I’m happy to be here today interviewing the very strange, sometimes reclusive and sarcastically silly Caroline Leavitt about her new novel, Pictures of You. The novel swirls around a mysterious car crash in the fog, and the colliding lives of four people: Isabelle, a photographer fleeing her philandering husband; April, a wife and mother with a terrible secret; Sam, a young asthmatic with a secret of his own; and Charlie, the husband and father who is desperate to know what his wife and son were doing in the car with a suitcase three hours away from home. Leavitt insists the novel asks, how do we really know the ones we love and how do we forgive the unforgivable? I want to thank Caroline from taking time away from her renowned obsessive-compulsiveness to answer my thoughtful and probing queries.
So you wrote a book about a mysterious car crash, but you don’t drive even though you have a license. Is there something wrong with you?
Like all 16-year-olds, I got my license, and all they made me do to get it was drive around the block. But I couldn’t drive. The last refresher course I took, the instructor told me, “You are the worst driver on the face on the planet. Some people aren’t meant to drive, Caroline, and you’re one of them.” I was shocked! Maybe why I don’t drive is because I’m obsessed with car crashes. I don’t even like to be a passenger in a car because I constantly worry, what if the car crashes? What if someone is killed? I thought I might work that phobia out by writing about a car crash and the colliding lives of four people involved in that crash, but I think it actually made my fear worse.
Isabelle, one of the people in the crash, actually has an issue with driving after the crash. She can’t get into a car without feeling nauseous, and she takes driving lessons and is told the same line, “Some people are just not meant to drive.” When Isabelle is around, (because all characters are real, aren’t they?), she and I walk everywhere.
Someone told me you’ve been going around telling people that in the four years you wrote Pictures of You, which features an asthmatic ten-year-old boy, your asthma actually got better. So there really is something wrong with you, right?
Sam, the boy in Pictures of You, didn’t start out asthmatic. But then he began to show the symptoms and I quickly deleted all the files. I had been severely asthmatic as a child (it’s all very mild to non-existent now), and I still harbored a lot of shame and grief about the time, and I would rather drill nails in my head then write about it. But he kept coming back. And I knew that sometimes the subconscious can bubble things to the surface and that what you want to be writing about isn’t always what you should be writing about. I also knew that giving illness narrative could be healing. So I wrote about asthma in Sam. And in the four years I wrote the novel, I really did feel so much better, I began to believe I was cured. The sicker Sam got, the better I felt! Right up until I turned the novel in and then I got sick again. Well, I didn’t cure my asthma certainly, but I did heal my shame.
You’ve said that your novel pays homage to the Elia Kazan film Splendor in the Grass. Can you tell us how?
I loved that film, the haunting quality of it, the way people yearn and yearn and somehow what they most want slips away from them.
Okay, so let’s get to the nitty gritty. Tell me about your lawsuits.
Uh oh. My first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway was written about a fictional Boston family, Ben, Bea and Rozzy Nelson. The book was about mental illness and the 1960s and was really about my feelings about my older sister, whom I adored. (She’s not mentally ill, by the way.) Before the book came out there was a whole lot of press about it, and with the attention, came a lawsuit. A family who lived in Boston claimed the book was about their lives. Their names happened to be Ben, Bea and Rozzy N—well, I can’t tell you their last name, but it was pretty close. They threatened to suppress the book. I was so upset I wanted to countersue. I had no idea who these people were or why they were doing this, but in the end, the publisher made me change the names to Lea and Len for the UK and paperback editions. I was not happy.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay called The Grief Diet about a controlling ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t let me eat, in an anthology called Feed Me. I didn’t use names or physical descriptions or even list his profession, but sure enough, the lawyers called me. But it was actually a different ex who was threatening to sue, and he wanted me not to be able to blog anymore, either. He said his wife was terribly upset. It was all very strange and of course the lawyers told him to go away, and he did.
How do you feel when people ask you, what’s a happy person doing writing such unsettling, sad books?
This drives me plonking crazy. I usually tell people that because I write unsettling, sad books, it allows me to be a happy person and that they wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t writing those kinds of books. But what really disturbs me is the idea that there is something wrong with a sad book. Those are my favorite kinds of books. I love to purge all that pity and terror! My son, who is 14, is the same way. If someone dies in a book or a film, well then, he wants to read or see it!
Why in God’s name did you have a tortoise as a pet and why did you immortalize him in Pictures of You?
Ah, the tortoise question. I found Minnie, my tortoise, languishing in a pet shop in a too small tank. He had beautiful orange ringed eyes and I bought him home, and for many months, he was the only living presence in my shoebox NYC apartment. He was great company and a fabulous comfort to me. I used to take him to Central Park and I walked him on my block. Inevitably someone would say, “Oh, is that dinner?” and I would have to educate them. Minnie was wonderful. He had a rubber squid toy he liked, a hollowed out log he burrowed in, and he was partial to cottage cheese, shrimp and avocado, all foods he couldn’t get in the wild! Minnie was my litmus tests for dates. If a man would eat dinner while Minnie was on the table eating his dinner (which was sometimes live worms), I would give the guy another date. My husband was the only one who passed!
Minnie died very recently, after being with me for 20 years, and I was sobbing in the vet’s office. I tried to bury him in our tiny garden in the back, but the ground was rocky, and I was covered in mud, and I ended up taking him back to the vet’s a block away and sobbingly asking them to please cremate him.
I wanted Isabelle, the photographer in the book, to find that same comfort in a tortoise, and she did. And I wanted to pay homage to Minnie.
Why in God’s name did you have so many different publishers? Was it something you said?
My publishing history is an odd one. My first three publishers went out of business. One of my other publishers, whom I adored, went out of business two months before my novel came out. The whole sales force fled and the book got two rave reviews and then sank into the quagmire. I now think that I must have been very good in a past life because I believe I have the best, most creative, most incredible publisher on the planet, Algonquin Books. I never want to go anyplace else.
So you’ve dabbled in the movie world as well? Do you know Brad Pitt?
I’ve had film options on a bunch of my novels. My first novel was set to go at Paramount when there was a director/writer strike. When my novel Into Thin Air was optioned I told my then agent I wanted to write the script, that I had written many scripts (this was a case of liar, liar pants on fire.) I spoke to the producer who asked me to fax him a script. I ran to the nearest bookstore and bought up every book on scripts and stayed up all night writing one act, which I sent to the producer. He called and said, “So, you lied. Why should I hire you?” I said, “Because I’ll do it for free.” He gave me six weeks to learn and I did well enough so he kept me on. And for two years, we got so, so close. At one point, Madonna was even going to make the book her directorial debut. In the end, the producer ran off with the co-producer and that was that.
Hollywood continually breaks my heart. I’ve won some minor prizes for scripts but nothing has ever seen the light of the Silver Screen. Right now there is film interest in Pictures Of You, and all my fingers and toes are crossed. And no, I don’t know Brad Pitt, but I’d rather know Steve Buscemi.
You and your husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, work across the hall together. Do you ever want to kill each other?
Nope. Being together 24/7 is fantastic. The only thing that makes it better is when our 14-year-old son is with us.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m totally obsessed with finishing this interview. But truthfully, I’m obsessed with my new novel that Algonquin is publishing. Tentatively called The Missing One, it’s set in the late 50s and early 60s and is about paranoia, suburban crime and the yearnings of fathers and sons. I’ve just about finished the first draft so now comes the really, really hard work.