Caroline Leavitt at a Crossroads: 'Is This Tomorrow'
New York Times best-selling author Caroline Leavitt discusses her new novel about a family who must brave the hostile status quo of '50s American suburban life while being as different from their neighbors as possible.
Author: Caroline Leavitt
Length: 384 pages
Publication date: 2013-05
Author: Caroline Leavitt
Publication date: 2011-01
It begs to be said out loud: Caroline Leavitt is an American author of great consequence who meticulously crafts stories about real people who find themselves at a crossroads. Her previous book, 2011’s Pictures of You, was a New York Times bestseller and is now in its fourth printing. That book deftly described how one woman’s lonely moment on a foggy road can change countless lives forever.
Leavitt’s gift? That she brings you ever so subtly into her character’s worlds and you’re caught, wanting to know, needing to know, having to know what happens next. Is This Tomorrow takes as it’s setting the seething paranoia that lay beneath American suburban life in the '50s, when everyone mistrusted everyone else especially – as in the case of the Lark family at its center – everyone mistrusted anyone who is different from the norm.
Ava Lark is a Jewish divorcee (two things that the '50s weren’t very kind to, as my own mother can tell you) who rents a home with her 12-year-old son Lewis. Lewis forges a strong friendship with siblings Jimmy and Rose, the only other two children his age nearby, who also live in a fatherless home. One summer day Jimmy disappears, and this horrifying event casts suspicion on anyone and everyone who isn’t part of the status quo. Like peeling an onion, Leavitt skillfully works her way to the core of the mystery as she describes each character’s story arc and how Jimmy’s loss affects their lives.
Is This Tomorrow is staged in the time before a child’s disappearance would immediately cause an Amber Alert; a time before planes were used as weapons to crash into buildings; a time before diversity in the United States became acknowledged, if never exactly embraced. This was also a time when there was a perceived inchoate evil that struck terror into American hearts and minds: Communism.
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How did the story come to you? Was it all of a piece? Did you do an outline?
There was this family on the corner that was a divorced woman and two kids, where I grew up in Waltham (Massachusetts). The daughter of this woman was my friend. She babysat for a really rich Jewish dentist in Belmont and she kept telling me: he’s going to adopt me, I’m leaving my family and we’re going to La Jolla. I said oh come on, you have a family. And he did. The mother gave up her daughter to this Jewish dentist. They moved to California, I never heard from her again. She was my best friend when I was twelve. And then three weeks later the mother and the younger brother vanished, they just left the house. Overnight. And I tried to write that particular story and it was too close, I couldn’t do it.
I do a lot of story structure work, I always call it the ‘Rolling Stones’ story structure because you look at a character and say: what does this character want? And then you make sure he doesn’t get it but you try and give him what he needs, which may or may not be a good thing, so I know the beginning point of every character and the end. I knew Lewis was going to start off very closed and at the end he was going to open up -- without giving anything away. And then I just had to make an outline thinking, well maybe this this this will happen to get to the destination, and then as I keep writing I would throw out the outlines and make new ones. So I had about ten different outlines. Basically the beginning and the end I knew before I started the book.
I love the trajectories of these characters. They were particularly resonant to me as a Jewish girl living with my mom after her divorce from my dad. I love how the book is sectioned, we follow Rose for a while, we follow Lewis, Ava, etc.
I’m glad; I love those characters. It took me a long time to discover them but I just ached for them so much, I just felt for these damaged people. I loved Ava and I really wanted her to have that shop, and Rose. And even Brian, I felt for him. It’s just such a rich period.
Actually there’s a lot about families that I never thought about a lot and when you revisit it as an adult you remember all the stuff you went through being the only Jew in a Christian school, in a Christian town. It’s unbelievable, it’s unbelievably painful. I mean, people would sometimes put pennies on my desk and say, well you’re Jewish, pick ‘em up! I didn’t have any Jewish friends, and my mother said, well we’re going to take you to a Hebrew school so you can make some Jewish friends and all those kids were in a clique already so they all knew each other and that was no good either. I felt like it was like not really having a Jewish upbringing.
When you get so close to your characters, it must become difficult. For example, the fate of Jimmy. Did you know what was going to happen to him when you started your story?
Oh, I know. I have to tell you when I got to the end and I gave the book to a friend who said you know you have to write the scene of what happens to Jimmy. I said, I can’t do it. She said you have to do it, you can’t not do it. Then I sat there and I wrote it and I was so completely upset.
It’s all my childhood stuff. The whole thing with Jimmy vanishing, I wanted it to be something that was distinctly '50s that would have happened, you know, that nobody would have thought. I talked to a lot of cops about it. And you know in the '50s they didn’t have everything in place like they do now. Now, if a kid disappears now there’s Amber Alerts, they know this-this-this. In the '50s, we kids wandered around. Nobody knew what you were doing.
Exactly. I remember playing outside for hours and hours and hours.
In the woods, too? Right?
Yes -- in the woods across the street from our house. Totally deserted.
We all did the craziest stupidest things because nobody – there was no sense of danger, but yet there was a sense of real Communism-phobia. I looked at some of the old cookbooks and you could not make Russian dressing, because it was subversive! A lot of weird stuff. It’s a really interesting era. So much fun to research.
How do you research a book like this? What is the process and how long does it take?
It took a really long time. I had tried to do it myself through Google and it just took too long, it took me four days to find what they used back then instead of crime tape. So I hired two high school assistants, and they were very sweet but terrible, they don’t know how to research. It ended up with my telling them this is what I need and they would bring me back Wikipedia stuff which I could have got myself, so I hired a real researcher, a librarian, and she was amazing and helped me. She would bring me stuff that I didn’t even know I needed, which was great.
Also, I went on Facebook and Twitter and said is there anybody here who grew up in the '50s or the early '60s who was either a pastry maker or a nurse. I did stuff like that and I got so many responses, I found one of the first male nurses, from the '60s, and he told me that his sexuality was always suspect – all of the nurses liked him but thought, what’s his problem? He said it didn’t stop until he got a girlfriend and he was very physically affectionate, and then people said, oh okay we can talk to him now. He said the doctors always smoked when they were in the patient’s rooms and they encouraged the patients to smoke because it would relax them!
I found a pastry maker who was amazing who told me about the cold hands, she used to put her hands in the refrigerator because the colder your hands the better the pie crust. And so it was like story after story after story. And I found a lot of vintage cookbooks, and I went through YouTube, I watched a lot of old Communist scare things from the '50s, and I just immersed myself in it, I love the period, it’s so bizarre. It’s a fascinating period.
Jews and Communists were the boogeyman back then. Maybe equally scary. And I say this as I experienced it firsthand, growing up Jewish in a very Christian neighborhood around the same time. There was so much propaganda against things people didn’t understand.
That whole thing about Communism. I read that there were certain films that they thought were Communistic because somebody would smile while they were doing something, and that was something that a Communist would do! And then the whole duck and cover drills. I got the cover of this pamphlet where it said in the event of a nuclear bomb just make sure you wipe your feet before you go back in your house and that way you won’t track radiation into the house. And it would say things like take a white plate and put it outside after a nuclear attack; leave it for an hour. If there’s fallout on it, don’t bring the plate back in and don’t go outside. But if there’s no fallout then you’re fine and you can go outside.
There was a guy who lived across the street from me who built a bomb shelter, and it was in his driveway and he hated our family especially because he thought Jews and Communists were the same thing. They were all, like, 'pink'. But I remember walking by him and he would say, this is for my family. Nobody else. My family. I was a kid then! I remember thinking, well, what are we going to do?
I felt so moved by the scenes in the book with the children. Their tight little circle, protecting each other.
It was just like my childhood. My childhood with my friends. When you’re an outsider, you just cleave to the few friends you have and it’s like you against the world.
I had one friend who, when her mother found out I was Jewish, forbade her to be friends with me. The same friend later told me about Armageddon and I would wake up screaming from nightmares that my family would be killed because we weren’t ‘believers.’
I remember the guy across the street who was Catholic told me, do you know what happens when you die? I said no and he said well you – being Jewish – better hurry up and climb out of the grave and get to heaven because the devil’s going to be grabbing your heels and pulling you down. I went home so terrified and I told my mom, I said I’m really scared. She said, no, no he’s a crazy old man, don’t listen to him.
When you’re that age, everything is larger than life.
And you believe it, you believe it! I threw a birthday party once for myself, I invited 13 girls. Saturday morning they were supposed to arrive. One by one in the hour before they called up to cancel, they all had dentist appointments. All of them.
Once this older kid came over to me in the lunch line at my school cafeteria and told me I killed Christ.
I got that too! Oh God, and what do you say to them?
I was taken aback with shock and I actually said, I didn’t even know him. That’s what I said because I was like how could I have killed him if I didn’t know him? When I went home and told my mom she said, the next time somebody says that you tell them the Romans killed Christ.
