Caroline Leavitt: Literary Can Be Commercial & Vice Versa


I got an email late last year from Leora Skolkin-Smith reminding me that our mutual friend, Caroline Leavitt, had a new novel coming out at the start of 2011. Since then, Pictures of You has been getting a lot of attention, and a reputation as the year’s first breakout “upmarket commercial” novel. (“Upmarket commercial” in this context is marketing language for “a very compelling story told in very polished prose,” and at 150 pages in, I can confirm that characterization.) Caroline and Leora have known each other since they began working together on adapting Leora’s novel, Edges, into a screenplay (now in preproduction with Triboro Films). “We soon began sharing the travails and triumphs of the writing life with our novels,” Leora says, “and then began sharing our personal lives, as well, until now we’re pretty inseparable.” So with Pictures of You arriving in stores, it seemed like a natural fit for Leora to ask Caroline some questions about the novel.

Your blurbs are a truly unusual mix of writers, running the gamut from Robert Olen Butler to Jodi Picoult. Some are intensely “literary”, even “experimental”, and others, talented genre writers. You have a democratic notion of literature and story-telling and you don’t wage an battle against either camp—the “literary” or the “commercial”, a battle that seems to be always flaring up in our writing world far too often (for me anyway). Can you talk a little about your understanding of genre, of fiction and story-telling? And how you see this battle as it wreaks havoc on our collective literary universe?

I hate the notion of genre, because I think it stonewalls the reading experience. Why can’t a literary novel also be a commercial page-turner? Why can’t a commercial romance also be literary? Why do we have to pigeonhole books and writers as if readers aren’t smart enough to discover what a book is offering them just by reading it? I’m hoping the lines between literary and commercial are going to blur more and more. (Case in point: Look at Justin Cronin who wrote a literary and highly commercial vampire novel!) I deliberately wanted to span the gamut of writers for blurbs for Pictures of You—male, female, literary and commercial—simply wanted to underscore that hopefully, a wonderful read is a wonderful read and we really don’t need to always be making value judgments about a book before we’ve even read past the first chapter.

Caroline, you also helped me through a thick, very intellectual novel I couldn’t break through: my latest, Hystera. As someone who had studied with Susan Sontag and Donald Barthelme, the whole notion of “plot” scared me, it felt so contrary to my more language-oriented writing self. But you helpedme formulate an organic method of plot through character, and language, that wasn’t an action-laden wish-fulfillment for an audience. Can you talk a little about your understanding of plot?

I learned a lot about plot when I started to write scripts, how one thing could lead to another in a very organic and visual way as long as it came out of character need. Pictures of You swirls around the collision of four characters: Isabelle, a photographer fleeing her philandering husband; Charlie, desperately searching for answers to what his wife, his son and a suitcase were doing three hours from home; April, his wife who harbors a terrible secret; and Sam, their frighteningly asthmatic son. Within those characters, I tried to build on what they each desperately wanted and couldn’t have verses what they ended up realizing they needed. I kept homing in on why they wanted what they wanted and why they couldn’t get it. The more I kept that idea in mind, the more my characters began talking to me, and the more plot seemed to evolve for me. On a side note, the funny thing about my writing scripts is that although I’ve won some prizes for them, I’m usually told my scripts read too much like novels!

Okay, let’s talk about what you have planned for the future. What’s obsessing you now?

I’ve sold another novel to Algonquin, my beloved publisher, tentatively called The Missing One, which is set in the 1950s and early ’60s in a suburban neighborhood, so besides obsessively writing I’ve been doing a lot of research. And, ah hem, I want to adapt your next novel, Hystera, for the screen if you’ll let me!

26 January 2011 | interviews |