An Exclusive Interview with Author Patricia Leavy about Low-Fat Love Stories
Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author. She has published twenty-one books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction. She is also the creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers and 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. She’s passionate about writing books with messages about empowerment and self-acceptance, which is certainly a theme in her new tome. We’ve spoken several times over the years. We recently had a chance to chat with Patricia about the release of her latest book, Low-Fat Love Stories, her first collaboration with a visual artist.
Please describe Low-Fat Love Stories.
It’s a collection of sixteen short stories and visual portraits that my co-author and I call “textual-visual snapshots.” Each one focuses on a woman’s experience with what I call “low-fat love.” I conducted interview research with women ranging in age from their twenties to seventies who come from all different kinds of backgrounds and circumstances. Each interview was about a dissatisfying relationship with a romantic partner or relative or their body image and identity.
The interviews were the basis for the stories and art. The stories focus on settling in relationships, the gap between fantasies and realities, relationship patterns, divorce, abuse, childhood pain, spirituality, feeling like a fraud, growing older and daily struggles looking in the mirror. They are written in the first-person with language directly taken from each woman’s interview. They are quite raw, and I think will prompt visceral responses. As a collection, the stories and arts set you on an emotional rollercoaster and illustrate the different forms “low-fat love” may take, and the quest for self-worth in the context of toxic popular culture. This was a very special project for me and I hope people are moved and inspired by it.
What inspired this book?
My debut novel, Low-Fat Love, was released in 2011. It hit a nerve with readers and I was suddenly inundated with emails from women, and men as well, telling me about their stories of low-fat love. People lined hallways at book talks and conferences to whisper their most intimate stories to me. It was a very humbling experience. I wanted to honor the stories people were sharing with me so I decided to collect new, formal interviews and directly ask people about a dissatisfying relationship. I called the project Low-Fat Love Stories because it was inspired by the stories that were inspired by the novel.
You describe the process of coming to work with Victoria Scotti in the foreword and appendix to the book but for people who haven’t read it yet, how did you come to work with a visual artist?
It all started with writer’s block which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I had collected and analyzed the interviews, signed a book contract and then got completely stuck trying to write the book, which at the time I thought would be a nonfiction monograph. For two years I put the project aside for months at a time, worked on other things, and returned to it periodically. I was convinced I would never finish the book and then out of the blue Victoria Scotti, a visual artist who was working towards her Ph.D. in creative arts therapies, contacted me. She was essentially looking for a research assistant position as a part of her practicum work for graduate school.
Over the course of a Skype meeting I decided to tell her about the interviews. She suggested I send her something to read. At that point in one of my many attempts to immerse myself in the interviews I had created summaries of each interview. The summaries ranged from two to three single spaced pages and included demographic info, keywords from the interview, the major themes in the interview and verbatim quotes. I emailed her one interview summary. She replied, “When I read this I see a portrait.” We had another Skype meeting and came up with the process for how we would approach the book. I sent her an interview summary; she created a “visual concept” based on the themes and tenor; I used the visual for inspiration as I wrote each story drawing on the woman’s interview transcript and my own language; and then Victoria created a final portrait representing the themes from the story. We call the result “textual-visual snapshots.”
How did the collaboration go?
From my perspective it went extremely well and I think Victoria would say the same. I learned to see and think in new ways. We made a few decisions from the beginning that I think were critical. First, it needed to be an equal collaboration. There were so many ways inequality could have been built into the relationship but that wouldn’t have served us. Victoria started working on this when she was a graduate student, I had already collected the interviews and her role was primarily as artist.
These are all circumstances that could have created an uneven playing field so to speak. But we knew we both had to be free to speak our mind, even if we disagreed. We both needed to be equally invested. Second, we each needed the freedom to do our thing. I am not a visual artist and had no business micromanaging her work and vice versa with respect to the writing I did. Of course we each reacted to the other person’s work and at times offered feedback and suggestions, but mostly we just supported what the other was doing and trusted in her expertise. We also decided upfront to be flexible. We were lucky to be working with a publisher with whom I have a long-term relationship and so there were no demands in terms of a delivery date. Victoria and I each had other projects while this was going on so we were respectful of each other’s schedules. We were also flexible in terms of the process itself.
