Best-selling Author Caroline Leavitt discusses her latest best-selling book, Cruel Beautiful World as well as her journey through writing and publishing over 9 novels. We’ll discuss topics such as, how do you know your literary agent is a match? Should you hire a publicist to promote your book? We’ll also review the benefits of what a wonderful publishing company can do for you. Caroline’s wit and wisdom shines as she shares how to navigate your creative writing life through the good, the bad, and the beautiful.
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FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Crystal-lee: Hello and welcome to season two of Literary Speaking. I am so excited today because I have a very special guest to kick off the second season. It’s author Caroline Leavitt. Caroline is the best-selling author of over nine books including her latest, ‘Cruel Beautiful World’. It is a very juicy read. I’m so excited to talk about it.
Crystal-lee: As a screenwriter, Caroline was a 2003 Nickelodeon Screenwriting Fellow Finalist and is a recent first-round finalist in the Sundance Screenwriting Lap Competition for her script of ‘Is This Tomorrow’. She also teaches novel writing online at both Stanford University and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, as well as working with writers privately. Caroline, welcome to the show.
Caroline: Thank you so much. I’m so thrilled to be here.
Crystal-lee: I’m just so glad to have this conversation because you’ve always offered so much to the literary community and I know you’re widely respected by myself as well as many, many others. I just think you have so much wisdom to share because we had a very short pre-interview and there was just so much information. I was really excited to talk today.
Caroline: Oh, good. Me too, me too.
Crystal-lee: Great. I think the main thing I really find with writing is that a lot of it has to do with perseverance. For you especially, maybe if you could just share with our listeners some of your experiences in persevering even when it seems like things aren’t happening. Maybe you could share a little bit of the beginning of your publishing and writing journey.
Caroline: Sure. I’d love to. I always tell other writers never, ever give up because you never know what’s going to happen. I started my writing career as a short story writer, and I sent out a million short stories. Of course, I got a million rejections, literally, hundreds and hundreds of rejections. I happened to enter this contest for young writers, and I never thought I had a chance. And, I won. When I won, I got an agent contacting me and then I got a book deal. I thought, “Oh, this is great. This is the way it’s always going to be.” My first book was a success, so I thought, “Oh, this is fabulous. This will be just great.”
Caroline: Then, my publisher went out of business, so I got a new publisher and the next book died. It literally died, and I was shocked. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll get a new publisher, and the next one will do well.” That didn’t happen. My next eight books, and a lot of them were with really big publishers, just, they didn’t hit. They were just failures. Nobody knew who I was. I would go to parties and people would say, “Well, what do you do?” And, I’d say, “I’m a writer,” with a question mark.
Caroline: I was writing my ninth novel, and it was on contract to a big publisher. I turned it in, and the editor called me up and said, “I’m sorry, Caroline, we can’t publish this. It isn’t special enough.” I was stunned and I started to cry. I said, “What do you mean? Can you help me make it special? I’ll rewrite it. I’ll do whatever you want.” She sighed and she said, “You know what? Nobody here thinks that you can.” So, I cried harder and I said, “Do you think that you might want to look at something else of mine?” And, she said, “No. We don’t really think so.”
Caroline: I hung up the phone and I knew my career was over because I had nine novels out, none of them except the first one had sold at all. Nobody knew who I was and I thought, “No publisher’s going to take a chance on someone with a record like that.” But, my agent told me not to worry and one of my friends happened to be with Algonquin Books. She said, “You know, I have an editor here and I bet she might like your story.” I said, “Yeah, right. Nobody else does.” She told me to send it over and I sent it over. Within a week, this new editor [inaudible 00:04:09] called me and said, “We all loved the book. We want to publish it.” I was, of course, shocked.
Caroline: I said, “Look, you have to understand, I don’t sell books. Are you sure?” She said, “You’ll sell books now. Just you wait.” They took that little non-special book and they turned it into six printings before it was even out. The month it got out, it got on New York Times Best-Seller’s list. I just feel like if this can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. It’s just a question of being with the right publisher, the timing has to be right, you need marketing and publicity, and it’s a lot of things anyone can do to help themselves. You just never give up. No doesn’t always mean no.
Crystal-lee: That’s a wonderful … Because I think so many people coming into the industry just starting out as writers, a lot of people take rejection so personally. It’s like you have to start to really grow a thick skin even though you have those moments and you want to cry and hide in your house for months and months at a time. Have you ever had a time where you’ve been pulled backwards like things are going really well and then you get a bad review? How do you handle that?
Caroline: Oh, yeah, bad reviews can decimate people. I know writers who say that they don’t read the reviews just because it’s so upsetting. I used to get very upset by my bad reviews and very puzzled by my good reviews because sometimes they would point out stuff that I thought was crazy or that I wasn’t doing. I did stay inside my house for weeks and weeks crying and feeling this is it, this is it. Then, I did this really excellent thing which is, I became a book reviewer myself, I guess, about 10 years ago maybe. And, I started to see it from the other side and it made me feel a whole lot better because you begin to realize a few things.
