Talking Family, Life Changes, and Movie Deals with NYT Best-Selling Author, Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is one of those writers who give you hope. Not just the sort of hope that her writing gives you—although there is a lot of that in her work, hope, the kind that allows people the chance to start again, the kind that that fosters community, family, love—but hope that good writers can find opportunities to get their work out in the world, despite the fickleness and commerce-driven ways of the traditional publishing industry, despite what anyone tells us about the diminishing numbers of readers in our society. Caroline Leavitt just writes on. And on.

In her most recent novel, Pictures of You, Caroline throws us into a nightmare and then gently (and sometimes not so gently) shakes us awake while her characters grapple with grief and confusion, and while they move unsteadily toward their own understanding of what has happened to them and because of them, and how to live a life left battered and scarred by one small moment on a foggy road.

Caroline’s stories are built on the daily experiences of her characters while touching on topics of current concern and social issues: open adoption, healthcare, broken families, mental illness, bigotry, personal responsibility. This is no easy task, this telling of stories that tell the truth about our world, our failures, our petty differences, and our yearning for community, safe harbor, love, family, and comfort. In this interview, Caroline speaks about the perseverance of her writing life, as well as some of those things that formed her writing and her stories.

PMc: You have had quite an impressive and distinguished career as a writer so far—10 novels and work in anthologies and journals, as well as quite a bit of essay and article writing and some work with screenplays. Can you remember the first story you ever wrote as a child or young adult perhaps? Will you tell us about it?

CL: I used to write “novels” with my older sister Ruthy when I was six. We would illustrate them and map out the plots together. They were always about an orphan girl who was left millions by her dead parents so she could pretty much do whatever she wanted to do in life! When I was 12 I destroyed all of them, and there isn’t a day I don’t wish I had them back!

PMc: When did you know that writing is it? That this is what you absolutely have to do?

CL: I knew it pretty early on. I loved making up stories, loved writing, and nothing else took me out of myself the way writing did. Everyone told me to consider another career, that writing was NOT a career, but I didn’t listen.  

PMc: I have noticed some patterns in thematic elements in a number of your novels. You often consider family in various ways—including nontraditional families, and community as family. What is it that draws you to this?

CL: I had a really rocky upbringing in my family. My father was almost never there and when he was, he was pretty brutal. For a long time I didn’t want to have a family myself because I was afraid of repeating what had happened to me, and then I came to realize that you could rewrite the script!

PMc: Parenting also seems to be a particular concern in much of your work—the comfort and despair of it, the pain and the joy of it, the worry, the love, the failures and successes. Talk about why this intrigues you if you would.

CL: I had a horrible father. My mother was unhappily married to him and struggling and she didn’t always make the best decisions, and I grew up not feeling very loved. I was determined when I had a child of my own that I would raise him or her very, very differently–polar opposite really to the way I had been raised. I think family can really make or break a person. 

PMc: Your characters are often intelligent, creative people. Many are well-read. How important is reading to your creative process, and who are some of the writers you draw influence or inspiration from?

CL: I read all the time–I’m a book critic, so I have to read for business as well as for pleasure. When I read, I’m always looking at how a writer did what he or she did–what works and why, and what doesn’t and how they might have done it differently.  There isn’t one particular writer I draw from–I’m inspired by everyone.

PMc: In one of your interviews, you talk about how your first published story was in Michigan Quarterly Review and how literary journals can be important to a writer’s career. Do you have particular journals you read when you can?

CL: I love Agni, and the Antioch Review. One Story is great.

PMc: Your website, www.CarolineLeavitt.com, is sometimes referred to as Leavitt Town. This is particularly appropriate, I think, because it is sort of a community, a town, of writers and writerly concerns. You do lots of interviews with and share many features about writers and writing; it is clear that you work in support of other writers, readers, and book lovers. You also teach. Would you mind sharing some of your insight on how to balance all of this?

CL: I’m terrible at balancing! I started the blog as a way to give back to other writers because so many writers have helped me along the way (and I have been cyberbullied by a writer, which made me vow to never be like that). Plus, I really love talking shop, not just with writers, but anyone doing anything creative. I now have the writer Meg Pokrass helping me with the interviews so I am learning to delegate! I also think that the more honest you are, the more you share about what it’s like to be a writer, the better it is for everyone. All writers must help all writers. I also do one on one manuscript evaluations for people, helping them get their novels ready for agents or editors. It’s work I really love.

