I 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.
Why set the book in that space between the sixties and the seventies? Can’t make up your mind?
There’s a huge difference between the 1960s and the 1970s. Of course there was terrible racism and poverty and the war in the sixties, but there was also a lot of money floating around, and if you were a suburban kid, the world was your playground. Everyone believed that they were really making a brand new world, that change was possible—real, lasting, profound change. There were peace marches and concern for the environment and a feeling that everyone was in this all together. And then the seventies happened. There was Kent State where they were shooting kids. Kids were using harder drugs—and dying from them. All the people who had gone out to these “back to the land” farms couldn’t sustain crops and were starving. The kids who had “gone out to San Francisco to wear some flowers in their hair” were living on the streets. New groups began, violent ones, like the Weatherman and SDS, who resorted to bombs. The dream wasn’t just over. It was crushed.
So come, on spill the beans. You were a hippie in the 70s, weren’t you? Were you wild? Did you ever encounter any of the Mansons?
Well, I ironed my hair straight so many times that when I finally broke the iron, my mother refused to let me use it anymore. I wore love beads, I made shirts out of sheets and then embroidered them, I wore Love’s Baby Soft, and went to Love-ins and Be-ins (there was no real difference), and I routinely hitched by myself out of Boston at one in the morning. Of course I did drugs. Everyone did then, but I gave them all up cold turkey because I wanted to be a writer. And no, I never ran into Manson, but Ted Bundy was in Ann Arbor when I was, for just a few days, and the only reason he left was because it was too cold.
Cruel Beautiful World seems to be saying that there are some things you just can’t fix. You really, really believe that there are lost causes—beside the state of your hair, I mean?
(Taking deep breath and ignoring the last part of the question.) I grew up as the “fixer of the family,” and I learned that the more I tried to fix things, the worse things became. Sometimes you really do have to let go of, and just let life wash over you and do the best you can, and let others do the best that they can. And that’s what I wanted to write about in my novel.
You’re sort of known for being obsessive-compulsive and so neurotic, it’s a wonder you aren’t in the Hall of Fame for it. Yet, you’re also known for helping other writers. Is this just so they will like you, or are you some kind of narcissist, or what?
Wow. You’re pushing my buttons. The answer to that last part is no, no, no, no, no. I do things for other writers because I want to. I’ve had a long, strange career, with huge highs (I was famous with my first novel!) and terrible lows (the next eight books were failures and sold only enough to buy groceries) and then back to highs again (Algonquin bought my ninth novel, which was deemed “not special enough” by my previous publisher, and turned it into a New York Times Bestseller. I’ve been helped so much along my rocky path that I have made it my mission to help every one I can. I know there isn’t nearly enough review space and it’s unethical to review people you know, so I have a blog where I interview writers I want to support. I willingly give blurbs, especially to debuts. I share contacts and make introductions. I post about the books I love all over social media. I feel it’s my amazing blessing to get to be a novelist and I want to pay it forward every chance I get.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Why did I allow you to interview me?
CAROLINE LEAVITT is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, both of which were on Best of the Year lists—plus eight other novels which didn’t do so hot except for the first, which made her think it was always going to be that way. She reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle and People, and her work has appeared in Modern Love, New York Magazine, Salon, The New York Times, Real Simple, and more. She teaches novel writing online at Stanford and UCLA Writers Program Extension and for private clients. The recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant in Fiction, she was also a recent finalist in both the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and the Nickelodeon Screenwriters Fellowship. Visit her at her website or on her second homes of Facebook and Twitter.