An Intimate Interview with Author Patricia Leavy about her New Novel Blue
An Intimate Interview with Author Patricia Leavy about her New Novel Blue, Inclusivity and Using Our Voices
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and best-selling author. She has published nineteen books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction. She is the creator and editor for five book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers and a blogger for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post. She has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association Qualitative Special Interest Group, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. She is also a humanitarian, supporting organizations that assist survivors of sexual violence. We had a chance to chat with Patricia about the release of her highly anticipated novel, Blue, and how she uses her voice for others.
Congratulations on the release of Blue and the rave reviews you are receiving. It’s being heralded as “a tour de force” and “painfully beautiful.”
Thank you. I’m so proud of this book. I believe everything in my life personally and professionally led me to writing it. Of my own work this is the book I love the most so it’s incredibly joyful receiving this kind of response. I’m overwhelmed and grateful.
The book is not a sequel but it is based on a character from your best-selling novel Low-Fat Love, correct? Can you talk about that?
Tash, the main character in Blue, originally appeared in my novel Low-Fat Love as a supporting character. Blue is set a few years later. It follows Tash, now a college grad, and new characters, including her two roommates and boyfriend. I returned to this character because I thought there was a lot left unexplored with her. The question of where we find a young woman who partied hard in college a couple years later really intrigued me. Tash was fun to explore as a writer and as a sociologist because she embodies so many contradictions, as many of us do. She’s petulant, shallow and kind of harsh in some ways, but she’s also passionate and able to see and accept people she cares for as they really are, despite the outward stuff she jokes about. The sociologist in me always thinks about how we’re confronted with people’s behind-the-scenes stuff we can’t see whenever we interact with people. By this I mean people have things going on that we’re not aware of and when we interact with people and get a reaction we may not expect, it could be that we’re bumping up against a backstage we can’t see. Say your boss is short with you and you take it personally and feel offended because you worked hard and wanted their approval. Their reaction to you may be based on a phone call they just had with their kid who was rude to them. Their reaction may also be based on something much deeper, and less immediate, such as experiences being bullied as a kid or any number of things. You don’t know. Since Low-Fat Love came out readers have asked if Tash was sexually assaulted during an ambiguous New Year’s Eve scene. So I wondered where we’d find this character years later, and how any trauma she may have experienced is impacting her in the present; impacting how she sees herself and how she responds to others. My hope was that she and her friends would be relatable to college students and recent grads, and some of the choices and struggles they face, but really the bigger issues apply to anyone.
What is Blue about?
Blue follows three roommates living in New York City, all a year or two beyond college, as they navigate who they are and who they want to be. Tash is a former party girl with a history of falling for the wrong guy. She meets Aidan, a deejay, and he pushes her to start figuring out who she really is. Tash lives with her best friend, Jason, a free-spirited model on the rise. He has his own relationship issues when he meets Sam, a makeup artist with whom he trips over his words. Finally there’s Penelope, a shy and studious graduate student who slips under the radar, but has a secret of her own. It’s a book about identity and a celebration of friendship, highlighting the importance of having people in our lives who truly get us and help us to become the best version of ourselves. I think we often get stuck with an image of who we are and sometimes we need to be jostled and reminded that we can choose what version of ourselves we want to be, from moment to moment. We are possibilities, and that’s what Blue celebrates.
As a sociologist, how do you think people choose what version of themselves to become?
There are many different theories in sociology and psychology about how when we’re labeled by others we can internalize those labels and it sort of becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. My favorite theory when I was in college, which I was so captivated by that I changed by major from theatre to sociology, was Charles Horton Cooley’s “looking-glass self.” In short, it basically says that our self-concept develops as we engage in interaction with others. We imagine how we appear to them and how they’re judging us, and that shapes how we feel about ourselves. If you want to see this explicitly at work go to any elementary school playground. But really this happens throughout our lives, in one form or another, moment to moment. I think there’s a danger that we start to see ourselves one way or another because of something we did, something that was done to us, or how others see us and treat us. We can get stuck with an idea of one version of who we are, which is limiting. But we always have a choice. Not who we were yesterday or who we thought we were, but who we are right now, in this moment, and each one that follows. I’ve become in touch with that in my own life and hope to use my writing to sensitize others. We are each possibilities.
Pop culture is central in Blue, as well as your earlier novels.
