An Exclusive 20-Question Interview with Author Patricia Leavy about 20th Book Release
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author. She has published twenty books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction. A bona fide publishing maven, she is also the creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers. She’s also a blogger for The Huffington Post and The Creativity Post. Patricia 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’ve spoken several times over the years. We had a chance to chat with Patricia about the release of her 20th book, an anniversary edition of her novel, American Circumstance, her advice to authors and how she looks back and places value personally and professionally.
Congratulations on the release of American Circumstance: Anniversary Edition and the rave reviews you’ve been receiving. It’s been called “hard to put down” and “enthralling.”
Thank you. I’m very proud of this book, especially my rewriting and the new content. I made a conscious choice to release this as my 20th book publication so it’s enormously heart-warming to know people are enjoying it. I’m humbled.
I want to get back to the new content and why you wanted this as your 20th release in a moment, but first in honor of this being your 20th release, we’d like to do this interview twenty questions style.
Sounds great. It’s actually a double 20th anniversary. American Circumstance: Anniversary Edition is my 20th book release. It is simultaneously the 20th book released in the Social Fictions series that I created and edit for Sense Publishers. And if you really want to look at the synergy, on top of that, this summer marks the 5th year anniversary of the Social Fictions series. So it’s a celebratory time.
Wow, that’s fantastic. Let’s start the twenty questions.
1. What is American Circumstance: Anniversary Edition about?
It’s a novel about appearance versus reality – how our lives and relationships appear to others versus how they are experienced. There can be a gap between how a relationship looks from the outside versus how it is actually experienced. It’s also about social class and how social class shapes our identities and impacts our relationships, including the codes that guide our interactions with others. What do we say and not say to each other? I was really interested in the idea of the 1% in America when I was writing this so the novel provides a window into the replication of wealth, power, and privilege in the US.
It’s also about how family and close friends impact our identities. There are some other things going on in there but I can’t give them away. Suffice it to say in order to hammer home the appearance versus reality theme, I try to play with readers’ expectations at different points. Assumptions are challenged in subtle and big ways in the book. That’s exciting to me as a sociologist and I know readers of the first edition routinely remarked on that because it kept them engaged.
In terms of the characters and plot, it follows three wealthy women in New York City, exploring their relationships with each other and the men in their lives, how their lives look to others versus their backstage struggles and how different relationships impact us over the course of our lives– childhood friends, former lovers, parents, and others.
2. What writing style did you use for this novel?
In order to push on the bounds of the appearance versus reality theme, I conceptualized the novel as if it were an impressionist painting. An impressionist painting can look very different from afar than it does close up, just as our lives and relationships can. A literary style developed from the theory of impressionism; this approach to writing is based on associations, repetition, and symbolism. In an effort to capture the impressionistic style, I used particular writing strategies. Language is repeated in different contexts and is shown to have a multiplicity of meanings, and details are included to evoke associations which may later be troubled.
The novel is divided into three parts, with the first (and longest) covering moments over an expanse of four decades. The second part unfolds over a period of a few months, and the final part transpires over just a few days. A narrator’s viewpoint dominates the beginning of the novel, providing a distant view, and the interiority of characters is increasingly presented as we reach the book’s conclusion, providing a closer perspective. In this regard, the novel explores how others see the characters, how we as readers see them, and how they see themselves. As our perspective changes and the characters and their circumstances are revealed, we are invited to consider what is truly important in their lives and hopefully in our own. This mirrors the practice of painting one scene at different angles, times of day, or seasons, a method common in impressionist painting.
3. Art and popular culture play a role in all three of your novels. How is art present in American Circumstance: Anniversary Edition?
Art, particularly paintings and films are used as a series of signposts throughout the novel, mirroring, illuminating, and troubling the characters’ experiences and perceptions. Differing from my other novels, I explicitly featured so-called “high art” to parallel the class issues and biases in the narrative. If you’re familiar with a painting or film mentioned it adds another layer of meaning to what you’re reading, but the novel works just fine even if you’re not familiar.
