Monday, October 15, 2018

Conversations with Patricia Leavy Part 2: Fiction

February 8, 2018 by  
Filed under Featured, Politics, Prevention

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author. She has published twenty-four books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction, a rare feat by any author. Her work has been translated into numerous languages. She is also the creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Brill-Sense, the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, and a blogger for The Creativity Post and previously The Huffington Post.

Patricia has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 Mogul, a women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” It was recently announced that Patricia is the recipient of the National Art Education Association 2018 Distinguished Service Outside the Profession Award. Established in 1965, previous recipients include Nelson Rockefeller, Jacqueline Kennedy, and a who’s who of vice presidents, governors, senators, and CEOs. Patricia has made history as the first sociologist and first full-time author to receive the honor. Patricia received this award for her internationally recognized work advancing and popularizing arts-based research in both the academy and public. Letters of support called her “a visionary” and “pioneer” and credited her with inspiring countless careers. Patricia is a long-time support of Mental Fitness, Inc, and we interviewed her upon news of her NAEA award. To continue to the celebration, Patricia has agreed to allow us to explore her work in-depth. This is part two in a series of three conversations, each focusing on a different aspect of her body of work. Each conversation includes excerpts from her published work. And attention authors/researchers, this and the next include calls for book proposals!

Did you always want to be a novelist?

Yes. I’ve loved writing more than anything since I was a little girl. I spent my free time filling notebooks with stories, some quite long, and I even bound some of my poetry and stories as books using old wallpaper and that sort of thing. But even though it was always my dream, I didn’t pursue it. Honestly, I think it felt too risky, too vulnerable. When you write fiction you really expose yourself and there’s so much rejection and critique. I didn’t think I was cut out for that when I was younger so I chose another path. I guess somehow we wind up where we’re meant to be. It’s worked well, because had I gone a more traditional route, I’m not sure I’d have as much to write about.

What inspired you to write your first novel, Low-Fat Love? 

There were professional and personal catalysts. For many years I collected interviews with women about their relationships, body image, gender identity, and other topics. I became fascinated with self-esteem, identity, and relationships. I noticed patterns of what I would come to call “low-fat love” which is settling in life and love and trying to pretend what we have is better than it is. Many of the heterosexual women I interviewed were engaged in what I consider diet relationships, which they often knew. Many had identities wrapped up in these relationships. Themes of loneliness and not feeling worthy also permeated some interviews in different ways. All of these themes were echoed by my female undergraduate students. At the time I was teaching courses like the sociology of gender, popular culture, and a seminar on love, intimacy and sexuality. Students often shared personal stories inside and outside of class. Over time I developed cumulative insights based on my interview and teaching experiences, and I had nowhere to put them. Academic research articles are for specific studies, not cumulative insights. Moreover, they’re only read by a small handful of academics. I wanted to reach women like those I had learned so much from. Then there’s the personal stuff. I had come out of a toxic rollercoaster relationship myself, a relationship in which I didn’t feel I could become the best version of myself. I was in a new, radically different relationship with a man who elevated me. So I really understood both what low-fat love is and what it isn’t. I don’t think you can write compelling fiction unless you have some empathy or at least understanding of what the characters are going through.

Please describe Low-Fat Love.

Low-Fat Love is about how some women settle in life and love. The novel is set in New York City and follows two editors at a publishing house. Ultimately each woman is pushed to confront her own image of herself, exploring her insecurities, the stagnation in her life, her attraction to men who withhold their support, and her reasons for having settled for low-fat love. The protagonist, Prilly, lives in between who she is and who she longs to be. Prilly falls for Pete, an unemployed but very sexy aspiring graphic novelist. She thinks she is finally experiencing the big life she always sought but feared was beyond her grasp because she sees herself as “in the middle”, meaning average-looking. Pete’s unconventional, free-spirited views on relationships unsettle Prilly, ultimately causing her to unravel over the course of their on-again-off-again love affair. Meanwhile, her colleague Janice, a workaholic, feminist in-name-only editor, overburdens Prilly and undercuts her professional identity. Janice’s life is all about appearances but when her alcoholic father is injured in a car accident she is forced to face her own demons. Along with Prilly and Janice, a cast of offbeat characters’ stories are interwoven throughout and eventually connected in the end. Low-Fat Love is underscored with a commentary about female identity building and self-acceptance and how, too often, women become trapped in limited visions of themselves. Women’s media is used as a signpost throughout the book in order to make visible the context in which women come to think of themselves as well as the men and women in their lives. In this respect, I was trying to offer a critical commentary about popular culture and the social construction of femininity. Low-Fat Love suggests women seek new ways to see so that they are not dependent on male approval and will value themselves, confront their self-esteem issues, and reject degrading relationships. Beyond sort of a synopsis, I would describe Low-Fat Love as raw and honest. I think that’s why it resonated.

