Villains, Victims, and Vices: A Conversation with Author Caroline Leavitt
The writer talks about villains, victims, and vices – and why she snoops
In New York Times bestselling author Caroline Leavitt’s 11th book, “Cruel Beautiful World,” 16-year-old Lucy runs off with her high school teacher, William. Set in 1969, against the backdrop of the Manson tragedy, the novel grapples with grief, scandal and love before turning dark. Leavitt writes from Hoboken, N.J., often called NYC’s sixth borough.
What unifies your books?
I’m really interested in characters and people under duress. People living their life and something traumatic happens and makes them question everything they think they know about their life.
Where do you get your ideas?
From stuff that has happened to me. Something I’m trying to understand. “Girl in Trouble” for example was written after my husband and I were trying to openly adopt. We were never chosen and I couldn’t understand why. I couldn’t forget all the voices of those young girls. I wrote the book to try and understand what it’s like to be so young and growing up still and have a child. What it’s like to be a couple trying to adopt.
What’s the most difficult book you’ve written?
My first novel, “Meeting Rozzy Halfway.” I started out wanting to write short stories and sent the story into a contest. And won first prize and got an agent right away. She sold the short story as a novel. I panicked. But that was good. When you’re terrified, it signals you’re writing about something deeply meaningful for you. I feel the novel’s job is to go to all the dark and embarrassing places most people are afraid to go to.
What’s the most profound thing you’ve uncovered about yourself?
It was with my current novel. I ended up writing about my relationship with my real-life sibling. I meant it to be a love letter to our relationship. Growing up she was my hero. And then she changed and became troubled and unhappy. And I’m this Pollyanna. I kept trying to help her and the more I tried the worst things became with us. As I was writing, the question became “how do you help someone you love when they don’t want your help?” The answer is sometimes you can’t.
The New York Times said repositioning William as a victim in “Cruel Beautiful World” was “mawkish.” Do you agree?
William was just a troubled man. I believe no villain ever thinks he’s a villain. I let him tell his story at the end. But you don’t know whether he’s telling the truth or even believes what he’s saying.
Have you ever been a victim?
I met this guy once who seemed nice. After three months we moved in together. Things started turning weird. One time we went out to a restaurant and I reached for a roll, and he put his hand over my hand and said “oh honey you would look so much better if you were five pounds thinner.” Then it started with my clothes. He didn’t want me to see my friends. My friends staged an intervention. They said “you look like death.”
You wear cowboy boots to readings. Why?
On eBay I saw a pair of red cowboy boots for $10. And I thought, a woman who wears those boots wouldn’t be afraid. I felt braver when I put them on. People started knowing me as the woman who wears cowboy boots. I’m not scared now. When I wear them now I wear them because I want to, not because I need to.
Do you have any vices?
Chocolate and coffee. You can’t get through life without coffee.