A Conversation with IS THIS TOMORROW author Caroline Leavitt: “I was trying to turn the idea of the 1950s on its head”

Is This Tomorrow  caroline leavitt

What inspired you to write about a divorced woman in the 1950s? There is clearly some inherent conflict in that role, especially at that time. It couldn’t have been an easy situation for such women.

I grew up in a Waltham [Boston] suburb in the early 60s, part of the only Jewish family on a Christian block, and the only family more outcast than mine was headed up by a divorced woman. We kids were told not to go to her house because it was dirty, to stay away because she had all sorts of men, and not to talk to her. I disobeyed all the time. She painted my fingernails passion pink, gave me advice and cookies and showed me how to use eyeliner, and her daughter was my best friend. But when my friend was 12, she announced that the wealthy Jewish dentist she babysat for was going to adopt her, and I told her she was nuts. You couldn’t be adopted out of your family! But she was, and she left, and then two weeks later, her mother left, too. I kept asking everyone, “How could this happen?” I couldn’t get my mind around it. And the only answer I got was, “She was divorced. That’s how it happened.” I couldn’t get that out of my mind.

Did your original conception of the story include Jimmy’s disappearance, or was it focused on Ava’s transition to independence and Lewis’s coming of age? That alone would have made for a compelling read.

What a great question! No one has ever asked me that before, but what you said is actually true. Originally, it was just a story of being an outsider in a suburb. I was going to have a friend of Lewis’ move, but it began to feel that it needed something stronger. Then, at the time, Pictures of You became a tie-in to The Killing (AMC series). I had never really watched mysteries, but I quickly became obsessed. I loved what the writers did with character, and I began to wonder if I could write a mystery. So I tried!

You did a wonderful job of capturing the insular nature of a close childhood friendship. Your depiction of the children made them seem like real children, not an adult’s naive conception of kids. What guided your crafting of Lewis, Jimmy, and Rose and their intense relationships?

Ah, my own intense friendships guided me. I’m actually still friends with a friend I had in kindergarten. Maybe I remember my childhood so well because it was so unhappy, but I do remember what it felt like, and how important it was to feel there was someone like you, someone on your side. And I had a friend who used to flash Morse code on her flashlight out her window towards my window, and it was so comforting.

Jimmy’s disappearance early in the novel changes everyone’s life to one degree or another. His mother, Dot, goes into a tailspin. His sister, Rose, and his best friend, Lewis, are determined to play detective and find him. Ava feels sad, confused, and even a little guilty for the way their friendship may have appeared. It seems as if each character filters Jimmy’s disappearance into their own failings and needs. But mostly, the characters are powerless. I was impressed by your ability to show such a range of reactions and effects. What was the key to your success in doing that?

John Truby’s story structure. I learned about his method years ago from a UCLA student of mine and I quickly became obsessed. He eschewed three-act structure for what he calls “moral story telling” — and the first time I used his method, I had a New York, Times bestseller. I map all the characters out and have a 30-40 page detailed synopsis of the novel before I even write. Of course, it changes as I write, but the basic spine stays the same. I call it the Rolling Stones method of storytelling, because my basic idea is that characters can’t always get what they want (actually, they never do), but if they try, sometimes they can get what they need.

Jewish kids living in gentile neighborhoods often live a sort of double life: on one hand, they’re just white, suburban kids, often as “All-American” as anyone else. On the other hand, they belong to an ethnic sub-culture and a different and often misunderstood faith, and they know they are a little different. How does this mindset factor into Lewis’s sense of isolation in his new neighborhood? What is the relative weight of this fact compared to his parents being divorced and his father abandoning Ava and Lewis?

It’s a big fact for him. He’s ostracized by the other kids, taunted, teased, and made to feel different. In 1950s suburbia, being different was a terrible thing. And because Lewis didn’t have other Jewish kids to hang out with, his difference was felt all the more keenly. Being the child of divorce is terrible, too, but there is, for him, the hope that that might change, that his dad might come back. But being Jewish is being Jewish.

