One True Thing

Life's questions, big and small

Author Caroline Leavitt Talks about Pictures of You

What do you do when forgiveness isn't possible?

A fatal car accident on a foggy road is the catalyst for a complicated and inevitable love affair between two survivors. At the center of this beautifully crafted story is a grieving child, trying to come to terms with the mother who both loved and abandoned him. Pictures of You, Caroline Leavitt's ninth novel, deftly weaves together the threads of longing, sorrow, desire, love, healing, and letting go. Here's more from author Caroline Leavitt on her writing process, angels, and more:

Jennifer Haupt: How did you come up with the concept for this book, two women each running away from their lives, who collide on a foggy highway?

Caroline Leavitt: I tend to write about what obsesses me, and this book began with my own obsession with car crashes. My dirty little secret is I don't drive at all, though I have my license and I renew it every five years. I'm phobic. I keep worrying if I drive, I'll end up killing someone. I hoped that by writing about a car crash, I might understand and heal this phobia, but I didn't! I'm still phobic.

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The fog came out of one of the themes of the novel, that we don't really see the whole picture in life, that things are not always what they appear. What better image, I thought than fog? I'm also partial to the idea of people running away or vanishing. Everyone thinks that a new place or a new identity will jumpstart a new life. Of course, wherever you go, you take your problems with you, but the idea of starting fresh is like a siren song sometimes, and I wanted to explore that.

JH: How difficult was it to write in the perspective of a young boy dealing with the death of his mother?

CL: Sam, the ten-year-old came out of the blue. It actually wasn't difficult because I have a son myself, and though he is now 14, I remember so vividly what it was like for him as a ten-year-old and I wanted to channel that in my writing. As far as dealing with the death of his mother, that was hard, and there were days I would put off writing certain scenes because I knew how upsetting it would be for him and for me.

JH: Did you do any research into how children deal with grief?

LH: I did a great deal of research. I have two friends who are school psychologists and I showed both of them all the pages and peppered them with dozens of questions: Would a child react this way? Why or why not? Could this happen? I wanted to make sure I got it right.

JH: I love that Sam, the son of the woman who died, is obsessed with angels. Do you believe in angels?

LH: Ha! I'm a big believer in quantum physics, which says that the universe is more incredible and mysterious than any of us can imagine, which is my way of saying, anything is possible, including angels.

JH: Have angels, or a some sort of higher power that you may have questioned existing, every played a role in helping you deal with grief?

CL: That's a really fascinating question. Many years ago, my fiancé died suddenly, two weeks before our wedding, of a heart attack in my arms. It was the first death I had ever dealt with and it changed me. It felt as if a layer of life had been ripped away and everything looked and felt different-I was changed forever, really. I spent a year traveling the country talking to psychics and mediums and rabbis and priests and holy people in a desperate searching attempt to heal my grief and come to grips with what had happened.

The rabbis and the priests didn't really help, and what they said seemed like platitudes to me. Life is mysterious. We all die. Trust in God. About 99% of the psychics and mediums were, I thought, frauds who would pretend to talk in my fiancé's voice. One medium had no idea I had suffered a death, and actually told me this was my happiest year yet. She didn't even pick up on the clue of my red, swollen eyes! But there was one medium in NYC, highly educated, with numerous degrees, who refused to get any information on me before I saw her, not even my name.

As soon as I walked in, she started talking. She was unsettlingly accurate in what she told me about what had happened. She knew the time of my fiancé's death, how he had died and what he looked like. She knew things about us that I had told no one, and she predicted very specific things that actually did happen months later. She made it possible for me to feel a lot calmer about the death. She made me believe that there was something after death, that there was some higher order in the universe, and that I, and my fiancé, would be all right.

JH: Your novel poses a fascinating question: How do we forgive a loved one who has died? Have you ever experienced having to deal with this? If not, how did you access how to address this in your novel?

CL: Ah, yes. I had nothing to forgive my fiancé for-he was wonderful-but my father had been a bit of a brute up until the day he died. Although that's the theme of my novel (How do you forgive the unforgivable?) I'm not sure forgiveness is the right word for my father, or for April, but maybe it's acceptance, that yes, this happened, but you try to understand why it happened, why that person acted the way he or she did and made such terrible mistakes, and then you can start to let go of your own feelings about it.

My father had a horrible childhood and he was a truly unhappy man, and I think he acted out on that. I had a choice where I could eat myself up alive feeling furious with him, which wasn't going to change anything since he was dead and he couldn't change, or I could come to terms with what had happened and realize it said more about him than it did about me. I began to realize how sorrowful it must have been for him to be so trapped by his life, how sad to not have been able to change and grow and be a better person. I let my anger go to make my life as happy as possible, which I think is the only thing you can do. The dead can't change, but you can.

JH: This is your ninth novel. How do you keep your writing and your ideas fresh? Do you start with the characters or the plot?

CL: I've actually been thinking about that question. So much of writing comes out of the subconscious that I think as I change, so does my writing, and that keeps it interesting and fresh for me. The novels I write now are different from the ones I wrote at the beginning of my career. Some of the change is from conscious effort, learning things about more visual storytelling from writing scripts, for example, but some is a complete surprise! I always start with character, because I think out of character comes plot. I don't remember a lot of what happened in Huckleberry Finn, but I remember Huck.

I always try to start with something that is obsessing me, some question I want to answer. With Pictures of You, I really was interested in how you forgive the unforgivable? How well do you know the ones you love? Those questions were something to hold onto, to keep me writing when I felt lost in a mass of pages! Once I have this question, I then try to figure out where I'm writing to. I do have a synopsis I work with, which is my lifeline. It's visible proof to me that I have a novel I can write! The synopsis changes as I keep writing, but it really helps me keep hold of the novel I am desperate to write.

JH: Do you have any advice for authors who are trying to sell their novels in this tough fiction environment?

CL: Yup. Don't give up, no matter how many rejections you get. Write and read every day because that's how you'll get better. Get your name out there by submitting to literary magazines, online magazines, anywhere people will see you. Network like crazy on Facebook and Twitter because it really does help. Go to writing conferences and enter contests. Start a blog. Self-publish if you have to because some of those books get noticed by traditional publishers. People are always going to want and need stories. It's hard-wired into us, I think, and if you have a passion for writing, then that is what you should do while you're here on Earth!

 

Jennifer Haupt is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She has written for O, The Oprah Magazine, Readers Digest, and The Christian Science Monitor.

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