juicy story behind Cruel Beautiful World?

Not juicy as much as tragic. When I was in high school, I sat behind a girl who was smart, funny, and engaged to a man in his late 20s, whom she said was a “little controlling.” I never understood it. When I was in college, I heard that her fiancé had stabbed her 43 times. Then I was haunted. I didn’t understand how you could stay with someone controlling until I had a two year relationship of my own with a guy who never raised his voice, and was so quietly, verbally abusive, that I thought I was losing my mind as well as my self. He didn’t want me to eat (I went down to 95 pounds). He didn’t want me to see my friends and he monitored my writing. When I finally was able to leave, I happened upon something online from the sister of my high school friend, who was still trying to process what had happened and why. And I sat down and started to write.

cbw-coverLucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat. She’s downstairs in the kitchen, and Iris has the TV on. The weather guy, his skin golden as a cashew, is smiling about power outages, urging the elderly and the sick to stay inside, his voice sliding like a trombone, and as soon as she hears the word “elderly,” Lucy glances uneasily at Iris.

“He doesn’t mean me, honey,” Iris says mildly, putting more bacon to snap in the pan. “I’m perfectly fine.”

red shirt garden smallCaroline Leavitt is silly and weird. I know this because I interviewed her here about her last novel, Pictures of You, but here I am again.  Is This Tomorrow is her second novel with Algonquin, the employees of which she refers to as “the gods and goddesses” of publishing. The novel centers on 1950s Jewish divorcée Ava Lark and her 12 year old son, Lewis, who move into an unwelcoming suburb, where Lewis quickly befriends the only two other fatherless kids on the block, Jimmy and Rose. But when Jimmy vanishes, Ava is targeted, Lewis grows up directionless, and Rose is convinced her brother is still alive. But what really happened that day, and should the truth of it really be told?

Thanks, Caroline for letting me pepper you with questions.

is-this-tomorrow1She came home to find him in her kitchen. She was in no mood, having spent the whole morning arguing with a lawyer, but there he was, her son’s best friend, Jimmy Rearson, a twelve- year-old kid home from school at three on a Wednesday afternoon with too-long hair and a crush on her, reading all the ingredients on the back of a Duncan Hines Lemon Supreme cake mix, tapping the box with a finger. “Adjust temperature for high altitudes,” he said, as if it really mattered. She felt a pang for him, a boy so lonely he feigned interest in how many eggs and how much sugar a cake might need. He leaned over unabashedly and turned on her radio, and there was Elvis crooning “Heartbreak Hotel,” the words splashing into the kitchen.

Attention, NYC-area peeps:

Jonathan Evison, executive editor of this fine literary magazine and New York Times best selling author, brings his book tour to the Big Apple next week.

Sunday evening, March 6, he joins the great Caroline Leavitt — both of Algonquin, the TNB Book Club, and the aforementioned Times best seller list — at KGB’s famed Sunday Night Reading Series.

And on Monday, March 7, Evison holds court with two of my favorite writers in all the land, James P. Othmer and Marcy Dermansky, at Book Court in Brooklyn.

After that, the tour goes, um, west of here (eventually).


[photo by Kerry McCombs]

*This is a transcript of the conversation we had with Caroline Leavitt, author of The TNB Book Club‘s January selection, Pictures of You.  It happened on Sunday, January 30, 2011.

 

 

BRAD LISTI (BL): Alright, everybody. We’re back. Welcome. Really pleased to have Caroline Leavitt here with us this month. Her latest novel, Pictures of You, is receiving all kinds of praise and good ink. Its story focuses on the aftermath of a car crash that leaves one woman dead — a survivor’s tale that hits on a variety of compelling themes, including grief, guilt, secrets, and the limits of human forgiveness. Please feel free to offer up questions for Caroline throughout. As always, I’ll be moderating as we go.

Welcome, Caroline!

CAROLINE LEAVITT (CL): Thanks for coming everyone, and thank you, Brad.  Remember: no question is too embarrassing to ask me.

Greetings! I’m Gloria Harrison, a contributing author here on The Nervous Breakdown and the new TNB Book Club facilitator. I’ll be helping out by providing updates about the goings on with our Book Club selections and authors, posting reminders and updates on Facebook, and opening Book Club discussions here in The Feed. To that end:

This month’s TNB Book Club selection is Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures of You.


