Feminist Scholar Blurs the Arts and Sciences: An Intimate Conversation
*This interview of Dr. Patricia Leavy was originally prepared for publication in the now defunct arts e-zine, HerCircle*
I interviewed scholar and novelist Patricia Leavy for an UpClose Interview featured in February 2012 HerCircle E-Zine, about her passion for blurring the arts and sciences. Since that interview Leavy has gone from being a professor to a full-time writer and public speaker. I caught up with Dr. Leavy to get an update on her work, including her two recently released books, the explosion of her Social Fictions book series and what’s next.
Lauren Sardi: So, we spoke a little more than a year ago and it’s clear a lot has changed for you! Last time we spoke you were a full-time sociology professor and had just launched the innovative Social Fictions series which included your feminist novel, Low-Fat Love. Before we get to your writing, you have left academia to write full-time, is that right?
Patricia Leavy: Yes. This was something I had hoped to do for a while and it was the right time. It seemed like the stars sort of aligned in my personal and professional life. As a result of some previous books I had some exciting publishing and speaking opportunities that I viewed as a way of pushing arts-based research forward and I couldn’t properly take advantage of them while teaching. Fortunately I still get to speak with students, just in different ways. I give keynote lectures, workshops and presentations at conferences all over the place as well as book talks, so I get to meet more people really and interact with students and scholars which is something I value.
LS: Picking up on what you said I’d like to recap a little from our last interview. You are a proponent of arts-based research (ABR) which you explained is when researchers draw on the tenets of the creative arts as a way of making their research more accessible to diverse audiences. I believe you said ABR is a way of bridging the arts and sciences and making research available to the public.
PL: Yes, that’s exactly right. I was also interested in doing work that has the potential to be meaningful in people’s lives. As a feminist scholar, I am particularly committed to doing work that has the potential to be useful for girls and women. So it has to be accessible. Traditionally social research across different fields is published in highly specialized journals or hard-to-read academic books. Frankly, no one outside of academia is likely to read it which means it’s of little value to the public. Beyond using the arts to make research more accessible, I also believe that the arts are uniquely able to tap into hard-to-get at issues, unsettle or disrupt stereotypes or dominant ideology, create empathy and promote reflexivity. All of this is a part of public scholarship and feminism.
LS: Last time we spoke you had just started the Social Fictions series which is the only book series produced by an academic press that publishes books written entirely in literary mediums but informed by teaching and research experiences. The launch book was your novel Low-Fat Love which explores the psychology of negative relationships, low self-esteem and the toxic pop culture context in which women develop their identities. LFL was informed by a decade of interview research and teaching experiences. The response to the series has been amazing. Can you talk about that and what’s been surprising to you?
PL: I think the response to the series shows that there is a hunger out there for this kind of work. Professors in different disciplines have been adopting the books as supplemental reading in their courses which I think shows how many educators are looking for new ways to engage students—to show them that learning can be pleasurable and provocative. I think that the average reader that picks up one of these books from amazon or some other online re-seller is saying that they are looking for intelligent pop culture. In other words, I think there are a lot of people out there who want to read a novel or short story collection for fun but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to read something with substance or something that gets them thinking about their own lives or some social issue. Truly, I think the response to the series shows that there is a real desire for accessible, engaging and pleasurable texts.
LS: And the response to Low-Fat Love? Sense Publishers recently announced it was their #1 best-selling book in 2012. Congratulations.
PL: Thank you. Well I’ve been very humbled by the experience. Obviously anyone who writes a novel hopes that it will connect with readers. What has meant the most to me are the responses from young women who have stopped me in hallways after book talks or sent me emails and letters. They’ve shared their stories about dissatisfying relationships or low self-esteem. Hearing how they related to the characters and how the book pushed them to reflect on their own lives, well that has been indescribably touching and inspires me to continue. I think the concept of “low-fat love,” settling in life and relationships and trying to pretend what we have is better than it is, has really resonated with people. I’ve been most surprised by the different opportunities to connect with new people through talks at universities and conferences. A radio interview about Low-Fat Love led to my hosting my own radio show called Low-Fat Love 101 for nearly a year before I had to give it up to meet my publishing commitments. This is certainly something I never could have anticipated and I loved the opportunity to chat with authors, life coaches and others. The concept of low-fat love has also inspired a monthly blog called Low-Fat Love 101 that I am now writing for We Are the Real Deal which is affiliated with Normal Life which is a wonderful organization that promotes eating disorder education and self-esteem through the arts. Sense Publishers has already announced plans to rerelease the novel with new special features as a fifth year anniversary edition. Simultaneously we will release a nonfiction version of the book titled Low-Fat Love Stories which will be based on real interviews with women about dissatisfying relationships with friends, coworkers, relatives, and romantic partners as well as body image issues. We expect both books to be released simultaneously in the summer of 2016.
LS: Congratulations! That’s fantastic. What do you think the success of the Social Fictions series has done for arts-based research?
PL: I hope that the series helps inspire others to take chances on publishing this kind of work. It’s very difficult when you’re border crossing to try to convince publishers to take a chance on funding the work. This is understandable; however, I hope that the interest in this series paves the way for others. At the end of the day what I really think is most important is making scholarship publicly accessible so that we can illuminate and engage with issues of import. That’s what arts-based research is largely about. We need to find ways to bring the products of social research out into the public. The work I did on this series also afforded me an opportunity to write my latest nonfiction book, Fiction as Research Practice, which was published by Left Coast Press. This book offers an overview of how fiction can be used as a research practice across the disciplines. The book includes a discussion about the entanglement of fiction and nonfiction in genres like historical fiction and creative nonfiction, strengths of using fiction to illuminate human experience, how to methodologically design a project, how to access this kind of work and exemplars of short stories, novellas and novels that are all research-based. I’m really excited about this book, although I must confess it wasn’t my idea. Mitch Allen, the owner of Left Coast Press, who is someone I respect and had worked with on another project, approached me with the idea for the book once I launched the Social Fictions series. It was a tall order to write a book like this. There can be such resistance to challenging commonly held assumptions about facts, truth and imagination. With this said, I didn’t hesitate because it’s important to synthesize, document, chronicle, explain and analyze the work that arts-based researchers are doing.
