Caroline Leavitt’s eleventh novel, Cruel Beautiful World, is both a gripping page-turner and a deeply moving character study. Sisters Charlotte and Lucy lose their parents as young children and come to live with their nearest relative. Two very different girls, they remain close growing up, until one day Lucy runs away with the high school English teacher. With skill and finesse, Ms. Leavitt digs into the souls of her characters, and the reader follows, thoroughly engrossed. Cruel Beautiful World is an intense, satisfying story full of tragedy and loss, tenderness and hope, and the love that binds a family. I am thrilled to welcome Caroline Leavitt to Book Club Babble today.
Tabitha Lord: Welcome, Caroline! Can you talk a little about the inspiration for this book?
Caroline Leavitt: Ah, this is a book I’ve been wanting to write since I was 17. Back then, I spent Study Hall talking to a friend, who had been engaged to a “controlling” boyfriend for years. When she finally broke up with him, he stabbed her 45 times and then vanished. I was haunted! But I couldn’t write her story because I didn’t understand how she could have stayed. Not then.
Flash forward ten years later. My fiancé had suddenly died in my arms two weeks before our wedding, of a heart attack. I was drowning in my grief, and after four months, I had the not-so-bright idea of hurling myself into a new relationship. My friends were appalled. So was my grief counselor. Back then there wasn’t Tinder or OKCupid or Match.com, but there was New York Magazine personal ads, 4 lines, and no photos at the back of a magazine.
So I met this guy and he seemed kind and soft-spoken and instantly devoted to me, but after a few months, things got odd. He began to quietly, and with great love, tell me that I was too heavy – I was 98 pounds, just so you know. He began to not want me to see my friends. He monitored my food and clothing. When someone very quietly keeps telling you that he is just telling you this because he loves you so much, you start to believe it. I didn’t know who I was anymore.
After two years, I couldn’t do anything on my own. I was 93 pounds. My mother was worried. My friends wanted to stage an intervention, but I kept thinking, “But he loves me!”
One day, I found that he had gone into my computer and rewrote a chapter. Something broke in me then. “That was mine!” I kept sobbing and he walked really, really close to me and said quietly, “There is no you. There is only us.”
I then understood my friend, and I left him. And I began to write.
TL: Your characters are well developed, interesting, and complex. Can you give readers some insight on the relationship between the two sisters, Lucy and Charlotte?
CL: Lucy and Charlotte were meant to be a love letter to the intense, close relationship I had with my own sister when we were growing up. But I also wanted to show two very different ways of being in the world. Lucy was the wild one, who wanted to risk everything to find her place in the world. But Charlotte is really—or was really—me. Charlotte wants to fix everything, to make everything better, to save everyone. She takes care of everyone until she comes to realize that sometimes you cannot fix things. Sometimes you just have to let life wash over you. She couldn’t save her sister. And it wasn’t her fault.
TL: The contrast between William, the teacher Lucy runs off with, and Patrick, her employer at the farm stand, is stark. Patrick’s appropriate responses to Lucy make William’s feel all the more taboo. Was Patrick always part of the story in your mind, or did he materialize later?
CL: What a great question! Originally, Patrick was a buddy of William’s who comes to realize what William was doing and chooses Lucy over his longtime friend. But when I wrote it, it seemed stupid on the page, so I started over. I wanted Lucy to experience a relationship with a man who was her friend—not her lover. And with an older man who knows the boundaries and would never cross them. With Patrick, Lucy acts the same way she did when she first met William—but Patrick turns her away—as well he should.
TL: You contrasted the youthful lives of Lucy and Charlotte with that of their elder guardian, Iris. I found it so satisfying to learn about Iris’s life, and to watch her struggle to accept the limitations and changes that come with age. What made you decide to explore characters at such opposite ends of the age spectrum?
CL: My original idea for the novel was this: First love. Last love. Dangerous love. That was it! I had no story, but I loved those three phrases. As I was writing the book, I didn’t really have Iris in it, but then my mom did this astonishing thing. She fell in love for the first time in her 90s! And so Iris is my homage to my mom. The lovely thing is that she got to experience love, real love. She now has dementia and she doesn’t know that her boyfriend died. She thinks he still visits her, and I’m so grateful for that.
In watching my mother age—and then bloom because of love—I felt that she had given me this great, amazing gift. She had shown me that love could happen anytime. That life can happen anytime. And I loved that and wanted to write about it.
I love teenagers. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are so dramatic. They do crazy things and they love hard. When my first boyfriend broke up with me when I was 17, I had a bonafide nervous breakdown. I was always doing crazy, dangerous things, like hitching home from Boston at one in the morning by myself. Now, when I think of those days, I am terrified for my old self, but back then, I felt invincible, and that was such a powerful, wonderful feeling.
