Author interview with the amazing Caroline Leavitt

Author interview with the amazing Caroline Leavitt

I’ve known Caroline Leavitt for almost as long as the Net has existed (i.e. rather a long time now), but I’ve only met her once or twice. I first knew her on-line through a wonderful writers’ chat group. (Oh, those days!) I read her blog, follow her on Twitter and Facebook, and read her essays and novels.

She has been a persevering literary writer, and with that went the word struggling, so it has been particularly pleasing to see how her last two novels—Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow—have been such huge hits. And for three reasons, IMO: 1) she’s a fantastic writer, 2) she’s a pro, ready to step up to the plate, and 3) she’s now with Algonquin, a great publisher.

I just read and  loved her latest novel, Is This Tomorrow. Caroline has a flawless way of creating real characters and building dramatic tension. This was a novel I didn’t want to put down, that I thought about when I was away from it. As a writer, I longed to know about her process: how does she do it? I’m thrilled that she’s here to answer my questions!

Your novels are compellingly plotted and beautifully developed. How do you do it? What’s your process? 

Oh, thank you! John Truby Story structure. I was always one of those writers who followed my muse and I ended up with 800 pages that I had to wade through to find the story. I hated most structure classes. The 3-act deal was like a prison. The rest seemed moronic. But then a UCLA student of mine told me about Truby, how he’s a Yale PhD who studied stories and came up with a kind of system for what all the best ones have–moral choices, reversals, reveals, self-revelations. It made sense to me. It seemed to create a deeper, more nuanced story, and the first time I “trubyized” a novel, I had a NYT bestseller! The first time I trubyized a script, I made the finals at Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

So I map things out in detail right from the start, and end up with a 30-40 page synopsis. Of course it changes as I write, because of discoveries, changes, etc. But the basic spine is the same. It gives you tremendous creativity for discovery, too!

I’ve become an intense plotter, as well, and I’m excited by the process. I recall that you introduced me to your relative’s hypnosis tapes, which I loved. Now I see that you’re experimenting with binaural beats, which sounds similar. Is this part of your writing process? Tell me more!

It is, actually. Binaural beats supposedly recreate the neuron firing of the brain and help you concentrate, get creative, even relieve tinnitus. Do they work or do I just think they work? I don’t know, but does it matter if there are results? I keep one on for creativity and it seems to work. But it might be the placebo effect. (And again, who cares?!)

I’ll be trying that! I was pleased to see mention of several Readervillians in your acknowledgements. Do you use reader/editors, and, if so, at what point in the writing process?

Oh, I absolutely do. I change a lot of them with each book, but right now I am totally dependent on three people. One I show my structural stuff to and he is a great help because that’s what he does–structure work. And I have two writer friends who read the novel chapter by chapter. And I miss Readerville!

I was interested to also note that you used researchers for this novel. (I recall a blog you wrote some time ago of a youth who volunteered.) This is something I’ve considered. How does that work?

I had to hire someone because I was spending whole weeks trying to find out what 1950s cops used instead of crime tape (sawhorses and rope!) So I hired two high school interns who were adorable, but not as helpful as I needed. Not their fault. They were learning. I next hired a pro, a librarian, who was amazing. Not only did she find me exactly what I needed, including a rare journal for male nursing in the 1960s, but she would add in things that she thought might be interesting for me–and they always were!

The best research tool? Facebook. I posted that I needed to talk to someone who had been a cop in the 1950s, or a male nurse, or a pie baker–and I was flooded with people. I called them up and I got the most amazing personal stories! Plus, it was so much fun. I’m doing that now for my next novel, Cruel Beautiful World (out in 2015 from Algonquin Books), which is set in the 1970s.

Another beautiful title. Your stories seem perfect for film-adaptation, and I know you have a film background. Are they under option? Development? I know, too, that you’re a Truby fan (as I am). What wisdoms from the film-realm have you brought to novel writing?

Oh Hollywood, it breaks my heart into shards. I’ve had lots of options. Meeting Rozzy Halfway was optioned by Paramount and dropped in a strike. Into Thin Air was optioned by two producers and Madonna was interested in making it her directorial debut for three days until she went on tour. Then one producer fell in love with the other and it all fell apart. Living Other Lives was optioned by this guy who did all of Stephen King’s early films. It had a script by Obie winner Tina Howe. And then suddenly, everyone vanished! I had a deal at Sundance for Pictures of You, and then the actress who wanted to direct and star got an offer from HBO for a series and that was that. I currently have an option for an essay I wrote in New York magazine and there’s lots of interest for Is This Tomorrow, but lots of interest doesn’t mean I am sewing sequins on my dress for the Oscars any time soon.

I so wanted to take control, I learned how to write script and got that Sundance finalist shot, but again, that doesn’t really mean anything. So much is luck and timing. I’m very superstitious and I lay out tarot card spells to make this happen!

I love that! You blog often, publish an excellent novel every few years (you have another one scheduled for 2015!), are active on social media and have a life. How do you do it? 

I am obsessive compulsive, and that isn’t a good thing, actually. I am always doing fifty things at once, and I have this keen sense that time is limited (maybe because I was critically ill in the 90s for a year and not expected to survive, but I did!) and I have to make things happen as fast as I can. I wish I could relax!