LS: It seems like just in the past year arts-based research has grown exponentially. So what is happening with the Social Fictions series?
PL: The most recently released title is, Sailing in a Concrete Boat: a Teacher’s Journey, by the scholar and poet Carl Leggo. This book is a novel length narrative composed in a sequence of short fictions and poetry linked by recurring characters, themes and events. It’s a stunning book that seeks to narrate the tangled lived experiences of a schoolteacher and larger issues about education and transformation. It’s ideal supplemental reading in education, teacher training or creative writing courses although people can simply read it for pleasure as well. We also have many books under contract that will be rolling out over the next couple of years. We have three novels that will be coming out in the summer and fall of 2013. Zombie Seed and the Butterfly Blues by communications scholar Robin Clair is a mystery novel about corporate greed and how organizations operate. This book will be our first mystery novel so I am very excited for its release. And illustrative of how these books work as both really strong literary works and scholarly reporting, we already have pre-publication endorsements from the novelist who wrote the Murder She Wrote book series as well as leaders in the field of communication studies such as Arthur Bochner and Tony Adams. Waiting Room by Cheryl Dellasega is about how the perfect family unravels as the result of one’s struggle with an eating disorder. I can see this book being used in everything from psychology, sociology, gender studies, and health studies courses and being read widely by teenagers, college-age women and parents. When we write fiction-based research the versatility or ability to speak to different audiences is really pronounced. I also have a new novel in the series which is called American Circumstance. Although this is written in a fun chick-lit style in order to be pleasurable for readers this novel explores appearance versus reality in people’s lives, how our lives and relationships look to others versus what we experience, and a large part of this is how social class shapes identity. Social class is such an important issue with far-reaching consequences and yet it’s often difficult to get at, reflect on and discuss. I think there is a lot that goes unspoken about social class in the United States and I wanted to bring some of that out, including the replication of power and privilege. I also wanted to expose and disrupt stereotypes about social class. I hope that the book will be read for pleasure but I also hope that professors in the social sciences and gender studies will use the book as supplemental reading in their courses.
LS: I know that many readers that have been eagerly awaiting the release of American Circumstance. It seems from the title and your description that there is a strong US focus in the book but as I understand it there’s also a global or international subtext to American Circumstance. Can you talk about this?
PL: Yes. This seemed really important to me. While the story unfolds in the northeast of the United States and follows American characters, it seemed to me that if I was going to try to tap into issues of social class and identity and also the intersections between gender and class, it was important to acknowledge that issues of privilege, opportunity, oppression and the ability to self-actualize are far more complicated when we apply a global perspective. In other words, the complex ways that gender and social class impact our lives vary greatly when we look cross culturally. So the main character in the book, Paige, works for a fictional charitable organization called WIN which is devoted to helping women living in conflict and high risk zones throughout the world. Through Paige’s work we are able to see that all problems are relative as are the ways that race, class and gender influence our stories. It’s worth noting that while WIN is a fictitious organization, it is inspired by the real organization Women for Women International.
LS: Although it isn’t a main theme, the novel also touches on violence against women and the importance of the healing process. Can you talk about this?
PL: Well, in some ways I thought it would be impossible to bring in a global context that includes women living in high conflict zones and not acknowledge issues of sexual violence, which we know are often pervasive in those contexts. But of course sexual violence is pervasive in the United States as well. For example, Steubenville is an all-too stark reminder. So it seemed important to me to consider the ways that sexual violence can cut across issues of social class. Much of the book outside of these issues is really about acknowledging the gap between the appearance of our lives and our lives as we are experiencing them. In other words, characters in the novel are being pushed to confront truth in their lives. For some women who have survived sexual violence this can mean a whole host of things including healing and that is touched on as well.
LS: I know you have various talks scheduled to promote American Circumstance but what else is next for you? Are you willing to share any details of forthcoming projects?
PL: I’m delighted to say that I have teamed up with Sense Publishers again to edit two new book series called Teaching Gender and Teaching Race & Ethnicity. Peter de Liefde, the owner of Sense, is very committed to social justice-oriented projects and so it’s been a terrific working relationship. We’ve been signing some wonderful gender books and expect to see those start coming out in 2014. I am co-editing a book, Gender & Pop Culture: a Text Reader with a friend and colleague, Dr. Adrienne Trier-Bieniek. I am also co-authoring a book called Women Who Write with Dr. Cheryl Dellasega for Left Coast Press. This book will feature interviews we’ve conducted with successful commercial and academic women writers about issues ranging from their writing routine, to how they got published, to balancing their professional and personal lives. Cheryl is someone I have long admired and I’m honored to have the opportunity to collaborate with her and hopefully produce a book that is of value to other female writers. We expect that to come out in two years but we have already started a Facebook community called Women Who Write through which we are developing a network with others, both men and women, who are interested in writing.
LS: Fantastic. There’s a lot to look forward to. Good luck with all of your work, I look forward to reading it.
PL: Thank you so much.
For more information on Patricia Leavy please visit www.patricialeavy.com.
Lauren Sardi, PhD. is an assistant professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
We are pleased to announce that WATRD folks will receive a 25% discount on Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance by using the code 192837 at check out. Click here to purchase.