Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Q&A with Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is the author of the new novel With or Without You. Her many other novels include Pictures of You and Cruel Beautiful World, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Psychology Today and Salon. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for With or Without You, and for your characters Stella, Simon, and Libby?

A: Twenty years ago, something traumatic happened to me, but I couldn’t remember or process it—and because of that I  couldn’t emotionally heal.

My family and friends, those who did remember, were so traumatized themselves that they couldn’t bring themselves to tell me anything about that event.

I was in a coma. I had a rare blood disorder  and wasn’t expected to live, and doctors gave me memory blockers to blot out the pain. When I miraculously survived, my mind was blank of the event, but my body was plagued with post traumatic triggers that spiraled me into panic.

Needing desperately to understand, I began to research comas and I discovered, to my shock, that some people woke--better---with brains and personalities scientifically altered.

One homebody woke up speaking fluent Mandarin and moved to China. A shy teacher with a tin ear woke up a charismatic piano virtuoso and began filling concert halls. These people became totally different with different memories!

I knew that to heal from my trauma, I had to somehow create new memories, too. I created a couple in their 40s, Simon, once famous and now a fading rock and roller, and his sensible partner Stella, who goes into coma.

Unlike me, she’s remembers everything.

Unlike me, too, she wakes with a totally different personality AND an extraordinary talent, being able to not just paint gorgeous portraits, but to capture the inner lives of her subjects, giving her a notoriety she can’t handle and the fame Simon yearns for.

Through Stella, I got to reexperience my coma in a new way, and be released from my trauma.

But I also wanted to explore how love changes and how we really do all contain multitudes. I also wanted to explore the whole idea of what it means to be famous, and what it means to lose that fame.

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I have a friend Joseph Clark, who is a neurological researcher in Ohio and he was my go-to person for all things coma.

EVERYTHING surprised me, especially the ability to wake with extraordinary new talents. Do we all have this, I wondered? Or does the state of coma rewrite our brains?

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I always start my novels with a 30-page synopsis that takes me about six months  to do, and then as I write, it all gets thrown away. There were so many false starts!

At first, Stella woke from a coma with a gift of healing and then that began to feel too woo-woo to me, so I dropped it. Stella’s gift of art didn’t come until the 5th draft!

I was always surprised. I never knew how the novel was going to end until I got there—and after many tears and upsets, I knew what they were going to do.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?

A: So much of the novel is really about love. Who we love and why. And how we can love people and ourselves in better ways.

I also wanted readers to know that you actually can, at any moment, through all sorts of ways, become a totally different person. You can create new memories to heal the old.

I know. Because I did. And I want readers to know that love changes as we change—and that is a wonderful thing.

I also wanted readers to know that being famous and loved by thousands of people is not as great as being loved and truly known by just one.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I sold my next novel, tentatively called Days of Wonder, to Algonquin, on the basis of 70 pages, and now I have to write it!  There’s nothing like a deadline to make you anxious, right?

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m thrilled that Algonquin is repackaging the first novel I did with them, Pictures of You, with a gorgeous new cover.

I loved the painting of that cover, and of With or Without You so, so much, that I contacted the artists and had them paint me canvases which now hang in my office!

Pictures of You is a novel that is really important to me because it was rejected on contract by my then publisher as not “being special enough,” and I was sure, after nine novels that had not done so well, that my so-called-career was over.

But a friend got me to Algonquin and when I told them, wanting to be truthful, that “I don’t sell books,” they laughed and said, “Oh, you will now.”

They took that “non-special book” and got it into six printings before it was even published, and it was a New York Times bestseller its second week out, and a Costco Pennie’s Pick!

I feel like that book is my message to everyone: don’t ever give up. You never know what magic is around the corner. Which, actually, is the message of With or Without You, too!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Caroline Leavitt.

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