Jaime Boler: Thank you, Caroline, for letting me ask you these questions. I devoured Is This Tomorrow in one sitting and loved the tense, suspenseful atmosphere you create. I know this novel is very personal to you. What was your inspiration for Is This Tomorrow?
Caroline Leavitt: I grew up in the 60s and my family was the only Jewish family on a Christian block. I grew up hearing, “You killed Christ,” and “Where are your horns?” and in third grade, I was even given a test on Jesus and the apostles in public school! But there was another family that was even more outcast—a divorced woman with two kids. She had a lot of boyfriends, she was sultry, and she was therefore, suspect. I was friends with her daughter who kept telling me that the family she babysat for was going to adopt her and I kept telling her that was impossible.
But it actually happened. Her mother gave her up, she left with this family, and shortly afterwards, the woman and her son just vanished. I was haunted by that. I wanted to write about what it feels like to be an outsider in a closed community, and I also wanted to write about the 1950s, when everything was supposed to be perfect and everyone was supposed to be the same, and anyone who was not, was somehow punished.
JB: Did you always want to be a writer?
CL: I did! I was a sickly little girl with asthma who spent a lot of time in the library or at home when other kids were playing. I wanted to validate my experiences and I could do that by writing about them. Plus I loved creating these whole worlds!
JB: Please describe Is This Tomorrow using ten words or less.
CL: Tense. Paranoia. Yearning. Fear. Suspicion. Love. Mothers/sons. Fathers/ sons.
JB: Is This Tomorrow is your tenth novel. How was writing this book different from writing your first or second book? Does it come easier?
CL: It never gets easier. There’s a famous John Irving quote (I love John Irving) where he says if you don’t feel that you are writing over your head, that you have no authority to tell your story, and that everything is about to fall apart instantly, than you are not writing hard enough. You are supposed to feel sick with nerves and terror! And I think he’s right.
Every book is something brand new and it is always hard, filled with terror, filled with joy, and monumentally difficult and wonderful. It’s different than writing my first because I know to expect these states so I don’t panic over them as much anymore!
JB: I often hear that writing a book and then seeing it on shelves is like being pregnant and giving birth. Is it like that for you?
CL: I would say no, because for me being pregnant was pure bliss. I loved all of it, from the morning sickness on down to the labor pains. And giving birth was just a day out of the whole 9 months. To me writing a book is more like running a marathon with a stone in your shoe and blisters on your feet, and every once in a while someone hands you a band-aid and some cold water.
JB: Your family moved to the suburbs of Waltham, Massachusetts, in the 1960s. Yours was the only Jewish family in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. How were you seen as “different”? Did you feel like an outsider?
CL: I was a total outsider. I wasn’t just Jewish, I was also sickly with asthma, and I was really smart in a town where only 10 percent of the high school went on to college and being smart was viewed with suspicion. (Many people thought that smart people were Communists.) One of the ways I got through it was looking to the future. I knew I would get out of Waltham, that I’d go to college, that I’d be a writer.
JB: Which character’s voice did you hear first while mulling this story in your head?
CL: Ava. I heard and felt Ava’s pain in struggling to make a home for her son, to avoid her ex-husband getting custody, to get to work on time, and to deal with the adoration of her son’s best friend all at once!
JB: Why did you set your story in the 1950s and 1960s?
CL: Because it’s such a fascinating time for me. The suburbs in the 1950s were supposed to be the American dream! There was money in the bank, cars in the garages, women had all these modern conveniences, yet the undercurrent was that everyone was terrified of the atom bomb and of a Communist takeover. There were all sorts of pamphlets written about how to spot a Communist (beware of multi-syllabic words!) and how to survive an atom bomb (Wipe your feet before you come in the house to get rid of excess radiation.) Women were second class citizens and people were very, very paranoid about anyone even remotely different. The 60s was on the cusp of change, but even in the early sixties, it was still pretty unsettling a time.
JB: Is Ava loosely based on your own mother?
CL: Not really. Though when Ava marches up to the school to complain that Lewis has a test about the apostles—that was my mom!
JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing Is This Tomorrow?
CL: When I had to write what happened to Jimmy and why. I felt such despair. I wanted to skirt over it, but I knew that I couldn’t, and it haunted me for weeks.
JB: Did you discover anything new about yourself in the midst of writing Is This Tomorrow?
CL: I discovered a new compassion for the people who had made my life difficult when I was young. In creating fully realized characters, I began to understand that they had their own issues and problems and they were doing what they felt they had to do. And I began to realize that writing about my childhood in Waltham was actually liberating. I could look at it through a much more compassionate lens.
JB: How were earlier versions of the story different from the final copy?
CL: The earlier versions were not fully formed. Around the 6th draft, I realized part of the book was a meditation about mothers and sons, and letting go. Around the 8th draft, I began to see that there was a love story forming and so I worked really hard on that. And around the 20th draft, I knew what exactly had happened to Jimmy and why.
JB: Do you have lots of different ideas for future stories in your head at one time? If so, how do you decide which idea to pursue, what to keep for later, and what to discard?
CL: I do. If it haunts me over six months, I know it’s a keeper. I have a folder called NEW NOVELS and I throw in ideas. Some of them are things I’ve been wanting to write for years and years, but I just haven’t figured out how yet. To me, it’s all in the timing. Some ideas are like wine. They just have to be aged a bit for me to realize what the real story is and why it’s important to me.
JB: You are also an avid reader, reviewer, and blogger. How has blogging changed book marketing and publicity?
CL: Blogging is fantastic! I started blogging because I thought that was what writers were supposed to be doing, but then I was also reviewing books for People, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Boston Globe, and there were often books I loved that I couldn’t place, or I couldn’t pitch because I was friends with the writer (that’s considered unethical). So I figured what I could do was conduct interviews with writers. That way I could give them press and I could have fun and learn something about writers I admire! There are fewer and fewer newspapers and book review sections, and blogging takes up the slack beautifully.
JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
CL: I’m a movieholic. I love independent films (I was actually a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lab this year), but I will see anything that moves on the screen, which means a lot of times friends refuse to go with me because of my choices. I also read all the time and I love prowling NYC, and going from museums to shops to restaurants to parks.
JB: Any hidden talents we don’t know about?
CL: Well, I was the proud owner of a gorgeous tortoise for 20 years. I used to walk him in Central Park. I wrote about him for NYT Modern Love. Before I got married, my tortoise was my litmus test for boyfriends. If a man would eat dinner while the tortoise was on the table, then he was a keeper.
JB: Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?
CL: John Irving, The Ciderhouse Rules, The World According to Garp
Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isobelle
Dan Chaon, Stay Awake
Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings
Anything by the Brontes!
And of course all my writer friends’ books. If it is on my blog, chances are I adore it.
JB: There are so many great books that come out each month (even each week). How do you decide which books to read and review for your blog?
CL: I’m a great scout. I sometimes hear about books by seeing a post on FB or twitter. Sometimes writers or publicists will write to me about a book, or sometimes authors will suggest other books that I might like.
JB: What advice do you have for anyone working on a first novel?
CL: Don’t. Give. Up. See if any part of your novel in progress might work as an excerpt. (Check out Poets & Writers, a great resource for that.) Try to build community with other writers so you have a support system in place. Always help other writers. It’s good karma and that also helps you build community. Attend conferences so you know editors and agents.
Also, do not write for the market. Do not write for a reader. You will kill your art. The way to reach others is to write for yourself, to dig deep. That is what will make your work universal and true.
JB: What is a typical day of writing like for you?
CL: I get up at 7 to see my son off to school, then I hit my desk and stay there until lunch. My husband works at home, too, and we have lunch together. Sometimes we take off and go see a movie! But then we are back at our desks until dinner. After dinner is what I call clean-up time, where I handle all the odds and ends I have to do. But we have a rule. No working after ten. And we stay up until one, so we can decompress and have a life!
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Is This Tomorrow?
CL: That fitting in, especially in a closed community, is not always what you want or need to do. That you can find your own community and it may not look anything like what you thought it would, but it can still nourish and support you. That paranoia can destroy lives. That love and hope can save them.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
CL: I just sold a proposal for my next novel, CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD to Algonquin, which I now have to write. It should be out 2015. It’s set in the waning days of the 1960s and the early 70s when all the peace and love movement began to turn ugly, and it centers around a young girl who runs off with her older high school teacher to a back-to- the- land Utopia, which turns unexpectedly tragic.
JB: Thank you, Caroline, for a wonderful interview. Good luck with the book!
CL: Thank you so much for these wonderful questions!