4. Tell us about the new content.
The entire novel itself has been thoroughly revised. I hired a new copy editor who critiqued and made suggested revisions on the entire manuscript, after I went through it myself several times, tweaking, refining and rewriting. I know some novelists just tack a foreword onto a new edition but that doesn’t interest me. It’s important to me to actually revise and rewrite. I respect the process of writing so I know we improve over time and I also have enormous gratitude to readers and want to give them something I truly believe is worth their time. After the experience of writing my last novel, Blue,
I felt much better able to put out the version of American Circumstance I always wanted to; to really do the book justice. Beyond the rewriting, there is a new foreword, appendix and questions for further engagement which can be used by book clubs or in classes. Additionally, there is an entire new chapter at the end of the book, which is an epilogue. Honestly it’s my favorite part of the entire novel and was actually written at the time the original was penned. I held it back at that time so I could release it now. The chapter is called “The Road Trip” and I don’t want to give anything away but it is twenty-four hours two months later and focuses on two characters, although through them we learn about some of the other characters. It’s a fun bit but with a serious subtext. What I love about it is the glimpse it provides into how cultural biases are experienced across America.
5. Is it challenging to revise a novel, more so than nonfiction?
Yes, but only because of ego. Adding new references to a nonfiction book to update it isn’t a reflection on the author. Revising a novel is. You need to admit, first to yourself, that it can be improved and then you need the courage to do it. You need to take a hard look at your own writing and figure out how to tighten it so you provide readers the best experience you’re capable of.
6. What do you hope readers get out of this novel?
I hope readers’ assumptions are challenged and that they reflect on how we never really know what is going on in people’s lives and we can be fooled by appearances. We should strive to value the people and relationships in our lives and not worry about how we look to others.
7. Why did you want this as your 20th book release?
I signed a contract to put out an anniversary edition of this book years ago but we weren’t going to release it until a year from now. It was a conscious decision to release it now for a few reasons. I actually have three other books that I expect will come out sometime over the next year, one of which is the most challenging project of my career. So I thought about releasing that new material as the twentieth. But as I reflected I really took stock in the reality of publishing twenty books. I’m normally focused on what I’m working on or planning to work on so I don’t have much time to look back. But twenty books felt significant to me and like a time to pause. So I decided the twentieth release should be something that represents the first 20 books, that time period in my life as an author, before I move on to other things.
A better version of American Circumstance was the clear choice to me. More than anything I’ve written, it’s a tribute to the people I grew up with who shaped my life. It’s a love letter. Purely as a novel, I actually think it’s perhaps the strongest of my three novels in some respects, which my copy editor does as well. I became a better writer when I wrote my last novel, Blue, which is special to me and frankly my favorite of my twenty books. So I was equipped to go back and write a better version of American Circumstance. There are also social messages in the book that remain important to me and represent who I am. In the end the decision was solidified when I realized we had released nineteen books in the Social Fictions series. I thought I should be the author of the twentieth and this also allowed for that.
8. Explain the Social Fictions series.
I’m a proponent of arts-based research which involves adapting the tenets of the creative arts in social research projects for a number of reasons, including making the work more engaging and accessible to public audiences. I consider all of my novels arts-based research.
When I wrote my first novel Low-Fat Love, which was grounded in interview research and teaching experiences I had amassed over nearly a decade, I wanted to publish it as research. The problem was trade that presses only want pure novels and academic presses don’t want novels at all. So I created the Social Fictions series which publishes books written entirely in literary forms, such as novels, plays and short story and poetry collections, but that are written by scholars and grounded in their research and teaching experiences.
Each book could be read on a beach or airplane or could be used in a college class as a springboard to discuss social science topics. I created the Social Fictions series in 2010, partnered with Sense Publishers, and the series launched in 2011. This summer is our fifth anniversary. I’ve been amazed that the term “social fiction” has itself been taken up by scholars who doing this kind of work even outside of our series. It’s really considered a method or genre of research now.
9. What is it about the arts that draw you to them in your work?
You can get at complex and layered meanings in ways that are otherwise unavailable. Tapping into complex but highly resonate feelings and experiences is a goal of social science and the arts are well-suited towards those ends. I can express things in my novels that can’t come out in any other form. I also love that you can bring your own experiences to art. Art is open to multiple interpretations. Those who view, read or consume art bring a lot to the table too. The art is a bridge.
10. You’ve said in other interviews that if you had to pick one art form you couldn’t live without it would be music. What song lyrics best describe your career?
Depends what day you ask me that. On a good day that would be Tori Amos, “Made my own pretty hate machine” and on a bad day it would be Taylor Swift, “I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me.”
