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 Readerville.com 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 Youand 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.
I don’t think there are many things more trying than renovating a website … a house, perhaps. In anticipation of the release of the paperback editions of Mistress of the Sun, I’ve been giving my somewhat complex website an up-date.
Or, rather, I’ve been telling others what I want done. This is strenuous when it’s a matter of “a little bit bigger,” “no smaller,” “no, a bit to the right.” If only I could do it myself! It’s both expensive (very!) and trying. Which is why I’m this minute downloading a trial of DreamWeaver software.
I’m fussy about the appearance of my site … and lucky, too, to have had Karen Templer (now of Readerville.com fame) and her then-business-partner Mignon design the original. Their web design company was called Quiet Space: which gives you an idea of their aesthetic. They were literary—rare in the tech world—as well as artists.
But the world moves on, not always quietly, and changes must be made. And so … will I wade into the horrors of HTML? When I should be researching and paying bills and answering emails and … ? I doubt it!
The Adam Braver discussion on Readerville.com is over (although it will no doubt remain on-line). A number of things were said about that favorite subject of mine: the line between fact and fiction.
… any historical record has gaps in it, things we don’t and can’t know. If a writer takes the liberty of filling in those gaps, then we’re looking at fiction rather than nonfiction. But there’s no bright line between fiction and nonfiction … , and historical fiction (for want of a better term for books-that-include-real-people-or-events) is a long continuum. “Girl with a Pearl Earring” has real people in it, but the story is entirely fiction. Nobody knows who the girl was; Tracy made the whole thing up. So let’s say a book like that goes at the fiction end of the continuum. Then at the other end, what would be the nonfiction end, you’ve got a book like Capote’s, where it’s extensively researched and based not very loosely at all on real people and events, but narrative devices are used in the telling of those events. So it’s closer to documentary, but it’s literary documentary.
… the nature of storytelling has always been a combination of real details and added details—sometimes consciously for the sake of narrative, and sometimes unconsciously, as our memories reconstruct the events for a better narrative. So in that vein, I don’t mind these blends.
And then he said something very dear to my heart:
On an ethical level, however, I do think one has to be upfront with a reader, as there becomes an implied contract.
I think this “contract”—often in the form of an Author’s Note —is important in fact-based fiction. The reader needs to know where he or she stands.
Most of the unbelievable stuff is the real stuff. My imagination works best at seeping through the cracks, not in creating the larger than life structures.
That’s often how I work.
Here’s from Karen again:
It makes no sense, I know, but when I hear “historical fiction” I think of events/people further back in history than the ’60s. But I’d also have a hard time applying it to a book like yours with a more (pardon the term) postmodern structure. Can a thing be postmodern historical fiction? I don’t know. But I think I’m sticking with “literary documentary” when trying to describe your work in particular.
And so, a new genre is born: postmodern historical fiction. I love it.
I’ve posted before about Adam Braver‘s novel, Nov 22, 1963. It’s a novel about that day, the day President Kennedy was shot, but mostly it’s a novel about Jackie Kennedy. It’s beautifully, artfully, achingly spare: a work of art in words.
I’m excited about his participation on Readerville.com this week: click here if you’re interested. I’m especially interested, because of that subject so dear to me (for obvious reasons): the intersection of fact and fiction.
To quote Braver:
One of the things that I’d been thinking about for the past couple of years is the equation: stories + memories + facts = history. This doesn’t necessarily have to apply to history as “the historical record,” but also to our family histories, personal histories, social histories, etc. From a writing standpoint, it was also about finding the somewhat artificial distinction between genres—namely fiction and nonfiction. When you deal with facts, memories, and stories, I’m not sure it’s possible that anything can be pure fiction or pure truth.
I love this:
I really wanted to write a book that consciously combined those elements: where the facts were facts, the stories were stories, and the memories were memories. Put them together in one space, yet let each one speak for itself.
I’ve always been attracted to books that allow the quiet moments to tell a bigger story, and, I suppose, I was trying to follow in that suit. It wasn’t a matter so much of sifting through so much information, and then whittling it down. It was that conscious/subconscious radar for finding the little yet moving details.
I sent the current draft of the plot off this morning for a writers’ group meet this coming Friday, so I’ll have some time to following this fascinating Braver dialogue.
Shauna Singh Baldwin and I have known each other for a long time, through email and our writing, but have only met two times. She gave a moving and elegant introduction to my talk in her hometown, Milwaukee (a beautiful city).
Eight years after the last book in the Josephine trilogy, Sandra brings to life another French woman obscured and reviled by historians, Louise de la Valliere, mistress of the Sun King. Along the way, we meet Molière and Racine as they perform their dramas for the king, and listen to LaFontaine as he wrote his fables. With Louise, we watch Finance Minister Fouquet’s arrogance laid low, and the building of Versailles. Again the court of Louis XIV dazzles us, with the intensity of its joiedevivre and sheer excess. Louise is a superb horsewoman besides being a woman of verve and grace, and her riding and hunting endears her to the king.
To no one’s surprise, within a week of its publication in Canada, Mistress of the Sun was on Maclean’s national best-selling fiction list and remained there for more than two months, rising to #2.
Sandra Gulland, born in Florida and raised in Berkeley California doesn’t live in seventeenth century France. Instead she lives just over the border in Killaloe, about 50 miles west of Ottawa, Canada and spends half her year in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. She also lives on the web at www.SandraGulland.com—a wonderful web site—has a very active Facebook page, and writes a very interesting blog called Notes on the Writing Life. I don’t know if she can stand on a cantering horse like Louise de la Valliere, but she’s been riding enough years that I wouldn’t put it past her.
Sandra and I have been cyber friends since 1999, and this is only the second time we have met, yet her support and inspiration have often opened new paths for me. Back in 1998 when I was debating taking US citizenship, she took the time to write to me, explaining dual citizenship. When I was researching my second novel, The Tiger Claw, the story of a Muslim woman set in WWII France, she gave me wonderful advice on conducting meticulous historical research—yes, she should know! We keep meeting on online discussion groups like historicalnovelsociety.org and Readerville and I think we have been engaged on a similar project: illuminating and bringing alive herstory as opposed to history.
So I am delighted and honored to introduce a dear friend and spectacular writer.