Caroline: First, you realize that it’s one person’s opinion. It’s not the whole newspaper’s opinion. I’ve had a bad review from a major paper where the book editor, who didn’t do the review, told me, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I can’t tell my reviewers what to write.” I’ve loved books that everybody else has hated and I’ve disliked books that every other critic adores. It’s just my opinion. You also begin to realize that readers don’t really care whether the review is good or bad. They’re looking for the plot. If there’s a really bad review and it sounds like a great story, people will go and buy the book. It doesn’t matter.
Caroline: Also, sometimes when a review is really personal and really vicious, readers will read it and feel sorry for the writer and mad at the reviewer. They’ll go buy the book and they’ll read it and they’ll love it. You have to realize it’s not reviews. Honest to God, they don’t really sell books. What sells books is people knowing about your book and telling a friend who tells a friend who tells a friend. It’s word of mouth.
Caroline: For my friends when they get bad reviews, I annotate them. [inaudible 00:07:25] think about them like, “Obviously, this reviewer never went to school.” You have to learn to look at them and say, “Okay, you know what? This person didn’t like it, but that’s just this person didn’t like it. It doesn’t matter. Onto the next.” Because they’re writing reviews and you’re creating art, so nobody should ever let a review make them feel bad.
Crystal-lee: Yeah, and art is so subjective. What one person loves, another may not. I can’t imagine anybody not loving ‘Cruel Beautiful World’ because I was literally just … Page turner. I’m like, “Oh, what’s next? What’s next?” I think one of the things I especially loved about it is just the scene-setting. You’re right back to that time because it is set in the 70s.
Caroline: Thank you.
Crystal-lee: There’s just so much visualization and you’re following the story. It’s not just one story. I love the different characters, Iris, and just learning about what’s happening because you’re like, “This is all leading to something.”
Caroline: Right, right.
Crystal-lee: I think it just has that great, great storytelling to it.
Caroline: Thank you.
Crystal-lee: I can’t imagine anybody being like, “This is not special,” ’cause it’s definitely special and definitely an amazing read.
Caroline: I got more press for this book than I got for any other, which is all due to the publicity and marketing department of Algonquin Books. I did get one really bad review from a major paper, which totally misread the book and said some personally mean things.
Crystal-lee: Oh, no.
Caroline: No, you know what? I was stunned because first of all, I thought, “Well, it’s good to be in this newspaper.” Second of all, I felt that not everybody’s going to like the book and because this reviewer was so mad, I ended up getting a lot of letters from people saying, “I don’t know what the deal is with this review.” That made me feel better, but it’s part of the deal. If you go back in history, Fitzgerald got horrible reviews. He was a failure at the end of his life. Van Gogh never sold a painting, so you can’t …
Caroline: I always say it’s not the business of the artist to pay attention to the critic. You can look at the review, if there’s anything that they say that seems helpful, because sometimes there is something helpful, then work on it. But, if you look at it and you think, “This is terrible,” or, “This is a puff piece,” or, “They’re wrong,” then ignore it and move on and create more art.
Crystal-lee: Now, you mentioned in the first book that you had a literary agent approach you after winning a writing contest. Did you continue on with that literary agent or did you switch agents throughout the process?
Caroline: Yeah, I’m glad you asked that question because this is really important. Because a lot of writers think that you’ve got to have an agent, you’ve got to have an agent. While that is most of the time true, you want the right agent because an agent can be wrong for you and that’s worse. My first agent was actually an excellent agent in that she sold every single book that I wrote, but the problem with us was that she was kind of cool. Her personality was very cool. She wasn’t a hugger. She would say things to me like, “Well, don’t complain because you’re lucky you’re being published. It’s really hard out there.”
Caroline: She led me to believe that I would never find another agent and I should just settle with what I had. After a while, I got tired of it. My writing friends said, “You have to try. You have to try for other agents.” I thought, “I’m never going to get another agent and I’ll surely not get one better than she is.” They told me, “Try. Go ahead, try.” So, I reached out to a lot of agents. It’s funny because at the time, there was a place called the Writer’s Union and it had a book called ‘The Book Agents’ which people wrote in. People were very truthful things like, “Oh, this agent is senile,” or, “This agent is great and blah, blah, blah.”
Caroline: The agent who had the most positives was this agent named Gail Hochman. I thought, “Oh, I can never get her. She’s just too, too good for me.” I approached her and she took me on and I met her. It’s very important to meet the agent. She was so warm and she hugged me and she was so complimentary and she had all these great ideas of what to do and she was on my side. I thought, “That’s the agent I want.” I’ve been with her forever. I think it’s been like 20 years now. I would never, ever leave her because she’s my champion and she’s also …
Caroline: Another thing about agents is some agents and others don’t. My advice is you want one who does edit. Gail edits everything I write before it goes out and it’s so, so helpful. I always feel safe, supported. She’s just wonderful, just the best.
Crystal-lee: It’s so nice to hear that because I think sometimes when we’re querying and we’re trying even just to secure an agent, we’re willing to take whatever can come at us and there are some out there that aren’t truly literary agents. There’s things that come up like reading fees and things like that that writers want to avoid because a real agent isn’t going to charge you a reader’s fee to read your manuscript or read your work.