We asked you to pick an excerpt to share. Please set it up. 

I chose the following excerpt because it gets to the essence of the protagonist, Prilly. The idea of living in between who we are and who we long to be is central to the message of the novel.

Prilly lived in between who she was and who she wanted to be. She had moved to Manhattan from Boston in search of a big life. She had always felt she was meant to have a big life. To date, she had barely lived a small life. Although she was an atheist, she blamed God for all her problems (when she wasn’t blaming her parents). She thought it all came down to looks, to genetics. She was convinced that beautiful people have a much greater shot at a big life. Ugly people have no shot. People somewhere in the middle, which is where she was firmly located, had to work hard for it, but it was possible. So ever since Prilly was about seven years old and she realized that she was regular looking at best, she blamed God and her parents for her lot in life. As a teenager, she admired the beautiful, popular girls. To her, they had been graced with the best gift of all: the gift of possibility. When you are beautiful, all you have to do is add on to that to get what you want, to be who you want to be. When you aren’t beautiful, you spend your life making up for it, filling in what is lacking. Compensating. At times Prilly even envied the ugly girls. If you are ugly and know it, you have no hope for a big life. Ultimately, that could be very freeing. You could focus on being content with your life as it is. Ugly girls don’t have to waste time or money with makeup, hair care, exercise, beauty treatments, and fashion. What’s the point? No one fabulous would ever get close enough to reject them, so they must be free from disappointment too, she thought –once they accepted their situation, at least. The ones who had it the worst were those in the middle, the girls who, with enough work, could be considered pretty but never beautiful. Those girls could taste the big life, they could see it close enough to want it, to reach for it. Prilly was in the middle.

(Leavy, P. (2015). Low-Fat Love: Expanded Anniversary Edition, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill-Sense, pp. 4-5, reprinted with permission from Brill-Sense). 

Low-Fat Love became a bestseller for your publisher, which must be every novelist’s dream. What was that experience like? 

It happened slowly, not overnight and I was so busy doing everything I could to promote the book, which was uphill all the way. I don’t know if I really enjoyed it at the time. Being my first novel, it was an entirely new world and I was learning a lot. I promoted that book for years with talks, signings, blogs, radio interviews, and so forth. So to be perfectly honest, at the time it mostly felt like a lot of work. What I did appreciate though was how readers reacted to it. I was flooded with emails and notes from readers, including men. Once the book started to gain momentum, everywhere I went professionally people wanted to grab a minute with me to respond to the book. People stood in hallways at conferences or universities or waited in line at signings to whisper their stories to me. I still get emails from readers about it. That has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life and I don’t take it for granted.

What are some of the things readers have said to you? 

All kinds of things. Some readers tell me how realistic they think the book was and that it captured something they can relate to. A woman I didn’t know actually asked me if the book was about her. She felt silly when I said, “I don’t even know you.” But really, it was an enormous compliment. Others have said that it made them care about normal people. The majority of women readers have told me their own stories of low-fat love, some have been about toxic relationships, but others have been on topics beyond what I could have imagined like alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual assault, and depression. Even friends have confided things to me after reading the book. In a strange way the book brought me closer to people, both friends and strangers, which is interesting since the characters are all disconnected and suffer in isolation. What’s hit me the hardest is that some readers or friends of readers have emailed me to tell me they were suicidal and the book pulled them off the ledge. There are no words to describe how humbling that is.

How is your recent book Low-Fat Love Stories connected to Low-Fat Love?

After reading the novel, readers were approaching me with their own incredibly personal stories of low-fat love. It felt like a privilege that strangers were trusting me with their vulnerabilities in that way. Eventually I decided I wanted to honor those stories—the stories of low-fat love inspired by the novel Low-Fat Love. So I collected a new set of interviews with women ranging from their twenties to seventies, from diverse backgrounds. For these interviews I specifically asked women to focus on a dissatisfying relationship from their past or present, which could be a romantic relationship, friend, or family member. Or they could focus on their body image. After analyzing the interviews I decided I needed a collaborator and teamed up with Dr. Victoria Scotti, a wonderful artist and creative arts therapist. Together we selected seventeen of the women’s interviews that covered themes I learned from all of the women. The result is Low-Fat Love Stories, a collection of short stories and visual art that represents the themes in each story. I used exact language from each women’s interview transcript when constructing the stories. It’s very raw and even difficult to read at times, but I think it’s beautiful and hopeful too.

After the success of Low-Fat Love, was there a lot of pressure for your second novel, American Circumstance?

Whenever there’s success, there’s some measure of external pressure to repeat yourself, but you can’t internalize that stuff. Of course every author wants a book they labored on to be well-received, but you can’t measure the value of your work by sales or audience response. You need to develop your own relationship with your work. Instead of thinking about external pressure, I tried to focus on the fact that the success of Low-Fat Love afforded me the opportunity to publish another novel. Sure, pressure seeps in, but I did my best to focus on the work itself. The real pressure I felt was that I owed it to myself to work on my craft and put out a better piece of art, regardless of sales or anything like that. I pushed myself hard with American Circumstance. As a novel, I think it’s my strongest work. I also made the decision not to let any commercial factors influence the writing or production. When I was writing Low-Fat Love it had a different title, but in the end I knew it was important to make some commercial decisions if I had a chance of breaking through the clutter, even in a small way. With American Circumstance, my only allegiance was to the novel. I decided to meet my vision fully even though I knew some of my content choices, the title, and the cover image didn’t provide the “hook” Low-Fat Love had. But again, the novel itself was more important and in the end, I’m proud of it. It’s one of my favorites in my entire catalogue of work. 

We asked you to pick an excerpt to share. Please set it up.

I chose the following excerpt because American Circumstance centers largely on friendships between women and this bit is about Kay-Kay, an important high school friend of the protagonist, Paige. Kay-Kay is also my favorite character in the book.

During their time together, Paige became good friends with Kay-Kay and came to think of her as a little sister. In addition to their morning tutoring sessions, Paige started seeking Kay-Kay out at lunch and inviting her to sit with her friends. Kay-Kay was confident, upbeat, wickedly funny, and never held back. When Paige’s friend Laurel was contemplating trying a new hairstyle, she asked the group what they thought. After a series of niceties like, “Oh, you’ll look great no matter what you do,” Kay-Kay shook her head and said, “Girl, you got a big forehead and you need to get some bangs. Don’t get me wrong, you’re beautiful, but you’ve gotta tone down that forehead.” After a short pause the girls, including Laurel, burst into laughter. Then, one by one, the girls each said, “Yeah, it’s true. Go for some bangs.” The next day Laurel came to school with long side-swept bangs. Kay-Kay was officially in the group.

(Leavy, P. (2016). American Circumstance: Anniversary Edition, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill-Sense, p. 22, reprinted with permission from Brill-Sense).

You talk about pushing yourself as a writer, what’s the process of writing fiction like for you?

It’s both solitary and collaborative. A lot of the writing process is very private—there’s a creative writing hole that I crawl into as an artist. You have to throw your entire bleeding and dreaming self into a novel, there’s no other way to write your way out. And that space has to be protected. As I write, it’s like watching a movie unfold scene by scene in my mind’s eye. But you also need feedback. For a while I was in a local writing group and we read our work out loud and offered one another feedback. I bonded with one of the writers in the group and now we exchange writing weekly and meet in person to discuss it. We’ve been doing this for years and it’s enormously helpful. She’s always able to see my vision and help me achieve it. Down the line there are editors, reviewers, and others in the mix, but while I’m writing the first solid draft, it’s me and my weekly writing buddy. That said, what I call a first draft is revised maybe a dozen times. I revise each chapter multiple times as I go and then I revise the entire manuscript at least twice before it gets sent as a completed work to anyone. It’s a rigorous process. Sticking it in a drawer for a while at the end, before revising it to send my editor also helps. You need some distance.

What’s your favorite part of writing a novel? 

When you start to get really into it, usually after the first chapter. When you tap into that flow and forget to have lunch because you’re so immersed in your story-world. There’s nothing else like it.

What’s your least favorite? 

The end. I always feel quite blue when I’m done. For years you get up each morning excited to see what your characters will do and say. You spend more time with them than anyone else. They become like your closest friends in a certain way. It’s very hard to let go of them when you finish, to know that you won’t see them the next day, and that they’re going on without you.

Your novels are grounded in sociological research. How do you research for novels? 

In the past I’ve collected in-depth interviews with women, and some men, about their relationships, identities, and other issues. Themes from those interviews get woven into the novels and composite characters get created. I’ve also excavated ghosts from the attic of my own life, really analyzing my experiences and how others might have similar experiences. Then there’s the pop culture aspect. I spend a lot of time researching the pop culture that appears in my novels. I immerse myself in the music and art of the time I want to evoke, read others’ analyses of these works, and so on. Music is key for me to unlocking a narrative. For me, music evokes color, so once I have the soundscape, I know the mood and the feeling. Then there are the little details that all novelists check, like making sure a street takes you where you think it does or that a restaurant exists in your timeframe. That’s just fact checking. When I’m lucky I travel to the locations where my novels occur. You can always capture things about a place being there that Google can’t provide. 

