By David Martinez
Caroline Leavitt’s new novel Cruel Beautiful World is a stunning, heartbreaking book. Set against the background of the Manson murders, it tells the story of a young girl’s dangerous affair with her high-school teacher, and her family’s loss and grief. It winds its way down a path between longing and darkness, guilt and forgiveness, and leaves the reader breathless in the end.
Caroline Leavitt is a New York Times bestselling author with a long and impressive list of achievements. Her work has been translated into many different languages, and has appeared in a slew of magazines such as Salon, Psychology Today, Publisher’s Weekly, People, and the San Francisco Chronicle. She has been the recipient of the New York Foundation of the Arts Award for Fiction, was a 2003 Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellow Finalist, and a National Magazine Award nominee for personal essay. She teaches novel writing online at Stanford University and the UCLA Extension Writers Program, and lives in Hoboken, New Jersey with her husband.
I got to email, and learn from, Leavitt about her recent book, her writing process, and the sometimes-thin line between fiction and nonfiction.
The Coachella Review: So, to start off, what was your process for writing Cruel Beautiful World? How did it go from an idea to the page, and how was the development once you started putting it down on the page? Did it change a lot from the original idea?
Caroline Leavitt: I always start with whatever is haunting me. I have been wanting to write this book since I was seventeen, when the girl who sat in front of me in study hall kept talking about her fiancé, who was much older and a “tad controlling.” A year out of high school, I heard that she was murdered by him when she decided she wanted to date other people. I was haunted. But I didn’t understand her, how she could have stayed with someone who had violence in him, how no one helped her. How could this have happened?
Then, ten years later, I got involved with a guy who was quietly and subtly controlling. When someone tells you something over and over in a loving voice, it’s hard not to believe that person, especially if he is talking to you in a rational way, as if it is for your benefit. I was only a hundred pounds but he felt I could be skinnier. He monitored my food until I was down to ninety-five pounds (and I still felt fat). He wouldn’t let me see my friends and he didn’t like me interacting with his. I was with him for two years and finally was able to break it off when he went into my computer without asking and deleted a whole chapter of my novel, replacing it with Groucho Marx jokes. When I protested that it was my work, he said quietly, “Listen, Caroline. This is the way it is with us. There is no You. There is no Me. There is only Us.” I suddenly understood my high school friend, and I began to write.
I wanted it set the in the years when the joy, peace and love of the sixties transformed into the violence of the 70s, when four kids were killed at Kent State for protesting the invasion of Cambodia, when Manson went on trial, when peaceful protest became violent. The cruel and beautiful world, so to speak. There was also the whole sense of what you saw was not really what you got. People in the 60s felt that if you had long hair and wore flannel shirts and talked about peace and love, why then, you were a hippie and one of them. But look at Charles Manson. Everyone thought at first that he was just a hippie, because he had the hair and the flannels, and he lived “back to the land” in a kind of commune. No one ever thought he and his members were killers. That’s why I put the Manson trial in as background music, sort of. Lucy keeps staring at the girls in the news. They’re beautiful, happy, smiling, madly in love with Charlie. But they’re also controlled. They are also willing killers.
Cruel Beautiful World changed a lot as I was writing. Suddenly, I found myself writing about my mother in the character of Iris, because my mother had actually bloomed in her nineties at an independent living place. The sibling relationship of Charlotte and Lucy became my own fractured relationship with my sister. We were best friends and so close that we were almost the same person—up until she turned twenty and then she became troubled. And I began to realize that I was very much Charlotte, always trying to fix my sister, to get her to have a better life—and instead, I was making things worse.
I think there were about twenty-eight revision of this novel!
TCR: What’s your process for writing your other books?
CL: Every novel is different, and more challenging. I always feel that I have what I call “writers’ amnesia,” where I forget how to write a novel. I forget how hard it is. But I do always start with some question that haunts me, one that I hope the novel I’m writing will answer. How do you become part of a community when the community doesn’t want you? How do you care for another person without losing yourself? When do you know when to give up control?
Once I figure out that (I call it the moral question), I start mapping out where I want the characters to go. What is it they want and why? What’s at stake for them? What is the misconception they carry that actually keeps them from getting what they need—which is something different and more profound. What is the moment when all seems lost and they realize and heal this misconception?
I always have to know the end, and the beginning. Then I can find my middle.
I write what I call a writer’s synopsis. Thirty or forty pages that detail what is going to happen in the book, and then I show it to a story structure guru I know and he tears it apart. I try to boil it down to a solid skeleton, and then every other thing about the novel changes from draft to draft.
I also always have to have a great first chapter. That chapter tethers me to the book. When I am struggling in the middle of the novel and starting to think that I should not be a novelist at all, but maybe dental school is in my future, that first chapter calls me back. It says, “hey, you did this, and this is good. You can make the rest work, too.”
Then I sigh and go back to work.
TCR: What are you reading now, and what has been some of your inspirations?