11. Picking up on that Taylor Swift lyric, do you feel you take a lot of heat for promoting creative forms of research?
Yes, for that and for promoting justice issues. In some ways my professional life forces me to experience two extremes. There are those within the academy who show tremendous love and appreciation for the work I do, and there are those who are threatened by it and attack me. I think by following this path I have somehow managed to invite both the best and worst of it into my life. The good always outweighs the bad though. I focus on the positive because that’s the kind of energy I want in my life. I even throw love to the haters sometimes. Positivity carries its own rewards.
12. Authors often tell novices they need to develop a “thick skin” but how might someone go about doing that? Is it just time and experience or do you have any practical advice?
You have to develop a relationship with your work that isn’t dependent on external opinions, good or bad. It’s vital for any artist or scholar. Get lots of feedback while you’re working on it and learn to look at it as objectively as you can to make your work stronger. But once you release the work, let it go. How others feel about it isn’t really your business.
Do not read reviews. I know people say that and no one believes them, but reviews are unhealthy. I make a concerted effort not to read them. Sometimes I do for various reasons, but rarely, because I know they’re separate from my relationship with my work. As for practical advice, here’s something that’s been helpful to me. Go on amazon and look up a couple of your favorite artists who have been successful; musicians, authors, whatever. Click on their one and two star reviews. You will disagree with them when you read them because you love this artist. What you will realize is that no one is immune from criticism. That doesn’t mean it is correct or valid. It’s just someone’s opinion. If you do this exercise you will see no one who has sold a lot of anything, from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift to Neil Gaiman or Jodi Picoult, is immune from criticism, even of those works that have sold extremely well.
If many people read your work, some won’t like it. That’s inevitable. Who cares? You are an author. Think about that. In this way-too-short existence when so many people never have a chance to live their dreams, you became an author. And people read your work. Even some that didn’t like it. How cool is that?
13. What’s your worst publishing experience?
Oh, there are a few. Getting stuck in unfair contracts and fighting non-competes and issues like that. Those experiences show you how important it is to understand your book contracts, and to work with honorable people. Staying in a bad collaborative relationship and having work out there with my name on it that I’m not proud of. I’ve fought some battles just to have my name removed from future editions of books and I’ve even given up future earnings I was entitled to just to break free. Being spoken down to, especially by people I respected at the time, that’s also been a big one. Best to be a bit vague and leave it at that.
14. Least favorite part of your job?
That’s a tossup between rejecting authors, which is definitely the worst part of being a series editor, and doing public talks and readings about my work because I’m shy by nature. I do a lot of talks including high profile things like keynote addresses at conferences so people may not realize it, but it’s anxiety-producing for me. I try to push through just so I can get my work out there but it’s a struggle.
15. Best part of your job?
Writing. Nothing compares to just writing. I’ve loved writing more than anything since I was a little girl. I can become so immersed in something I forget to eat or run to the bathroom.
16. Best career moment?
There have been so many, I’ve been truly fortunate. What comes to mind is doing a joint book signing with Lee Gutkind, a prolific and ground-breaking author who founded Creative Nonfiction magazine and is one of my personal heroes. After I spoke about the Social Fictions series he told the audience that I had created something that didn’t exist and he thought that was extraordinary. Coming from him, I have no words to tell you how much that meant to me. I’ll always cherish that experience. I’m grateful to my friend and colleague, Dr. Amira De la Garza for arranging it.
17. Favorite book by another author?
Tossup between Seven Minutes from Home: An American Daughter’s Story by Laurel Richardson, which I have to say I was the editor for, but she had long been a favorite author of mine, and A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There are many though.
18. What’s the best professional compliment you’ve received?
That I’m generous and that authors and publishers I respect want to work with me.
19. What’s the best personal compliment you’ve received?
That I’m generous and a good friend.
20. Accomplishment you’re most proud of?
At my fortieth birthday party my oldest and closest friend said something that really stayed with me. My career accomplishments from that year had been noted and when my best friend spoke later on she said that what struck her was that during all of that “big” career stuff, I was always there for her and I was always her friend. What I’m most proud of is the relationships I have built with loved ones. I’m proud to say I’m a good friend. I put effort into that because it’s important to me. I’ve created balance in my life between writing, which is my passion, and the people I cherish so I don’t have any regrets. My life isn’t accidental. I try to live with intention.
To find Patricia visit www.patricialeavy.com or follow her on Facebook here.