Caroline: No, they aren’t. They aren’t because they make money when you make money. They want you to make money. If they’re charging you for stuff like that, they’re not a very good agent. You also want to pay attention to the client list of the agent. I had one friend who’s a very literary novelist and she was so excited that got an agent at a big place, but this agent that she got did very commercial genre fiction mostly with a supernatural bent, which is fine but it wasn’t what my friend was writing.
Caroline: That agent just didn’t know the right editors. She knew great editors that did supernatural stuff. So, whenever you look for an agent, look for their client list. Find out who they represent. If you don’t know or like any of the books, that’s not who you want to be with.
Crystal-lee: Exactly. That’s such great advice. For this latest book, you mentioned switching publishers as well. You mentioned Algonquin Books. What has it been like to work with Algonquin?
Caroline: Oh, my God. I call them the gods and goddesses. I’m serious. I’ve never been treated so well or with such respect or given such help. First of all, they’re a small publisher. They publish literary fiction. I know every single person who works there. If I have a problem, I can just call them up and they’ll call me instantly. They’re all warm. They’re all huggers. And, they think outside the box.
Caroline: Most publishers will, when your book comes out, they’ll promote it or market it for three months tops. If it doesn’t hit by three months, then they’re on to the next because they have to. They have a whole lot of other books. I’m on my fourth book with Algonquin. They’re still promoting my first book. They really are. They just have genius, amazing, extraordinary ideas and they’re the ones that taught me that it’s really about marketing and promotion. If you don’t have a publisher who does good promotion, you need to bite the bullet and hire one because that will get your book known.
Crystal-lee: Now, for hiring a publicist, there’s so many out there and it’s so hard to navigate and know in terms of monetarily even. For some writers, it’s a struggle to have money to promote the book depending on their advance. Which publicist would you look for for trustworthy traits, maybe, or what’s the best way to find a really great publicist or one you would recommend?
Caroline: It’s really hard because the really great ones are really, really expensive. They can be anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000. They’re absolutely worth it, but there are things you can do to make it less. One place I like is called Broadside and they have a thing where you can possibly hire somebody for the most important publicity time which is six months before your book gets out. You can hire somebody from there for less, maybe for 10,000, I don’t really know.
Caroline: Goldberg McDuffie is absolutely excellent and usually, they’ll work with you, so you can say, “Well, I’d like you to do this or I’d like you to do that,” and work out a fee. I would avoid publicists who publicized books that you’ve never heard of. Again, you have to look at their client list to see how they did. You can even contact the people who worked with them and say, “What did you think of them? Did they help you?”
Caroline: But, all is not bleak if a writer cannot find a publicist. There is still things that a writer can do on their own and part of that is to be a big presence on social media and be a person, just don’t talk about your book. Publishing personal essays is really great. Anyone can submit an essay to Modern Love in the New York Times Sunday paper. They take three weeks to respond and if you get in there, you will have more publicity than you can imagine.
Caroline: I have friends who got agents just from being in there. It’s a great thing to do. What you want to do is put yourself out there. Lit Hub is a great place to send an essay. Refinery29, the Manifest-Station by Jen Pastiloff [crosstalk 00:17:57]-
Crystal-lee: Oh, I love Jen Pastiloff.
Caroline: … is fabulous.
Crystal-lee: So lovely.
Caroline: Anyplace online that you can get on because what you want is you want people to recognize your name and that makes it easier.
Crystal-lee: I think that’s where people get confused with platform building, right? Because there’s so much of that that gets said. A lot of agents are saying, “We want you to have a significant platform,” and what people are thinking are … They’re thinking numbers like Twitter followers and Facebook followers. Really, it’s about getting your name out there so that it’s known.
Caroline: Yeah, yeah. Anybody can-
Crystal-lee: [crosstalk 00:18:33] you can do?
Caroline: Yeah, with Twitter you can follow a thousand people in a day and that doesn’t mean that they’re really following you.
Caroline: What it is, is if you’re thinking of the world as a cocktail party and it’s your job to go up to people and say, “Hi, my name is so and so,” and not necessarily talk about your book or writing but talk about chocolate cake or anything else. Your job is to make friends. There’s a lot of editors and agents and media people on Twitter and Facebook and yeah, you can follow them, but you don’t want to talk to them about your book or ask them for things. What you want to do is go to their Facebook page and if they’re posting dog pictures say, “Oh, my God! I love your dog. I have a dog too. What does he eat? What does he do?” And, you engage in a conversation.
Caroline: Usually, what happens is the media person will say, “Who is this person?” and they’ll go back to your Facebook page and they’ll say, “Oh, she’s a writer. Okay, that’s good.” That’s what you do. It takes time and it’s slow. I don’t think it’s the numbers as much as how many people know you which is why personal essays are so good because then people learn a little bit about you. That’s what they remember more than what they remember of you on Twitter.
Crystal-lee: It’s so true because there’s essays that I’ve read where it’s just stayed with me and I always end up reaching out to the writer of them at some point just to say this really got me and I really appreciated it. Usually, they have a book coming out or something and I think collaboration is a big part of the community too. Because for me, I’m so passionate about books. I love them and I love to promote them and talk about them because it’s so much fun to say to somebody, “Have you read this?” And, they’ve read it and you get to discuss it.