CL: I am always reading about four books at once. Right now, I’m haunted by Dan Chaon’s Ill Will. He’s one of my favorite authors because he keeps getting darker, while still staying literary and I love that. I love to read novels where the author shows me something I’ve never seen before, where rules aren’t just broken, but smashed. I can’t tell you the name of another novel I’m loving now because I’m reviewing it right now, but it’s a debut where the author moves backwards and sideward through time, and reading it has been a revelation for me. It’s shown me what else can be done with writing!
John Irving always inspires me. He writes deep, moral fiction, and he takes chances. I have one of his quotes on my wall about writing that says, “If you don’t feel you are possibly on the edge of humiliating yourself, of losing control of the whole thing, then what you’re writing probably isn’t very vital. If you don’t feel that you are writing over your head, then why do it?” I loved that so much I tracked him down and wrote him a letter, and to my surprise, he wrote back. He said he had never said that quote (!) but he agreed with it.
TCR: Cruel Beautiful World deals with complex issues: sex between an adolescent girl and her high-school teacher, abuse, murder, and devastating loss. As a writer, how do you handle some of the heavier sections? Is it difficult to push yourself into some of those dark places?
CL: Sometimes it is cathartic, especially if I know the character is going to be okay in the end. Other times, when there is going to be no happy ending, it is so difficult, I don’t go to my desk because I’m terrified to write a scene. I dread going to that dark place and I have to tell myself, this is the writer’s job, to go to the places so other people don’t have to, to make it real, to tell the truth. I cried through a lot of places as I wrote. My editor, Andra Miller, kept telling me, go darker, go deeper, and then I’d have to go back and feel everything all over again. Writing this particular novel was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
TCR: I read the NPR piece where you talk about how this book was influenced and somewhat inspired by real events. I know that with my own writing I have some family and friends who don’t love the autobiographical and “real life” elements in my work. Is it difficult for you to make the transition from nonfiction events to fiction, and have you experienced any conflict with family and friends who may not love the almost nonfiction parts in your work?
CL: Oh, such a great question. Some people who knew the high school friend of mine were angry with me for writing the story, though it really wasn’t her story. They thought I was going to make her family and friends suffer more by having this all unearthed again. But I never mentioned her real name, and I was always careful to say that this isn’t her story—it jumpstarted from it. Plus, I loved her. I was deeply sympathetic to her once I understood her, and if that could help someone else from making the same mistake, that was a good thing.
It’s more difficult with my family. My mother, who inspired Iris, has dementia and she can’t read anymore, which brings me great sadness. I intended Iris to be a love letter to her. It’s incredibly painful that she can’t know or read my work or even understand the story, as she’s always been a champion of my work. But the sisterly relationship is more difficult. Like Charlotte, I spent most of my life adoring my sister and trying to fix whatever was wrong with her life. And she resented me deeply for it. I had to learn to let go, to let life wash over me and let her try to heal herself. I have told her the novel is part love letter to her, but she refuses to read it, which also brings me great pain.
Actually, I was sued with my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, because a family in Pittsburgh, where I was living, had the exact same names as my characters and the exact same situation, with a mentally ill daughter. I was furious that they thought I’d be dumb enough to use real names, plus I had no idea who they were, and the origins of my novel came from my relationship with my sister and with a mentally ill girl who lived down the block from me. I was really upset, and my publisher made me change two of the names!
I’ve found that people don’t recognize themselves, but often they think they are in a novel when they are not.
TCR: One of the aspects that I love is that you’re true to your characters. The book is in third person, but when it’s Lucy’s chapters it’s Lucy’s voice. When it’s Charlotte’s chapters it’s Charlotte’s voice. When it’s Iris’ chapters it’s Iris’ voice. Were these personalities fully formed before starting their lives on the paper, or did they develop more as you wrote? Was it a struggle to keep them straight, or did you find them overlapping from time to time?
CL: That is the best compliment ever. Thank you so much.
I have a method. My agent once told me to find photographs of people who I think look like my characters and paste them by my computer so we both are looking at one another all day long. At first, I thought that was a silly idea, but my agent is really brilliant, so I gave it a try, and I found that every day, being surrounded by the faces of my characters, they became more and more real to me. I just felt that I KNEW them. I knew the clothes they’d wear, I knew how they would think, what they were afraid of. It’s important not to have photos of celebrities or anyone smiling, but real people photos. People looking frightened or hopeful or sad. Works every time for me.
I also spend about six months before I start to really write getting to know everything I can about my characters, why they do what they do. Sometimes I have them write me letters in answer to a question, like, “Why are you pissed off?” And the words just flow. The characters take on their own life.
All of these characters are still totally alive to me. Sometimes I think I see them walking on the street and then my heart breaks because I want to call out to them, but I know I can’t.
David Martinez is a student at the UCR Low Residency MFA program, where he studies fiction and dabbles in poetry, nonfiction, and screenwriting. He has dual citizenship between Brazil and the United States, and has lived all over Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the United States. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona.