Sunday, January 23, 2011

Q and A with Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You

At the Girlfriends Book Club, we want our readers to become familiar with all the wonderful books by our contributors, but now and then, we also like to introduce you to some guest authors and their novels. I’m thrilled to present an interview with Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You. The novel has been featured in People and Oprah, and it’s a Costco pick for January.

Caroline Leavitt steers readers into a white-knuckle ride of lost love and longing in "Pictures of You," a novel that never disappoints for a second.”

Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Here’s a brief description

Two women running away from their marriages collide on a foggy highway, killing one of them. The survivor, Isabelle, is left to pick up the pieces, not only of her own life, but of the lives of the devastated husband and fragile son that the other woman, April, has left behind. Together, they try to solve the mystery of where April was running to, and why. As these three lives intersect, the book asks, how well do we really know those we love—and how do we forgive the unforgivable?

 What is the backstory behind PICTURES OF YOU?

Every novel for me starts out with an obsession. For me, it was my phobia about driving. I have my license, but my dirty little secret is I don't drive at all. I'm always anxious that I am going to cause a car crash! So I decided to write about the thing that terrified me the most--car crashes. I wanted to see how the lives of four different people would collide, so I created Isabelle, the photographer fleeing her philandering husband who has gotten his girlfriend pregnant; April, the wife and mother with a terrible secret; April's asthmatic son Sam, who has a secret of his own; and Charlie, April's husband and Sam's father, who spends the novel desperate to understand what his wife and son were doing in a car with a suitcase three hours away from home.

While I was writing, Sam, the asthmatic 9 year old emerged. I had had a traumatic childhood myself. I was sick with asthma (I'm fine now, it's very mild), and I had a great deal of shame and grief around that time. I never wanted to write about it, but Sam kept coming back into the narrative. The interesting thing is that in the four years it took to write the book, I didn't have any asthma at all! Of course it came back when I turned in the book, but in giving so much compassion to Sam, I healed my own grief.

I was also really interested in the question, how much do we really know about the ones we love? And what do we choose to believe about them? I was also really interested in the whole idea of forgiveness. Can we forgive the unforgivable? And should we?

Did you face any special challenges during the writing of it?

I always struggle with a new book. This one, like all of them, made me worry constantly that I would not be able to pull it off, that I was writing over my head, that I had no idea what I was doing. I always worried that I had no plot or that the characters were getting away from me. I know, though, that I just have to weather those storms and keep writing. That it's all I can do.

I do a lot of detailed synopsis and outlines, which change throughout the writing. I depend on writing friends and constantly email them to try out ideas. I tried to break some rules in this book, like introducing a character 7/8 of the way through the book, who tells his very important story and then disappears, or flash forwarding 20 years, and I was always anxious whether or not I could make this all work the way I so desperately wanted it to.

You've done some screenwriting in the past. How does your background in screenwriting inform your novel writing?

Screenwriting really helped me learn about structure. I began to study character arcs and pacing in a different way than I had before. I also began to think more visually, to understand how a gesture could reveal so much more than a line of dialogue. Screenwriting, too, is all about economy, which is helpful when you're used to writing these big, unwieldy drafts that can be 500 pages. It's helped me hone down the essentials of the story and keep things moving. It's also emphasized to me how important character is, how it's all about (in a Rolling Stones sort of way) the difference between what a character wants and what he or she discovers he or she really needs.

What is your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite?

I actually love all of it--even when I hate it. I love when the characters suddenly come alive and they seem to be breathing on the page. That's just magic. I love it when I begin to dream about them and think about them all the time. I also love when the pages make me feel deeply. I've sat over a chapter crying at my desk! My least favorite is at those moments when I feel that I've lost control, that I have no idea what I am doing and all the self-doubt begins to creep in. You start to think, "Oh, I can never finish this. What I'm doing is boring or horrible or worthless." The only way out of it is to hunker down and write more deeply, but it's really uncomfortable and difficult. I've learned that I just have to have faith and that I just have to keep writing.

I am very uncomfortable in the middle of drafts, which is where I am now on a new novel. Nothing seems to be holding together, and sometimes the only thing that keeps me from chucking the whole project is that the initial idea obsesses me so much I just can't let it go!

Who are some of your literary influences and why?

I deeply admire Dan Chaon for the way he explores character. Right now, I am reading everything by Kevin Brockmeier. I love the way he can write about distinctly odd and off-kilter situations, but make it all feel believable and grounded in reality. I'm trying to write about something a bit off-kilter in the novel I want to do after the novel I'm writing now so I'm actively studying his work right now. I also love Elizabeth Strout because her characters are so real.

Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of eight novels. Her essays and stories have been included in New York magazine, Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She’s a columnist for the Boston Globe, a book reviewer for People, and a writing instructor at UCLA online. Visit her at  


  1. What a wonderful interview! Thanks so much, Caroline, for sharing your insights with us. Pictures of You explores just the kind of family dynamics I love reading about most -- I can't wait to get a copy ;).

  2. Thank you, Marilyn!
    I was thrilled to be interviewed here and I'm so glad you want to read the book!

  3. Wonderful interview! Caroline, I so identify with so many things you touched upon. The book sounds fascinating. So glad you could visit us today and talk about it!

  4. Great interview with a great author!!

  5. Caroline, your responses are so honest and insightful and I appreciate them even more because I know how dedicated you have been to your craft. You don't just talk the talk...

    Looks like book #9 is your "overnight" success and I couldn't be happier.

    Onward my friend. Can't wait to see what comes next.