Caroline: Right, well what-
Crystal-lee: I think that’s a big part of it is collaborating, right?
Caroline: Absolutely. What you do is such a gift to the writing community, Crystal. It really is.
Crystal-lee: Oh, thank you.
Caroline: First of all, you’re being yourself which is great. So, people know your personality and they think, “Oh, Crystal’s really nice and she’s funny.” Also, you’re promoting other books honestly and you can hear the enthusiasm in your voice and that’s a really big deal. That’s what everybody can be doing.
Caroline: A writer, Carolyn See used to tell writers every week, “Just write a lovely note to an author you admire.” Don’t ask for anything, just say, “I just … ” Make it handwritten if you can. Just say, “I just loved your latest book and I wanted you to know. I’m not asking for anything and blah, blah, blah.” That’s it. That’s how you become … I guarantee the writer will remember it and save it. Along the line, you can meet up with that writer again or maybe along the line after a while you can ask for something, but the idea is just to give without expectation.
Caroline: That’s when things happen.
Crystal-lee: That’s so true. I think it’s funny because I used to be afraid to reach out to authors. Because I loved their work and I was like, “They’re so busy. They’re so famous.” It’s so funny because once we all get talking to each other, we’re all just people.
Caroline: Right! Exactly.
Crystal-lee: People have appreciated it. People love it. Everybody feels great when somebody reaches out to them and says, “I just read this book and … ” I’ve done it when I’m in the throws of the book and I’m making notes. I have one book I was reading recently. I reached out to the author and I was just like, “I can’t put this down. What is going to happen? I can’t take it.”
Caroline: They love it.
Crystal-lee: And, then when I-
Caroline: They love it. Writers love that.
Crystal-lee: Yeah! I think it just means so much to authors. I think if anybody that’s listening has ever been a little bit nervous about reaching out or sending a tweet or sending a note…
Crystal-lee: … a handwritten note or something.
Caroline:Yeah, don’t be nervous.
Crystal-lee: Don’t be nervous. Don’t go stalker and send it right to their home maybe. Maybe reach out to their agent and send it to them, but it always means so much. I think it is true. It’s a great way to make connections with people within the community, to support each other.
Crystal-lee: You’ve got your fabulous blog where you’re supporting writers as well. Why don’t you share a little bit about that process as well?
Caroline: Okay. Well, I started the blog because, like many writers, I got the you could write in your platform thing. I started the blog writing about myself and it really quickly became really boring to me. Because there’s not that much to say. What am I going to say? Today, I sat at my desk and wrote for 10 hours. [inaudible 00:23:34] now I’m going to the movies. I thought, “Well, maybe I could interview other writers.” And, I started with the writers I knew because I couldn’t, as a book reviewer, you’re ethically … You cannot review a friend’s book and I felt really badly about that.
Caroline: I thought, “Well, if I have a blog I can interview them and I’ll come out and say this is my friend and blah, blah, blah. And people can take what they want. I started interviewing all my friends and I put it all over social media and it began to grow. Then, I began to reach out to writers who I didn’t know and say, “Look, this is a blog. I’d love to interview you. It’s really easy. It’s just five questions all by email. I do the rest.” I started being able to interview really big names.
Caroline: After about a year or so, the publishers began calling me saying, “We have this book. Would you consider interviewing the author?” It’s just been a great thing because first of all, I get to support the community. Second, I get to meet and talk to these incredibly cool writers. It just builds community. It’s just a really fun, easy thing for me to do and it makes me feel good that I’m doing it.
Caroline: And, I want to say that if other people also want to interview writers, go ahead and do it. I’m not the only blog out there. It’s a great way to … You do the same thing except you do it verbally. It’s a great thing to do for anyone to do.
Crystal-lee: Well, yeah. It’s so easy. Really, even when I first started. I was still nervous and I just reached out to writers whose books I loved. I didn’t have any sort of rhyme or reason. I just thought, “I’m just going to reach out to these few and see what they say.” Almost every single one of them said yes. They were more than happy to come on and share.
Caroline: Of course.
Crystal-lee: Anybody can build something, right?
Caroline: Yes, of course. Also, there’s many less book review venues now. They’re cutting back. Anytime you can get out there and just get up there on social media with an interview, it’s great. It’s great. It’s just so great. People also want to hear your voice. They want to know about you and feel like they know you. Interviewing people’s a great way to do that.
Crystal-lee: Yeah, definitely. For me, it’s introduced me to works I might never have picked up before because I’ll see somebody mention a book they’ve reviewed and I think, “Oh, I’m going to go check that out now.”
Caroline: Right, right.
Crystal-lee: Or, somebody says, “Oh, you should interview this person. They’re great. They’ve got a new book.” So, it opens up a whole other world of different genres. ‘Cause I used to be very one … I would only read biographies or autobiographies or memoirs. Then, I started to expand because I’m like, “There’s just too many good books out there to not read more than just that genre.”
Caroline: Right. Yeah. It’s amazing when you stretch your perimeters. Most of my book reviews are assigned and a lot of times I’ll get books that I would never pick up. I would never dare like science books or history books. And, I’ve come to love them. Because I read one and I had to review and I thought, “This is really great. I’m going to look for more of these.” I never judge books until I read them. It’s just great to expand your horizons.
Crystal-lee: It is. Now, when you’re writing, do you have a practice or a ritual that you do before you sit down to write? Do you have to have a certain setup or [inaudible 00:27:16]? What are your writing practices like?
Caroline: Yeah. In the beginning of my career, I used to think that I had to wait for the muse. A lot of times, the must just didn’t show up. So, I began to discover story structure. I took a course from John Truby and I actually stalked him and became friends with him and his wife, Leslie Lehr. I became friends with this woman Lisa Cron who also does story structure. It’s a way of thinking of your novel that puts it in bite-sizes so it’s not so overwhelming.
Caroline: I have what I call writers synopsis which is 40 pages that I think is going to happen in the novel. Every day, I just circle a couple of things so I’m not overwhelmed. I say, “Okay, today I’m going to work on this and it’s all I’m going to do. I’m not going to do anything else.” That way I don’t feel like I’m never going to finish this. It’s too overwhelming. I also feel that then I’ll have more work to do tomorrow. That’s what I do.
Caroline: I have to have music and it actually, I’m embarrassed to say, has to be really bad music for listening to. If it’s really good, then I’ll listen to it and I just needed something with a beat, something that is backdrop. I have to have coffee. That’s the only essential. That’s about it. It’s a practice. It’s like exercising. The more you do it, the more you say, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do.”
Caroline: I will say the one thing that keeps me at my desk is that I’m just so grateful that I don’t work in a job job anymore, in an office. Whenever I sit down to write and I start to feel crazy or sorry for myself, I tell myself, “Well, at least you’re not working at an office right now [inaudible 00:29:13] again.” Then I start to feel blesses.
Crystal-lee: Yeah. For you, writing is a full-time career. But for those that are just getting in, we often here, when can I quit my day job? How do you get to that point where it’s writing is a full-time-
Caroline: Okay. It takes a while. It takes a really long time. I also want to say that even though I’m a full-time writer, I have other jobs that I do. Everybody has to. I teach. Most writers teach. I teach online, which is a great thing to do because then I can do it whenever I want. So, I’m not tied down to a schedule. I’m a professional namer where I name products.
Crystal-lee: I love that.
Caroline: I do manuscript consults. When I first started out … I’m trying to think what I did. I just put the word out to friends that if they had any interesting jobs … I started out where I was working at Columbia House videos full-time and one of my friend’s husband was doing these kids books, series of books. Books series are really good to get into. They paid me something like 11,000 to do one and I had a month to do it.
Caroline: I thought that was really good money and I did that for a while. Once I did that, I was able to go to other book series. I went to Nancy Drew and said, “Look, I did this. I’d like to do this.” You built it up. In terms of online teaching, they usually won’t take you until you’ve published something. It doesn’t have to be a book. It can be a short story or something. I went to UCLA and they were just starting. They said, “Okay, we’ll try you out.”
Caroline: I had no idea how to teach, but I did really well. So, they kept giving me more and more work. There were things like writers in the school that you can do. Don’t be afraid to write. A lot of places will let you write catalog copy. Department stores always have catalogs and you can write that stuff at home and it’s not hard. There’s also a whole lot of places online that are looking for ghostwriters and that pays a lot.
Caroline: Although, usually the places online who are looking for ghostwriters, it’s a really terrible job because the [crosstalk 00:31:31] usually are all over the place. But, it pays a lot of money. So, you just have to always keep your eyes open and that’s why it’s good to be part of the community. It can take a while, but you just have to remember that one thing leads to another and you can’t be afraid to take that leap and say, “Okay, I don’t want to do my job anymore.”
Caroline: Also, sometimes having a full-time job is not … If it’s a job that’s mindless, then it doesn’t matter. When I worked for Columbia House, it’s a really mindless job. I could write on my lunch hour. I didn’t have to think about it too much. It was really easy work.
Caroline: I used to write fashion copy for a Macy’s and that was really fun. It didn’t take too much of me so that I couldn’t do it. If you’re a doctor and you want to write, that’s probably really hard. Or, if you’re a lawyer and you have a job that’s really high-pressure, you probably want to look for other stuff. But, if you just have your regular, run-of-the-mill, job job and you’re just doing it for benefits and whatever else they supply, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s lots of writers who do that.
Crystal-lee: Yeah, I think in speaking about this, I’m always fascinated to know at what point did you feel like a writer? Did you ever have those moments where you’re like, “I’m not a real writer yet?” Was there a turning point where you’re like, “Okay, I’m a writer?”
Caroline: All the time. In my 20s, I used to wear a t-shirt that I had the word writer on it, but I didn’t feel like a writer, seriously, until I got to Algonquin Books. They made me feel like a writer. They made me feel respected.
Crystal-lee: Oh, I love that.
Caroline: My agent made me feel like a writer and people began to know who I was and that was important. I always tell other writers, if you’re writing every day or even four days a week, I don’t care whether you’ve published anything, you’re a writer and you get to call yourself a writer. You have to claim that because I think when you claim that, it sets up an energy in the universe where things start to happen. You write. You’re a writer.