Ava could have made her life a little easier by toning down her beauty and sex appeal. It seems like that would have aided her acceptance in the neighborhood and at work. Why did you choose to have her remain true to herself in the face of so much disapproval?

Originally, in an early draft, I did have her doing just that, toning things down, trying to fit in, and I didn’t love the way it felt to me. I wanted her to have this big moral choice: if she did tone down who she was, she could be accepted, but what kind of acceptance was that? Was it worth it? Was the cost too high? I wanted her to be true to herself, even though there was still going to be a cost involved. And the fact that she did made me love her.

I was struck by your frank depiction of Ava’s sexuality (and later, Lewis’s) in an age that, superficially at least, was quite moralistic about sex outside of (and before) marriage. Could you talk about your decision to include that aspect of the characters’ lives?

Again, Ava is true to herself. She’s got sexual appetites — and for her to suppress them would have been being untrue to whom she really was. I wanted her to have this passion for Jake, a creative person. She’s as attracted to his ability to create something as she is to his body — and later, she finds she can create something (pies), too. With Lewis, it was a question of taking a risk to let someone in — to stop keeping himself hidden.

I was also trying to turn the idea of the 1950s on its head. Not everyone in suburbia was happy. Not everyone was the same. Not every wife was content to stay at home and cook and clean and let their husbands be the boss. The fifties had this whole idea that women didn’t like or need sex, which of course, is ridiculous. But I think people back then loved thinking that that was the ideal. It made you feel safe. And in control. And as we know, there’s no control.

Ava’s relationship with Jake is central to her post-divorce growth and recovery. On one hand, he is everything Brian wasn’t, but on the other hand, his presence in her life doesn’t offer her much in the way of social acceptance, since he’s a jazz saxophone player who rides a motorcycle and visits her after his gigs are over. Can you tell me a little about your creation of Jake and his relationship with Ava?

I wanted Jake to be the side of Ava that hadn’t come out yet. He’s off the beaten track and proud of it. Maybe he doesn’t look like the regular guys in the fifties, but none of them are particularly kind to her or to Lewis. Her ex, Brian, looked great on paper, but he left her for another woman and he drank. Jake actually is a portal into a whole new world for her. She leans against Jake to hear the vibrations of the music he plays. She loves that side of him, and later, she discovers the bliss of creating when she starts making pies.

I was surprised that someone as smart as Lewis did not go off to college. His decision to move so far away and lead the life of a loner was not what I expected. Why did you choose to have him work as a nurse’s aide instead? Why does he need the time and distance?

Lewis is a worrier. He’s the nurturer who can’t let anyone in to give him what he most needs — nurturing himself. I wanted him to have a job where he could do that, and I was thrilled in my research when I saw that there were male nurses in the early sixties. I thought not only was this the perfect job for Lewis, but it was kind of an echo of Ava. He was breaking barriers being a male nurse, allowing people to think he was a little suspect for doing it, and not caring. He had to be away from his mother to find out who he was on his own. I think if he could have afforded it, he would have gone to Europe.

One sub-plot I particularly enjoyed was Ava’s self-discovery through baking pies. It was just about the last thing I expected from her. It’s ironic that she obtained some hard-won independence through something as traditionally “housewife” as baking. What made you decide to work that element into the plot?

Exactly why you just said! It’s a traditional housewife job, but the difference is she gets paid to do it. She has a business. And that’s not something that good 1950s housewives were supposed to do. Men didn’t like it back then if women pushed boundaries. Men were supposed to be the breadwinners, not women.

What did you do in the way of research about life in the 1950s? Your depiction of that time is so finely detailed, whether in the neighborhood, at Ava’s job, at Lewis’s school, etc. I thought the inclusion of the paranoid, anti-Communist neighbor was a particularly apt touch. And, of course, he turns out to be more important to the plot than it first appears.

