It’s 1969, and sixteen-year-old Lucy is about to run away to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that will have vicious repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy’s default caretaker for most of their lives, Charlotte’s youth has been marked by the burden of responsibility, but never more so than when Lucy’s dream of a rural paradise turns into a nightmare. Writing a Woman’s Life columnist Yona Zeldis McDonough catches up with Caroline Leavitt and asks how she found her way to this remarkable story.
About Caroline Leavitt
Caroline Leavitt is the award-winning author of eleven novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Her essays and stories have been included in New York magazine, Psychology Today, More, Parenting, Redbook, and Salon. She’s a book critic for People, the Boston Globe, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and she teaches writing online at Stanford and UCLA.
YZM: How did this novel emerge in your imagination?
CL: I’ve been trying to write this book since I was 17. In the 70s, I sat behind a girl in study hall and we talked, not studied. I wanted to go to Paris and have adventures and love affairs and be a writer, but she was already engaged to a guy who was much older than she was and “a tad controlling.” Once I got to college, I heard the news. She had decided to break it off and her boyfriend had stabbed her 43 times. I was so haunted. I knew I had to write this story, but I couldn’t figure out how until about four years ago.
YZM: Do you feel you have a special affinity for the time period?
CL: Oh definitely, I was too young to do anything in the 1960s, which drove me crazy. I couldn’t go out to San Francisco and “wear flowers in my hair,” but I was lucky enough to have an older sister who took me to the Love-Ins and Be-Ins that were all around Boston and Cambridge. She taught me how to iron my hair, wear lace-up-the-leg sandals and I got her cast-off hippie clothes, the paisley elephant bells, the mini dress with peace signs all over it…
YZM: Can you talk about the differences between Lucy and Charlotte?
CL: Lucy is the wilder, younger sister, and terrified that she may not be smart or good at anything. She’s impulsive, reckless and daring. Charlotte is the more serious, older sister, who feels that she has to be responsible for everyone, that she has to fix things—including her sister. Her lesson is that sometimes, no matter how much you want to, you can’t prevent, heal or fix things. Sometimes you just have to let life wash over you.
YZM: What advice can you give writers who are just starting out?
CL: Never ever give up. Never. My first novel was a sensation and I thought it would always be that way, but my next 7 novels were failures. I sold just about nothing and no one knew who I was. My 9th novel, Pictures of You, was rejected by my then publisher as “not being special enough,” and they made it clear that they didn’t want to see anything else from me. I was sure my career was over and I cried a great deal. But then a friend got me to Algonquin and they took that ‘non-special book” and turned it into a New York Times Bestseller its first month out, and they made my second novel with them, IS THIS TOMORROW, a New York Times Bestseller as well. Both books were on many Best of the Year lists.
The other thing I can say is get on social media. Meet people and interact—but don’t mention your writing at first. You want to get to know people in the business, so if someone posts about chocolate cake, you might want to give a recipe.
And finally, be kind. To EVERYONE. Write thank you notes to people who help you—and even to those who don’t. Carolyn See used to encourage everyone to write one charming note to a writer every month, and I think that’s a fabulous idea.
YZM: What are you working on now?
CL: Yow. Two novels at once. I’m stretched a little thin, but I like it!
Caroline Leavitt is at her mesmerizing best in this haunting, nuanced portrait of love, sisters, and the impossible legacy of family.
It’s 1969, and sixteen-year-old Lucy is about to run away with a much older man to live off the grid in rural Pennsylvania, a rash act that will have vicious repercussions for both her and her older sister, Charlotte. As Lucy’s default caretaker for most of their lives, Charlotte’s youth has been marked by the burden of responsibility, but never more so than when Lucy’s dream of a rural paradise turns into a nightmare.
Cruel Beautiful World examines the intricate, infinitesimal distance between seduction and love, loyalty and duty, and explores what happens when you’re responsible for things you cannot make right.
Women’s Fiction Historical [Algonquin Books, On Sale: October 4, 2016, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9781616203634 / eISBN: 9781616206055]
About Yona Zeldis McDonough
Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of six novels; her seventh, THE HOUSE ON PRIMROSE POND, will be out from New American Library in February, 2016. In addition, she is the editor of the essay collections The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty and All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader. Her short fiction, articles and essays have been published in anthologies as well as in numerous national magazines and newspapers. She is also the award-winning author of twenty-six books for children, including the highly acclaimed chapter books, The Doll Shop Downstairs and The Cats in the Doll Shop. Yona lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, two children and two noisy Pomeranians.