Caroline: If somebody looks at you and says, “Oh, well what have you published,” and you haven’t published anything, it doesn’t matter. You’re still a writer and you can look that person in the eye and just repeat, I’m a writer. That’s what I do. It’s important to call yourself that no matter what stage you are.
Crystal-lee: Yes. I know writer’s block comes up a lot for people and some writers don’t believe in it and some say it’s a real thing. Have you experienced it and how do you work through that especially when you’re on deadline for a publisher?
Caroline: I’ve never really had writer’s block and a lot of that, I think, is because of story structure, because there’s always some structural thing you can do. You can figure out how the character … you can just ask a character what are you mad about or what do you want and then you just free write and something will come up.
Caroline: I did, however, a few years ago, I was just worn down. I had been touring. I was touring 40 cities and it was snowing and it was right after the election. I guess it was two years ago. It was right after the election and nobody was coming out and so the events were small. I was just really depressed and I just didn’t want to write anymore. I told all my friends, “I’m not doing it again. I have nothing to say. I don’t want to write anymore. I’m just giving up.” And, I literally did not write for three months. I really didn’t.
Caroline: I was perfectly fine with not doing it, though I wondered what I was going to do. All of sudden, an idea for a story came into my head and I was obsessed again. Sometimes writer’s block is you need to do story structure. Sometimes writer’s block is you just need time off, a little bit of time off. Again, I think it’s your frame of mind. I don’t think any writer should ever beat themselves up for having writer’s block. It passes. It always passes.
Caroline: If you can’t write, go do something else for a while. If you have a deadline, that’s a different thing. If you have a deadline, then take an hour off and read a book for a while or go have chocolate or be good to yourself. Yeah. But, don’t self-hate yourself and think, “Oh, I must be a crappy writer because I have writer’s block.”
Crystal-lee: Yeah. I think too with a publisher, if you have the right publisher, they’re pretty understanding. There are deadlines but it seems like if you have the right one they’re willing to help you work through anything that comes up. And, you’ve had such good things to say about Algonquin in specific. We were talking about publicity …
Caroline: Yeah, Algonquin has it written into my contract that there’s a due date for my next novel, but there’s a stipulation that if I need more time, I can have more time.
Crystal-lee: That’s wonderful.
Caroline: There’s never that feeling of, “Oh, my God. What if I don’t have this done?” They’re just there and they’re just really, really helpful every step of the way and it makes all the difference in the world. A writer just needs the right publisher.
Crystal-lee: When you were talking about taking the break, the three-month break, what that when ‘Cruel Beautiful World’ came into fruition after that break?
Caroline: It was really weird. I just took a break and I felt I had nothing to write about. Then, I just was thinking about things from my past and this idea came up. It was actually a book I had tried to write since I was 17. It was a story of a friend of mine who sat in front of me in study hall who had a much, much older boyfriend who murdered her when she wanted to break up with him.
Caroline: I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll play around with that.” I really didn’t do anything for another two weeks. Then, I sat down and all of a sudden this story just exploded onto the page and I knew how to write it. Sometimes things like that happen. It was really surprising for me ’cause I really felt like, “Well, I’ve written enough books. I don’t have to do this anymore.” Then, all of a sudden, I really wanted to.
Crystal-lee: Those are the best stories.
Caroline: I wanted to again and [crosstalk 00:38:28].
Crystal-lee: Just the way it’s written and also, I think, what’s fun is when you befriend fellow writers. I know I watch the entire process of this book being birthed because you would post, right? There would be polls like what was the popular perfume at the time or what do you remember? Everybody was giving their input and I think that’s one of the things I loved so much is how helpful everybody is.
Caroline: Everybody is amazing. I actually dedicated that book. I put Facebook and Twitter in the acknowledgments because, first of all, I take and I took social media on the ride with me every time. I always post how I’m doing, how I’m stuck because I think a lot of writers don’t realize that any writer, no matter where they are in their career, it’s hard. It’s incredibly hard and I know Pulitzer Prize-winning writers who still feel like everything they write is junk. It’s really hard.
Caroline: Sometimes it’s enough to just say, “I want to go back to dental school.” Then, you’ll get a bunch of people saying, “Yeah, I feel like that too,” and it feels better. In terms of research, all I had to do was say, “Did anybody ever know the Mansons?” I was so shocked. I got 12 people who actually lived near the Mansons, and had seen Charlie Manson, or had spoken to some of the people in the Family. I was able to use that and it made it all so much more real.
Caroline: It also kept me tethered to the novel ’cause I felt “Well, all these people have helped me. I can’t give up now.” That would push me ahead.
Crystal-lee: Yeah. Some writers are like, “I don’t say a word. I don’t tell anybody I’m writing. I don’t want to jinx it.” I feel like everybody who has shared the process while they’re going through the [crosstalk 00:40:22] and asked for input, everybody’s been so excited to buy that book and read it and see what happens.
Crystal-lee: Because you’ve been a part of the process.
Caroline: Right. You really can’t jinx it if you realize that everything single writer or whatever part of their career they’re at, they’re frightened. Nobody really is going to steal your idea. They’re not. It’s just not done in publishing. It’s done in the movies, but I’ve never really seen it done in publishing. It’s just part of being open and being vulnerable and letting people into the process.