Ha! The anti-Communist neighbor actually lived in my 1960s suburb! He said those exact words to me about a notebook I had, which for some reason, did have a picture of Tony Curtis on it!

I did tremendous research. I hired two high school research assistants and a professional one, who was great. I Googled. And I went on Facebook and Twitter and asked for people to talk to. I needed a 1950s cop, a 1960s pie maker, a 1960s male nurse. And I found all of them! I talked to these people for hours, and the details were just remarkable. The male nurse told me that doctors smoked while examining patients and often gave patients cigarettes to relax them! I found brochures on “How To Tell if Your Neighbor is a Communist” (hint: if he reads books, uses big words, and tells jokes you don’t understand, chances are he is one.). I had fabulous vintage filmstrips and cookbooks, with recipes for things like meatloaf trains and Jell-o molds. I just immersed myself in the era.

How detailed was your outline/plan of the story before you began writing? The plot is fairly intricate, so I’m assuming this wasn’t a case of the characters slowly taking control of their own story and revealing themselves to you.

30-40 pages, which I kept rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I used Truby story structure. I did character maps.

How long did it take to write the book? Do you remember how many drafts you wrote?

Four years. I wrote about ten drafts (no kidding), changing it every time I showed it to someone who would have suggestions. In the early drafts, there was no love story between Lewis and Rose, just as Ava was not so feisty at first. Things just became discoveries.

What is your writing routine, and where do you usually work?

My husband and I were really lucky in that we were pioneers in Hoboken before it got gentrified and ultra-urban and chic, and we bought a 1965 three-story brick rowhouse. We use the top floor as our offices, and there is nothing more wonderful than having such a short commute upstairs, and being able to leave it all behind at the end of the day! I get up every morning around ten (I sleep late!), fuel with caffeine, and then I am at my desk until five. I work a few hours at night, too. I’m totally driven and obsessive.

We made contact on Twitter. How has your presence on social media helped you reach more readers? Do you have any concerns about losing some of the “mystery” that authors have long maintained? (For example, do you worry about posting items about your personal life or non-writing issues that concern you?)

Social media has definitely opened up my world. Not only has it given me more readers, but it’s given me more opportunities as far as reviews, interviews, etc. That’s another interesting question about mystery. While I’m pretty much an open book online, there is still a part of me I don’t share with anyone except close friends or my husband, and that’s in person. Maybe people online see 80 percent of what is there, but a lot is hidden because of privacy concerns. I’m moody and I do get depressed, but if I write that as a status, it will be light and jokey. It will be later, over coffee, with a real person, that I will talk about what’s really going on.

Which writers have had the most impact on you? (Can you include a reason why each author impressed and/or inspired you?)

John Irving. He wrote this amazing quote that says, “If you don’t feel you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then what you’re doing probably isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel that you are writing over your head, why do it?” I loved that so much, I have it pasted on the wall by my computer. It makes me feel better because that’s exactly how I feel when I write. Irving writes moral fiction. He goes deep. He isn’t just interested in entertaining. So, of course, I tracked him down and wrote him a letter telling him how much the quote meant to me. I was stunned to get a handwritten letter back from him! He said he had to read my letter twice because it was the first time he got a letter where someone wasn’t asking something of him! And he said he didn’t remember ever saying that quote, though it sounds like something he said. He inspires me.

Which contemporary writers do you particularly admire, and why?

I admire anyone who writes because it is so hard. I’m loathe to name names because then I always remember people I forgot afterwards and I feel terrible that I did!

Do you have any work in progress or stories about to be published that readers can look forward to?

I have sold my next novel, Cruel Beautiful World (well, that’s the title right now!) for publication probably in 2015 or 2016. I had so much fun writing about the 50s, I’m now going to write about that time when the golden age of the 60s turned sour. The Manson Girls. The Back to the Land Movement. And a killing. It’s a huge mess right now, but I do have my 35-page outline!

Thank you so much for these brilliant questions!


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