What one thing would you say is key to (surviving) a writing life?

I have more than one!

Never. Ever. Ever. Give. Up.

Support other writers. It’s good karma.

Write every day.

Don’t write to the market because it will kill your art. Write the book you need to read.

Thank you for these amazing questions!

Thank you so much, Caroline!

Readers: be sure to read Caroline’s novels, explore her charming website Leavitttown, follow her on Twitter and Facebook. She’s the best!

Introducing: Julianna Baggott (otherwise known as Bridget Asher) (otherwise known as … )

Introducing: Julianna Baggott (otherwise known as Bridget Asher) (otherwise known as … )

Julianna Baggott publishes an astonishing variety of things under an astonishing variety of names: novels, poetry, essays, blogs. It’s no accident that her websiteBaggot • Asher • Bode —gives the impression of a group endeavor. Plus she has a very active family. I’ve been reading her absolutely charming blog for some time; it has become one of my favourites. The one thing you can count on from anything from Baggot, Asher or Bode is wit and heartfelt charm.

Today is the launch day of Julianna’s latest novel, The Province Cure for the Brokenhearted:

I ordered it on Kindle and it just this minute arrived on my iPad. I know from its perfect first sentence that I’m going to love it:

Here is one way to say it: Grief is a love story told backward.

Plus: it’s set in France. Need I say more?

Lest you remain unconvinced, here are a few advance reviews:

“Fans of Under the Tuscan Sun will adore this impossibly romantic read.”— People Magazine

“Readers who enjoy … Lolly Winston’s Good Grief and Jane Green’s The Beach House or travel-induced transformation books like Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love will find common themes … and become quickly invested in the lives of the deftly drawn characters.”— Library Journal

“Unabashedly romantic … a real charmer about a Provencal house that casts spells over the lovelorn.” — Kirkus Reviews

So now for something about the author:

Julianna Baggott is the author of seventeen books [did you catch that? seventeen], most recently THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED under her pen name Bridget Asher, as well as THE PRETEND WIFE and MY HUSBAND’S SWEETHEARTS. She’s the bestselling author of GIRL TALK and, as N.E. Bode, THE ANYBODIES TRILOGY for younger readers.

Her essays have appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times Modern Love column, Washington Post,, and Real Simple.

Her blog is a mix of writerly subjects, home life accounts (I particularly enjoy these) and author interviews. The author interviews are called “The 1/2 Dozen” because she gives authors a list of questions and asks them to pick 1/2 dozen to answer.

Julianne’s questions are delightfully quirky (as you will soon see), and so, for this launch day interview, I thought it appropriate to give her back her own list of questions.

And so:

A 1/2 Dozen for Julianna Baggott:

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

If you’re charmed by neuroses, double down. If you see poverty as an adventure, go for it. A writer’s upsides tend to be: witty banter, imagination, insights, close observation. I would make sure you’re completely compelled to love this writer if the dark sides show up: biting snark, self-centric imagination, doomed global thinking, scrutiny. It helps if you both think you’re funny. It helps if the other brings out your best self.

What’s your advice to a writer who’s looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Make sure they truly get obsession; preferably from the inside out. If you are their obsession, this might not work out so well, as you’ll be absent a lot and, when you return, you’ll be tired and thirsty and hungry. It’s better, I think, if you both show up at the end of a long day tired and thirsty and hungry, and ready to take turns leaning and boosting.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was supposedly sickly, except that I wasn’t. I was just raised by a hypochondriac.  I was really small and very underweight and wiry and tough, though I cried easily, that type. I was raised among older siblings and adults mostly, in a family that told a lot of stories. My parents took me to a lot of plays. I had a large vocabulary and oversized eyes and a very skinny neck. I hated the nickname Puppet. All of this applies to my work.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

It’s a wild relationship. As volatile as it gets, I think we knew we’ll always get back together. Without it, I’d be heartbroken. I’m compulsive about the page, obsessive in my imaginative dwelling. I wouldn’t know what to do without writing. It’s the disease and the cure.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

In early stages of a novel, I can’t hear much of it. If I look for the fault lines too early, they’ll be all I see. But then at 50 pages, I need someone to weigh in, imaginatively. Sometimes it’s a relief to hear, “Nope, not working. Pull up the stakes.” Then, after a first draft, I want as many critics as I can get — in the ideal range for the audience. I want it all. Heaps of it. After I’m finished and it’s been edited madly and it’s in book form, I’m not interested in hearing what I should have done differently. It’s like watching people drown and you can’t save them, and someone’s there, telling you that you could have avoided the lake altogether. Where were you then? I want to say. Too late, too late.

Are you bloggish?

I am bloggish. Sandra, here, has turned the tables and sicked my own questions on me. So, yes, I have writers and agents answer questions. I blog about my own weird, loud, rambunctious household. I blog about bookish things, pop-culture, and distinctly un-bookish things. It’s like the caverns of my pocketbook — be careful. You could find ANYthing in there and wander off lost… Here’s the dangerous link:

Thank you so much, Julianna! And to readers of this blog: Julianna’s warning is well heeded. It’s hard to dip into her world without wanting to stay for a very long time.

You can visit her blog at and her website at

Have you read one of her books or her blog? Are you likewise addicted?