Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Caroline Leavitt

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Caroline Leavitt is the author of eight novels, including her latest, Girls In Trouble, a Booksense 76 selection. Her essays and articles have appeared in Salon, Parenting, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, Parents, McCall's, Redbook, Mademoiselle, The Boston Globe and New Woman, as well as in several anthologies. She teaches "Writing The Novel" online for the UCLA Extension Program and writes a monthly column on books for "A Reading Life" in The Boston Globe Sunday book section. Leavitt lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and their seven-year-old son, Max. In a dialogue with Mother Shock author Andi Buchanan, Leavitt discusses her latest book -- a fictional look at open adoption -- and the process of writing.

Andi Buchanan: The early buzz about Girls In Trouble is exciting, and so far it seems to have struck a chord with readers and critics alike -- which is basically every author's dream come true. It's hard to know as you're writing whether what you're creating will be met with widespread acclaim. What about the story do you think is appealing to such a variety of people?

Caroline Leavitt: Love. I think it's really primal. The feeling every person has -- this hunger to belong to someone, to have roots, to feel wanted, to be truly understood. Maternal love -- are we ever loved enough? Can we ever forget when we were loved? The yearning to have a perfect family. I think that gets people in the gut. And also the whole issue of memory. We're told so many times to "get over things" that we'll forget them, whether it's giving up a baby or a first love, but the truth is we don't forget. That current of yearning is always with us, coursing under us like a river. We don't drown in it anymore, but we still sometimes get splashed.

AB: What was the writing process like for you? How long did it take to write the book? Did it start out pretty much the way it ended up in its final form as a book, with the same structure it has now?

CL: The writing process was really painful for me. I cried a lot. I carried on. I was sometimes impossible to be around. It took me three years to do and all I had was my first chapter, about the birth mother being raced by her parents to the hospital and all she wants to see are the adoptive parents. I had a synopsis and an outline but the novel kept shape shifting. Originally, Sara fell apart and didn't struggle so hard to build a life for herself. She was self-destructing, which is less interesting to me than someone who is handed a terrible lot in life and has to somehow struggle to find something good from it. I had to change Sara to make her more sympathetic, to give her someplace to go other than down. Originally, too, Eva was sort of bitchy. She was furious with Sara out of jealousy rather than what evolved into her own yearning need to understand the daughter she loved. The more I got to know -- and love -- my characters, the more they revealed themselves to me. But right up until the ninth hour when I had to turn the book in, I was revising.

AB: Did you know from the beginning the paths your characters were going to take, or were you surprised by the things that emerged as you wrote?

CL: I was surprised. I knew that they would be all right in the end -- if damaged -- but they could go on to have their lives. I knew Sara and her child would find each other, but I wasn't sure what they would want from one another. (Anne's reaction surprised and delighted me because it seemed so unexpected.) Danny, Sara's youthful first love, surprised me. I fell so in love with him as a grown man. You always want that surprise, but for me, it's always hard won and comes out of hours of work. I saved my first outline so I could see how the story eventually evolved.

AB: In your September 2000 essay for Salon's "Mothers Who Think" department, "Dating the Birth Mother," you write frankly of your foray into the world of adoption. How much of Girls In Trouble was inspired by your own personal experience?

CL: Just the initial parts -- sort of a stepping-stone into another world, so to speak! Two years after the birth of our son, we were yearning for another child and we had friends and a relative who had done an open adoption with great success. So we did the whole process -- and I spent hours talking to birth mothers. What I noticed in talking to the very young ones is that they seemed to be yearning desperately for something more than just a good mother for their babies -- they seemed to be yearning for me, almost as if they wanted me to adopt them as well. Probably this was because I was the one constantly giving them support, admiration, and simply just talking to them about sixteen-year-old matters (hair, clothes, makeup, movies, TV.) They didn't fit into their old sixteen-year-old world and, for the time we were on the phone, they could be sixteen -- and get approval from me for it. Adoption didn't work out for us (the two matches we wanted chose someone else) but I couldn't forget those girls. Thus Sara, my heroine, was born!

AB: As a reader, one of the things that impressed me most about the book was the obvious compassion you had for your characters. Everything felt fleshed-out, complex, real. Throughout the writing process, did you always have sympathy for your characters, or did your perspective change depending on whose perspective you were writing from? Which character did you feel you related to the most -- the adoptive parents, the birth mother, the adopted child?

