This is a slightly edited version of a conversation with best-selling novelist Caroline Leavitt. It originally appeared on her wonderful blog, CarolineLeavittville.
This is not a conventional thriller or mystery. It’s something really different. But it’s full of twists and surprises, and moves as fast as a thriller. I really want to talk about the writing strategy, and how you know when things are too obvious or red herrings, and when you know you’re about to surprise everyone. Your plot is so full of twists and turns that I was breathless. How do you manage to do this?
DJI: I’m so glad it surprised you! I’m constantly surprised by my characters’ tendency to stir up trouble. Plot, for me, needs to be rooted in a deep understanding of the character’s personal journey. If I’m tempted to throw in a bit of action just because the plot’s getting slow, that’s when it starts to feel gimmicky and obvious to me. I think hard about this stuff, because while I love to play with genre elements, I’m not setting out to write a thriller, or a mystery, or a crime novel. I’m writing novels that have those elements, but don’t fit easily into any of those genres. I think some readers get frustrated because the book is not the one they were expecting, it wasn’t the reading experience they usually have. But a book needs to succeed on its own terms, and I love it when a hear from a reader who says, this wasn’t what I expected, but I found myself reading in a whole new way. It’s intended to be a mind-expanding experience! That’s what I aspire to—because it’s what I look for as a reader, and what my favorite books do for me.
I always want to know what was haunting you when you started writing this novel? And did you find the answers you expected?
DJI: The novel really did begin with a haunting. I was pushing my son’s stroller through a neighborhood I’d lived in at 22 and didn’t visit anymore. I found myself in front of my former building and it was so unchanged, I had this strange feeling that 20-something me would come walking out of the door any second. What would she say if she saw me? That question stayed with me. I loved my life as a mother and wife, but I had largely shelved my creative work–and I thought she might be disappointed by that. I felt compelled to write this novel so I could see what she might say, how I’d explain my life to her, and how we might come to terms. I fictionalized it all heavily, created the characters of Abigail Willard and young A, and those two showed me the way. Writing their story forced me to clarify my thinking about the struggle to construct a meaningful life. And we build it with so many disparate elements–work, love, family, home, self. How do we make it all come together?
Do you think that motherhood and marriage impede a creative life, as Abigail wonders?
DJI: Well, I’m a lousy juggler. Of course there have always been incredible writers who were also working moms—Toni Morrison and Alice Munro, just to start with the major leaguers! But it wasn’t much talked about, how to manage it all. When my son was born, it felt like a kind of isolating oddity, to be writing with a baby in your lap. Now I see so many women writing essays and posts about pursuing their creative ambitions with young kids around, putting that part of themselves front and center. This has everything to do with how women have gained in voice and power in the literary world, and it’s so heartening. But honestly, most of my struggles were rooted not in my family, but in myself. I had so much growing up to do. And I think Abigail comes to the same conclusion, ultimately. It’s not her boys who are in the way. It’s her demons.
The idea of a woman being haunted by her younger self is so fascinating—because haven’t we all wondered what we would tell ourselves if we could? But also, as a quantum physics junkie, I truly believe that there is no real time, that all things are happening at once, and we can manipulate that fabric. Can you talk about that please?
DJI: Well, I agree. A lot of my headspace is devoted to memory, daydreaming, visualizations of future events. Living in some other moment. Just this morning while I was cleaning house, I had the strongest sense of deja vu, that time was folding over. I love the work of Brian Greene, who is a Columbia physicist and a wonderful writer for non-scientists. There is actually some support for the idea of meeting one’s younger self. Ever since Einstein, it’s been theorized that everything is happening all at once. If this theory holds true, then the only thing preventing you from hanging out with Caroline of 1990 is your ability to actually see her.
What would you personally do if faced with your former self? And what is the nature of self? Are we fooling ourselves? Do we create our identities daily? How much control do we really have?
DJI: I would love to see her. I thought a lot about her, writing this book, and grew to really cherish that young woman and all of her many avoidable mistakes and misguided notions. I’d tell her to worry less and claim more space. As for the question about identity, it’s so interesting that you should ask that. In the last year, I’ve been delving a bit into Buddhist psychology. I’m so intrigued by the notion of identity and self as meaningless, fluid, transient. Obviously, writing You Again, it’s all about deeply invested in the idea of self. But now I wonder if we can actually do away with that notion. Without a concept of “self,” what would be left to us? Enlightenment, a Buddhist might say. I just enjoy pondering it all. I have no answers, that’s for sure.
We question our memories—that resonated for me, because there have been studies of implanted memories, so we can never really know what’s true, and even if it isn’t true, but we believe it, what we do about it?
DJI: You’re making me think of the Buddhists again! They might say that the only thing that’s truly, indisputably real is the present moment. Some of us are suffering at this moment, some are content, many of us are just sleepwalking through it. Everything else–not just our memories, but our fears, our loves, almost of all that occupies our minds–are the stories we tell ourselves. Vital stories–because we make choices and take action based on our understanding of them. But it makes sense to me that memories can be unreliable. They are experiences saved in story form on the great hard drive of our brains– maybe our most basic creative work?
So much of this astonishing book is about choice. I especially focused on the “former.” Abigail, a former artist who is now a senior art director for a pharmaceutical company. Her husband who also is a “former” creative. It resonated for me big time, because while I was struggling to be a writer, I had to have a job job working for a company, and I somehow told myself when I had saved 500K I could quit. (Of course I never had that, and I quit anyway.) But the whole notion that sooner or later you have to “grow up” and if you haven’t made it yet, give up the struggle and do something “adult,” got under my skin. So in a way, would you say that this isn’t just about choice, but about what we CHOOSE to believe about ourselves?
DJI: Absolutely! From all the above, I think it’s clear that I’m fascinated by how we are controlled by our perceptions, beliefs, the stories we tell to ourselves. With age, we can look back on our choices and see how they were not necessarily made based on careful weighing of the facts. If that were the case, no one would ever fall in love! So yes, I used to think that being a grown-up meant listening to the “nos” I was getting from the publishing world and taking a “real job.” Of course, I needed the paycheck, so it was essential, as it is almost everyone. I didn’t have to internalize those rejections though. Now I understand “being a grown-up” as doing good and creating meaning, however and whenever I can. As long as I find writing a meaningful way to spend my remaining time on this earth, that’s reason enough to keep doing it, and I can figure out how to pay the bills too.
What, besides the terrifying state of our world, is obsessing you now?
DJI: I’m obsessed with trying not to be terrified, I think. We need calm and steady hearts and heads right now. So I’m searching for ways to get myself there, and to help others do the same, so we can finally win some of these crucial fights. Also, I’m very busy keeping the blight off my tomato plants. Every morning I pluck all the yellow leaves.
What is next for you?
DJI: I’m working on my third novel, and it’s taking form—a young woman finds herself playing detective while traveling in Europe. That’s all I can say right now. I’m getting back to teaching writing, which I love to do.