PMc: From very early on, your books have received quite a lot of attention and much praise. Does this affect your writing life or creative process at all?

CL: Well—this question made me laugh! It’s true that I was discovered at 27 when a short story I wrote became a novel and I got famous for it–Meeting Rozzy Halfway. But I was naive and I thought, oh this will always be that way–the dinners, the being flown to NYC, the TV shows, the movie deals. Ha. Ha! After that I had four different publishers go out of business. I had two publishers who refused to answer my calls or emails. I had good reviews but enough sales to probably buy a week’s worth of groceries. No one really knew who I was, even after 8 novels and when people asked what I did, I always said, “I’m a writer?” with a question mark. Pictures of You was rejected by my former publisher as “not being special enough.” I knew that after all those novels and no sales, I would never get published by anyone and that my so-called career was over! But my agent told me not to worry and a few weeks later (I did a lot of sobbing), Algonquin asked to see the ms, and bought it, and they said, “We’re going to change your life,” and they did. They put that book into four printings 6 months before it came out. They made it a NYT bestseller and a Costco Pennie’s Pick, and they kept promoting it and it got on the Best Books of 2011 Lists from the San Francisco Chronicle, The Providence Journal, Bookmarks and Kirkus Review. 

I always say I am the poster child for second chances–and for having the right publisher and editor. I call everyone at Algonquin gods and goddesses! But still, I take nothing for granted anymore. I know how quickly fame can happen, and I know how quickly it can be taken away. All that’s left really is to write the best book you can. 

PMc: What’s next?

CL: My new novel Is It Tomorrow is coming out from Algonquin this May. It’s set in the 1950s and is about a boy who vanishes in an era of paranoia and communism, and how a divorced Jewish mother is somehow targeted for the crime. I’ve started a new novel, tentatively called She’s Not There, and I just found out I made the first round of Sundance Screenwriting Lab with my script for Is It Tomorrow! I’ll find out in December if I got in. I want this more than I’ve wanted anything!

PMc: Anything else you might want to share?

CL: Never. Give. Up. No matter what it is you are doing or that you are passionate about. Never Give Up. 

→Caroline Leavitt, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk with me, and for all you do for the writing community. So looking forward to continuing to read your work! -PMc←

Warming the Flue ~ Anne-Marie Oomen’s View From the Keyboard

Today’s View From the Keyboard is something special. ANNE-MARIE OOMEN, a very dear friend of mine (and of many, many writers, young and old) shares with us a glimpse into her workspace, The Think House. Up in Leelanau County in the northwest part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Anne-Marie divides her time as a teacher in the Solstice Low Residency MFA Program at Pine Manor College in Massachusetts and at Interlochen Arts Academy, an arts high school that lures exceptional young writers to its Creative Writing program.

When not dedicating her time to her students, Anne-Marie is writing, writing, writing: essays, poems, plays, and recently her first published short story. Two of her memoirs published by Wayne State University PressPulling Down the Barn and House of Fields, were selected as Michigan Notable Books. Her plays, poems, and essays have been collected, anthologized, produced, published, and honored with many awards; among these literary accomplishments is her well-received poetry collection Uncoded Woman (Milkweed Editions), An American Map: Essays (Wayne State University Press) and the recent play, “Secrets of the Luce Talk Tavern.”

Yes, she has the chops. Yes, she is a very, very good writer. She is also a very good person. Anne-Marie Oomen’s work is often in service not just to her art and not just to her students, but often to the community in which she lives, to the land and waters that surround her.

And, she’s a total babe. 

Here then, is Anne-Marie Oomen’s View From the Keyboard essay, “Warming the Flue,” in its entirety, reprinted (with permission) from An American Map.

 

Warming the Flue: 

The Think House, Empire, Michigan

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Elliot. Four Quartets

Tucked as it is in a Michigan woods thick with tall maple and ash, the Think House eddies with chill in winter, and remains too-cool and shaded in the summer.

So I build a fire in the woodstove.

A decade ago in Leelanau County, my David and I built by hand this sixteen by twenty cabin out of mostly recycled, damaged or deeply discounted goods.  As a result, each autumn we seal leaky windows with plastic and stuff insulation strips around the eternally peeling though still partly brilliant red door.  The small black Jotel perches in the corner—inadequate against drafts—and dusty pine bookcases filled to bending line the walls—doing double duty as insulation when the cold comes on. A butcher-block table views the insect-spotted window, a second-hand desk holds a newer computer, a school chair leans toward the woodstove.  Here is a Depression era rocker, three dictionaries—two unabridged, one belonging to my grandmother, and more books—revealing an obsession for having them as much as for reading.

