Caroline Leavitt and Suzanne Simonetti discuss challenges, craft of writing fiction

Caroline Leavitt is the author of New York Times and USA Today bestsellers Cruel Beautiful WorldIs This Tomorrow, and Pictures of You (all published by Algonquin Books). Her other novels include Girls in Trouble, Coming Back to Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines, and Meeting Rozzy Halfway. She is also a “manuscript doctor” and tireless champion of other writers. She lives in NYC with her husband.

Suzanne Simonetti lives on the Cape May Harbor with her husband and a spirited pod of dolphins. When she’s not on her paddle board, she can be found at her desk crafting fiction and proving there is a place in this world for daydreamers. Stay tuned for details on her debut novel, The Butterfly Garden.

SS: I admire writers who are able to work in interesting and what I would consider to be romantic locations: beach, coffee shops, lakeside. Are you able to take your work anywhere or do you require a certain setting and conditions to concentrate?

CL: Ha! I have to work at the least interesting place I can find, which is usually my writing office on the third floor of our house. I do carry my little Mac laptop with me when I travel, but then the most interesting place is the hotel room!

SS: Much as I would love to fill stacks of notepads with script, I seem to be stuck at the computer. Are you able to write your stories longhand first or do you type your work straight onto the computer?

CL: I carry a notebook with me so I can write notes, but the actual writing is always on the computer. It just feels and reads differently that way. Plus, my handwriting is totally atrocious, and I often look at my pages of notes and cannot tell what the heck I was saying!

SS: Have you ever reached a point in a story you are crafting where you decide to just walk away? If so, did this open you up for new ideas? What was the outcome?

CL: This happens. It absolutely does. I wanted to write the story for Cruel Beautiful World when I was 17 and a friend of mine was murdered by her much older boyfriend. But I just didn’t have the experience to understand why a young girl would stay with someone like that. So I moved on to other things. Then I had my own emotionally abusive boyfriend and I began to realize that sometimes you are just brainwashed into being with a person, and the more you allow someone to define or control you, the harder it is to find your true self. When I finally broke up with this toxic guy, I realized that I understood my friend who had been murdered, why she might have stayed, and I was able to write about her.

SS: I know they say some ideas require more time in the oven. Do you keep a file of old ideas that perhaps just weren’t ready at the time, but that deserve revisiting in the future? Have any of those old ideas been revived into one of your novels?

CL: Yep, see above! Plus, the novel I sold to Algonquin was years in the making. I just didn’t know what to do with the idea and it kept morphing into wilder and wilder ideas that didn’t feel right, and then suddenly, I knew what to do. Sort of.

SS: I know sometimes in my own work, I have several voices inside my head giving me advice and opinions on certain scenes. Do you have friends/mentors who are with you in spirit as you craft your books? If you are willing, can you tell us who they are and why you rely on their expertise?

CL: Oh, I have so many. Mary Morris, the brilliant author of Gateway to the Moon and The Jazz Palace gave me this gem about research: “Don’t look for the facts. Look for the stories.” It was a revelation for me and totally changed the way I did my research. Instead of hitting the Internet or the library so much, I put out the word for people to talk to me so I could get firsthand and very human stories about what I was researching!

I’m so blessed (and blissed) to be with Algonquin, and my editor, Chuck Adams, and before him, Andra Miller, who is now at Ballantine, are always in my head. Chuck’s brilliant advice makes me want to be a better writer—and it’s made me a better writer, too. I showed him my synopsis and I knew there was a problem with it—he solved it in five minutes!

SS: What is your favorite part of the process as a novelist? What is your least favorite part?

CL: I love being in the zone, when you are in the story world and you cannot think of anything else, when the characters are grabbing you by your tee-shirt and insisting you listen to them. My least favorite is probably that terrifying time before and right after publication when you wait for the reviews, the sales, the everything.

SS: Reviews are a hot topic among writers, and everyone seems to have a different way of handling them. Do you read every review, good or bad? How do these reviews affect your psyche and/or motivation?

CL: I read every single review. I pay attention if they all say the same thing. The best thing I ever did for myself was to become a book critic myself (I write for the San Francisco Chronicle, People and sometimes The Boston Globe) and I began to realize that not all books are for all readers, and that a review is just one person’s opinion. There are lots of highly touted books that left me cold—and so many wonderful, incredible books that I championed that no one else was hot about. Reviews don’t change anything for me anymore. When I first started publishing, I’d cry and stay in my apartment humiliated. Now, I just write.

SS: For myself, I like to have pages of a rough outline and some idea of where the story is headed before I tackle scenes. Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”?

CL: I am a BIG story structure person. I have a detailed ten-page writer’s synopsis that I work from. Of course, it changes as I work, but it’s actually increased my creativity and it makes me less terrified because I can feel, “Well, I know what to do, even if it isn’t working right now.”

SS: What are you currently working on?

CL: I sold a novel to Chuck at Algonquin, on the basis of 70 pages and an outline (yay for outlines!) tentatively called This Other Life, a title I don’t love, but that’s okay because titles are marketing decisions, so it will be changed anyway! It’s about an aging rocker fighting with his longtime lover the night before he is supposed to fly out to California for his last chance break. They’re boozing it up, taking pills, and they both pass out. But he wakes up and she doesn’t, and he has to give up his chance [at success] to take her to the ER. When she finally wakes, she has a dramatic personality change (this happens in coma as the brain rewires), which disrupts both their lives and has huge repercussions for who they each think they are, and for who they want to be.

Whew, that sounds like a mouthful, doesn’t it?

I also have a pilot I wrote with Gina Sorell (Mothers and Other Strangers) that is now repped and being shopped, two scripts I wrote, and another novel I started which I cannot talk about yet because it is so, so fragile.



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