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.