Friday, June 29, 2012

Q & A: Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Pictures of You, plus eight other novels. Pictures of You was on the Best of 2011 Lists from the San Francisco Chronicle, the Providence Journal, Bookmarks Magazine and was one of the Top Five Books on the Family and Love from Kirkus Reviews. She is a book critic for People Magazine and the Boston Globe and a book columnist for and Dame Magazine. She teaches novel writing at UCLA Writer's Program online and mentors writers privately. She lives with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their son Max, in Hoboken, NJ. She can be reached at

What are some elements of your background that led you to pursue a career as a writer?

I grew up sickly with asthma and bullied in my small town of Waltham (near Boston). I had a lot of time to myself to read, which I loved because I didn’t have to be a little girl struggling to breathe—I could be a dancer in Paris!  But I didn’t want to just read books, I wanted to write stories and I began to do that. The first time I read a story in front of my class and they liked it (instead of mocking me or throwing spitballs, the way they usually did), I knew this was what I wanted to do.

Who are some of your favorite writers and artists?

Cindy Sherman’s photographs, Mark Rothko’s paintings, F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby is a perfect book.)

What is your process and schedule when creating a new book?

I’m always haunted by an idea and a character, some question that I want to answer. I do outline but the outline is rewritten every day that I sit down to write.

Can you share with readers a bit about your love of movies and how it influenced your bestseller, Pictures of You?

I’m a total movieholic. As a little girl, I spent a lot of time in the movies, and I never stopped loving them.  I began to want to write them years ago and I took a few classes, Robert McKee, which I didn’t like, and John Truby story structure which changed my life. I won a Nickelodeon Finalist for a script I wrote for Doug, a cartoon my son adored. Knowing how to write scripts helped me in my novel to visualize the scenes more, to get the rhythm of them faster and tighter and to make sure there was lots of subtext in the dialogue. I’ve just written the script for Pictures of You and sent it off to Sundance Screenwriting Lab (really competitive—I can’t imagine I will get in, but you never know), and to a producer who said she’d give me notes.

Are there autobiographical characteristics between you and Isabelle, the main character in Pictures of You?

The only similarity we share is that we both are phobic about driving! Like all 16-year-olds I got my license but all they made me do was drive around the block and I still couldn’t drive! I was too terrified that I would get in an accident and kill someone. I took these refresher courses and the instructor finally pulled me over to the side of the road, sighed, and said, “You know, Caroline, some people just aren’t meant to drive. You may be one of them.”

Unlike Isabelle, I still don’t drive. I don’t even like to be a passenger in a car. Lucky for me, I live in the NYC area where you don’t have to drive.

How did you land the coveted position as a reviewer at People Magazine?

Luck and timing. I had been a book columnist at the Boston Globe for a few years already and a friend told me that they were hiring a new books editor and they were looking for new reviewers. I applied INSTANTLY. I love working for them. They send me books I might never have picked up, so I’ve gotten to read really widely.

When I pick up new books, you are always giving praise. Why are you such a strong advocate for new authors?

Because the business is so, so hard. I’ve had successful authors help me as I came up the ladder, and I never forgot their incredible kindness, and I was determined to pay it forward. But I’ve also had writers hurt me—one even denigrated me by name in print!  This shocked me, and that made me vow that I was always going to do the opposite.

What inspires you?

I would use the word haunt instead of inspire. I write because I have to. I have to explore the things that obsess me, to try and figure out answers to the things that haunt me.

In your opinion, is social media a benefit or hindrance to authors?

Definitely a benefit. I’ve gotten research help in seconds just by posting a query. I’m actually putting FB and Twitter in the dedication of my new book because I’ve felt that so many people supported me during the writing of the novel by responding to my postings about how it was going. They cheered me on!

What are your current projects and dreams for the  future?

My new novel, tentatively titled Is This Tomorrow, will come out from my beloved publisher Algonquin Books in 2013. It’s set in the 1950s and 60s, during the cold war, and is about a seemingly unsolvable crime in a supposedly safe suburban neighborhood (a child vanishes), and how the one different family—a divorced Jewish woman and her son—are somehow targeted for the crime.

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