CL: Oh thank you, thank you, so much. I wanted to try very hard not to have stereotypes. Early on in the writing, I was chastised by other people who had read the early manuscript and had insisted that a young, smart girl from a good family would never be in such a situation. I know that she would! I also wanted to avoid the stereotype of the bad boy first love by having a complicated young man who grows into a decent man -- the man Sara was right to have loved all along. I loved all my characters -- for different reasons. I understood Sara's panic and her struggle to progress in life. I loved Eva who was such a fabulous teacher but somehow, no matter how she tried, couldn't truly reach her child. I loved dreamy young Anne who wanted to be a writer, who wanted to belong --not because she was an adoptee, but because she was simply different than the other girls around her. I loved George, loved Danny, loved Charlotte. I felt for Abby and Jack, who were trying to do the right things. Whom did I relate to the most? Whichever character I was writing about at the time -- all of them are parts of me, probably Sara, Anne and Eva most of all.

AB: What are your thoughts on open versus closed adoption?

CL: I'm very pro open adoption. I think when it works, it's really beneficial for all involved. The child doesn't grow up wondering why did my mother give me away? He or she knows that the mother placed him in a loving home -- a courageous and loving act if there ever was one. Why wouldn't a birth mother who was loving and courageous enough to place her child with a family not want to know how that child was faring? And why wouldn't adoptive parents want to know her, support her, and support their adopted child in having her in their lives?

My husband and I were chosen by only two birth mothers. One was pregnant with twins, and we weren't equipped for twins. She was also very sick, so the babies had to be delivered prematurely so she could do chemo. A friend of mine wanted to adopt the babies, but when she called this woman, her line was disconnected. We never found out what had happened, and it still haunts me. I hope she's alive and all right and the babies are alive and all right. Another birth mother wanted us -- and then chose another family. We were heartbroken. Many of the other birthmothers were concerned that we already had a genetic child. They feared we wouldn't love their child as much as ours. (Not true!) Many other birthmothers worried about our nontraditional jobs (both my husband and I are writers working at home.) We've put it all on hold for now.

AB: How do you balance mothering and writing? Do you feel that the two compete with each other for your creative time and energy?

CL: I think becoming a mother has opened up my creativity. It has made me work harder because I don't have the luxury of time. When Max, my son, was a baby, I would put his bassinet next to my desk and he'd sleep beside me for two hours (I couldn't bear not to have his presence near me!) while I'd write, then he'd wake and I'd spend two hours with him, feeding him, changing him, playing with him, and then he'd go back to sleep. It was a wonderful schedule! Weekends are his, and now that he's in school, I write when he's there. I've had to be really disciplined -- but truly, raising a child, to me, is the greatest, most profound experience of my life. It makes raising a novel look easy!

AB: Did motherhood change your writing, in terms of style or focus or subject matter?

CL: Yes. I write about mothers a lot, about that sort of love, because it seems to me the essential stuff of life. Everything for me now is charged and has a different meaning. If I write about a killer, the first thought that comes into my head is -- protect the children in the book! Before I had a child, I used to be fascinated by serial killers. Now I don't want to read or know about them.

AB: Do you have any advice for women who are trying to write about motherhood?

CL: Write from the heart. Don't try to put a spin on what you're feeling or think that what you're feeling is wrong. One of the things I keep thinking about now is all the things no one ever tells you about mothering: that as your child grows there is this incredible bliss because he (or she) is thriving and growing and blossoming, and at the same time there is this incredible and huge pain (well, at least for me) because with every day that child is needing you less -- which is the natural order of things, and that child is moving away from you. And your job is to nurture that and help it to happen.

Also, I've noticed there is a tendency in the literary world to denigrate what women write about -- motherhood -- but truly, what topic is more important? What's more basic, more primal? More full of wonder? So I guess I'd advise, don't listen to the nay saying voices. Listen to your gut. Get it all on paper. If you care about it and don't censure your feelings, readers will care about it, too.

Andrea J. Buchanan is a writer living in Philadelphia. In addition to her latest book, The Double-Daring Book For Girls (HarperCollins), she is the author of the New York Times bestselling The Daring Book For Girls, The Pocket Daring Book For Girls: Things To Do, and The Pocket Daring Book For Girls: Wisdom and Wonder along with Miriam Peskowitz. She is also the author of Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It (Seal Press) and the editor of three anthologies: It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons; Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined; and It’s a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (all from Seal Press). Before becoming a writer, Andi was a classical pianist; she studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, where she earned her bachelor of music degree, and continued her graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, earning a master’s degree in piano performance. Her last recital was at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. She is the mother of a daughter and a son, both of whom are equally daring.

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