An Interview with Caroline Leavitt

The novelist talks process, podcasts, and Days of Wonder.

An Interview with Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is a terrific writer and a model literary citizen; her generosity is legendary. Her latest novel, Days of Wonder, succeeds at seemingly incompatible aims. It’s a page-turner and an investigation into questions concerning our criminal-justice system, the nature of rehabilitation, love, adoption, and how we pay for our mistakes.

How did you find the subject for this book?

I was at dinner with a new friend of mine, who leaned over and said she’d deliberately murdered someone and gone to prison for it when she was 15. There wasn’t a day she didn’t regret it. In prison, she got a high-school diploma and a college degree and became a peer leader. When she got out on early release, she moved out of her country, changed her name and identity, and took on a new career. She was doing fine until she hit her 40s. Someone found out and revealed it to the media. Stunned, she did the same thing again, changing her name, moving, always wondering: When do I get to be forgiven?

I thought about Leslie Van Houten, the last of the Manson Girls to be released from prison. She not only grieved what she’d done but had worked to make herself a better person, to help others, as well. Jean Trounstine, a prison activist and writer (her new book, Motherlove, is about mothers of children who have killed), got me into her class, Changing Lives Through Literature, to meet women on probation. We change, she told me.

How did you come to writing?

I was a lonely little girl. I lived in books and stories and was painfully shy. I wanted to write them. In second grade, I read one of my stories out loud about a little girl who gets stuck in a lion’s cage, remembers she has a cookie in her pocket, and they become friends. The kids who’d bullied me grew quiet and listened! I knew then that I wanted to be a writer. In high school, my English teacher said, “You’re not that good. Who do you think you are?” In college, my writing professor told me I would never make it. My mother begged me to have a career in teaching instead. Fortunately, I didn’t listen.

How about your publishing history?

I’ve had a strange career. I thought I was going to be a short-story writer and kept sending [out] stories. In my early 20s, I won first prize in the Redbook Young Writers contest! They flew me to New York City. I was on TV and in all the papers and interviewed by Publishers Weekly. Agents came to me! Editors came to me and suddenly, that story, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, was my first novel. The reviews were raves, and naively, I thought this was going to be my life from then on.

The next book did well, but not as well. My publisher went out of business. My third novel was a disaster. I bounced around publishers until my 9th book, Pictures of You, which was rejected [by a Big Five publisher]...I was sure my career was over. One of my friends had told her editor, Andra Miller, at Algonquin about my book, and Andra wanted to see the manuscript. They took that book and turned it into a New York Times bestseller its first week out. By then, I knew that success is about timing and luck, and things could go up and down again. The right thing was to keep my head down, focus on the writing, and hope for the best…I know publishing has ups and downs. It’s important to do what I love, to write the best book that I can. The rest is out of my hands.

Readers are always interested in the writing process. Can you talk about yours?

My process has changed so much. I started out believing in the Muse, and I ended up with 800-page novels that I didn’t know what to do with! I teach novel-writing at UCLA Writer’s Program Extension online and on Zoom, and about 10 years ago, a student asked me if I knew about Truby Story Structure, which talks about how characters have deeper moral issues than we think about, how every story has a skeleton you can build on. I went to one of [John Truby’s] classes and became friends with him and with his wife, the author Leslie Lehr. Because of Story Structure, I had my first New York Times bestseller.

I also learned a lot from story guru Jeff Lyons, who convinced me to write more detailed synopses, which he would vet. Now, I start with a character. I try to figure out what is it this character wants and why? What’s their misconception about why they want that? What happens to change them and how do they rise up again? What makes this novel important to ME? You have to write the book that you need to write. After I spend six months trying to write a synopsis — which will change many, many times as I am writing — I have to write a good first chapter and the very end. Having those two linchpins makes me feel, “Oh, I have a novel! I can’t give up now.” It’s a really long process for me, at least three years, but as hard as it is, I totally love it.

Tell us about your podcast.

When the lockdown began, Algonquin called me to tell me that my book tour had been canceled, including the big event in Houston where I would speak to a hundred librarians. I got off the phone shaking and muttering, “Nothing is canceled!” I made a video of the speech I was intending to do and sent it to Algonquin, who loved it and sent it to the libraries. Then I had an idea. I put up a notice on Facebook that I was starting the Nothing is Cancelled Book Tour and all you had to do to be on it was to give me a short one- or two-minute video of you talking about your book. You also had to shout-out another writer and shout-out an indie bookstore…We began to form A Mighty Blaze, envisioning it as a place where we could interview and help authors and help indie bookstores…We grew a wonderful community, a family, really. A Mighty Blaze is still a toddler at four years, but imagine what it will be like as a kid, as an adolescent, a teen, and an adult!

Martha Anne Toll is a book critic and a novelist. Her prizewinning debut novel, Three Muses, was published last fall. Her second novel, Duet for One, is forthcoming in early 2025.

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