Caroline Leavitt is the author of the new novel Cruel Beautiful World. Her other novels include Is This Tomorrow and Pictures of You. She teaches novel writing online at Stanford University and the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and she hosts a popular blog, carolineleavittville. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Cruel Beautiful World?
A: When I was 17, I sat behind a girl who was engaged to a much older, controlling guy. I thought this was nuts. A year after I got out of high school, I heard the news. She had decided to break up with him, and he calmly stabbed her to death.
I was so haunted. I couldn't figure out how she wouldn't have known he was violent, or why she had stayed with someone controlling--not until 10 years later when I was in a controlling relationship of my own.
My fiancé had died suddenly and I was dying from grief. I went against the wishes of my mother, my friends and my grief therapist and threw myself in a relationship with a guy who didn't want me to eat (I was 100 pounds but he thought I was fat), didn't want me seeing my friends or even his friends, and very gently would criticize everything I did.
Why did I stay? Because I knew if I left, the grief would come back. I finally left when I found that he had deleted part of my novel and rewritten it--putting in a Groucho Marx joke!
Four years ago, I saw something online from the sister of my high school friend. She was still searching for answers. That's when I knew I had my story!
Q: You tell the story from the perspectives of various characters. Did you plan it that way, or did it develop as you were writing?
A: I always like to get into the heads of the characters, so I always write from different perspectives. Only my first two novels are first person, then when I realized how much fun it was to write from everyone's perspective, I stopped doing that!
Q: One of the major relationships in the book is between Lucy and Charlotte, who are sisters. What intrigued you about the dynamic between siblings?
A: My sister and I were incredibly close growing up. She was my hero, my everything. She took me to Love Ins and clubs in Harvard Square and even brought me on her dates!
When I turned 17, our dynamic changed. She got married young and moved away--and things were never the same. I yearn for that closeness we used to have!
Q: Why did you decide to set the book in the late 1960s-early 1970s, and what kind of research did you do to write it?
A: 1969 turned into 1970, and you could say that hope and the profound feeling that we could change the world changed into reality and Kent State and the invasion into Cambodia and the Mansons. It was really that moment when you had to ask, what do I do with my hope?
I was in college in the ‘70s, so I didn't have to research that, or 1969, but I still did. I talked to people who were at the student strike at Brandeis. I talked to people who had lived on communes or who farmed.
I talked to cops who were around in the early ‘70s and to someone who lived near the Mansons on Spahn ranch and who told me, "they were hippies, but not the good kind." I always find you get the stories from people. You can get the facts from books.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I actually was driving myself crazy working on two novels at the same time until my agent told me to put one aside because it needed a lot of restructuring. So I'm working on one now, but I'm deeply superstitious and I can't talk about a novel until it's got the okay from my agent and editor!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I really, really, really, really love chocolate and coffee.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb