Spinning Women’s Real Stories into Novels: An Interview with Author Patricia Leavy
Patricia Leavy is the author of the new novel, American Circumstance (Sense Publishers, 2013), the follow up to her break-out novel, Low-Fat Love. American Circumstance is a quick read that seems simple at first but is fraught with subtlety and one suspects a second read would offer as much as the first.
The book explores appearance versus reality; how people’s lives and relationships look versus how they are experienced and Leavy delivers the message in part by challenging readers’ assumptions as they go. You think you have a character or situation all figured out until there is a subtle shift which, in turn, shifts your perception. Through repetitive language and recurring scenes with small but important changes, Leavy uses an impressionist style to echo the thematic content.
There is a timelessness and timeliness in the writing. The strong bonds painted between friends, lovers and caretakers give it a feeling of long-lasting relevance while simultaneously the attention to social class, the one percent, and even hints at global inequality (including human trafficking) make one think Leavy is very much chronicling how gender and social class intersect at this moment in history, from her perspective as an American woman. In some ways it’s like a contemporary, chick-lit version of TheGreat Gatsby but from a woman’s perspective and told through female characters that are never quite as they appear.
True to the style she cultivated in her first novel, the book is deceptively easy to get into. At first it appears to be sophisticated chick-lit but just as you’re comfortable that it’s a quick beach read, you realize there is much more there and you want to unpack it. Leavy has an uncanny ability to disarm her readers through humor and highly relatable interior dialogue while at the same time, challenging commonly-held assumptions and pushing readers to reflect on their own lives. The characters and situations resonate.
Patricia Leavy has a Ph.D. in sociology from Boston College. After ten years as an associate professor and the founding director of the gender studies program at Stonehill College, she left academia to pursue a career as a full-time author and public speaker. She has published twelve nonfiction books and two novels. Her debut novel, Low-Fat Love (2011) is Sense Publishers #1 selling title to date. American Circumstance has already received praise and is under consideration for several book awards.
Lauren Sardi: You come to fiction in an unusual way, from the world of nonfiction. Can you tell me how after a dozen nonfiction books you came to write two novels?
Patricia Leavy: Yes, I definitely took the back door into the world of fiction. My graduate school education is in the field of sociology which led me down a path of publishing academic nonfiction. I’ve always been particularly interested in learning about women’s lives—their relationships, identity issues and so forth—and then sharing their stories. But over the years I became increasingly frustrated with the limitations of nonfiction, especially in academic writing. It is very difficult to deliver the content you’re after and share the nuances of what you’ve learned from others. Academic writing is generally disengaged and unemotional and feels more like reporting than storytelling. To be perfectly blunt, there is rarely attention to artistic craft in academic nonfiction, or perhaps put better, attention to beauty is often lacking. While there are notable exceptions, typically the writing fails to employ tools from the literary world which is a missed opportunity to make the writing stronger. I really love writing and wanted to work on the craft of writing in ways that fiction allows.
In nonfiction the author also writes as an authority, telling readers what to take away from the text. Fiction, on the other hand, can be evocative, provocative, layered, textured and multidimensional. When writing fiction one is perceived as a writer, not an expert authority. This allows readers to engage with and reflect on a work of fiction in many different ways so interpretation is opened up instead of being closed off. I think about how I can write fiction but also how an audience may read it in ways that differ from nonfiction.
So out of frustration I turned to fiction. I essentially took the ideas and perspectives I had developed about women’s self-esteem, identity and relationship challenges and spun them into fiction. The characters and situations are from my imagination but the themes underscoring each novel come from my teaching and research experiences, including in-depth interviews I have done with hundreds of women over the past decade.
Lauren Sardi: Do you think that coming from the world of nonfiction influences the way you do research for your fiction, or the kinds of details you include? I know that some authors of historical nonfiction do copious amounts of research and there is a real craft to weaving into the narrative. Is it a similar process for you?
That’s a really interesting question. I suspect the process for me is different than it is for historical novelists. I imagine when writing historical fiction one conducts research for the sake of writing their book and it’s been a different process for me. I conducted research with the intent of using it in nonfiction, and I have done that. I wanted to learn about women’s lives and then share what I have learned.
When it came time for the fiction, I didn’t conduct new research; I just drew on my cumulative knowledge from my earlier research, teaching and life experiences. I do think my writing is also influenced by my perspective as a sociologist. Sociologists are concerned with how our individual biographies are influenced by the larger environment in which we live. So when you ask about how I choose which details to include, I think I am attentive to how items or ideas within the culture come into the story.
When a character is reading a book, seeing a play or watching a show on television, all of those specific media details were carefully chosen. For example, in American Circumstance I used references to artists, paintings, movies and songs to help tell the story and these references were meticulously chosen. If you’re familiar with them, they can add another dimension to the narrative.
At the end of the day, though, I aim to tell a good story. The novel has to work as a novel, as a piece of art, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. Sometimes you can add so many details and “facts” that the narrative becomes weighed down. My commitment to sharing women’s stories and connecting with readers also makes me want to write stories that are useful or somehow valuable to readers—prompting self or social reflection. To do this, though, one mustn’t underestimate the power of an engaging story and so that remains at the center of my writing.
For me good stories are less about plot and more about the characters. They needn’t be perfect or even likeable, but relatable, multidimensional and overtly human. If the fictional work is even moderately good, I am much more likely to be successful in sharing women’s stories, or more accurately, in sharing my interpretation of women’s stories, which is really what researchers do.