Yeah, like they’re going to listen! I remember in eighth grade we had junior National Honor Society and to get in you had to have all A’s and you had to have outside activities. I was really smart; I was a straight A plus plus student, plus I was in eight different clubs. So in middle school the guy calls me in and says, I’m sorry you didn’t get in. I said, why not? Because all my friends got in. And he said, well, you didn’t have enough activities. And I said, but I had eight activities. And he got really uncomfortable. He said, well, maybe you could take more. I said, but I have eight, how can I take any more? I have all 'A's. And he said, well, you’re not in.
So I went home crying and I told my mom, who called the school department which was run by Gertrude Webb, who was Jewish, and she said, there’s that principal and he doesn’t like Jews, he’s done this every year and there’s no way I can stop him. I mean I think there probably was a way she could have stopped him but she chose not to. So I had to go to school the next day and watch all my friends, some of whom did not get the grades I got, they all got to wear the little banners and get the award, and I had to sit in the audience.
You know something like that today would be so litigious!
Yes! There’d be a lawsuit.
I recently read that North Carolina was trying to change their state religion to Christianity. It’s like- - wait a minute what century is this? What year is this?
I was doing a book tour and I was staying in a bed and breakfast in Shreveport, Louisiana, this weird little town where all the food was fried and there was no cappuccino, nothing. So I was sitting in the bed and breakfast with the husband and the wife and I said, well this is a lovely town, you know, just to make conversation, is there any crime here? And the guy said, "Not anymore." I said really, what do you mean? He said, well on the other side of town there was a grandmother and her two sons and we found out they were cooking meth in the house, you know what we did? I said no. He said we burned the house down.
And I sat there like… it was like a Twilight Zone. I said you burned the house down? Were the people in there? He nodded. His wife came in the room and she must have seen my face, because she said to her husband – Ken, come in the kitchen. And I could hear them talking. So then he came out and he said, look, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, it’s just like one incident.
Yeah, we don’t kill everybody, we don’t burn everyone alive!
He said, you know we have really lovely things here, I know you’re Jewish, there’s a Jewish cemetery here that you could go and visit. And I thought, I have to leave. I have to leave this place. It’s a whole different – you get out of New York and... it’s insane, it’s totally insane.
How did you come up with the title of the book, which is so evocative?
It’s from a '50s pamphlet on the Dangers of Communism. It said: Is This Tomorrow and it has all these people running and screaming with fire and bombs and these stereotypical evil looking Russian men running after them. And I thought, oh that’s so great!!
In writing this particular book I felt all you have to do is substitute Muslim or Gay or even still Jewish for Communist – it’s the same kind of fear and distrust of anybody who might be different than you. Or that same kind of feeling – who do you think you are, you’re not better than we are, it’s all still there. And also the attitudes towards women are the same horrifying way they’ve been.
For instance, Ava in the workplace with her boss positioning her desk so he can look down her shirt.
I found want ads from the '60s, and there was the men’s section and the women’s section but the women’s section was called Ladies, and the ads for the women were all things like: must be pretty, they actually said that, must be pretty, perky, pleasing, those were the things that they wanted.
Even in the early '60s. I applied for a job and the guy said to me every woman I hire actually comes here looking for a husband, is that what you’re looking for? And you know, it’s like, how do you even respond to that?
For some reactionaries in America, Muslims are the new Communists.
That’s what the United States does, we did it with the Japanese, we put them in internment camps (in World War II). You know, it’s funny, the book that I just sold to Algonquin that I’m writing next is set in the '70s and one of the characters in it talks about her life in the '40s, so I was asking my mother what was it like to be Jewish in the '40s. She told me this amazing story about when she went to work in a factory like all the women did. She said her boss looked at her and said, you know you Jews started the war. And she said what? She said there was a lot of that feeling that ‘if it wasn’t for the Jews’. And even when all the stuff came out about the death camps and the Holocaust she said it was always buried inside the paper so you wouldn’t see it, and when it did come out a lot of people said, well the Jews brought it on themselves.
Is This Tomorrow is your second book with Algonquin?
With Algonquin, yeah. They’re amazing, they’re just amazing. I’ve had five or six publishers and none of them treated me well, except for this one.
What changed with the publication of your last novel, Pictures of You (also published by Algonquin), which became a New York Times best seller?
I had a totally failed career before Pictures of You. I was with the wrong publisher before, I was with a publisher who actually rejected that book as not being ‘special’ enough, and they said they don’t want to publish any more from me, and I thought, well that’s it! It just wasn’t the right fit. So I came to Algonquin and they said, we’re going to change your career. I thought, well it’s my ninth book, chances are it’s going to do the same. They said no, just watch us. And the first thing they wanted to do was they said we’re going to make it a quality paperback. I said please don’t do that, I won’t get reviews, I won’t get respect. They said, yes you will. And they got me O Magazine, Elle Magazine, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, it was everywhere, everywhere. And I watched them in action.
The head of marketing said, we’re different than other publishers. Other publishers say, this author’s sales are slipping, let’s move on to another author. These people say, this author’s sales are slipping, what can we do to help. And they’re still selling Pictures of You, they’re still promoting it and doing stuff with it, which is astonishing to me. Because every other publisher, it would be three months they’d work for you, and that’s it -- you’re on your own.
With Algonquin I watched them in action, they have a brilliant publicity department, and they just are really pushy and supportive and they’re just great, they’re just great. So it’s just a different experience. And I think a lot of their writers were in the same condition I was, they were all poorly published before, nobody knew who they were, then they went to Algonquin and they published well.
With self-publishing and the traditional publishing paradigm changing so dramatically do you think its improved things or has it worsened things for writers?
I think it’s actually improved things. When self-publishing started it was mostly people who really couldn’t write. And they just wanted to get their book out and they couldn’t get traditional deals. Their friends would buy it and maybe they’d make $500. But in the last few years this one writer, Jon Clinch, who wrote this great book about the father of Huckleberry Finn (Finn, 2007) – traditionally published, got rave reviews, very well respected literary writer, he decided to self-publish his next book. And it did pretty well. And he came out of the closet, he self-published with a different name, and said this is an experiment, Sam Winston is my fake name. And the next book he’s going to do he’s self-publishing, too. He’s a respected author.
I know another New York Times bestselling author, Beth Kephart, she self-published one of her books. And she’s going back. So I think in a way that means that publishers have to sort of change and open up. I think e-books are definitely getting more people reading because I see kids read them on their devices, and they’re cheaper.
I love my Kindle. I never thought I would be into that sort of thing, but it’s great, it’s so easy.
So easy! I mean, I love real books, paper books, but I also love buying online, and I think that people are more willing to take a chance to read something if it’s cheaper – sometimes books on the Kindle are $6. A hardback book is $25. For $25, it better be a really great book. Or you’re going to be mad. So I think it’s a good thing, it’s a really good thing.
I was approached by an e-book publisher to bring out my whole backlist, and I said yeah, of course! One of the writers for Algonquin, Laura Grodstein, she wrote A Friend of the Family, great book, and Algonquin as an experiment reduced the price of the Kindle version, for a month it was $1.99, and it made the New York Times best seller list. Because so many people bought it at that price point. That’s brilliant strategy.
Do you feel that social media and community building has changed your writing a lot?
Yeah! It has. One of the great things it’s done is that it’s sort of like my water cooler. Because I’m home all day just writing, writing, writing and I can check in. I feel like I put in the book’s acknowledgements Facebook and Twitter because when I sold the proposal I put it on there and I would slog through chapters and I felt like people were cheering me on. It was relaxing, it just calmed me down.
I didn’t feel so alone, in fact if I had a question about some research issue I could get the answer like that, right away, I never had to go to the library. Although I did use Ask a Librarian which is a great feature online. It was wonderful. I love social media, it’s also a great way to connect with other writers, you know when you feel, oh the book is crap what am I doing, I can’t keep doing this, then you can reach out to another writer and they say, oh I feel the same way and you feel better and you go on with your work.
I think it’s really transformed our world.
I do too, and in a good way. People say it’s not real, I think it’s very real, and I’ve met people that I’ve met online in person and they’re the same as they are online, and we’re better friends because of it.
When did you know that this is what you were going to do with your life, be a writer?
I knew early on. I spent a lot of time in the library and I would read, read, read, read, and I wanted to write stories. And I wanted to write stories about somebody like me because I couldn’t find stories about a Jewish girl with asthma.
So that’s what I started writing about, and the first story I wrote about was a Jewish girl with asthma who goes to a zoo and there’s a lion in the cage and the cage is open and the girl goes in and gives him a cookie and they become friends. This was in third grade. So my third grade teacher said, Caroline you should read this in front of the class and I said no, everybody’s going to make fun of me and she said, if you really want this you have to be brave and just decide whether you’re going to do it. And I thought, OK I’ll do it. So I started the story, of course everybody’s throwing spitballs and rolling their eyes, and when I started to read the story the class got quiet and I looked at them and they were like this (staring). And when I finished they clapped and I thought, this is how I can overcome all this shit; this is what I really want to do.