There’s a hornet in the car. Isabelle hears a buzz and then feels a brush of wing against her cheek. A grape-size electric motor sings past her right ear. What’s it doing out in this weather? she wonders. It rumbles past her again, and she practically jumps. She tries to wave it outside, but instead it kamikazes to the back of 
the car, navigating among her cameras. Which is worse, she thinks, waiting for the sting, or the sting itself? She opens all the windows wider.

I’m happy to be here today interviewing the very strange, sometimes reclusive and sarcastically silly Caroline Leavitt about her new novel, Pictures of You. The novel swirls around a mysterious car crash in the fog, and the colliding lives of four people: Isabelle, a photographer fleeing her philandering husband; April, a wife and mother with a terrible secret; Sam, a young asthmatic with a secret of his own; and Charlie, the husband and father who is desperate to know what his wife and son were doing in the car with a suitcase three hours away from home.  Leavitt insists the novel asks, how do we really know the ones we love and how do we forgive the unforgivable? I want to thank Caroline from taking time away from her renowned obsessive-compulsiveness to answer my thoughtful and probing queries.

Caroline Leavitt is the author of nine novels and a book reviewer for People magazine and the Boston Globe. In her latest book, PICTURES OF YOU, she has created a wise and intimate story of what happens to the survivors of a car crash that leaves one woman dead. She explores grief, guilt, secrets, and disappointments in a cast of sympathetic characters who become so entangled, it’s not clear to anyone what decisions are the right ones to make. I highly recommend this book, which feels like an easy read and yet works profoundly on the soul.

In our interview today, Caroline talks about forgiveness, closure, and a childhood hurt that snuck into this novel against her will. She also talks about her experience of publishing nine novels, and what a difference an attentive publisher makes. I hope you’ll welcome Caroline and leave her a comment.

*

I think both of our books deal with the question of how you forgive what seems to be unforgivable. What did you learn as you explored this on the page, and did the answer you arrived at change you at all?

What a great question! When I started the novel with this question, I was pretty sure that the answer was that yes, although it might be difficult, you could forgive. I personally wanted to be that person who could always forgive, who had a heart that open. But when I finished the novel, I realized that forgiveness isn’t that easy. Without giving plot away, I’ll say that I understood April and felt compassion for her. I wished her well, but I couldn’t quite forgive her. For me, she stepped over a line. I could have had a relationship with her, but it would always have to be a wary one. I’d never completely open up to her because of that. And that surprised me.

I could feel this in your writing, actually—that you were open to the complexity of emotions and to being surprised by where the characters took you.

Nine-year-old Sam was such a compelling character to me as he struggled with his grief and his sense of guilt and the widening disconnect from his classmates at school. But it was how all of this was displayed through his asthma that really helped to explain the physical nature of fear and helplessness. I would love to hear about the writing process behind the creation of this little boy.

Originally, Sam was just a little boy, but suddenly his asthma came on the page. I had had severe asthma as a child, something that made me deeply ashamed and traumatized, and I hid it from the world. I told people I had pleurisy or even TB rather than asthma because it sounded less embarrassing. I hid my inhalers or deliberately lost them and I never let anyone see me use them. I would rather get a root canal without anesthesia than write about my asthma! Asthmatic Sam kept cropping up in my writing, and I kept deleting the asthma. I knew, though, that sometimes what you want to write about isn’t necessarily what you need to write about, and I finally gave in and wrote about Sam’s life with asthma.

Asthma also became a great way to show how separate he felt from everyone, which made his yearning for connection all the more palpable for me.

What’s astonishing is that the whole four years I was writing the novel, my own asthma, which is very, very mild, seemed to vanish—right up until the day I turned the novel in! Of course, I didn’t cure myself, but by giving Sam so much compassion and love (and I do adore him), I was able to heal myself of my shame and grief about my own sickly childhood.

I love how that piece of your childhood demanded to be heard. In some ways, that’s the best part of writing—how you can heal old wounds and come to new understandings.

