Interview with Caroline Leavitt
- by Ann Canela
- June 11, 2013
Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt is the story of Ava Lark and her 12-year-old son, Lewis. Lewis befriends other fatherless children in the neighborhood, and one day his best friend turns up missing. Filled with guilt, blame, secrets and a heaping spoonful of Cold War paranoia, Is This Tomorrow is a haunting study of human behavior and values.
Never has the topic seemed more important than when scanning the daily news in the United States. What was your inspiration?
We’ve become increasingly polarized. There’s a war on women’s reproductive rights. There’s a war on what a family should or shouldn’t be. There’s still terrible ugliness towards gay people and Muslims. The last few elections were shocking to me in the horrible, ridiculous and uninformed things people in power were saying, but what was more horrifying was how many people were believing those things, and how so much spewed hatred was finding its way into the mainstream. People are scared and they are looking for someone to blame, and when that’s the general situation, terrible things can happen. It made me scared. It made me think about the whole McCarthy era, and it made me think about how I suffered growing up, being the only Jewish person in a very Christian town.
How did research play a role in the novel? Any links to real cases?
I researched everything. I hired two high school students as interns and a professional researcher, and I hit Facebook and Twitter asking, “Are there any male nurses from the 1960s who would be willing to talk with me? Any cops from the 1950s? Any pastry chefs?” People came forward in droves, and I had so much fun talking to them because I got these amazing personal stories. While I didn’t link to any real cases of missing children, I spent hours with a cop from the 1950s who told me that a missing child case in the 1950s was so different than today. It’s actually only been since the 1970s, when Etan Patz walked to school on his own and vanished, that things changed dramatically. Today, we have Amber alerts, the Internet, milk carton pictures. If a child vanishes today, everything and everyone goes into immediate action. We watch our children. We’ve curtailed their independence in order to keep them safe. But in the 1950s, this cop told me, kids ran wild. Children could go off in the morning and play, unsupervised, in the woods until 8 at night and no one thought anything of it. Kids played in abandoned houses and no one really locked their doors. If a child vanished, it was treated the way a missing person case would be dealt with, which meant that valuable time was often lost, and the outcomes were often grim.
The idea of blame and something bigger to point a finger is an interesting commentary on the way people respond to a crisis. Tell our readers how this did or did not play into your themes.
It definitely played into it. I did so much research into the period, and the 50s was such a period of finger pointing and blame. Divorces were bad news and anyone who divorced was considered suspect, especially the woman. Jews had all the money and were responsible for World War II. And of course, the biggest boogeyman was the Communist. I found the educational videos and pamphlets on Communism fascinating. You could see that pointing finger! Look magazine, one of the premier publications of the time, actually ran a piece on how you could tell if someone was a Communist. It was both hilarious and horrifying. A Communist was someone who used words of multisyllables or words like “hootenanny.” A Communist read more than one book at a time. A Communist told jokes you didn’t understand. Every statement drips with paranoia. People back then were scared. Is This Tomorrow, my title, is also the title of a popular propaganda book, and the cover shows these big, huge men with hammer and sickles on their shirts, brutally attacking terrified Americans, who are running and screaming! In the 50s, Americans worried about the atom bomb, about Communists coming to our country and taking away our religion and putting our children in collective daycare. The propaganda was their means of control, of making themselves feel strong and unthreatened by supposedly “knowing the enemy.”
Have you been personally affected by a secret that helped the shape of the novel?
Oh, yes. Most of my secrets have to do with personal shame or things I buried and have never really talked about. Pictures of You was the first time I ever wrote about having asthma as a child and being bullied for it. Is This Tomorrow is really the first time I ever wrote about being Jewish. There was so much shame around growing up Jewish for me that I never wanted to write about it, much less think about it. It was just too painful. I never kept being Jewish a secret, but I never really expressed or explored it, either. And then I started writing the book, about an outcast woman, and suddenly she was Jewish, and suddenly she had my childhood, and the proverbial floodgates opened up. In writing about these often prejudiced neighbors, I had to make them living, breathing people, which meant I began to understand them, to see them as products of their time, and to even feel compassion for them and for their ignorance — and that healed me.
I have always wondered if suspense stories come fully formed in an author’s mind or if it is more of an organic process? How did this work for you?
