Saturday, August 13, 2005

Caroline Leavitt loves juicy celebrity gossip!

My admiration of author Caroline Leavitt runs deep. She is a brilliant writer, her novels are so well written that you find yourself laughing and crying along with the characters in the book. As soon as you crack open a novel, her writing pulls you in and its impossible to put the book down until you have finished.

How I met Caroline is so cosmic- after I finished Coming Back to Me, I turned on my computer to find Caroline on the same message board as me (fiction lovers at ivillage). I couldn’t believe it. We would become best friends forever and drink vodka tonics and shop at Barneys (so we can pop in and see Simon of course!) and trade our Manolos. Our friendship was one of those things that was meant to be.

Run to your nearest bookstore or else move your manicured fingers quickly across your keyboard and head to Amazon or Powell's or where ever you do your book buying and purchase Coming Back to Me, Girls in Trouble, Into Thin Air or any other novel by this amazing writer.

Caroline is a book columnist for The Boston Globe and for Imagine Magazine, she teaches writing at UCLA (and won an award for Outstanding creative writing teacher) and does manuscript consulting. Currently she is working on a novel called Traveling Angels and says she should know what it's about in another year! I can't wait. Her books are so good that I will actually pre-order it as soon as I can and then wait for the UPS truck to pull up and deliver it.

Caroline, I’ve been a huge fan of yours for a long time. In fact, it was you who inadvertently kick started my writing after I read Coming Back to Me. How do you feel when fans approach you and tell you how your writing has touched their lives?

I love that situation so much I'd like to marry it. I answer every piece of fan e-mail or snail mail, and I love it when fans want to ask me questions. I'm totally accessible. Recently, a book club told me that they were nervous about inviting me and were scared their questions might sound boring or dumb. I was astonished--because every writer lives for readers, and there's nothing I love more than being able to talk with my readers and see what they liked (and what they didn't like), what moved them, and what didn't. Everyone brings something different to the reading table. And because that particular group was so warm and funny and had such interesting questions, I could have stayed there for hours.

That said, I have to tell you that early on in my career, I was stalked by a fan. She had never actually read my first novel, but she had been following the publicity and decided that we would be perfect friends. She got my address from the phone book (she lived on the other side of the country) and I answered her first letter (which was charming, actually) politely, and two days later, another one arrived, this time with photos. There were captions on the photos like: This is a picture of our pool. You will love swimming in it! Or: This is my husband. You are going to get along like peanut butter and jelly! Or, more creepily: This is our extra bedroom where you will stay when you visit us!

I wrote to her that I was so busy and couldn't respond anymore. For two months the letters kept coming, and they were always filled with photos and written suggestions about what I could be doing in the context of those pictures, which grew more and more creepy. I called the police, but since she wasn't threatening me, there was really nothing they could do, and then, abruptly, the letters stopped!

In Girls In Trouble, I literally cried along with the main character who gives her baby up for adoption. How are you able to evoke powerful emotions? You effortlessly pull the reader into the book and make them feel like they are a part of the book. It's magic, darling!

Ha! I had to laugh at this because it took me about 9 drafts to even figure out what the novel really was about. I have no idea how it happens, but what I always strive for is that level of intimacy when I'm writing so I feel that I'm channeling these people, that they are breathing on the page. Usually it happens after a great deal of rewriting. The first drafts I showed to other writers got a lot of flak. One writer told me, "Every writer has a book that should be burned. This is yours." Another writer reading the manuscript told me she hated my main character and thought she should be an adult with breast cancer instead of a young, smart birth mother. I was so frazzled and upset!

I had to sit down and just keep writing. A friend of mine, the writer Rochelle Shapiro, who edits and reads my stuff, told me that when I write I'm like a starving hawk circling a huge field with a tiny bit of food in the center of it, and I have to wheel around and around that blasted field about 900 times before it dawns on me that there's the food I need there, then I swoop down, and everything falls into place. Jeff, my husband, tells me he knows that I'm getting someplace in my work when I start getting really upset and tell him I can't write, I'm a horrible writer, and this is the end of my career.

I know you live right outside of New York City. How often do you go in and what do you like to do? I used to wander aimlessly around Greenwich Village and drink coffee at Dean & DeLuca and window shop at places I couldn’t afford.

I lived in Chelsea for about 15 years and loved it with a passion. When I fell in love with another writer, and we knew we wanted kids, we tried to find a place big enough in NYC. We both wanted offices and a room for the baby, which meant a four bedroom, which meant about 1.5 million! At the time, no one was living in Hoboken, but it was a 7 minutes subway or ferry ride to the Village, and you could get these amazing four story brick townhouses for the price of a NYC studio.

We're in the city about twice a week and on weekends. I adore New York City. I hang out at cafes, but mostly I'm a movieholic. We hit the Angelica, the art cinema in Soho and go from film to film to film. Before we had Max, we used to go to dinner in the city, see two films, eat a snack, then come back and see more movies! Weekends we hit the museums, the quirky food places, then the movies, then out again. It's a big playground. I keep telling Max, my son, how lucky he is to be living here. He, of course, wants to live in Disneyworld.

Do you like to people watch? Do you base your characters on real people that you know? I can make up stories about strangers based on passing them in the street.

I constantly people watch. I've gotten in trouble for staring, but I'm just trying to figure out the people. At parties, I'm usually the one in the corner, happily watching what people are doing or saying--or not saying. We all play this game in my family where we watch people and make up stories about them, like, "Oh, that's Daisy Melton, she's thinking, "Gee, what a cute dress I have on, how come no one is noticing me and putting me in the movies?" Then we imagine what Daisy is going to do next, and we see who can get more outrageous about it.

I try not to base my characters on real people, though I may take aspects of their personality and use it, and once I asked a friend if I could use an incident that happened to her--and I did. Interestingly enough, I was sued in my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, before it even came out. There was all this advance publicity and buzz, and I was beside myself with excitement, and then these people I had never met insisted I was writing about them. My main characters were named Bea, Ben and Rozzy Nelson, and this family was called Bea, Ben and Rozzy --with a similiar last name. They wanted to stop publication and there was going to be a long court case and even though my publisher knew I was innocent, their legal team pushed me to settle with these people by changing two names in the English edition paperback that wouldn't even come out for another year! But I always felt horrible about doing that.

What are your hobbies? I was stunned to find out that one of our highly acclaimed writing friends was a secret celebrity gossip lover. Yes! It's true. Tell me what you like to do when you aren’t writing?

Well, count me in on the celebrity gossip lovefest. I read your blog every day and I've passed it onto my friends who are as addicted as I am. I'm a proud subscriber to People and I'm not above buying The Star and reading it in public, too. When I'm not writing, I love to paint or knit or ride my bike or read everything in sight. I also like to cook, which is funny, because I spent years refusing to do or be anything domestic, and when Jeff met me, I had a tin of yogurt in my refrigerator and not much else, and the thought of having a set of dishes made me break into a cold sweat. Right now, I'm learning to play the piano, which is a blast because my son is taking lessons, and he comes home and then gives me one.

I talked about this briefly with Martha O’ Connor, my theory of people who were outcasts in high school making good writers. I spent years losing myself in Paula Danziger and S.E. Hinton and Sweet Valley High while the other kids were partying and getting drunk. I came into my glamour late in life. What about you as a teenager, and do you think your life experiences made you into the writer that you have become?

Oh, My. God. I was a major outcast in school. I grew up in Waltham, Mass. and went to this this working class highschool where being smart was a disaster. I had to hide my report cards or they would beat me up. People were always making fun of me or my clothes or the way I looked in general. I hung out with the hippies, who were always being beaten up for one thing or another. My crowning high school moment was when this really tough girl came up to me and said, "I hate your beads and your headband and I'm going to beat you up after school. The Parking Lot. Two thirty sharp. You better be there." I was terrified, and within the hour everyone in school knew about the Leavitt vs. Miller (not her first name as I'm still afraid of her) fight and they were all lining up to watch and place bets. I didn't know what to do and was frozen with fear, but lucky for me, a half hour before the fight, Ms. Miller was caught calling in a bomb threat to the school and was expelled and never returned.

I lived in my writing. I carried a notebook and books and I had one ally, the art teacher who gave me a pass to the art room. I ate lunch in the art room. I went to the art room instead of home room, and that saved my life. I kept telling myself that I would go to college (only about 1/3 of my graduating class did) and be a writer and most of these people would be married at 18, divorced by twenty, and working at the local market injecting red dye into the meats to make them look fresher. I had a brief respite when I fell wildly in love with the infamous bad boy of the school and he returned the favor, but it was pretty short lived. And I was still always dodging being punched or kicked or humiliated in one way or another.

And despite all of it, I now think about those years with a kind of pride. You learn how strong you are. You learn to seek out the people who have real depth to them, too. And you build the kind of life you want on top of all that past misery.

Is there a topic an issue you haven’t written about yet but plan to in the future? Like about a glorious fashionista who loves all things gossip and books?

Hmmm, this is one question that I don't really know the answer to--usually things just occur to me or I'm struck by them. The whole process to me is sort of magical.

Something that really struck me was that here is this amazing author who writes like nobody’s business and yet you were not as well known as some lesser authors whose poorly written, empty novels were hitting bestseller lists! Would you rather have had a one hit book with tons of attention and money, or a slower and steadier path with solid novels and good reviews?

Oh, what a great question! Well, of course, I'd love to be on the cover of the NYT bookreview and feted and not have to ever do another freelance gig to help pay the bills. When I first published, I had a really naive idea of what the writing life was like. My first novel was the one that was huge. I was living in PA and was flown to NYC to be interviewed by Publisher's Weekly and taken to dinner by the press. I was reviewed everywhere on the planet, and published in a kazillion foreign markets, and I had a huge movie deal with Paramount that fell through in a writers/directors/producers strike. I had money and I thought it was always going to be like that. Ha.

My publisher went out of business. For a while, every publisher I went to went out of business! Seaview Press went out of business. Then I went to Arbor House, which was this wonderful, quirky, literate press. Just as my novel came out, the place went out of business, and the sales force fled. I've had years where I've been reviewed by the New York Times and The New Yorker--and one horrible year where one novel got exactly two reviews from Kirkus and PW, and I still remember the Kirkus was so horrible, I stayed in my apartment for two weeks crying.

I've had three or four movie deals and options, and even wrote a script along with a producer (at one point Madonna was interested, but that was a very, very short point), and nothing panned out! I've come to the conclusion that the bottom line is I love to write. I'm not really good at doing anything else. I'm really lucky that my novels have been published, that they've gotten review attention and movie interest and that I have readers. I hope I'll still be published, but I always worry that I won't be, and that's a possibility I worry and agonize about. And you know what? If that happens, I'll still write, I'll still send things out, and I'll still hope that someone will publish me at a later time.

I guess I try to be zen about it. The journey, the writing, is what I love. I'm sort of shy, and I don't love going out on the road, but put me in a room with a computer, and oh, heaven!

Is there a writers group you belong to where you all hang out with your laptops and talk about books and drink Tazo tea? I know you are good friends with Rochelle Jewel Shapiro who wrote the wonderful novel, Miriam the Medium. Does she ever give you psychic readings?

I have a large circle of writer friends (and I feel protective of them, so I'm not going to name names) and we constantly email (because we're all writing all the time) and talk about writing and read one another's works in progress. My husband's a writer, too, nonfiction (we say in our family that I lie for a living and he tells the truth.) and we're each other's hugest support. My favorite moment was when we did a joint reading and read each other's work. It was much more fun reading Jeff's work, especially since his work got the laughs.

And no, Rochelle refuses to read for me, no matter how much I beg and whine and carry on, because she insists it will change the friendship. Though there have been a few times when she's called or warned me about something--I've refused to believe it--and it's happened.

What do you want from your career?

A movie deal! A movie deal! I will even write the script! For free, too! A movie deal!!! Outside of that, I would really, really, like to meet John Cusack and Liza Minelli.


Anonymous Anonymous said...
Applause applause. Well done DJ well done. hh @ 7:46 PM  
Anonymous Hollywooddiva said...
Another great interview with a fab writer! @ 12:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Great interview with a great author! @ 12:22 AM  
Blogger Manic Mom said...
DJ said: "poorly written, empty novels were hitting bestseller lists"...

Curtis Sittenfeld anyone? @ 8:54 AM  
Anonymous bonni said...
I love Caroline's books! I've read them all, except the new one, and each one is better than the last. Lucky DJ to have a friendship with such a talented funny lady. Great interview! @ 1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...
Very nicely done! @ 5:18 PM  
Anonymous Tony DeCongelio said...
Great author, great interview! Look forward to reading more of her work. @ 8:24 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Deleo said...
Yay! I loved Coming Back to Me, a brilliant novel. @ 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...
I love Caroline Leavitt's writing ... "Into Thin Air" is one of the best books I have ever read - read it if you haven't ... you'll be moved. @ 8:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...
I am one of the lucky writers who has discovered Caroline Leavitt as a freelance editor. Because of Caroline's expert, innate storytelling talents, which she shares without walls, I am now repped at the agency of my dreams... @ 10:47 AM  
Anonymous said...
caroline leavitt is one of those writers whose characters you miss when the book is over...sometimes i want to turn the book over to see if i can shake out a few more words...she is on my shelf with the best and the brightest and my 14 year old daugher is a new fan... @ 4:42 PM  
Anonymous Deirdre said...
Ms. Leavitt, I am so sorry I missed your presentation at the write group in my town. Perhaps I can catch you at your next book signing/reading! @ 10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...
I met Caroline at a writer's group and liked her and what she said so much that I got her book Girls in Trouble. And what an experience! Then I read the Rozzy book and realized what a really wonderful writer she is, so now I'm hooked. I loved the interview too. @ 3:31 PM  
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