Amazing Author: Caroline Leavitt

Tuesday is amazing Amazing Author day and I am thrilled to have my fabulous friend and amazing author, Caroline Leavitt in charge of Tuesday's Blogs.

Caroline is the award winning author of eight novels, most recently Girls in Trouble, which was a Booksense Selection and is now in its third printing. She is the recipient of a New York Foundation of the Arts Grant in Fiction and portions of her novel in progress won a Goldenberg Fiction Prize. She was a finalist in the Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellowship, a semi-finalist in the Fade In/Writers' Net Screenwriting Competition, and a National Magazine Award nominee. Four of her novels were optioned for screen, and she talked her way into writing the script for two of them. She's a book critic for The Boston Globe, People Magazine, and a brand new magazine called Dame. She teaches novel writing for UCLA, does private writing mentoring, and she is a professional namer!
You can visit her at http://www.carolineleavittville.blogspot.com

I first met Caroline through the UCLA Writers Program nearly three years ago, when I was tired of waiting for the phone to ring as an actor and wanted to take my writing to the next level. I had always written as an actor and had even had my work produced, for film, television, and stage, but what I wanted to know was whether or not I could write novels. I wanted to know if I had what it takes to go the distance, as in 300 or more pages, and I wanted to know if I really had what it takes to call myself a WRITER. And that's where Caroline came in. She thought I had talent sure, but we both knew that wasn't enough, I'd have to learn about structure, and character arcs and plotting and pacing and dialogue and I'd have to write eveyday for hours, 4 pages or 4 hours whatever came first. She encouraged me and challenged me and whipped my writing into shape! I didn't have time to worry if I was a writer, I was too busy writing to care! I finished my debut novel "Let It Be Me", had Caroline do a manuscript consult on it, (one of her many talents!) to get it agent ready and now that I have a great agent and it is being shopped around, I am back workshopping with her at UCLA on my second novel.

I adore Caroline. Not only is she incredibly talented, but incredibly generous. She is passionate about writing and passionate about authors, so it seemed only appropriate that we start with an interview about her. This interview was done by Corey Campbell at the UCLA Writers Program
I hope you enjoy it! And I hope that you will check out Caroline's blog and her terrific novels!!

Writers’ Program: You just sold your latest novel, Pictures Of You, to Algonquin. How long were you working on the book, from the first germ of idea to its finished form? What was that process like for you?

CarolineLeavitt: Pictures Of You took me four years to write. I tend to write about what obsesses me, and I've always been very phobic about cars and car accidents (which turns the action in Pictures Of You). I've had my license since I was 16, but have driven once, and then felt so panicked I have never driven again. So, because I always worried I would be in an accident and kill someone, I had been thinking about writing a novel about it for many years, hoping to purge my fears. (Didn't work.) I couldn't find my way into the story, though, until I happened to write a short story, called Breathe, which won a Goldenberg Fiction Prize. The story somehow took off, and it began forming itself into a novel.

The process was really difficult for me. (I keep telling my students it never gets easier!) After two years of working, I had about 600 pages and I knew something was really wrong, so I began showing it to writer friends, and one writer pointed out that I had overstuffed the novel with a whole subplot that didn't belong there. Once I got that out, the novel unlocked, and the last two years working on it were more fun. By then, I had really figured out what the novel was really about--how we never really know the people we love, which was a totally different theme than the one I started out with!

WP: Tell us about the book. What was your approach to writing it? How did your ideas evolve?

CL: Pictures of You is about how we sometimes see the ones we love in a fog, how we see what we want to see rather than the truth that is there in front of us. It centers around a mysterious car accident on a foggy road in the Cape, and the lives of three people around that accident converge: A photographer who is fleeing her philandering husband and who kills a woman who is standing in the middle of the road, the husband who struggles to understand what his wife was doing there and why she had a suitcase and their son in her car, and the son who feels it was his fault and who harbors a secret.

I did what I tell my students to do. I outlined, did story maps and character arcs and kept rewriting them. I threw out millions of pages. I agonized and carried on, but I had one first chapter which I thought worked, and that kept me going.

I found that the more I knew about my characters, the more surprising things would pop up and enrich the story.

WP: What did you learn about yourself when writing Pictures Of You?

CL: That writing about a phobia doesn't heal it, but it does make me feel brave for exposing it.

WP: This isn’t your first novel. Does the process get easier as you write each new book?

CL: Nope. Every time I sit down to write a novel, it's as if it is my first one, all over again. I have learned to recognize the signs though--when I begin to say, "This is the end of my career!" my husband always laughs and says he knows that is when the writing is starting to go somewhere. I've started a new novel and I'm still confused, upset, anxious, and also just in love with the whole process of writing.

WP: What do you draw on most for your novel ideas? Do they come to you in similar ways? Do you use music or other external stimuli to help the writing process?