Lauren Sardi: I would say that if readers aren’t familiar with a reference to a painting or they haven’t seen a film mentioned in the book that they look it up. There really is another layer added, another subtext when you understand those references.
Patricia Leavy: Then the novel also becomes a vehicle to experience other pieces of art, and that’s wonderful too. If a piece of literature can expose us to other art the potential for personal growth expands which is exciting. I know that some book clubs and classes who have used my novels have looked up the art references and I think that’s fantastic.
Lauren Sardi: Your first novel, Low-Fat Love, focused on female characters with self-esteem issues who seemed to get in their own way and cycle within the psychological melodrama of dysfunctional relationships, and yet your latest novel, American Circumstance, centers on really strong relationships between friends and lovers.
I think that our relationships are markers of how we feel about ourselves. When someone suffers from insecurities, it can impact her ability to have healthy relationships. She may settle for less than she wants or she may engage in passive aggressive behaviors to mask her fears, for instance. I also think that truly supportive relationships can help us become the best versions of ourselves. So I wanted to explore both sides of this coin.
In my first novel I sort of looked at the dark side, focusing on women’s relationships at work and home with those who withhold their support and the psychology of how that plays out. I used women’s media as a series of signposts throughout the book in order to highlight the context in which women develop their identities, and how toxic that media environment can be for esteem.
After that I wanted to tackle different kinds of relationships. In American Circumstance the relationships are quite complex. The book explores how social class shapes identity and relationships, including the things people say and don’t say to each other. Because the major theme of the book is appearance versus reality, the relationships characters have with each other as well as how they feel about themselves, unfolds over the course of the book. But you’re definitely right that there are strong relationships between friends, family members and lovers.
I wanted to show what partnership, support and love can look like, but how even when there is something beautiful and special, there can be some ugly or sad bits too. Relationships are textured and also come into our lives when we most need them.
It’s funny because people always say that your first novel is the story that lives inside of you for a long time but actually, I feel like American Circumstance is the story I was always meant to tell. I think of it as a love letter to the people who have meant a lot to me over the course of my life, some who I haven’t seen in many years, but whose friendship is a part of my life’s narrative.
I don’t believe that when friendship fades or love ends the relationship is simply gone, I think it’s far more complex and I wanted to tease some of that out. There can be a real disjuncture between what a good relationship looks like from the outside versus how it actually works in private. Most of what makes a particular friendship or romance special is only known by those on the inside.
Lauren Sardi: The idea of appearance versus reality is really interesting. One does get the feeling reading the book that things are never quite what they seem and the truth is in the details. What was your approach to writing this?
I love that you said that. I do think that the truth, or better yet, truths, are in the details. I think that bits of deep truth can be in a glance, a hand moved across a table, or a response that is never spoken. I often think about what we show of ourselves in different spaces and to different people, and even to ourselves. That’s a part of appearance versus reality too. There is often a gap between what people project and say and what they are really experiencing. I tried to expose some of this in the book. A well-known feminist sociologist who I have long admired said that the novel offered “a sociology of everyday life” and that was certainly my intent.
The issue of interpretation applies to readers as well. What is true for one person may be quite different for another, but no less valid. Readers bring their own perspectives to novels and I respect that part of the reading process so I try to open my novels up to multiple perspectives by leaving gaps in the narratives that readers can fill in, which is why I seem to always go for open endings. Now if you ask me I would say that all of the clues to how characters end up are there—in the details—but the narrative is unfinished so it’s really up to each reader’s imagination.
Lauren Sardi: Since your training is not in creative writing, I am wondering how you approach your writing. What is your process?
Patricia Leavy: My novels are character-driven so I spend a lot of time getting to know the characters, thinking about what they like, how they interact with people, what their fears are. I enjoy writing dialogue, both between characters as well as interior dialogue and I try to stay true to the character, what he or she might project to different people and also what they are thinking. I do very minimal story-lining or plotting; just a rough sketch and then I sit at the computer and let it unfold.
I see it in my mind as if I am watching a movie in slow motion. I simply transcribe what I see. Sometimes I don’t know what will happen next. A character opens a refrigerator and then I see what’s in it. I had some real surprises in American Circumstance, entire scenes, bits of interaction and the re-emergence of a character near the end of the book, none of which were planned or expected. I saw these things unfold in my mind and thought, “Oh, well I guess that’s what’s going to happen next.” It’s quite fun because I don’t feel like I am in control and I look forward to revisiting the characters each day to see what they will do.
Lauren Sardi: So is it safe to say that you’re hooked on fiction now? What’s next for you?
I’m definitely hooked on fiction! This doesn’t mean I am abandoning nonfiction. I actually feel that I benefit from doing both and they both serve a purpose. I do want to encourage nonfiction authors to at least play with the tools of literary writing so my latest nonfiction book is called Fiction as Research Practice: Short Stories, Novellas and Novels (Left Coast Press, 2013). Currently I am working on several nonfiction books but I do have some fiction planned in the future too. I’d actually love to write short stories.
Short stories have their own unique capabilities and are a particular craft. I’m in a local writing group and several of the members write short stories and I can see that there is a specific skill set needed, which would be a challenge for me, but I would love to learn how to work with that format. At the end of the day though I am a sociologist with a feminist perspective so I want to share stories and ideas that I think matter. I will use any format that allows me to best do that.
For more information on Patricia Leavy please visit www.patricialeavy.com
Lauren Sardi, PhD. is an assistant professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.