Is This Tomorrow is a New York Times bestselling novel about being different, being an outsider, being an outcast. Set in the Cold-War 1950s, it follows the mysterious vanishing of a young boy in a closed neighborhood, and the fate of the Jewish divorced mother who's somehow suspect.
1. You have successfully written your tenth novel, what keeps your writing fruitful?
I wish I knew the answer to that. I think it is that I'm an obsessive personality. I'm always haunted by one thing or another and I worry about it, and can't let it go unless I somehow figure it out by writing about it. I always think that I am writing about something that has nothing to do with me whatsoever, and then, around the 9th rewrite, I realize it's an issue that has been totally haunting me. Is This Tomorrow was a lot about how I felt growing up as an outcast in a working class town. The book I'm just finishing up now is about a girl I knew casually in high school who was murdered by her older boyfriend.
2. In Is This Tomorrow, why did you choose 1950's Boston as a setting?
I grew up in Waltham, which is right outside of Boston, and like Ava Lark and her son Lewis, my family was the only Jewish family in a working class Christian block. (It was the 60s, not the 50s, but I set it back a decade because the whole Cold War "us against them" mentality was so much more pervasive.) I learned early on that kids were not allowed to play with me because "I killed Christ." In grade school, I was given a test where the questions were things like, "What did Jesus say to Mary at the well? I had no idea, so I wrote, "Do you want a glass of water?" The teacher failed me! But I remember out much I yearned to be a part of something, and how painful that time was for me. I was mocked, ignored, and threatened to be beaten up in high school all the time!
I thought I could make so much more of this by setting Is This Tomorrow in the 50s, because there was such paranoia around anyone who might be different. If you read too much? You were a Communist. Did you use multi-syllabic words? Communist! The suburbs in the 50s were supposed to be safe, so why better place to have a child suddenly vanish?
3. Ava and her son are powerful characters, how much of you is evident in their personalities?
I love Ava. LOVE Ava. I wish she was my neighbor--but the only thing we share is that we both wanted to belong and were both shut out. I am more like Lewis in that I worry about everything; I make lists of things to worry about (really! Isn't that pathetic?) and in school, like Lewis, my teacher yelled at my mother for teaching me to read before everyone else knew how to read. Unlike Lewis, I was not directionless. I knew early on that I was going to fight my way out of that neighborhood and be a writer, no matter what anyone said.
4. Why is it important that Ava is Jewish?
4. Why is it important that Ava is Jewish?
I wanted Ava to be a triple threat. Not only is she divorced at a time when no one got divorced, not even celebrities, but she works. No woman worked unless she was looking for a husband at a job, and to actually like your job or want to try to be something more was suspect. Being Jewish in a Christian neighborhood was even worse. I used a lot of my own upbringing for that!
5. Was the plot inspired by real events?
Only as far as how I felt like an outsider growing up. The rest I totally made up!
6. How did you conduct your research and how long did you do it?
Research was the most fun. I hired two high school research assistants and I had a wonderful librarian I hired, but some of the most interesting things I found were when I just went on FB and asked, "Are there any male nurses from the 1950s? Any cops? Any pie bakers?" I got a huge response and I got to talk on the phone with these fascinating people. The cop was brilliant--he told me that in the 1950s, kids didn't vanish. They ran around to abandoned buildings and into the woods and no one worried. No one locked their doors. When a kid didn't come home, the cops treated it the way they would an adult vanishing--you wait. But with a kid, that's too late! I talked to a male nurse who was fascinating. He told me that not only did doctors smoke in the 50s while they were examining patients, but they also encouraged their patients to smoke, because it would relax them!
I found vintage pamphlets about Communism (How you can tell if your neighbor is a Commie! Does he laugh at jokes you don't quite get? That's because it's in code! He's a Communist!) and about how to survive the nuclear war that they knew was coming. (Wipe your feet before you go inside the house to get off the pesky radiation!)
I also found fabulous vintage cookbooks. In the 50s, you were supposed to boil vegetables for about 45 minutes! And the most popular dish was a meat loaf train! You shaped the meatloaf to look like a train and made windows out of celery and passengers out of peas!
7. Why did you choose this voice to tell your story?
When I write, I like to get inside everyone's head, everyone's point of view. I just want the experience to be raw, intimate and real.
8. What is your writing protocol and process?
I try to write every day, usually about 4-5 hours and then I'm exhausted. Plus I have a son and a husband, and I also teach writing online at Stanford, UCLA, the University of Toronto, and I have private clients (CarolineLeavittConsults.com). And I review for People and the San Francisco Chronicle. I am a big believer in structure, so I always map out my novels before I start to write, which takes me about six months, and then I have a 30 page synopsis, which I continually rewrite and throw out right up to the 9th revision. (And yes, there are always 9 to 20 revisions!)
9. Explain this quote by unknown: "Everyone has a story; telling it well is the key."
I think part of telling a story well has to do with making it alive and intimate, and making the reader feel as if he or she is living that particular story. To do that well, I think you need to know where to start, how to build tension, how to up the stakes, and how to end with what I call the never-ending story--which means that you don't want to tie things up neatly at the end. You want the reader to close the book and still be wondering about the lives of your characters!
10. What are you future projects and current muses?
My new novel, Cruel Beautiful World is due to Algonquin this March, so I am really working to finish. I don't believe in the muse. But I do believe in inspiration and craft. I always mention John Irving because he writes what I consider moral fiction--he isn't just telling a wonderful story about wonderful characters, he's making points about how to live better or differently in the world, or simply, how to deal with a crazy world.
Next up, I'm starting a new novel. It's too new to say anything about it without it sounding silly and ridiculous. I have to clasp it to my heart and hope for the best!
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow, plus ten 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. 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 www.carolineleavitt.com.