Residing in a 1865 brick townhouse in Hoboken, NJ, “New York City’s unofficial 6th borough,” seems to be the perfect setting for Caroline Leavitt to write. This full-time writer has had the writing bug since she was six years old and is married to writer Jeff Tamarkin. Caroline and Jeff have passed on their writing genes to son, Max who at 9 years of age has already won a writing prize.
With eight novels and numerous short stories/essays published, Caroline doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. “Girls In Trouble” (St. Martin’s Press) was released in paperback in January 2005 and her latest baby, “Traveling Angels” is in the works. Later this year and into 2006 a few of her essays and a short story will make print.
I hope you enjoy learning about this gracious writer as much as I did.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you?
Caroline Leavitt: I would say it chose me. Most definitely. My mother taught me to read at three, and I loved stories and reading. From the time I could hold a pen, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was always making up stories with my sister Ruth–something that was encouraged around our household! But when I told people I wanted to be a writer, I was usually told (but never by my mother who was very supportive) to get a teaching degree, that writing would be a nice hobby.
Moe: When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Caroline Leavitt: Always. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I never believed it when people said you couldn’t call yourself a writer until you were published. Baloney, baloney. If you write seriously, then you’re a writer.
Moe: Were you a good writer as a child? Teenager?
Caroline Leavitt: I was good at writing as a child. I remember, in second grade, writing a story about a kid who wandered into a lion’s cage and pacified the lion with cookies in her pocket! As a teenager, I was pretty terrible. I wrote long, dramatic, metaphor-heavy pieces about girls who were always doing something desperate like trying to kill themselves or on drugs, and the stories always ended with the world exploding in flames. When I got to college, I began to get serious and took a writing course with a professor who held up my story disdainfully and said, “let’s talk about this piece of garbage!” I was devastated. But after I published my first novel, I sent it to him with a nice note. He responded and told me he had just wanted to make me angry enough to succeed. I never quite believed that, but it was nice of him to respond.
Moe: What inspires you?
Caroline Leavitt: Other books. I recently finished an advanced copy of Robb Foreman Dew’s “The Truth Of The Matter”, and it was so perfect, I was inspired to try and write half as well as she does.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Caroline Leavitt: I wake up at seven and my husband and I get our son ready for school or camp. Then by nine, I’m at my desk and I stay there until about one, when we break for lunch. Then back to work until four. Then we work after our son is in bed, but just until ten. Then we relax or watch a video and get to bed around one.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Caroline Leavitt: Oh God, it takes me about four years. I revise as I go along and it’s a difficult, messy, exhilarating, and sometimes terrifying process for me. I never really know what the book is really about until the 4th draft or so, and usually it turns out to be a surprise for me. Or a revelation. I never let anyone see pages until that 4th draft and then it’s usually because I can’t see the forest for those proverbial trees and I need another fresh pair of eyes to read and to tell me what she or he thinks is going on.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Caroline Leavitt: No, never. I try to write the kind of novel I would want to read myself. I think genres are marketing tools and I prefer to think a good book is a good book is a good book.
Moe: When it comes to plot, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Caroline Leavitt: I plan most of the book in advance, and then throw the plan away as I write! The characters change so much as I write that the plot changes, too. The plan is a lifesaver, something to reach for when I feel as if I am drowning and have no idea what I’m doing. Usually I have a strong first chapter I keep referring to as I write. It’s the one thing that keeps me from trashing the whole book!
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Caroline Leavitt: Different books require different research. Usually I do it all on line or via email. I find experts and ask politely if I can pester them with questions! I usually set my novels in places where I’ve lived so I remember what it feels like to live there.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Caroline Leavitt: An excellent question. Flaubert always said of “Madame Bovary”, “C’est Moi!” (It’s me!) I try not to put myself or people I know into my characters, but certainly some of the emotions or struggles my characters go through, I myself have gone through. Coming Back To Me was a novel that was really a created memory. I had been deathly ill and expected to die after giving birth, and was given memory blockers for a few months. Because I couldn’t remember my year of illness, I couldn’t process and get through it, so I created a memory, a story. The main character Molly also was ill after giving birth, but we’re nothing alike other than that. Nor was her husband or her sister my husband or my sister. That would be memoir, not fiction! And not half as much fun.