Yes. I’m an absolute pop culture and art junkie. As a professor I taught college courses about pop culture for twelve years and now I write about it. I guess I’ve always thought about pop culture as the subtext of our lives and so it’s natural for me to use it as the subtext in my novels. A lot of my writing critiques pop culture but in Blue it’s much more of a celebration. There’s a tribute to 1980s pop culture in particular. In Blue I wanted to show how we use pop culture and art to help us understand and get through our own lives. I think we can understand our lives, things we can’t yet even name, through art.
Why did you write this book?
To remind myself that we are all possibilities. To remind myself of beauty, hope and infinite choice. I started writing it on a really tough day. It was the day my daughter’s biological father died. He and I hadn’t been together for years but he was a major force in my life and his passing was incredibly intense and complicated to process. I turned to creativity as a way through the day and before I knew it this little novel was pouring out of me. I soon realized that the book was reminding me of something I wanted to get across to readers, which is this: we all have an audio playing in our heads but we can change the tune at any moment. We need to choose a tune that serves us and moves us forward. And it doesn’t all have to be so heavy, you know? Some things can just be light and airy. Notwithstanding the grief that caused me to start writing, Blue is my most lighthearted novel. It’s meant to be fun and hopeful.
While the book is quite joyful as you suggest, it does touch on some tough topics too. You don’t shy away from difficult subject matter. Can you speak to that?
Few people, if any, are struggle-free. Few, if any of us, don’t face challenges. Sure, there’s a continuum complicated by gender, race, class, sexuality, and anything that alters the playing field, as well as personal experiences like depression, violence and trauma. But so many suffer in different ways, and have to find ways to cope and hopefully thrive. People need to know others share these experiences. Since I’ve chosen to write about human experiences I feel a responsibility to address a range of experiences, including those which are difficult and painful. I think when you write honestly about these things it resonates with others, and can perhaps be a part of their healing. My first novel, Low-Fat Love, taught me that well. After the book came out I was inundated with emails and letters from readers, mostly women, telling me their stories of settling in love and life. Many spoke generally about self-esteem struggles and others shared stories of intimate partner violence, eating disorders, and sexual assault. When I was skyping in with one book club a woman asked if the character Tash had been raped. She then told me about a high school friend who was raped more than twenty-five years earlier. The friend was still in her life but they hadn’t spoken of it in all these years. I actually had a similar experience with a friend who I’ve lost touch with. Through reading and talking about the novel she was finally able to release it, and perhaps the burden she carried from it. During the time I was promoting Low-Fat Love I did a half an hour radio interview that resulted in the CEO of the station offering me my own show. She was moved after an intimate talk, off the air, about some of the themes in the book. So I created an interview show called Low-Fat Love 101 which I hosted for nearly a year before my publishing demands caused me to give it up. I donated my proceeds from the show to Pandora’s Project (Pandy’s), an organization that provides resources for all sexual assault survivors regardless of gender, race or anything else. On Super Bowl Sunday I hosted a two-hour special called Super Abuse in America. We had sponsor-free airtime and held a fundraiser for Pandy’s. All of this stemmed from the reaction to my novel. So when you write honestly about difficult subjects it can become a springboard, if we choose to embrace it as such. Supporting survivors of sexual violence has long been important to me, and if my fiction can become a vehicle for doing so, I’m all over it.
Using your voice to speak on behalf of issues that are important to you has become a hallmark of your career. You capped off an extraordinary year of receiving three major career awards in a surprising way. Many would take that kind of momentum and channel it into promoting their next work, but you publicly challenged a major professional organization, accusing them of sexism and racism. Why?
