Caroline Leavitt is a bestselling, eight-time novelist. She’s also a mom, a vegetarian with vegan aspirations, an unabashed chocolate lover, and a wonderfully warm and generous being.
She’s also brave; compassionately taking on subject matter that fascinates us all, but can be intense. For instance, in her latest book, Pictures of You, she follows the story of two women who collide (literally, in their cars) one dark night. Only one walks away with her life, but it is a life forever marked by this chance tragedy. She also becomes involved with the husband and young son of the woman who died in the crash. Although we all hope this becomes a seamlessly happy ending, it’s more like the sloppy, messy, human, frustrating, yet transcendent thing we generally call life.
I was fortunate enough to land an interview with Leavitt. I hope you enjoy it (and her delicious dinner ideas, too). And guess what? You can win a copy of Leavitt’s book by leaving a comment below (hopefully with a tidbit of your own of advice on how to preserve creative time as a mama). Feel free to check out her blog, Caroline Leavittville.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
Pathology. I’m phobic about driving, and even though I have my license and I renew it, I have not driven since I was 16 for fear of causing a crash and killing someone. I wanted to write about it to see if I could heal it–so I became fixated on a car crash and how it effects the people involved. (It didn’t cure me of my phobia, but I did get a novel out of it!)
I also was really interested in the whole idea of how well we really know the ones we love, and how we choose to see what is going on in our lives.
2. You’re a mother. Did being a mother help you when you were depicting the relationship between Sam and his mother?
Absolutely. I came late to motherhood and it’s been the most profound thing in my life. If I had know it would be this amazing, I would have had children earlier–and more than one! I wanted to think about the different ways we parent our kids. Both April and Charlie and Isabelle all present different ways of parenting for Sam to respond to–and I loved Sam. He wasn’t really like my son at that age, but it still felt comforting to be writing about a young boy.
3. The plot hangs on a very striking occurrence; I often find that truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes when I’m writing, I feel worried about launching a story based on an instance that seems improbable–and yet life constantly shocks me with its amazing, wild plot twists. How do you navigate that as a novelist?
Oh, what a great question. I think it has to do with the character’s realizing that it’s a coincidence and that it’s weird or strange. That keeps the reader in the reality. If the character doesn’t acknowledge or comment on it, the reader then thinks, “Ah, it’s the writer showing off!”
4. Where do your characters come from? Are they inspired by people you meet, or in other ways?
I wish I knew. They just seem to arrive with an image and they the more I write them, the more alive they become. I try to never base them on real people, though a lot of Sam’s asthmatic childhood and his feelings are mine. I guess it’s like Flaubert, who used to say Madame Bovary was him. Although I have not been in the situations my characters have been in, I know the feelings.
5. You’re such a dedicated, prolific writer. Were you always that way, or did you build up your discipline over time? We’d love some tips.
I was not always that way. I started out writing only when inspiration hit, then when I hit my twenties, I got panicked that I wasn’t working hard enough. I’ve now reached the point where I know I have to sit down and work 4 or 5 hours a day in order to keep the subconscious sort of primed. I know, too, that it isn’t always easy, and like my favorite John Irving quote, that I am almost always feeling that I am losing control of the material, that I am writing way over my own head, and that I am totally lost. But soon, the rubble clears, and things begin to make sense!
Tips? Sit at the chair and write. Don’t despair. If you feel blocked, rewrite a page you love, or even put it in a different font so the material will look differently to you!
6. You’re a vegetarian leaning toward vegan. What are some of your favorite home-cooked vegan meals? What does your son like?
My son, alas, is a vegetarian who does not like vegetables. We’ve told him he can eat meat or fish but he does’t like that either. He eats carrots, arugula and he loves the fake veggie meats! He is ridiculously healthy though, and has not missed a day of school–not since preschool! I try to puree veggies in the tomato sauce for pasta and in black bean soup!
He does, however, adore Ethiopian food, which has been impossible for me to recreate at home. I love to make soups–I puree everything into black bean soup–butternut squash, tomatoes, lots of garlic, hot peppers.
7. What advice would you give to mothers who want to get back into writing, or write more regularly?
When Max was born, I had his bassinet by my desk. I’d write two hours and then he’d wake and I’d play with him for a few hours, then he’d go back to sleep and I’d write again. You can find the time–even an hour. Even a half hour every day. Motherhood to me, made me more creative. (I was worried it would make me less.) I honestly think because of being a mother, my work has taken on a new dimension (or maybe that is wishful thinking!).