I’ve found that people I have put in novels never recognize themselves. And oddly enough, my first novel, “Meeting Rozzy Halfway”, which had totally made up characters named Rozzy, Ben and Bea Nelson, had a lawsuit! A family named Rozzy, Ben and Bea with a very similar last name, claimed I was writing about them. Of course I wasn’t, but it was really upsetting to me that they threatened to sue. In the end, because I didn’t want to stall the book coming out, I changed the name Ben and Bea to Lee and Len in the paperback edition, but that’s as far as I would go.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Caroline Leavitt: I have never had writers’ block, though I have had terrible times writing. I use the Hemingway trick. Always stop writing when you are having a wonderful time, then you’ll want to get back to the page the next day. Of course, I have had terrible days when the writing looks like a grocery list rather than fiction, but I know now that that happens, and I just tell myself my subconscious is gearing up for a better writing day tomorrow.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Caroline Leavitt: My main goal is to make people feel, to have them understand what bonds one person to another (or separates them) is the stuff of life. I want my characters to be so alive that you’d imagine they might be knocking at your door.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Caroline Leavitt: Ai! Great questions!
1. Never take no for an answer. Every writer deals with rejection, but you can’t let it get to you. I have so many stories of writers who had 45 rejections and then went on to have great-selling novels.
2. Don’t totally believe your reviews. Reviews are just one person’s opinion. I’m a book columnist for The Boston Globe and Imagine Magazine, and I know that many books that I adore got the cold shoulder from other reviewers. And books that I loathed were touted by other reviewers as the next best thing to chocolate cake. And in the space of one day, one of my novels got the best review I have ever had from a major newspaper followed by the worst review I ever had, and the reviewer there hated everything the other reviewer had loved. So who was right?
3. Be generous to all writers. In my writing career I have had lots of help from other writers and I have been hurt by other writers. I vowed I was always going to be the one to help writers. That means answering email that comes your way, giving blurbs generously if you love the book (and being gracious if you don’t), sharing publicity contacts with other writers, coming to their readings as you would want them to come to yours.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Caroline Leavitt: I answer every single email. A lot of times people just want to touch base with me and tell me they liked my work, which is wonderful. Sometimes they want to argue about things in the book, which is wonderful, too because that means I touched a nerve. And sometimes they want advice on becoming a writer, which is also wonderful. I almost always offer to send signed bookmarks as a token of my appreciation. Fans and readers are wonderful!
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Caroline Leavitt: I’m superstitious so I can’t talk about the novel I’m writing now, Traveling Angels, but my novel that is now out in Paperback, Girls In Trouble, is about open adoption. Specifically, it’s about a young, Harvard-bound birth mother who places her baby in an open adoption with an older, desperate-to-have-a-child couple. She lives with them (open adoption allows as much contact between birth mother and adoptive family as they want) and becomes part of the family, and for a while, it’s paradise for everyone. But then the adoptive mother starts to pull back, and events happen that have drastic consequences for all for the next thirty years.
Ideas usually come out of something that interests me and they usually evolve from what if questions. What if a young husband had to care for his newborn and his dying wife? What if a young woman discovers her adored sister is going mad? What if a young wife disappears days after giving birth? Those kinds of questions lead to more questions which lead to a story.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Caroline Leavitt: I love books that make me feel. I love all kinds of books, including Alice Hoffman, Robb Foreman Dew, Anne Tyler, Kaye Gibbons, Rochelle Shapiro, MJ Rose, Dan Chaon, Jo-Ann Mapson and many more.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Caroline Leavitt: I bike ride, I love to knit, I paint a little, I read, I am a movieholic and will see three films a night if I can.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Caroline Leavitt: Don’t give up. Never take no for an answer. Don’t believe your rejections. And most importantly, write from the heart. Don’t look at the market–at what’s selling–and try to copy it, because you’ll produce crummy work then. Write the kind of book you want to read yourself and write from your own voice.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Caroline Leavitt: Hmmm, I’d probably be an English teacher because I love books. Or a filmmaker!
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Caroline Leavitt: Ha! I love this question. Drove. My dirty little secret is I don’t drive. I’ve had my license since I was 16 but I’m phobic about it. So my characters are always driving off in the middle of the night, or driving recklessly. Lots of things happen in cars in my novels.
Originally published 7/5/2005 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline