Author Squared: Caroline Leavitt and Heidi Durrow
Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everything in between
I'm so thrilled to announce this new feature for On the Bookcase! The first AUTHOR SQUARED combines two New York Times bestselling authors, Caroline Leavitt (Pictures of You) and Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell from the Sky). Both excellent book club picks!
Caroline: I know, for me, that often what I want to write isn't what I should be writing about, that sometimes the idea reveals itself to me. I never wanted to write about a child with asthma because my own childhood was filled with such terror and shame, but when I finally gave in to it, I actually began to feel better--both physically and emotionally about my past.
Heidi, do you find that what you’re writing taps into someplace deeper than what you expected? Or do you know right from the start what it is you want to tap into?
Heidi: It’s a tricky question because I think that I will always write about my core obsessions: what makes a family? What makes you who you are? How do we metabolize grief without becoming warped by it? What is the real role of racial and cultural identity?
The stories I tell exploring those questions—well, those reveal themselves to me—like for the new book I’m working on. It’s inspired by the real life of a mulatto strongwoman and circus performer of the Victorian era. She’s a fascinating character who embodies a lot of the questions of my writing—When I learned about her, I knew I had to write a story about her life and struggles.
But the other part of what you said is so interesting: that when you write about the difficult past, you actually FEEL better. I get that 100 percent because the same thing has happened to me in finally finishing my debut novel. I feel healed in some way now that I have written a book that in some ways mirrors my own struggles growing up concerning identity. In a way, I would say I feel more compassionate to my younger, flawed, searching, struggling self. I wonder whether you find that readers respond in the same way.
Caroline, do you think that they feel stories in their bodies when they read, the way that we feel stories in our bodies when we write? And if so, how do try to enhance that aspect of the reader’s experience as you write?
Caroline: That's a fascinating question. I definitely know that when I read books that reach me, something thrums inside me and I feel a connection. It's like that old song, "Killing me Softly With His Song." But I think the way to intensify that feeling, to make things more universal, is to dig deepest for what is important and unique to us when we are writing.
For me, I always feel that if I think about an audience at all, it smothers the work somehow. Readers respond when you're able to show the dark or hidden places that maybe they have been afraid or unable or unwilling to.
Heidi, I wanted to ask you about research. I'm overwhelmed by it in the novel I'm writing now, which is set in the late 50s and early 60s, and I imagine you must be doing a ton of it for your new novel--which sounds fantastic, by the way. How do you go about doing it and when do you know that it's time to stop? I feel as if I am drowning in facts! I want to have more time to do the writing, so after an initial burst of researching, I've hired an intern to help me! It's the first time I've ever done this and I'm curious about how it's going to work!
Heidi: Oh my gosh! I was just thinking of finding an intern—not to do the research itself necessarily because it’s in doing the research that I find the gems—the telling detail, the wonderful subordinate characters.
I imagined the new book vastly different when I first started the research—I mean it was solely focused on the character Miss Lala who I was learning about. But then I discovered these other wonderful characters who will serve as great counter-points—real life characters.
But yes, it’s hard to stop researching. Research can be stimulating but also a good way to procrastinate. So, I’ve had to stop with the research and now I am trying to find a way to use the information I’ve gathered best and for that, I think I might need an intern to help me organize these piles of papers and notes and thoughts.
Caroline, what kind of research are you doing? What stuff is most helpful? Listening to the music of the time, reading old newspapers, watching the films? And then the bigger question: why do we as writers torture ourselves this way—it’s hard enough to write a book finished but then to add on the worry about being historically accurate! I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into sometimes!
Caroline: Well, I've been finding a wealth of material in old magazines and newspapers. One of my characters is a 1950s divorced woman ahead of her times, so I've been diving into old Ladies Home Journals. Did you know they had pages and pages of diagrams for setting your hair? Did you know want ads were separated by male and female and the female ones always had words in them like, "Wanted: Cute, perky, pretty young woman to type, etc." I also think novels written at that time are helpful or TV shows of the times for me. I have a male nursing assistant, and I tried to find people in the nursing field from the early 60s. I found one guy who was a nurse (close enough) who gave me great stuff. Those are the real stories!
I agree with you, you find things in your own research, but I'm hoping because I gave the intern a wide berth, she'll find me lots of interesting stories. I've never had an intern. Do you find it hard to give up control?
I think we torture ourselves because we want to push ourselves into the unknown, but with it comes the terror. I agree, What have I gotten myself into? I write a modern novel and there usually is at least one person catching me on something I got wrong. How will I manage in the 1950s? Plus, you don't want to hammer people over the head with historic details so they seem planted there. They have to be organic.
So I wanted to ask you, Heidi, actors are always terrified they will never get another job. Do you think writers always worry that the well is going to run dry? Do you keep a notebook of ideas to staunch that terror? I know I have to have another novel idea on the back burner while writing a novel so I can relax about "what's next, oh my God, what comes next!!" Or do you like to have a period where you just ruminate and read and the idea presents itself to you?
