On Writing: Caroline Leavitt and Jennifer Gilmore


The lovely and amazing writers Caroline Leavitt (author of Pictures of You) and Jennifer Gilmore (author of Something Red) will read and discuss their latest novels in NYC at McNally Jackson on Tuesday, January 25, at 7:00pm. Today, as a sneak preview, Caroline and Jennifer have a mini-discussion about the writing process.


Caroline: I’m so happy to have this email chat with you, Jennifer! What I would love to ask you, since I’m suffering with this now, is how do you make the leap from the initial honeymoon stage when you start a new novel to the state you need to be in to get through the sloggy middle?  For me, this is when you’re in too deep to give it all up, no matter how messy it seems, and the idea still is obsessing you, but you are at a loss how to push on.

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The other thing on my mind of late is how you leave the novel you just finished to really fully immerse yourself in the new one–which is hard when you’re promoting the first!

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Jennifer: I would love to be in the honeymoon stage of a novel!  I’ve had a lot of false starts with this third book.  It’s funny, but I have a honeymoon thought process about a book, but it wears off very soon.  I love the sloggy middle as I know the characters are real, they’re moving, and there is some plot forming, I have the confidence to keep moving forward, but I don’t yet have to think about how I’ll revise.  For me, I write a draft fairly quickly–in relation to how long a book takes me–and I spend the most time revising, often restructuring.  The middle is a safe place for me.

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So tell me: You are one of the most prolific writers I know.  How DO you go from one project to the next so quickly?  How are you able to just throw yourself into it again and again.  I feel that I am far more gun shy!

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Caroline: I’m totally obsessive-compulsive.  I know I won’t be happy unless I am working on something new (and by not being happy, I mean cranky, peevish and impossible to be around), so I always try to have some idea in the future that is obsessing me, sort of like a carrot tugging me forward.  It’s strange now to give my new novel the attention I really want to give it while I am promoting Pictures of You, and thanks to the amazing and incredible Algonquin, there is so much promotion to do! I have to say this time around is worlds different for me.  It’s my 9th novel and the 1st novel, outside of my very first novel, where I had real and amazing support and attention from a publisher, and it’s made all the difference.  It’s like I discovered Santa Claus is real (and he’s everyone at Algonquin!)

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So, I want to ask you, how do you deal with reviews? You’ve received stunningly good ones, and you’re always on the top ten lists, but do you read and take your reviews to heart? My early reviews have been–and I am so, so grateful–tremendous, but a few mentioned that not all of my characters were likable, which surprised me. I never think you have to like all your characters; you just have to understand them. Would you agree?  What do you think about this? Isn’t the notion of a strong character a really complex or even a difficult one?

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Jennifer: I do feel lucky that my books have been reviewed seriously.  I read all my reviews.  And frankly anyone who says they don’t read any, well, I don’t know if I believe her. I think that’s one of the more interesting parts of being a fiction writer, when your book goes out into the world and readers–should we be lucky enough to find them (there’s that word again: luck, we use it so much in regards to being writers, don’t we?)–ask questions that I, as the writer, had not consciously thought about.  In this way they teach me.  I’m so happy your book is making its way so surely into the world.

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But this likable character issues troubles me.  The characters in my last novel, Something Red, are not always making good choices.  In fact, they often make bad choices.  While it’s a book about many things, at its heart, its about losing a grip on your dreams, or failing to live up to what you thought you’d be.  And your characters are making very human choices.  They are ruled by their hearts.  The point is, as a reader, I don’t care if I like the characters; I just want to know them.  I want to understand them.  Some of the greatest characters in literature are not terribly moral humans.  That said, I was on a plane last night and two women were talking about reading, which delighted me.  And then they were saying: there was not one likable character in the novel.  I had to put it down.  I stopped myself from interjecting, but I did think to  myself: what does that even mean?  Because as soon as a character gets complex, certain negative qualities are sure to come through.

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And while we’re talking about characters, can we talk for a minute about setting?  I’m thinking of your book and the landscape of the Cape.  And mine too: Washington DC is a character itself.  I’m wondering how landscape plays a role in illuminating your characters, in setting your readers staunchly in the mood of a place?

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Caroline: Landscape is definitely important–and so is the time period.  Your last novel Something Red was so firmly rooted in the late 70s and in place–I was at Brandeis then and you got every detail so achingly right. The Cape was an area I hated as a child.  The whole family went there every summer for two weeks and I always wanted to leave as soon as I got there, so I wanted to use that feeling of being caught, trapped, in a world of summer people–a place I surely didn’t belong.

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Thanks so much for this conversation, Jennifer, and—here comes my shameless plug!– I so look forward to reading with you at McNally Jackson in NYC on January 25th at 7:00pm. I hope everyone will come—and bring friends!


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One Comment On This Post:

January 29, 2011
12:53 pm
Sharon Miller says...

Thank you Algonquin for posting this email interview. It allows those of us who live too far from NYC the opportunity to share in the converstion with these two incredible authors.

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