Interview with Caroline Leavitt

I loved reading about how you changed and grew resilient, brave and strong. Do you ever look back at your early years of your marriage and wonder how things would have unfolded if you had been that way back then?

One of the biggest lessons I learned about writing memoir is that you need to include sparks of reflection — what you knew then, what you know now. Who am I in light of who I was?Well, what I know now is that I actually was resilient, brave and strong all along. I just didn’t know it. My grandpa called me “Flimely,” a Yiddish word meaning little bird. That image of me stuck. I was sweet, demure, too small to be taken seriously. Even though I broke my engagement three weeks before the wedding (not to the man I’m married to), even though the all-white high school I taught in was one of the first schools in Georgia to admit black students and there were fierce fights every day, even though after teaching for two years I moved to NYC alone, I did not see myself as strong or brave. But here’s the truth: I was strong and brave andsweet and demure. I didn’t know you could be more than one thing. It took writing this memoir to find all the parts of me, to understand that we are all many things.

 

There is one line in your book that made me burst into tears: young love turning into old love. There is, to my mind, something extraordinary, about going through something with another person over a long period of time. It’s easy to be in the rush of love, but navigating the sharks and man-eating jellyfish that pop up are something else, yet it is these very horrors that make love deeper. Can you talk about this please?

Oh, Caroline, I love that my book made you cry!

In my memoir, I write about how, on our wedding day, my husband and I believed everything would stay exactly the same as the minute the two of us ran down the steps of my parents’ house in a snow of rice. Look at that brand new husband and wife on the cover of my book — the wife’s “going away” outfit, how she holds her little white gloves in her hand, the husband’s suit pants too short. But really, if we’re lucky, if we’re fortunate enough to spend years together, we’ll face change — both the slow, ordinary changes that life’s forward momentum brings and the sudden, dramatic ones that take us by surprise. Identities will shift. Roles will switch. When my husband had an epidural to relieve his back pain, something went terribly wrong and he was paralyzed from the waist down. We had both colluded in seeing him as the strong one in our partnership. I used to joke I was like Patty Hearst: I married my bodyguard! But then I was forced to take over. My husband was forced to give in. I write in my memoir: These shifts do not necessarily cause a marriage to falter. They can strengthen it. If we take the aerial view. And keep creating our marriage as if from scratch. And keep falling into bed with each other.

 

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I tell creative writing students we have to write about what keeps us up at night. What’s keeping me up now? I’m working on a new memoir about how I walked alongside the civil rights movement, never for one minute linking arms with the people marching down the middle of the street. Because I grew up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, attended the University of Georgia, taught school in Atlanta – during the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ’60s — I kept finding myself in situations that turned into junctures. Junctures interest me. We neglect one path in favor of another. We go straight instead of turning. Our lives play out.

What else am I obsessing about? How my 10-year-old grandson’s report on Louisiana is coming along. What kind of drivers my 16-year-old identical twin granddaughters will be. I’ll be 77 when my new memoir comes out in February — will I be too old to remember how to give talks and readings? Do I need new boots for the winter?

 

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

What have I learned about writing, success, failure?

Here’s what I know: You can spend years working on something you’ll end up throwing away. The truth is, when you begin a new book, you cannot know if it’s going to be okay, or even if it has the potential to be okay. My second collection of poetry was titled, Wanting To Know the End.But we can’t know the end. We can’t know if our children will flourish and be happy. We can’t know if our house will sell. We can’t know if we’ll be successful in what we write. Who even knows what success is?

After I’d written poetry for years and was yearning to write prose, I studied The New York Times Book Review to see how long a novel had to be in order to be called a novel. I found one that was 206 pages. Great! All I had to do was fill 206 pages.

There’s a lot you cannot know when you begin. No one out there is begging you to write. No one even knows if you got a single word down today. Your job is to just push on. Your job is to write the next word, the next sentence, another page. Try to make it to 206.

I Love Giving Interviews and Talks!

When I was little, I entered talent show after talent show, never winning but always hopeful. I’m really just a ham. I no longer tap dance or twirl a baton, but I do love giving readings and talks. I especially like tailoring a talk to a specific group — whether it’s a Friends of the Library event, book fair, writers’ conference, civic group, religious organization, or any gathering of women.

For example, I can talk about relationships (the changes that take place in every marriage – the slow, expected ones and the sudden, surprising ones); the importance of taking on new challenges as we grow older; how we patients must navigate today’s health care system; the craft and process of writing – or more specifically, writing memoir and personal essays. I can talk about the similarities and differences in writing memoir, novels, and poems; how I’ve used details from my life in my writing. I also love encouraging others to write their story. I believe there are a lot of people out there who want to turn their memories and real-life experiences into art.

Got another idea? Run it by me. I’m always happy to come up with a new talk.