Best-selling novelist Caroline Leavitt—author of Pictures of You, Is This Tommorow, and the Shebook The Wrong Sister—shares stories about her pet tortoise, her past failures, and her day job as a professional namer.
When did you first decide you were a writer?
When I was seven years old and couldn’t go out to play because I had terrible asthma. So I lost myself in the library, always begging librarians to find me books about “little Jewish girls who had asthma.” They never could, but they did give me books about people with TB and consumption, and I learned to wield those words to keep bullies away! I didn’t want to just read stories, I wanted to write them. I got hooked early. All through school, I made up the books that I would have to write book reports on. I wasn’t caught until I was a senior in high school, when the teacher was so enamored of the book, she tried to find it and couldn’t.
Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?
When I am writing, I write for myself. I don’t think of readers at that point, because I think that kills your art. I write the book that haunts me, that obsesses me, that I am driven to write.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?
Do. Not. Give. Up. I had eight failed novels, and my novel Pictures of You was rejected by my then publisher as “not special enough.” I was sure my career was over, and I started crying before I hung up the phone. But then a writer friend got me to Algonquin, and they took that “unspecial book” and turned it, and the novel following that, Is This Tomorrow, into New York Times best-sellers. I’m the poster girl for second chances, and if I can do it, so can anyone else.
Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?
I tend to go by the Annie Lamott quote, “if you didn’t want to be written about, then you should have been kinder.”
What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?
I shared my life and home with a tortoise for 20 years. I bought him at a pet shop as a way to fix a very toxic relationship. We broke up, but I got custody of the tortoise, and he became my litmus test for future relationships. If a guy was kind to the tortoise, then he was a keeper. Part of why I adore my husband is that he ate spaghetti dinner with me at my table, while close by, the tortoise was eating worms.
Another fun fact is that I have a growing collection of cowboy boots.
What is your favorite word right now?
What writing projects are you working on now?
My next novel, Cruel Beautiful World—about murder, about a high school teacher and his very young student, about responsibility and love—will be published by Algonquin Books in 2015 or 2016. (I have to finish it!)
Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?
I am a professional namer! I have named kids’ dressing rooms (Presto Chango), phones, snacks, more.