From day one we came up with a plan that we would continue on as long as it was working well and if we needed to adapt or change course, we would. So it worked really well. I think mutual respect, equality and flexibility are central to good collaborations. Add to all of that, in addition to thinking she’s enormously talented, I really like Victoria on a personal level. We became friends during the process and I hope we always will be.
You’re a novelist. For you, was the process of writing short stories very different than what you normally do?
Yes, it was a very different process. Honestly, I’ve never taken anything like this on before. With a novel you have time to allow the characters to develop, to set scenes and so forth. There’s also a narrative arc you follow. In the novels I’ve written so far, they’re divided into three parts. There’s the setup in which you’re immersed in the daily lives of the characters, then in the next part there’s the struggle or conflict, and the final part is redemption. It’s not a precise formula or anything and my three novels are different from each other in many ways, but overall they follow this narrative structure.
While of course I drew on my skills as a writer, writing Low-Fat Love Stories was a totally different process. I was writing in a totally different structure. These are very short stories, or what my collaborator and I call “textual-visual snapshots.” While both draw on literary tools, writing a “snapshot” is not like writing a novel. I felt the experience was different in three main ways: having a short word count, figuring out the style for each story, and organizing the stories. In terms of the first difference, you have so few words in relative terms. That’s one of the reason’s I chose first-person narration, which was also new for me. I felt it was important to draw readers in quickly. I also thought it was important to have a different voice narrate each story. With respect to the length of the stories, while they are short, they are also intended to be layered. Some stories span a woman’s entire life, or draw on experiences over her lifetime. That’s tricky to do in a short space.
Early in the process I thought the stories might be much longer than they are. Ultimately the project became one of letting go for me. I realized less was more. The women’s real experiences are powerful and so I needed to find ways to communicate them in short bursts. Second, when you’re writing a collection of stories as opposed to a novel, you may be writing in many styles and forms, not just one. I felt in order to most effectively tell each woman’s story, and to try and keep the book engaging, the stories would have to be different from each other. For example, some are told in diary form, as memories, in one continuous narrative, and episodically. I also had ideas that I rejected. For example I thought one story might be a “Dear John” letter of sorts but then I decided the women should be speaking to other women, not to the ones who have harmed them. Some of the stories include internal dialogue, what the woman is thinking, and others do not. Some involve various degrees of dialogue and a couple are entirely told as conversations. Finally, once all of the stories were complete I had to consider the organization of the book. You don’t need to do that with a novel! I suspect this process was more similar to putting a record together. How does each piece flow to the next one? What is the narrative arc? What are readers left with as the message?
I’m interested in the process of organizing the collection. How did you decided on the order of the stories?
That’s a very good question. Putting the pieces together I considered many things. First, I looked at the end pieces. One story began with the words “once upon a time” and another ended with “happily ever after” so those became the perfect opening and closing stories. The second to last story had to be “Crystal” because she is the oldest woman I interviewed and carried great wisdom. Hers is the only story of positive self-image so I wanted that to be one of the final thoughts readers were left with.
This also worked poetically as Crystal’s story uses the metaphor of “oxygen” and then the last story is called “Breathe.” Next I thought about the narrative arc. There’s one dual story– a story that represents two women I interviewed so I placed that as the middle piece and then the next few pieces are the most emotional, the most painful in the book. Once the beginning, ending and narrative structure were in place, it was a function of fitting the other stories in. I considered the theme of the interview, the tenor, and the writing style so readers would not be reading the same kind of story back-to-back, including whether or not interiority was represented, as that creates a different level of intimacy for the reader. The organization of the book was done carefully and I recognize it could have been structured in many different ways but I’m very pleased with how it turned out.
Since you were writing in a different structure, where did you gain inspiration? Did you read a lot of short stories?
