Caroline Leavitt is is a true champion of other writers, as kind in person as she is online. She’s transparent about the process of writing–never comes across as an expert, despite several bestselling novels. She’s also never led me astray in a book recommendation–she contributes to such publications as Entertainment Weekly and The Boston Globe–and thanks to her, I discovered the British version of the TV show Life on Mars and its sequel series, Ashes to Ashes (change your life good!) Enjoy this interview with a phenomenal writer:
1. How did you develop a writing practice over the years?
I’ve always written, but when I got out of college, I got serious, and began to set aside time to write every day if possible. I learned to accept that some days I’d be sitting staring at the screen for hours wondering if I should have been a dentist, and other days, the words would just be a river.
2. Name 1-2 memorable risks you’ve taken over the years that felt scary but ultimately paid off in your writing practice or career.
My very first tour was for my 9th novel, Pictures of You, and I had to speak in front of large groups at luncheons, festivals, etc. I was very ashamed that I had had asthma as a kid and did not really want to talk about it, but people kept asking me, and I kept deflecting, and one time, I finally said, “Okay, here is the story,” and I talked about how I was bullied, how I dealt with my sickness, etc. etc. And this amazing thing happened. The shame just left. And the audience was so compassionate and so wonderful that I realized that the more open and honest I was, the more I could reach people, and the better I could heal any past traumas.
3. What are your go-to habits for revising a work?
Story structure! Always story structure! I map everything out by way of Truby Story Structure, which deals with reversals, reveals, and the deeper moral meaning in each character and eschews three act structure. And I call other writers and talk out problems constantly!
4. Do you seek feedback from others? Who?
Always. I have three or four readers I count on, including my husband Jeff, and each person notices something different. My agent gives incredible feedback (She once made me write a book five times before she’d send it out–and she was right every time), and so does my editor.
I realized that the more open and honest I was, the more I could reach people, and the better I could heal any past traumas
5. How do you handle constructive critique of your work? (Get straight to work—or take time to digest? Curse the person who delivered it?)
Ha! This is a funny question. I actually LOVE critiques because it gives me a new foothold into the work. The tougher the better. Although there was one reader who once told me, “Caroline, every writer has a book they should burn because it just can’t work. This one is yours.” I immediately called my two other readers and they said something different so I worked harder, finished the book and got it published! But for tough criticism to work, I have to feel that the person giving the critique genuinely likes my work and wants to help me make it better. I’ve been blessed with a genius editor and I feel like we are a team, and that makes all the difference.
6. How do you handle personal criticism? (Do you curl up in a fetal ball? Get mad? Call a friend and weep? Ignore it?)
Do you mean criticism of me as a person and not my writing? of course I WANT to curl up in a ball and weep, and sometimes I do afterwards, but when immediately addressed, I stay very calm and say quietly, “I’m sorry to hear you think that.” Or if it’s really insulting, then I quietly say, “Gosh, I wonder whatever would have made you think that about me?” And then I walk away. I learned this from a media coach I had to hire when my open adoption novel, Girls in Trouble came out. I was getting lots of hate mail and it was a hot button topic. The coach told me the trick is to stay calm, speak quietly!
7. What is the root of your writing practice, in other words: why do you write? What keeps you coming back to it?
Great question. I have to write in order to feel sane. My writing is full of dark, thorny characters and situations, which allow me to be silly, happy, and optimistic in my real life. I have a need to write–I think I would be hospitalized if I couldn’t write.
8. What has helped you persist the most through the challenges of a writing life (can be more than one answer)? Who has?
I realize how quickly life can change, that you never know what is out there, so you might as well give it your all. My 9th novel was rejected on contract as not being “special enough.” My then publisher told me they didn’t want to see anything more from me because they thought it wouldn’t be “special enough” either. I was devastated because who would buy a 9th novel from an author whose last 7 novels had not made a dime? I thought my career was over, but I couldn’t let it go. So I called friends and cried, and one friend introduced me to her editor at Algonquin, and she bought the book a few weeks later, and Algonquin turned it into a NYT bestseller the first month it was out. So I now feel that you never know what can happen, and the only thing you can control is your own writing.
Who helps me the most? When I start to panic, my husband says, “Ah, you’re panicking, so I know what you are writing must be really good.”
For tough criticism to work, I have to feel that the person giving the critique genuinely likes my work and wants to help me make it better.
9. What are you most proud of about your writing practice?
That I don’t give up. Not ever. No matter what. That I don’t panic when things are not going well. I have a quote over my desk from my hero, John Irving, which comforts me. It says: “If you don’t’ feel that you are on the verge of possibly humiliating yourself, then what you’re doing probably isn’t very vital.” I love that.
10. What would you not change at all about your writing practice? What would you change immediately if you knew how or had the means?
I would most definitely have more post-its in every color in the world.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times Bestselling author of Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You, as well as 8 other novels. Is This Tomorrow was an Indie Next Pick, a Jewish Bookclub Pick, a San Francisco Chronicle Editor’s Pick, and one of the Best Books of the Year from January Magazine. Pictures of You was a Costco Pennie’s Pick, and a Best Book of the Year from the San Francisco Chronicle, the Providence Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Bookmarks. She is also a book critic for People Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she teaches writing online at Stanford, UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and privately. A New York Foundation of the Arts Fellow in Fiction, and a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab, she can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com, on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/carolineleavitt, on Twitter at @leavittnovelist and through her blog, carolineleavittville.blogspot.com.
Once you make time for the writing, you need to protect the time as though it were a rare, precious heirloom (which it is).
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