So I noticed that each of your main characters struggles with a fear of getting close, a fear of not being loved. Would you talk about this theme a little bit?

Being loved is being seen—really seen—and that’s terrifying for my characters, especially since their sense of self is more than a little wobbly because of what they all go through. The pictures they present to the world of themselves are not the complete ones. Sam hides his asthma. Charlie works to be the “perfect” husband and father. April struggles to be a great mother to Sam. They all harbor secrets. It’s threatening to love because what happens if you show your deepest weakness and you are rejected? Or what happens if you allow yourself to get close to someone and then things ruin for you? Charlie’s mother accuses him of seeing only what he wants to see, and it isn’t until he’s forced to come to grips with that that he’s really able to open himself up, but by then, it’s a little late. Both Isabelle and Sam also struggle with enormous pressures of guilt surrounding the car crash. Can someone culpable be loved? Should they be? And for April, being fully known is simply too dangerous.

I want to talk about your ending without giving it away. I found it both unexpected and deeply satisfying, and I think part of what was so satisfying was that it felt real. Your characters seem to reach (or at least reach for) a sense of closure, but while some wounds close, others remain tender. Can you talk to me, in general, about how you bring your stories to a close?

I love the whole idea of what I call the never-ending story. For me, this means that when the last page is turned, you still have a feeling that the story is going on. You’re still imagining what this person is going to do next. There’s still suspense pulling you forward. That keeps the characters alive. It makes me crazy when novels end with all the loose ends tied up neatly. I always say that I like to really damage my characters’ lives, but I don’t want to ruin them. In a Rolling Stones’ sort of way, I like them to not get what they want, but sometimes (and only sometimes) do they get what they need.

You’ve written several novels and seen them go out into the world. Tell me something of the process of watching reviews and sales and marketing for each book, of having hopes and expectations meet reality. What have you learned about the word success and your own identity as a writer, having lived through this process so many times?

Another great question. Two things are very different for me with this book. The first is that I now think that so much about how a book does has to do with the publisher—at least for me. I’ve had 9 books published and for the first 8, I’ve had publishers that went out of business a month before my novel was due out. I’ve had editors fired and then been assigned to overextended editors. And truthfully, I’ve had publishers who ignored or humiliated me, and they rarely did any sort of promotion, which meant I had to scramble around and try to do it all for myself, which is exhausting and demoralizing. Pictures of You was actually turned down by my former publisher. I was completely devastated, but my agent sold it to Algonquin in weeks. It’s been a completely different process for me! I feel like Santa Claus is real!

Everyone at Algonquin works on every book and you get to know them all. I’ve got a brilliant editor and the uber-creative promotion department works outside the box. Six months before Pictures of You came out, they were sending me to BEA, to Miami Book Fair, to booksellers conventions, and putting out ads, and they’re sending me on a 16 city tour! There is constant contact and the support and devotion to their authors is just incredible. I’m always sending them Godiva because I am so overwhelmingly grateful! I’ve seen firsthand what their efforts do. I’m not sure this is a better book than any of my other books, but it’s doing a hundred times better than any of my others, and I’m convinced it’s because of Algonquin. This one went into three printings before it even was published. They made the decision to put it into a paperback original, which worried me because I was unsure whether it would get reviews, but it’s already received reviews from O, Vanity Fair and Elle—things I never was able to get before. And I know that’s because of Algonquin.

The second change is that with this book, I’m now a book critic for The Boston Globe and People, so I have a different take on reviews now. I know that sometimes things don’t get reviewed because of space, not because of merit. I know, too, that sometimes a review is simply a personal opinion and you can’t want to slash your wrists over a bad review (or think too highly or yourself because of a good one!).

Of course, I am still a nervous wreck about publication. You never know how a book is going to do. You really have no control over success, but I think what matters is word of mouth. You want people reading and loving a book and telling their friends, and their friends telling their friends. Ultimately, our job as writers is simply to write, to send our babies out into the world, and hope they thrive, and then to get back to our desks, tune the world out, and write some more. Because really, even if you couldn’t publish your novels, wouldn’t you still feel compelled to keep writing them?

Caroline, it’s such a thrill for me to see that you and this beautiful book are being treated so well. You’ve deserved it all along.