New York Times Bestselling author Caroline Leavitt’s 12th novel, With or Without You is a Public Library Association Buzz Book and A Publisher’s Weekly Fall Book of Note, and already has a starred Kirkus and Booklist raves that it “Packs an emotional wallop.” About three peoples’ lives that all disrupted when one comes out of a coma with both a personality change and a prodigious new talent, it’s a suspenseful literary look at love, fame and its discontents, who we are, and who we would like to be. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, New York magazine, Modern Love in the New York Times, The Millions, Poets & Writers and more.
Writing sometimes makes, rather than heals trauma, before it makes things okay again.
My novels tend to gestate for years before I know enough to write them. Twenty-four years ago I was in a medical coma myself for 3 weeks, and in the hospital not expected to survive for 3 months, and then home and sick for a year. But they had given me memory blockers so I wouldn’t remember the trauma, so when I did get well, I couldn’t process what I had been through. I had all sorts of PTSD things going on. Certain colors or smells would make me break out into a panic attack, and I was afraid to go to sleep. When I asked my family and friends who had been around, they were so traumatized, they couldn’t speak about any of it without getting really, really upset.
A friend of mine, a shrink, told me to write it out, that the brain doesn’t know the difference, that people in hypnosis will shiver if they are told it is freezing. So I did, writing this novel Coming Back to Me, about a woman just like me who goes in coma after a child. And it didn’t heal me.
So years passed, and I was still afraid to go to sleep and I began to think that maybe my mistake had been writing about someone like me, that maybe I needed to write about Stella, who unlike me, is aware and remembers EVERYTHING. And unlike me, she wakes with a personality change and brilliant new creative ability. Writing Stella, experiencing what I hadn’t been able to before, healedme in so many ways. When I finished my first coma novel, I was sad. But I wrote With or Without You, I felt this incredible sense of wonder and hope. And yeah, happiness, too, because I was freed of that past and I had come to realize that the mind is more incredible than we can imagine.
Hysteria sometimes is a good omen.
Here I am, with a month to go before my novel is due, and I am sitting in my writing office, pages spread around me, hysterically crying. Nothing seems to be working. The characters I worked so hard on feel flat to me and I want to slap them. The writing seems truncated to me and I don’t know how to fix it. I sob until my husband comes in and as soon as he sees the scene and the pages, the alarm on his face relaxes. He puts one arm around me. “You always do this,” he says gently. He tells me it is the calm before the storm that puts a finish on the work, and guess what, he’s right. He leaves me to it, and I begin to remap out scenes, to reorganize, to ask myself constant questions about what people are doing and why. Oh yeah, it takes me the whole month but at the end, I’m exhausted, and while I remain unsure about whether or not I’ve written a good book (I leave that for my agent and editor to tell me), I at least know that I’ve done absolutely everything I can to get the story to work and for right now, anyway, I’m done, I’m done, I’m done.
If I call backstory something else, then I can get it to work.
I’ve always had a huge backstory problem. Give me a character and I tend to want to go back generations. Every editor I’ve had has tried to pull me back from that, but I’ve been stubborn. But this book, my old Algonquin editor had left and I had a new one, Chuck Adams, and the first thing he said was, “We have to work on your backstory issue.” I panicked. A lot.
We did a lot of talking, a lot of rewrites, and finally, frustrated, I cut up all the backstory and spread it on the floor to see what needed to be there and why. And to my astonishment, I realized it wasn’t the backstory that was the problem, it was where I was putting it.
You want to think of your novel as one narrative driving line, but that line can trigger things in the past, and when those things are triggered, they change the character in that present driving line and then it works!
For example, one of my characters, Libby, a doctor and Stella’s best friend, is haunted by her past. She believes she caused her little brother’s death. To get the full impact of that, I was sure we had to live through that day along with young Libby, we had to feel everything she was feeling. But where was I going to put it? I couldn’t just have Libby be talking to Stella and saying, “Oh, by the way, let me tell you the story of what happened to my baby brother,” and then go off for half an hour about it.So then I began to think of triggers. Libby and Stella have a falling out about something major, and unable to cope, Libby goes to see a shrink, and it’s the shrink who tells her she has to go back to her old neighborhood and find out what really happened. We’re still in the present but while Libby is alone and traveling , she tells us about that day, as if it is front story, and happening, so we feel the trauma. Then, when she gets to the place, in the present narrative line, she talks to a few people, and when she discovers new information about that day, she is totally changed.
I don’t have to love my characters but I have to understand them.
In the beginning was Simon, in his forties, a once famous rock and roller with women hurling themselves at him, but now age has come calling. He puts mascara on his gray temples, he works out so he can fit into the same lucky jeans he wore when he was twenty, and he’s so desperate for his new big break that Stella, his longtime partner and very practical nurse, is ready to leave him.
When I showed initial pages to other people, the comments were always the same: Simon’s a jerk. Why doesn’t Stella boot him out? What a big baby. Simon was really the thorniest character I had to write.
Usually I adore my characters from the get-go, but Simon was a tougher nut to crack, mostly because his rock star persona isn’t one I’ve ever liked. So I began to feel it was both my job to come to love him and to make readers love him, too. I dug deeper. What was it that had happened to him in his past to make him this way? What was his “save the cat” moment (you know, when the killer stops his killing to rush into a house and save a kitten?) I began to post photos of hin around my office to feel like I was living with him. I asked him questions: What do you really need?” and then let him just tell me. And I began to realize that he had grown up under parents who didn’t think music—or he—were worthwhile. And then it struck me. Simon just wants to be seen and loved, and all of the music biz was just a barrier to that instead of the gateway he thought it was. And also, he loved Stella. He began to grow up. And by the end of the book, Simon was someone in my life and in my heart.
In writing about fame, I discovered it didn’t mean what I thought it did.
I thought I had made peace with the whole idea of fame and not fame. My first novel made me the flavor of the month and I thought it would always be that way, but it wasn’t. My publisher went out of business! I had a 3-book deal where the major publisher did no promotion and I had no sales. I got another 3-book deal, and it happened again, and making things more difficult for me was the fact that all my writing friends were building real careers, winning prizes, getting known. When my 9th novel was rejected on contract, I was sure my career was over. Who was going to buy a book from someone with no sales? I cried, and then a friend suggested an editor for me, and to my surprise, she bought that unspecial book. Even more unexpected, it got into 6 printings before it was published and became a New York Times Bestseller its second week. My next novel with Algonquin was also a NYT bestseller, but it didn’t feel the way I thought it would. I still was desperate for more, more, more.
But the unhappier Simon was with his life, the more I realized I had to stop doing what he was doing—checking every place for reviews or news of me, comparing myself nonstop to every other writer on the planet, wondering every second what people thought of me. In writing about Simon, I realized, that his issue was fame was really an identity issues, a wound from childhood that he had to heal if he wanted to have a happier, saner life. And as I wrote that for him, I realized that was my issue, too and I needed to dig deeper into it.
Simon’s not famous. I don’t consider myself famous. But because of With or Without You, we’re both happy, and that makes all the difference to both of us.
Caroline Leavitt: Website