If you have any spotlight pointed your way it’s an opportunity to use it for something that matters to you, and hopefully to others. There is so much blatant sexism and racism in academia, both implicitly and explicitly. In terms of the timing, you really can’t win. If you’re not nominated or lose an award and then point out blatant sexism, you’re accused of sour grapes. If you win and then you point out blatant sexism, you’re accused of being ungrateful. The message is that there’s no good time to speak up. Don’t speak up. And it’s a message delivered in no uncertain terms. Early in your career you’re often afraid to speak out because you’re not established yet. When you’re established you may be afraid to speak out because you have a lot to lose, and you don’t want to become a target. There are very real incentives not to challenge the status quo and that frightens me. The situation you’re referring to couldn’t be more obvious from my perspective and concerns systematic bias in a national professional organization for sociologists. When I complained about rampant sexism and racism in the awards decisions for one section of the organization an internal investigation concluded that in fact 2/39 awards given by this group had been given to women and the stats on race were just as abysmal. When you look at the membership makeup of the organization, you can only conclude bias is at play, it’s statistically highly improbable this would result any other way. Add to this that the three awards this group gives are named after men and then the committees for each award are either all male or primarily male. There are issues beyond gender and race at stake too. It’s also about which ways of conducting research are validated and honored. These issues are inextricably linked. While the group in question purports to recognize multiple approaches to research, as they should, their actions tell a different tale. People can come up with all kinds of excuses for why it is this way, but it’s all a cover because they don’t want to deal with the deeper issues. I mean, imagine that you create an award system for all athletes. Then you name the three awards given after football players. Then you stack the awards committees with football players. What are the odds that a figure skater or runner is going to win an award over a football player? Further, is the playing field fair for female athletes? There’s a lot at stake too when we’re talking about funding and related issues. What’s disturbing is that a bunch of highly educated people with PhDs in sociology of all fields, claim not to see the problem. I mean, this is the basic stuff any sociologist teaches in an intro to sociology course and yet they claim not to see the problem. Clearly there is something deeper going on. People often see what they want to see based on their own interests. So yes, it certainly would have been much easier and more fun for me to enjoy the beautiful energy directed my way at that time and just live in a bubble of the recognition I was receiving, but that’s not my path. When people make that choice over and over again, nothing changes. This is how we end up with systemic inequality. The sad thing is that I did open myself up to some real hate and ridicule from those who try to demean the messenger rather than deal with the message.
Any words for the haters?
Let’s take it away from me and speak about it more broadly. For all of the things that the internet and social media are great for, they’ve also created this undercurrent of meanness cloaked under the guise of anonymity. It’s become normal to us. People aren’t even shocked by it. People expect the comments in news stories, for example, to be demeaning and cruel. You see this in all walks of life, academia is no exception. There are scholars who publish articles or books that bash other people’s work. Whenever I read this stuff I think, there’s another way to go about things. Let your work stand on its own, without using harsh critique to make a space for yourself. Cite what’s useful in the work of others. Personally, in my own work, I have no interest in bringing others down. I rather try to lift others up, and that’s worked for me. So my words to haters or to anyone are this: life is short. All we really have is our integrity, who we are, and what we have contributed. Who do you want to be? What energy do you want to create and put out in the world? Like I try to show in Blue, we are all possibilities and can choose each day which version of ourselves we want to be.
The importance of inclusivity extends to other areas of your professional life too. You parlay your success into creating book series to highlight the work of other authors. Why?
Creating opportunities for other authors, to me that’s the real dream come true in my career. I have deep admiration and love for writers. It’s an incredible honor to get to meet and work with people who have written books that I love or to help new, innovative authors get their work out. By creating these spaces for others I’m a part of something that is bigger than my work. I think we’re putting work out there that ought to be published and that is changing the way people think, see and write. And the little kid in me is living out her childhood dream. I’ve had extraordinary opportunities to meet and work with the authors who changed the way I see the world. Many of these folks have become dear friends who continue to inspire me. In terms of publishing, I can’t think of a better way to use the opportunities I’ve been fortunate to receive.
You’re committed to helping your publishers too. It’s no secret that you’ve had impressive offers from publishers wanting your next book or books. Rumor is that was true of Blue. But you published it as a part of your Social Fictions series with the same indie academic publisher you’ve worked with for years.
My publisher has been very good to me. They’ve supported me unconditionally. They took a chance on my first novel and the Social Fictions series when I don’t know that others would have. Loyalty is important, when everyone can have their needs met. I have a few publishers I work with for different kinds of projects and each one took a chance on me at an early point in my career or when I had some idea that seemed risky at the time. It’s a wonderful experience when someone takes a chance on you at a time like that and you’re able to beat the odds and then share the rewards with them.
Who should read Blue and where can people find it?
Pop culture junkies, and especially people drawn to film or visual art, may enjoy it. If you enjoy 1980s pop culture there’s definitely something for you. While I focus on the post-college years, anyone in a phase of their lives in which they’re trying to figure out what’s next or trying to make a real change may take something from it. But really, it’s a book for anyone, meant to be a fun, quick read, with food for thought. If you want a reminder that we have choices every day, it’s for you. I hope it makes people smile.
You can buy it on amazon here.
You can learn more or buy it at the publisher’s website hereo.