Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Q&A with novelist Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt
Caroline Leavitt's novels include Pictures of You, Girls in Trouble, and Is This Tomorrow, to be published next May.

Q: Why did you decide to set your forthcoming novel in the 1950s and 1960s rather than in the present day? What were some of the challenges or pleasures of writing a novel set in a different time period?

A: Well, everyone tends to romanticize the 50s, that it was a prosperous era, that everyone had big homes and families and they were all happy, but actually it was an age of great paranoia and frustration. The Cold War was on, women were forced into their roles as wife and mom, and no one liked anyone who was different. It actually seemed a lot like what was going on today in the country--the war against women, against gay people. I thought that that particular time would really work for my novel. Plus, I admit, it was so much fun to research. I now know what things float in Jell-o, and what things sink, thanks to my 1950s cookbooks!

Q: Your novels often deal with a tragic or difficult situation facing a family. How do you decide on a topic for a new book, and how do you put yourself into the minds of those characters? 

A: The subjects find me. I almost always write about something that has been haunting me for years, something I want to know the answer to. Is This Tomorrow came out of a story about a family that lived in my neighborhood in Waltham. There was no missing child, but this family was ostracized because the mother was divorced (shocking back then!) and they were poor and one day, the mother gave up her daughter, who was 16, for adoption to a rich family and vanished with her son. I never forgot it. I tried to write that story, and it veered off into Is This Tomorrow

Q: What kind of research do you do for your books?

A: I did so, so much research. I had three research assistants to help me, plus Ask a Librarian, plus FaceBook and Twitter. I would post, I need to talk to any male nurses from the 1960s, and instantly I would have two or three people who would tell me the best stories. Books can tell you a lot of things you need, but those personal details are just amazing. Some of the research took me forever. It took me two weeks just to find out what police used instead of crime tape back in the 1950s (they used rope and sawhorses).

Q: Do you have a favorite character that you've created?

A: I love them all. Even the ones who are not so nice. I understand them.

Q: Are you already planning your next novel after Is This Tomorrow?

A: Yep. Yep. I have about 100 pages of a new novel called Cruel Beautiful World, which is set in the 1970s, when all the peace, love, etc. began to turn ugly.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I also teach writing online at UCLA and Stanford and I work privately with writers on developing their manuscripts! Oh, and for twenty years, I was the proud owner of a cranky tortoise.

Interview with Deborah Kalb.

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