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.
CAROLINE LEAVITT (CL): Thanks for coming everyone, and thank you, Brad. Remember: no question is too embarrassing to ask me.
BL: Where are you right now? Please give us a brief description of your location and overall state of mind. Please also tell us what you’re wearing, if anything.
JOHNNY EVISON (JE): Way to be a perv right off the bat, Listi.
CL: Ha! I’m in Hoboken, New Jersey, on the top floor of an 1865 row house. I’m wearing black. I’m always wearing black. My state of mind is high anxiety becuase of the upcoming tour and the fact that my typing sort of sucks right now.
BL: Kurt Vonnegut once said that the compulsion to write is a form of mental illness. Do you agree? Do you consider yourself mentally ill?
CL: Yes. Absolutely. If I didn’t write, I would be in Bellevue. I’m probably bipolar with a touch of craziness.
BL: It took you four years to complete Pictures of You. Correct?
CL: It took me four years of gnashing my teeth, crying, sobbing, and writing.
BL: Is this typical for you? Four years?
CL: No. Usually it takes a shorter time, but I hated the publishing house where I was (as opposed to Algonquin, who are GODS), and I had no real editor and I was taking my time when I wasn’t obsessing.
BL: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing routine? How you do the work? Are you a daily writer? Morning? Night?
CL: I get up and get my son out to school, and then I’m at my desk by 9 and I write until two or three. And then I play shamelessly on Facebook and Twitter. Also, I sometimes write at night, and then that goes deep into the night. I love the hour of the wolf when no one is up and anything seems possible.
BL: Do illegal narcotics play a role in your creative process?
CL: Don’t I wish! I can’t get my doctor to give me any, and I don’t know any of the dealers in NYC anymore.
BL: We have people who can help you with that.
CL: Good! Send them my way! I prefer opium or morphine.
JE: Caroline — allowing that I know firsthand — can you talk a little bit about working with Algonquin?
CL: Algonquin are gods. This book was rejected by the publisher I hate, who said, “I don’t get it. It isn’t special.” Two weeks later Algonquin bought it, and suddenly it was!
BL: Amazing how that works.
CL: Everyone at Algonquin supports you and your book. They call. They email. They make sure you’re happy and they’re so out of the box with PR that it’s amazing. I never had a tour before. Never had any PR before. Never had an editor before. Now I do! I’m the poster child for it never being too late.
BL: I feel like elves must work there. Have you been to Chapel Hill?
CL: Nope, not yet. I’ve been to the NYC offices, which are fab.
LITSA DREMOUSIS (LD): Hey, Caroline! As I’ve told you before, I found the book stunning. One of the most resonant parts was the character of April, who is well-intentioned re: her son, Sam, but ultimately suffocating and extremely selfish. Yet, you don’t render her a “villain”. How difficult was it to hit the right note?
CL: I like people who do terrible things. I understand them. I may not want to be best friends with April, but I’d love to have a lunch with her to pick her brain. My favorite kind of person to write about. And I had compassion for her. I get who she is and why she did what she did. The other publishers were horrific, though the ones I liked went out of business.
LD: I like that you’re not falsely diplomatic. Sounds the other publishers were tools. And Algonquin has done has exemplary job with Pictures of You.
CL: My previous editor was always on vacation in Spain!
CLAIRE BIDWELL SMITH (CBS): I’m really interested in the grief aspect of your book. I’m a grief counselor, and I also write a lot about grief. I know you’ve experienced some serious loss in your life, and I’m wondering what it was like to write about grief from a fictional point of view.
CL: I’m no stranger to horrible grief. My fiance died in my arms two weeks before our wedding a long time ago. I found that writing about it, giving it a context, really helped me. Sometimes writing about it fictionally made it even easier.
BL: Would it be too intrusive to ask what happened?
CL: Nope. I bare all. He was a runner, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink. Thirty-seven years old. He just had something wrong with his heart, and in five minutes, he was dead.
LD: Underscoring Claire’s point about how effectively you write about grief, one of my favorite lines from the book, and I’m paraphrasing, is that to the living, the dead become someone else after they die. And one can only know that from experience, which you’ve shared eloquently and openly. Is it humbling or strange when readers call you “an inspiration”?
CL: It’s strange because when I’m writing, I’m only writing for myself. I don’t think of the audience. I’m trying to solve the things that are haunting me. And boy, the dead do become someone else, and that’s hard to grapple with. Also, I don’t feel like I have the answers so how can I be an inspiration?
BL: Give me an example of something that haunts you.
CL: I’m haunted by the fact that I didn’t know how to do CPR when my fiance died. They told me it wouldn’t have mattered, but it still really gets to me. On a cheerier note, I’m haunted by all the things that I might have done wrong raising my son. I don’t know what they are, but there must be something. And I’m haunted that I am going to miss the future. Like the year 3010.
JE: You’ve been at this novel-writing business a long time, how has the process changed for you?
CL: It’s gotten much more disciplined, especially with a kid in the mix, as I bet you are finding out. I used to just write whenever I wanted, but now I have only a certain amount of time and then all bets are off.
JE: Do you have a more fully formed idea now when you leap in?
CL: Yes. I have to now. I’m now a big believer in synopses and outlines, which change as I write, but they are my lifelines. Lost without them. I never know the ending though. That’s a bitch.
JEN: I was wondering…Do you have a background in photography? Did you major in it in college or something? The parts of the book where your characters are talking about lenses and lighting sound exactly the way I figure a photographer would think about these things.
CL: I don’t! My husband is now studying photography, but I interviewed a photographer and I showed her all the pages to make sure. Would a photographer do this? Or say this? And she really, really helped me.
LD: Loved that Charlie and Isabelle don’t reunite when they’re older!
CL: Me, too. Did you ever see Splendor in the Grass? Elia Kazan? Knockout old movie. That was my homage to it. Warren Beatty’s first film!
LD: Saw it back in college. Now I’ll have to re-watch it!
CL: It’s really good.
BL: You review books for both People and The Boston Globe. Does being a book critic affect your writing?
CL: In a good way. I have to look at books critically and see what makes them work and what doesn’t, and knowing that helps with my own tool box of skills. Plus, I love reading and talking about books and I feel like it’s good karma if I can tell the world about a book I love.
BL: Do you ever find yourself in a compromising position? You’re reading someone’s book…someone you know or sort of “cyber-know”….and you don’t like it. What then?
CL: Ethically, I’m not allowed to review anyone I know. It’s in my contract. So I blog about them instead.
BL: So “knowing” someone includes “cyber-knowing” them?
CL: Sometimes I tell people on Facebook or Twitter, if they have a book coming out, to stay away! I can’t review you if I know you!
CBS: I’m going to log off now then.
BL: *everyone flees*
CL: No! Don’t leave! We would have to talk about your family, and our friends, and personal things. This doesn’t count!
BL: So let’s say you yourself get a shitty review. Does it hurt any less because you’re a critic?
CL: No. It still kills me. Shitty reviews really hurt. And I write thank you notes to ALL reviewers, even the ones who hate my work. Maybe next time they won’t.
BL: Is it possible to forgive a critic who pans your book?
CL: It depends. If they are really mean, I can’t, but I will still thank them. Press is press.
LD: The thank you notes are a classy idea. I’m a big believer in Spartan curses (only if necessary), but thanking the assholes is nice, too.
CL: When you thank the idiots, they feel bad, and then you get to feel superior to them!
BL: Are there any books you’ve written that you don’t like? You look at them and you think: Ugh. Any regrets of that nature?
CL: Yes. I hate my third novel, Jealousies. I was pressured into writing it by my editor, and my heart was never in it. Everyone hated it. Kirkus said, “psychopathology masquerading as fiction from the previously white hot Leavitt, who is now quite tiresome.” Bleh.
BL: Pictures of You has a ton of great blurbs from big-time authors. How did you get those?
CBS: Yes, how did you get those?
CL: I slept with everyone — no, I wrote really nice letters asking them, and to my shock, I got them. I cast a wide net because I wanted high literary and uber-commercial.
JE: Isn’t it lovely how much good will is out there in the publishing world, compared to, say, Hollywood?
CL: Hollywood has broken my heart a million times. They are evil! (Until I finally get an option made into a film, and then they become golden.)
BL: How often do you check your Amazon ranking?
CL: Once every two seconds. But I have to stop because I’m making myself completely ill about it. And I find I stay on for hours at a time doing it. It’s, like, 3 a.m., and I am checking my ranking.