From then on I just wrote, wrote, wrote, wrote. I used to make up books for book reports at school because it was so much fun and nobody ever found out until my senior year at high school when a teacher went to find the book because it sounded so interesting, and there was no such book. And I did this all through school!
So you created everything, the author’s name and everything. That is incredible. And now you review 'real' books.
Now I review real books. For the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle and People.
What is your writing practice?
I get up every day usually around 9 or 10 and then I work until lunchtime, which is usually around 2, and I have lunch with Jeff (Tamarkin, her husband, also a writer), and then I work again until 8 and then we have dinner. And if we work again, we both try to have a rule where you stop at 10. Then from 10 ‘till 1 we hang out. We watch a movie, we watch TV, a video or whatever. It’s a lot. I try not to work on Sundays, but it’s hard not to.
Who are your favorite writers?
I really really really love John Irving. Because he writes with a moral center. I love Elizabeth Strout, she’s really wonderful and she’s also a terrific person and is just so modest and so brave. I love Lionel Shriver, I think her books are amazing, I like Dan Chaon, he writes these really disturbing books that are great. I read everything.
How do you decide who to interview on your blog?
I’m very partial to debut authors because they don’t get press. I’ve been interviewing movie directors, I spoke to a jewelry designer. I find a lot of people through Facebook. If I see someone who says I have a book coming out then I look at it and if it looks interesting to me then I contact them. If I ever see anybody who says I’m not getting any publicity, I’ll kill myself, I always contact them and say well, you can come on the blog. The only thing I won’t do is if it’s a really, I don’t want to say awful book, but it’s not something that would interest me -- like it wouldn’t be a book for me.
What’s your next project?
I sold it to Algonquin, it’s called Cruel Beautiful World, it’s set in the '70s. It’s at that moment when the '60s started to turn ugly, and the '60s turned into the '70s and there was the Manson murders, and there was all that Back to the Land stuff and people were on communes and there were cults, so that’s basically what it’s about. I’ve started my research now.
It’s actually based on when I was in high school there was this friend of mine who sat in front of me in study hall. She had a much older boyfriend and she was 17 and he was 26 and we all thought that was really weird. And she said, no no no, he’s wonderful and we’re going to get married and all this kind of stuff. On Valentine’s Day she decided she wanted to break up with him and go to college and he shot her 46 times – no it gets weirder, he shot her 46 times, people saw him driving around for hours afterwards – they didn’t know he had shot her, they just saw him driving for hours…somebody saw him at the reservoir, they just said he drowned.
Later they put the pieces together and said, he must have killed her, then he drove around and then he killed himself. But the girl’s sister said no, that couldn’t have happened, because I know this guy, he was terrified of water, he never would have done that, and I kept thinking about that whole case. The book isn’t about that case but it’s sort of about that whole era, the seventies, and this whole idea of utopia turning ugly, and it’s just sort of fascinating to me.
I was at University of Michigan, do you remember Stephen Gaskin and The Farm? Everybody was all freaked out because they were freshmen at college and he said come to The Farm, live on the land. Half the freshmen class left and went with him. I remember I went to a communal house, and I thought this is so cool. It was horrible, it was the worst experience of my life. It ended really ugly. You just saw the nasty edge of everything.
There are two questions I love that you ask people when you interview them on your blog. One is what’s obsessing you now?
What’s obsessing me now truthfully is my book tour. Sometimes you go in and there’s a huge crowd, sometimes you go in and there’s two people and they just came because they think there’s going to be donuts and wine there, so that kind of thing worries me. I want the tour to do well, I want the book to do well. That’s what I’m obsessed with.
And the other question I love is, What question didn’t I ask that I should have? I’m turning the tables on you.
Oh God! What one thing do I wish I could have, no what two things do I wish I could have right now that don’t seem possible? One of them is a dog. I’m allergic to dogs, I would love to have a dog. I’ve test driven hypo-allergenic breeds and I still sneeze. I’m still on the lookout, still looking. The other one is I really really keep coming close to having a movie deal and I keep getting close but I have never been there. And I want that. I actually sent in a script for Is This Tomorrow to the Sundance Screenwriting Lab and I made the finals, but I didn’t get in. They only take six people.
I wish you all success. It’s a great book. And it seems very cinematic to me! So I think it could happen, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it did.
Oh thank you, I’m glad you liked it.