I wad newspaper into rough coils and place them side by side in the chamber. I pile shards of pine and scrap walnut on the wasted news, criss-crossing them like highways on a map.  Then I realize it’s so cold that I have to warm the flue before I start the fire.  I roll a full sheet of newspaper into a long crinkled tube. I light one end with a wooden match, hold it into the firebox, seeking that small invisible place where a hint of draft should pull.  I sit back on my heels.

In this room, turkey feathers tuck into cracks, lake stones rest on sills, Petoskey fossils serve as doorstops.  The place is rough on all its edges, messy with piles and it lacks any plumbing—though the electricity works most of the time.  It is too quiet—except for wind, the voice that always enters this place.

Still.

Here is the place where the stories and poems take root.  But even before that, where does the process begin?  At what point is the imagination sparked?  Just as there must be fuel to warm the cold stove’s firebox, there must be inspiration for the imagination to warm.

Will the fire take?  I wait in the cold.  Sometimes when the chimney is too cold, the warm smoke is trapped and backpuffs, filling the cluttered room.  Then there is only coughing and ugly haze.

I’ve worked in this room for years, fired this stove every cold day that needed warming.  I know the ways of this stove I bend to:  I also know how my thinking goes.  It doesn’t always work, this attempted combustion of air and tinder—or its parallel in imagination and language.  The writing doesn’t come from nowhere.  Other routes, like the tube of flaming paper to channel fire and warm the flue, must warm the mind.  The fuel of travel, the experience of other places and their people inspire me.

For me, this desire to seek out new places is not simple; despite an innate curiosity, I love home and isolation.  Solitude.  The chill of the Think House, the wind against it.  In contrast, the intensity of New York City unnerves me, the Mexican border disturbs me,  Culebra’s wild surf shakes me.  Always I feel uncertain and often lonely opening the door on new territory, following new routes away from old roots.  It feels blank and nerve-wracking and yes, I thrive on it.  I pack.

The tube of old news flutters, unwilling. I bend to it.  Fire grows from fire, small to large.  But nothing happens without the air, the oxygen drawing across it to feed it.  I blow a little.

Lately I have been thinking about how discrete places, and perhaps country with it, might become place-less.  No, not place-less, for that is more or less impossible, but how places might lose their individuality, lose their meaning.  I sense the disquiet, the loss of place, the unplace-ness that may be happening in my America.  Will we one day alter Pete Seeger’s melancholy anthem:  where have all the places gone?

Are they still out there—places where meaning and geographies are linked so closely they make the stories that give us identity, that make us a people?  We can still find them, can’t we?

I imagine the inside of the chimney, the clash of warm air pushing against the cold air still holding in the upper regions of the pipe.  Fire too has this restlessness in its nature, the built-in imperative to move into unexplored space, to taste new air.

The tubed flame, held into the firebox like food for a shy pet, is accepted at last. With sudden decision, the draft pulls, the drifting smoke is routed all at once, a poof into the flue and up to the open, its heat warming the cold chimney, warming interior chambers with its draw, preparing it for fire.

Metaphor arrives, its small miracle puffing.

I am rooted in place in my Think House with its warming stove.  I follow routes of place out into the open.  But I also root out places—as the farmer pulls plants to understand growth—and I root as a baby does, paradoxically seeking the nourishment from—not a mother—but from places all over the country, the mother country.

Through the writing, I enter still another form of rooting out, of making and remaking these places in language, in words that seek to fire the imagination of others.  Place-making.  And in reimagining the faraway places here at home, I root out, through my own mother tongue, what place might mean, not simply a specific place, but the idea and meaning of place.  Place-meaning.  And in this process, discovering, thinking, and writing, rooting out place and places in my America, feeding the fire, my anxiety eases.  I can work. A kind of compassion comes.

My country ‘tis of thee…

♦♦♦

Reprinted from An American Map by Anne-Marie Oomen. (c) 2010 Wayne State University Press

→Anne-Marie, thank you for letting us into your Think House, and Wayne State University Press, thank you, too, for permitting this reprint. Everyone else, thanks, as always, for reading. -PMc←