TL: There’s a good bit of back story on various characters peppered throughout the book. From a craft standpoint, how did you determine when and where you would include this information?
CL: The truth is that my genius editor, Andra Miller, helped me work out what should go where. She wanted every chapter to be given over to one character, and she was the one who really built the rhythm!
I love backstory because I really think that the past makes us who we are today. We all harbor misconceptions because of things that happened to us in the past, and they actually keep us from getting what we need. For example, if you grew up really poor, you might think having money would bring you happiness. So you make a plan. You work hard. Then you get rich, and to your surprise, it isn’t what you thought it would be. You aren’t happy. But you get to realize that what you DO need is love, instead.
I always write my back stories as front stories. I love to play with time. People sometimes think of back stories as flashbacks, but they are something quite different. They enhance the character!
TL: Who is your favorite character?
CL: Ack! That’s like asking me who my favorite child is. I loved Iris because there was so much of my mom in there. I loved Charlotte because so much of her was me. I loved Lucy because she was my sister when she was young and because she had such yearning, such passion. I loved Patrick who was stuck in grief. I didn’t love William, but I deeply understood him and at the last minute I gave over part of a chapter to him so he could have a chance to explain himself, to tell his own story. I thought that was important because no villain thinks that he or she is a villain. They all have their own, desperate reasons for doing what they do. And for William, his reason was love, no matter how twisted or dangerous, it was always love.
TL: Grief and loss are obvious themes in the book. As readers, we’re allowed to process this grief along with the characters. Charlotte’s search for William, Patrick’s eventual reconciliation with his in-laws, and Iris allowing herself to fall in love again, all bring the narrative far enough forward so we aren’t left in despair. Yet everything isn’t neat and tidy. Did you know how this story would play out before you began writing it, or did it evolve along with the characters? And how did you know when it was time to end the book?
CL: Zounds, another great question! I always like to end with what I call the never-ending story, a moment where nothing is tied up neatly, where you wonder. Will Patrick find Charlotte later on? Will Charlotte find him? Will Iris stave off dementia?
I always know my ending or at least a rough cut of it. I knew exactly where Lucy would end up. I didn’t know what would happen with William and had a variety of scenes written, one where he goes to prison, another where he tries to kill Charlotte. I always knew that Charlotte was going to drive down that shining highway, but it took me about 17 drafts before I realized that she was going to learn that she couldn’t fix everything. That she just had to be in the world, and that Lucy was not her fault.
TL: For all the darkness in the story, there is plenty of light and hope. The title of the book captures this nicely – Cruel Beautiful World. This story is both cruel and beautiful. Can you talk a little about striking the right balance between the light and the dark in your writing?
CL: I have had terrible tragedy in my life. I had a messy, ugly divorce from my first husband. Then, my fiancé dropped dead. Later, when I happily remarried, I went into a coma after giving birth and was not expected to live. But everyone who knows me knows that I am sort of a Pollyanna. I truly believe that I can (uh oh, here is Charlotte in me) fix things, that I can make things better if I try hard enough. And I also know that those terrible tragedies have made me a more compassionate person. I appreciate every single moment of happiness that comes to me. I am so, so grateful for all of it.
Striking the balance was difficult because I wanted to really push my characters and make things really tough. And again, it was Andra, my editor, who said, “You know, you have to find the love between all of them.” That made me really take stock. And then I began to explore why and how Iris, Charlotte, and Lucy all loved one another, and as I did, I began to love them even more.
TL: Have you got another project in the works? If yes, can you tell us a little about it?
CL: I do! I wrote up a synopsis and 70 pages of a novel that is tentatively called This Other Life, a title I now hate – but titles are marketing decisions and they get changed all the time by the publisher. Sometimes I call it Wake Up Now, and then I hate that title, too. Anyway, Algonquin bought the book, and now I have to write it. The story is about an aging, troubled rock musician who finally decides to leave his long-time lover. After an argument and an intense night of drinking and pills, he finds the next morning that she doesn’t wake up and he rushes her to the ER. When she finally wakes and recovers, she seems to have experienced a tremendous personality change that dramatically disrupts both their lives. It’s due to Algonquin, my publisher, December 2018, and I’m deep in the writing zone these days!
TL: That sounds fantastic! I look forward to reading it.
About the Author: Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of eleven novels. Various titles have been optioned for film, translated into different languages, and condensed in magazines. Caroline has been a judge in both the Writers’ Voice Fiction Awards in New York City and MidAtlantic Arts Grants in Fiction. She teaches novel writing online at both Stanford University and UCLA Extension Writers Program, as well as working with writers privately. She has appeared on The Today Show, Diane Rehm, German and Canadian TV, and more, and she has been featured on The View From The Bay. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, New York City’s unofficial sixth borough, with her husband, the writer Jeff Tamarkin, and has an acting student son, Max.