Caroline: I think it’s important to let people know that it’s hard. It’s always hard. Nobody knows what they’re doing. You just come to embrace that.
Crystal-lee: Yeah. While you were writing ‘Cruel Beautiful World’, were there times where you grappled with worrying about the outcome of what you were writing? If there would be a bad reaction to it. Do you find that that influences your writing or did you just shut everything out and say, “I’ve got to get this out my way first?”
Caroline: I used to worry about that stuff, but I’ve written enough books now that I’ve learned that you can’t worry about it. You can’t think about it because you’ll make yourself crazy. The kinds of things I worry about more is I was worried that I didn’t want to hurt my friend who was murdered. I didn’t want to hurt her surviving family. I worried about changing enough things so they wouldn’t know.
Caroline: I worried about … I was writing about my mom and I worried about how she would take it. She, by the time the novel was done, my mother had dementia so she wasn’t going to read it anyway, which was a heartbreak for me. Those kinds of things are just … I worry about those things, but you can’t worry about what reviewers are going to think because they’re going to think all kinds of things. There nothing you can do about it.
Crystal-lee: Well, exactly.
Caroline: You just have to worry about the book.
Crystal-lee: When it comes to taking real-life events and fictionalizing this story, there is a careful crafting that goes on to make sure that it’s fictionalized enough that people aren’t easily picking up on who it is or who it could have possibly been inspired by.
Caroline: I was actually sued for my very first novel, which was really a bizare story. The lawsuit was dropped, but my characters were called Ben, Bea, and Rozzy Nelson. I thought those were just simple American names. It was about a family dealing with their daughter who had mental illness. The book came out and was getting all this press and all this stuff, and then I got a letter from a lawyer saying that his client Ben, Bea, and Rozzy … I don’t remember what their real last names, but it was something like Neimanson or Nelsonson, it was something really close … were suing for an invasion of property because they felt that I was taking their story and using it.
Caroline: Also, the bizarre thing was they lived in the same town that I was working in at the time.
Caroline: So, it was really scary.
Crystal-lee: On, my gosh.
Caroline: I talked to the lawyers and I said, “Do you think I’d be stupid enough to use their real names?” They thought that I told him who it was about and I wanted to counter sue because they wanted to suppress the book. The lawyer finally said, “Look, if you take this to court, the book isn’t going to come out. The book isn’t going to continue to sell. You have all this great momentum going.” He said, “How about this? I’m going to suggest to them that you changed three of the names just in the paperback and not in the hardback.”
Caroline: I didn’t want to do it, but my agent kept saying, “You really should do it.” I ended up doing it. To this day, I have learned that people can sue for anything. Again, you can’t make yourself too crazy about it, but on the other hand, you never want to use real names. You don’t want to use real descriptions, identical descriptions of people. You want to be careful about stuff like that and contact a lawyer if you’re worried. That stuff does happen.
Crystal-lee: Yeah, I think that’s a big fear, especially for people that are writing memoirs like myself. You have to be so careful because there were people that … It was funny when I mentioned writing a book, I couldn’t believe the people who came out of the woodwork to let me know that they did not want to be in my book.
Caroline: Oh, my gosh. Well, you have to tell them, “Well, you know what? It’s your interpretation of events that happened that you lived.” That’s who you are able to do that. Because it’s your interpretation, not theirs.
Caroline: I think if you wrote about somebody, you said, “Oh, this person was a real drunk and they’re a charlatan and they’re a terrible doctor,” that would impact their business. They can sue it impacts their business. If you just write about, “Well, I went to this doctor and she was really terrible and blah, blah, blah,” then they can’t sue because nobody’s going to know except you and your closest friends who that doctor was.
Crystal-lee: Exactly. Well, it’s some really great information and I’m so grateful for this conversation because we’ve covered so much.
Caroline: Me too! Me too. I love talking to you. I love talking to you in the advance interview and I love this. This is a good lesson for writers because now you and I are friends.
Caroline: That’s why you want to reach out. Yeah. I feel like I know you. I love you. I want to have coffee with you. That’s what writer have to do to build community.
Crystal-lee: Exactly. I think it’s so important too for all of us to reach out to each other and help each other. I think people are always talking about when the book comes out you have to get the pre-orders going. It’s a very important part of the publishing process. We don’t always talk about it, but a lot of time, a lot of new writers aren’t aware that it’s really crucial that first six months before the book’s even published to get pre-orders in.
Caroline: Yeah, it is. Yep. You want to do that and also, if you approach any big magazine like Oprah’s, the O Magazine, that’s all done six to eight months beforehand. Everything is done. Newspapers are three months beforehand they decide what they’re going to review. Otherwise, it’s too late. It’s just too late. It’s too late.
Caroline: You do want those pre-orders so you want to start six months before the book is out. You want to post your cover on social media. Say, “Oh, here’s my cover. Do you like it?” Talk about what you’re doing for your book. Ask people, “Oh, I’d love to read in Santa Monica,” or wherever somebody is. “Does anybody know a good bookstore?” People will come out of the woodwork the help you. They really will.