Heidi: I love the stuff you’re finding—yes, real stories! And yes, I do find it difficult to give up control – there is so little one can control as an artist/a writer—it’s not easy to part with!
And I’m knocking on wood with one hand as I type with the other in response to your question about the fear of the well running dry. Okay, knocking on wood again. I sure hope not. And I sure hope that I can ditch the fear of the dreaded sophomore slump.
But I don’t worry in terms of story ideas—it took me so darn long to write this first book and get it published that I have been storing ideas for other projects for years. How will I ever catch up with myself? I worry about the words, the sound of the words not coming to me. I had awful writer’s block for a couple of years during the process of writing The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. I really couldn’t get the words right.
Essentially I couldn’t hear myself! I got through it by running. I hate running by the way. But I decided that I would train on my own and run a marathon. And if I could commit to doing such a huge thing for something I hated then I owed it to myself to commit myself equally to writing. A funny thing happened along the way—the running itself helped me—I started to work out ideas and characters and phrases while I ran. The words and sounds were somehow very literally part of me and I had to get moving to recognize it. I still don’t like running, but it helped me through a difficult time.
Getting back to this idea of the ideas running dry. Caroline, how could you wonder that? Isn’t this your 10th book you’re working on! I am guessing you have not just another 10 but another 10 dozen books in you! I sure hope so. We want to read them!
So, yes, my notebooks (Moleskine plain paper large) are brimming with notes and ideas—how about you? And since we’re talking about it—are you Moleskine fan too? These small writerly fetishes have become so important in process-my Moleskine, my fountain pen, my purple pens when I need a little extra inspiration. Got any?
Caroline: I love the whole thing of your running--which is a great essay, by the way that you should send to NYC Lives. And I know what you're talking about--that feeling of not hearing your own voice or the characters' voices, when everything is like a big dead flounder on the page!
I have an elliptical trainer in my writing office and I find that that really unstresses me and somehow unlocks the creative process. I am full of superstitions and rituals! I have to have music playing but not any kind. It has to be sort of mortifying music, things you would never want to admit that you really listened to in real life, like the Carpenters. It can't be good enough to make you want to really listen and sing along, but it has to have enough of a beat so you are propelled and energized. It drives Jeff, my husband, who is a music critic and writer, crazy, but I can listen to the same song forty times in a row before I switch to something new!
I think a lot about plot before I sleep in hopes that I will dream a solution. Sometimes it works, but a lot of times I simply forget the solution I dreamed.
I talk to a lot of people and bounce ideas off them. I have about three trusted readers with widely divergent opinions, but I like that. It forces me to look at all the issues. I don't have Moleskin, but now I think I should!
I have tons of files and notebooks and ideas that I want to do. I'm in the midst of this new novel now, but the next one is obsessing me and I have no idea if I can pull it off. It's scary, and sort of exhilarating. You know that John Irving quote, "if you don't have some doubt about your authority to tell the story, then you're not trying to tell enough?" That's how it feels.
This is really mortifying, but sometimes, when I feel that what I am writing is garbage, I get out my good reviews and read them. It always perks me up.
So last question, Heidi. What do you wish you had known about writing when you first started? For me, I wish I had known to be gentler with myself, to know that there are ups and downs and also I wish I had known about marketing myself much earlier on!
Heidi: Okay, first of all, What’s wrong with the Carpenters? I LOVE the Carpenters – and there must be a lot more folks out there that do too, because the music keeps selling to this day!
And what you call mortifying (reading your good reviews) is what I call necessary. I have a “Happy File” where I put all the nice letters, good reviews, etc. about my writing. When I feel like a fraud as a writer or when I’m down on what I’m writing, I pull out the Happy File and voila! I regain some confidence in myself and can get back to the page.
So when I first started writing, I wish I had known to be gentle with myself too. But then, also, I wish that I had learned not to share my work too early. I’ve had some very difficult experiences in workshops and in part, those experiences played a big role in my writer’s block. Who is it that says the creative writing workshop is “inherently a fault-finding machine.” It’s important to recognize if you’re writing something different or in a different way: the workshop may not be your best route.
Also, I wish I had learned to talk about my writing not in terms of one book, but in terms of my vision. It took me a while, but I finally got there as I started writing more and more. As I faced rejection after rejection for the manuscript, what kept me going is that I had a desire to publish a book – have a product in the world—but beyond that I had a vision of what I wanted to explore and say.
Caroline, this has been so amazing. You are a gem and absolutely dear to me as a very early early supporter of my work—I can’t thank you enough—I’m just hoping I can pay it forward!
Caroline: Heidi, back at you, double, triple and more. I adore your work and I adore you.
You gals are great! Oh, and you write amazing books! Thanks so much for sharing your writing process -- I love the HAPPY FILE though you both don't need it.
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