CL: I always tell my students to write about what obsesses you, write the books you want to read. I tend to be obsessed by any number of things, and they find their way into my work. Usually it's some sort of dramatic questions, a what if: What if a woman abandoned her child in a drugstore? What if a man discovered the woman he thought had died had faked her death? Those kinds of questions always lead me deeper into a story that I want to explore and understand. Character always has to come first.

I have to have music. It really relaxes me. I'm addicted to Pandora.com which is this radio station where you can plug in the names of songs you like or singers, and they give you similar songs you might like, as well as the ones you do want. I keep it blasting.

WP: What’s your writing discipline like? Do you write every day? How do you keep yourself on track? How do you keep yourself interested and immersed in the story for hundreds of pages?

CL: I write every day (except weekends) for four hours. I love it (except on the days I hate it.) When I feel I'm off track, I outline or do character arcs. I sometimes jump around from the beginning to the end, but my problem is more letting go of the characters when I am finished! Every time I start a new novel, I miss the people from the last one!

WP: Who reads your manuscripts when you complete them? Are you in a writers group yourself?

CL: I have three or four trusted readers. My husband reads and a few writer friends read. I guess you could say they are my writers group, but no, I'm not in one that meets. I just don't have the time.

WP: How extensively do you rewrite? Do you go through hundreds of drafts?

CL: I do go through hundreds of drafts. I am constantly rewriting. This last novel was about 15 drafts. Then my agent made me rewrite it a few more times. Now I am working with my editor rewriting it yet again. It's all part of the process.

WP: What is the first piece you ever published?

CL: Oh, that question makes me smile because that was such a thrilling time. It was a short story called GIFTS in the Michigan Quarterly Review. They paid me $50 for it, and I was thrilled beyond belief. Plus, that story got me my first agent, who happened to read the story and like it enough to contact me. By the way, these things still do happen, so I always tell writers to publish in the little literary magazines. You never know!

WP: Are people either born novelists or born short story writers? Or could writers excel at both if they applied themselves?

CL: Another wonderful question. I don't think so. I used to think that I was a born short story writer. I never wanted to write a novel, ever. Didn't have a clue how. And then when I got my first agent, she said, "You have to write a novel. No one is buying short stories." She helped me turn one of my short stories into a novel, and I fell in love with the process. I discovered that I love writing novels. Writing a short story is like a short relationship, but a novel is like a marriage. I think there are no born novelists or born short story writers, but there are born writers. There is that drive, that burning need, and age has nothing to do with it. Some people don't discover that fire in themselves and start writing until they are in their sixties!

WP: Anything else you’d like to add?

CL: Just that being a writer is the most incredible job on the planet. You get to live other lives and then share those lives with readers. And there is profound joy in that. I feel incredibly lucky.


Robin Antalek said...

What a wonderful interview! I agree Caroline is a most talented and generous writer! I love to read about the process other writers go through - thanks so much for sharing - it helps to know some struggles are universal for a self-proclaimed isolationist like myself!

Gina Sorell said...

Thanks so much for commenting Robin!

I agree wholeheartedly, it helps to know we are not alone in this process. And you are not! Write in any time!

I once wrote Caroline a tiny e-mail while working on this second novel that read..."Does it get any easier?"

And she responded "Nope."

That hand across cyber space made me laugh out loud and feel so much better about my own struggles.

Caroline said...

Robin, any time you need support, email me. I know what it is like to be an isolationist (my favored spot!)


Thanks for including us all in the conversation. The creative process is so similar no matter what the discipline. concentrate, give over, move forward, believe, ......... discipline, dream. and when all else fails...... trust. Fall in love with the process.

Gina Sorell said...

Thanks Nola! I love the way you put it!! So true. Trust, that's always a hard one.

And yes, the process, that's really all we can ever control can't we? Such a great reminder to remember to enjoy it.


tiffany kimball said...

While i am not a writer, I am a reader... a lover of books. I have some sort of fascination with people who are able to convey strong mental images for their readers through their particular choice of words. I found this interview interesting and intriguing. I loved hearing of the incredible journey an author takes each a every day they sit down to write. As a side note, I have read Girls In Trouble as well as High Infidelity...both of which I loved. Can't wait for the next novel Caroline...

katie boland said...

what a wonderful, wonderful interview. one of the most interesting i have ever read.
now: sorrelsays, next: vanity fair!
my mom loved it to.

Caroline Leavitt said...

Thank you all for such wonderful, warm, supportive comments. I'm on heaven! And thank you Gina for the honor of being first on your blog!

Gina Sorell said...

Thanks to everyone for your comments! A big shout out to Corey Campbell at UCLA for this great interview with Caroline and to Caroline herself, for bringing us great insight into the process of writing and great writing for us to enjoy.

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