Crystal-lee: Definitely. Definitely. I’ve just been in awe watching the process over the past couple of years doing this, how amazing it is that people will post their advance reader copies that they get that are abbreviated to an ARC. When you get your ARC, then you post them. I usually go and order those books because I trust the opinions of my fellow writer friends to say, “You guys need to pick this up. This is special.” That’s been one of the biggest ways I’ve seen books sell.
Crystal-lee: Now, for ‘Cruel Beautiful World’, did you find that there was one particular part of publicity that seemed to work really well for the book sales? Or, was it a combination of a few different ways-
Caroline: Well, a lot of it had to do with Algonquin, stuff that they were doing. A lot of this came by surprise. I was just talking about my book on Twitter and I happen to say, “Come back to the world of the 70s with Love’s Baby Soft perfume, bell bottoms,” and I got a tweet from Love’s Baby Soft, the company. They said, “We want to do a promotion with you.” I put them in touch with Algonquin and they looked at this big, huge promotion with Love’s Baby Soft and it was great. It was just really, really great.
Caroline: That’s the kind of thing that Algonquin does. They took quotes out of the book, really cryptic quotes, and plastered it all over social media. That got a lot of stuff. They just [crosstalk 00:49:28].
Crystal-lee: Yeah, those were really eye-catching. Yeah.
Caroline: Yeah, really eye-catching things.
Crystal-lee: They did a really fantastic job.
Caroline: They always do.
Crystal-lee: I wish we could bottle it and show people this is how you promote a book because it was really well done and the execution was flawless.
Caroline: They’re incredible. They are absolutely incredible. The marketing department, the publicity department, their editorial department, it’s like living in paradise. It really is. I had five other publishers so I know this isn’t always the way.
Crystal-lee: Exactly. Well, I’m so grateful for everything you have shared here with us today, Caroline. Your work is amazing. Your writing is just-
Caroline: Thank you.
Crystal-lee: … so, so good. I realize I’m not even giving it a sliver of justice in not having the right words. I love ‘Cruel Beautiful World’ so much. I was born in 79, but even the early part of the 80s, there’s a lot of nostalgia there and a lot of things that I recognize [crosstalk 00:50:33]. I think that’s what pulled me in right away was the descriptiveness of everything that happened at the time.
Caroline: Thank you. Thank you.
Crystal-lee: Yeah, it’s just so good.
Caroline: Well, I also want to say that this is actually another promotional thing I do that writers can use that I’m going to do right now. For anybody who buys my book, and you can buy it in paperback or hardback or audiobook, for anybody who buys it, I will make you a little tiny watercolor and send it to you. It will be like a bookplate and you can put it in your book.
Crystal-lee: That’s beautiful.
Caroline: I’m really easy to find online, so just contact me and I’ll tell you the details. I’ll be happy to do that. That’s just one of the marketing things that writers can do for themselves.
Crystal-lee: That’s amazing and I love that idea and I’m totally getting one.
Caroline: You get a thank you card.
Crystal-lee: Oh, thank you. So do you. I’ve been so grateful for your blog and everything you share on social media. It always helps me. If other writers are out there, please make sure that you follow Caroline on social media, on Facebook, on Twitter. It’s carolineleavitt.com. That’s caroline L-E-A-V-I-T-T .com. Make sure you order a copy of her latest book, ‘Cruel Beautiful World’. Please, remember reviews are crucial for writers and we appreciate all of our listeners who take the time to leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads.com.
Caroline: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
Crystal-lee: Yeah, so definitely-
Caroline: I just want to say I had a friend who wrote ‘Still Alice’ and she self-published it because she couldn’t get a publisher. She had so many reviews on Amazon that a publisher noticed and that’s how she got a traditional book deal.
Caroline: So, reviews matter, matter, matter.
Crystal-lee: See, reviews matter. They really do.
Crystal-lee: Well, thank you again so much, Caroline.
Caroline: Thank you, Crystal.
Crystal-lee: I’m just really grateful for this conversation and I’m excited for your next book.
Caroline: Me too. Thank you. Thank you.
Crystal-lee: We’ll definitely have to have you back and talk about it.
Caroline: You and I will definitely have to have coffee sometime if we’re in the same city!
Crystal-lee: Yes, the next time I’m in the country, we will definitely get together.
Caroline: Thank you so much, Crystal. Thank you so much for having me on the show. It was an honor and thank all you writers who are listening. That’s an honor too.
Crystal-lee: Oh, thank you so much.
Crystal-lee: Thank you so much for joining us today on Literary Speaking. If you’d like to learn more about Caroline and her work, visit carolineleavitt.com. That’s caroline L-E-A-V-I-T-T .com. Make sure you order a copy of her latest book, ‘Cruel Beautiful World’ and let her know and she’ll create a beautiful watercolor bookplate for you. You can contact her via her website or on social media, Facebook and Twitter @carolineleavitt.
Crystal-lee: Reviews are crucial for our writers and we appreciate all of our listeners who take the time to leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads.com. If you’ve enjoyed our show, please take a moment to leave a review on iTunes. We love to hear from you.
Crystal-lee: Join us next week as we speak to author Tabitha Blankenbiller. Her foodoir ‘Eats of Eden’ is one of the most foodie reads we’ve had this year