Actually I listened to a lot of female singer-songwriters. I even listened to some country music which is not a genre I usually listen to. There are many authors I respect and enjoy, but I mostly go to other art forms for inspiration. I’m not alone. A lot of artists I respect, from Neil Gaiman to Tori Amos, have spoken about the importance of looking outside one’s own artistic genre for inspiration to think about building structures in new ways.
Earlier you mentioned a dual story, Eleanor and Mary, cleverly titled “Mirror Mirror.” Why did you decide to combine their stories?
I was really struck by the similarities in the women’s stories. Here you have two women of the same age but one identifies, in her words, as a butch lesbian, and the other as a typically feminine heterosexual. So while these women have very different identities and experiences in certain respects, their stories contain a lot of similarities. They both talked about how aging is difficult for them, how they struggle looking in the mirror, and so forth. I thought it would be interesting to put these two women in conversation with each other, both to highlight the similarities in their stories and their differences.
Was that the hardest story to write?
From a writing perspective, yes, absolutely. I struggled with it. There were more versions of that story than any of the others. I had to try many different formats to get something that worked. However, from an emotional perspective, there were others that were harder to write just because of how I personally connected to the themes in the women’s stories.
Do you have a favorite story or piece of art from the book?
Yes, although I’ll keep those to myself for a few reasons. These stories represent real women’s stories and they are all valid and important. I also collaborated with a visual artist. So as a writer I may have favorite stories based on my writing, and I may also have favorite pieces of art in the book, but those may be different than her favorites. Art speaks to people differently. But even beyond these reasons, my relationship to the themes in each of the stories feels very personal and private. I may connect with a particular story because of my own experiences, just as readers may.
The cover is magical. What was the inspiration?
I love the cover too. Victoria created it, both the art and design. She went through many versions, all of which were great. In the end we decided we wanted something that looked like a fairytale book or Hallmark card. It’s meant to be ironic because when you open the pages you learn it is the dark side, shadow side, underside of fairytales. Happily ever after becomes about finding self-worth within, in a world in which women are encouraged to look externally.
There’s a pop culture subtext to this book, like in your novels. Did that stem from the interviews?
Yes. In the body image interviews I asked women directly about what kind of media they consume and so those important details made their way into the stories. The relationship interviews were really interesting because so many women brought up fairytale imagery from popular culture. There’s often a gap between fantasies about relationships and what actual relationships look and feel like. Popular culture helps create those fantasies. In creating the visual portraits, Victoria also aimed to present alternative representations of women to those we tend to see in popular culture. I think the stories and art together create a counter-narrative to commercial pop culture. These stories show the realities, the undersides, and the effects of building a sense of self in a context in which women are routinely shown they are not enough. Pop culture creates myths and this book is all about dark truths.
What message do you hope readers will take from the book?
Not to settle in life or love and to be kind to themselves. That’s tricky for so many people. Also the importance of living authentically. One of the messages that came through to me was how painful it is to suffer in silence, to pretend to be something other than we are. When we do that we feel like frauds and it creates even more isolation. I hope readers are inspired to reflect on their own lives and get really honest with themselves and others. While many of the stories are emotionally difficult, I think there’s a lot of hope and wisdom in the book for people open to it.
What’s next for you? Another collaboration?
I have a textbook coming out in April of 2017 so I’m dealing with page proofs and all of that. I’m also collaborating with my friend and colleague Anne Harris on a feminist research textbook. In terms of creative projects, I’m working on a new novel. It’s a totally different genre than anything I’ve written before so I plan to take my time. I’m enjoying the process and have no desire to rush it. In terms of working with Victoria or another artist again, I’m definitely open. I’ve already told Victoria I hope we’re able to collaborate again. Hopefully the opportunity will present itself. I feel like there’s a lot more we could do together.
Low-Fat Love Stories is available on Amazon here.
Low-Fat Love is available on Amazon here.
Learn more about Patricia by visiting her website here.
Follow Patricia on Facebook.
Read Patricia’s column for Mogul.
To learn more about Victoria Scotti visit here.