For me, it started with the television show “The Killing.” I never intended to write a suspense story. I never really read them or even thought I liked them. But then, my novel Pictures of You became a tie-in with the series “The Killing,” and I thought, “Oh, I should watch this show.” To my surprise, I became instantly and totally obsessed. What I loved so much about that series was the way it approached its characters. The show would make you suspect one person as being a killer, and slowly and subtly lead you to believe a revelation was about to happen, and then at the last minute, they’d show you how that person couldn’t possibly be the killer, and your attention would fixate on another character. I loved that! I wanted to see if I could do that alchemy.
Since I am so big on story structure, I mapped everything out. I had a 30-page outline. Of course, as I wrote it, things changed. There were surprises for me, and I resisted writing the “what really happened” scene until the last moment, because I was so traumatized by it.
How do you believe our values have shifted now as opposed to in the 1950s?
A great question. As I wrote Is This Tomorrow, I began to realize that though, things have certainly changed, it’s pretty much more of the same. Substitute the word “terrorist” or “Muslim” for Communist and you have a pretty good idea of the kind of paranoia that was rampant back then and is running wild today. People still are suspicious of anyone different. While it’s certainly gotten better for women, it’s still not where it should be. There is that war on women’s reproductive rights, the feeling that women are not smart enough to take control of their own lives and bodies. Even in literature, men get most of the important reviews, and there is that odious term “Women’s fiction,” which implies that only women read it. There’s no “men’s fiction,” because everyone assumes everyone reads it. When a woman writes about domestic issues, marriage, children, she’s dismissed. But if a man does it, why, he’s Jonathan Franzen. I do think things are changing, but not quickly enough.
Kathryn Lang of the Boston Globe wrote “This is a wise novel about the pain of loss.” How do you like this description of the book?
I love it. I loved that review. I love being called wise because I often feel I am fumbling around, and I never know if my intent in any novel is successful until I hear from reviewers or readers. And as to the pain of loss — that seems to be a major theme I keep writing about. I’ve suffered so much loss in my life that maybe I feel by writing about it, I can keep it at bay.
Have you been surprised in any way by your reviews, current or past?
Oh! I love this question. I’m always surprised. While I love great reviews, sometimes a reviewer will praise me for something I didn’t consciously do, and then I think, “Do I deserve this praise?” Once, for my third novel, I got a review so terrible (“More psychopathology masquerading as fiction from the previously white-hot talented Leavitt — ”) that I stayed in my apartment for a month, doing nothing more than sobbing. Once, in the course of two hours, I got the best review I have ever received from a newspaper, comparing me to Alice Munro, and on its heels, was the worst review I have ever received, one that hated everything the good review had loved. So which one was a correct assessment? Becoming a book critic myself helped put it all into perspective. Ultimately, a review is one person’s opinion. Not all books are for all readers, and I’ve come to realize that my job is to do the work, to write the book I need to write, the one that will change my life. If I can do that, then maybe it will change other lives, too.
You’ve written more than 10 books. Has your process changed?
It has, actually. When I started out, I was one of those “follow your muse” type of writers, which meant it took me years just to figure out what I was writing about. Then, about six years ago, one of my students in my UCLA online writing classes told me about John Truby story structure. Truby is some kind of genius who looks at story almost philosophically. He eschews the three-act structure, and instead uses moral choices that a character might make, reveals and reversals, to craft a story. Though primarily for screenwriters, his method of structure seemed to work for novels, and I used it for Pictures of You, which became my first New York Timesbestseller. I used it for Is This Tomorrow, and the script I wrote was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Fellowships. It changed my life. I feel that my writing now actually goes deeper (or at least I hope it does), and that I can actually be more creative because I build my stories on a very strong spine.
How different is your approach to writing for children?
Oh, it’s totally different. It feels lighter to me, but that might be because of the kinds of books I write for kids. For a few years, before the series dissolved, I wrote the Wishbone books, based on the PBS Emmy award-winning TV shows about a little dog who loved classic literature. I spent my days thinking up dog puns! (“The scenery is lovely,” Wishbone says as he passes a reeking garbage can.) I’m not trying to make kids uncomfortable, but in my adult novels — well, I want people to be disturbed, to have their psyches unbalanced a bit.
Ann Canela is a published poet and a founding member of the 12 Gauge Brooklyn Writing Group. Her work has been featured in literary journals and online publications. She graduated from Hunter College in New York City and is a marketing and fundraising consultant in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @ann_canela