BL: You’re doing pretty well. Last I checked, you were at, like, 538 or something.
CL: Oh GOD NO! I was 219 last week! Is that so? I’m going to kill myself now.
LD: How ’bout Googling yourself? Do you feel like you’re eavesdropping?
CL: I always Google myself because sometimes reviews pop up from little tiny places. LOVE Google. It’s much kinder than Amazon.
CBS: I Googled myself ten minutes ago.
BL: Twenty years from now, what does the publishing landscape look like? Fifty words or less.
CL: Digital. Or streamed right into our brains by robots.
BL: Are you depressed by the prospect of a digital publishing future? Optimistic?
CL: Yes. I love the feel of books. My son grew up in a bookstore, sprawled on the floor, reading. I love hanging out in them. Digital is chilly to me. I think people love stories, though. I just hope their brains aren’t re-wired so they can’t enjoy them on books. That it’s not just film and YouTube.
BL: The highest moment in your creative existence. Describe. (Highest meaning “best.”)
CL: The truth? Algonquin buying my book. I had such sucko publishers before that. Big ones, but sucko anyway. And to feel that interest was like liquid heroin.
BL: Tell us how that went down. Where were you? Did someone call? Your agent? Did you get a telegram?
CL: My agent called me. I was at home with “it’s not special enough” playing like a drumbeat in my head. I thought my career was over. I cried when I heard. Then I went out and celebrated big time.
JE: They really are the best.
CL: I worship them. I buy them chocolates all the time. I can’t imagine going to any other publisher. I hope they’ll always publish me, or I’m going to jump off the roof.
BL: Okay, Caroline. I think it’s about time for The Lightning Round. The way it works: We ask you simple “either/or” questions. You respond quickly.
BL: Book clubbers: Be at the ready. And now….The Lightning Round…
JE: Ketchup or mustard.
BL: Disciplined writer or binge writer?
GREG BOOSE (GB): iPhone or Blackberry?
BL: Coen Brothers or Pointer Sisters?
LD: Dark or milk?
BL: Interior monologue or interior dialogue?
CL: Interior monologue.
BL: Packers or Steelers?
JE: Brad Pitt or Ernest Borgnine.
LD: Fishnets or opaque tights?
CL: Fishnets. I’m a bad girl.
BL: Carver or Salinger?
GARY BUSEY: Michelle Bachman or Bachman Turner Overdrive?
CL: Bachman Turner Overdrive!
GB: Pick the scab or leave it alone?
CL: Pick it! Always!
BL: “Vegans are cool” or “Vegans are sanctimonious dicks”?
LD: Al dente or squishy?
CL: Al dente.
BL: Women or womyn?
JEN: Black and white, or color photos?
CL: Black and white.
JE: City or country girl?
CL: City girl!
BL: Neat freak or total slob?
CL: Neat slob.
BL: “I love hanging out with other writers” or “I hate hanging out with other writers”?
BL: “Oprah is cool” or “Oprah creeps me out”?
CL: Oprah creeps me out, but she helped my book in her mag, so she’s also cool.
CBS: These lightning rounds make me feel panicky. Is that lame or cool?
LD: Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday?
CL: Billie Holiday, cool, cool.
BL: Break dancing or ballroom dancing?
CL: Break dancing.
BL: “Sort of a hippie” or “hippies must die”?
CL: Sort of a hippie.
KARI: Jon Hamm or honey baked ham?
CL: John Hamm.
LD: Grace Kelly or Marilyn Monroe?
GB: Letterman or Conan?
CL: Hate them both, but Conan is less obnoxious.
LD: White cheddar or smoked gouda?
CL: Smoked gouda.
GARY BUSEY: Alien invasion or British invasion?
CL: Alien invasion!
BL: And finally…Danielle Steele or Michael Steele?
CL: Oh, Jeeze. I guess Danielle but my skin is crawling.
BL: We like to leave you with a conundrum.
CL: Ah…well that certainly is.
BL: This has been great fun. You’re a good sport, and I can’t tell you how much we appreciate having you here. Huge congrats on all of your success.
CL: I had a blast. Now my mind keeps thinking of lightning round things, like the brain of a chimp and a human body or a human mind in a chimp body. Thank you, thank you all for showing up here. This was the most fun on the planet.
BL: Goodnight everybody! And thanks again, Caroline!