Let’s talk about Blue, your last novel. When it was released you said it was your personal favorite. Is that still true? If so, why?

Yes, it’s absolutely my favorite of my novels because it reminds me of possibilities, the possibilities that live in each of us and between us.

Please describe Blue?

 It’s a novel about identity, friendship, and figuring out who we are during the “in-between” phases of life. The book shines a spotlight on the friends and lovers who become our families in the fullest sense of the word, and the search for people who “get us.” Blue follows three roommates as they navigate life and love in their post-college years. Tash Daniels, the former party girl, falls for deejay Aidan. Always attracted to the wrong guy, what happens when the right one comes along? Jason Woo, a light-hearted model on the rise, uses the club scene as his personal playground. While he’s adept at helping Tash with her personal life, how does he deal with his own when he meets a man that defies his expectations? Penelope, a reserved and earnest graduate student slips under the radar, but she has a secret no one suspects. As the characters’ stories unfold, each is forced to confront their life choices or complacency and choose which version of themselves they want to be. The characters in Blue show how our interactions with people often bump up against backstage struggles we know nothing of. Visual art, television, and film appear as signposts throughout the narrative, providing a context for how we each come to build our sense of self in the world. With a tribute to 1980s pop culture, set against the backdrop of contemporary New York, Blue both celebrates and questions the ever-changing cultural landscape against which we live our stories, frame by frame. Beyond a synopsis, I would describe it as a joyful novel about friendship, identity, and magic in our lives.

 We asked you to pick an excerpt to share. Please set it up.

Blue celebrates the popular culture landscape with a special emphasis on 1980s pop culture, even though the novel is set in contemporary New York. So I chose the following excerpt because it touches on the 1980s theme and illustrates how the protagonist, Tash, uses pop culture to develop her sense of self, another theme in the novel. It also includes interiority, or interior dialogue, which is a unique capability of fiction.

Tash went to the kitchen for a Diet Coke and tub of microwave popcorn before going to her room. She changed into her most worn-in cotton pajamas and crawled into bed, propped up against pillows. She cycled through the channels, searching for something to watch. She came across the end credits for Rainbow Bright and was curious enough to stop. Jason’s a trip. Too funny, she giggled. Before she could change the station, Jem and the Holograms came on, catching her attention.

The aesthetic is fantastic, she thought, instantly riveted. What a dope look. Such great colors. God, imagine this aesthetic in a live-action suspense flick. It would be like pop noir. J was right. This stuff is inspired. After acclimating to the fashion and vibe, Tash became immersed in the story. The idea that one woman had two distinct personas, the glamorous Jem and the responsible, orphan-raising Jerrica, resonated deeply. They keep acting as though Jerrica is real and Jem is an illusion, but they’re both real. That’s why Rio loves them both. He’s kind of a douche, cheating or whatever, but he can’t help it. Together, Jem and Jerrica are like the perfect woman. No wonder their superhuman, cyborg savior is named Synergy. Brilliant.

She watched the Jem and the Holograms marathon for hours, relating to the two-persona lead character more than any real person she had ever known. They shared a bond. All night her thoughts vacillated from Jem to her conversation with Kyle. She kept replaying his words, “It’s not who you are. That’s how you acted to look like you were having fun.” Every time there was a scene with Rio, she transposed Aidan’s face on his. Eventually she fell asleep, with the glow of the television beaming like a halo around her face.

(Leavy, P. (2016). Blue, Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill-Sense, pp. 117-118, reprinted with permission from Brill-Sense).

Is there an overarching message in your novels?

We need to have a good relationship with ourselves in order to live our best and love our best. And there is magic, it lives in us and in our connections to others. We are possibilities.

You’re the creator and editor for the award-winning Social Fictions series which houses your works of fiction. The series is truly one-of-a-kind. It publishes full-length fiction in the form of novels, plays, and poetry collections but these works are grounded in scholarly research. It’s the only series to successfully publish complete arts-based works and it blurs fiction and nonfiction, and academic and trade publishing in ways that didn’t exist before it. Can you describe how the series came to be?

Honestly, I was problem-solving. I had written Low-Fat Love and had no idea how I was going to publish it. I had relationships in academic publishing, but not trade. I explored all of the traditional routes such as getting a literary agent to pitch to trade or even self-publishing. In the end, they didn’t feel right. I really wanted to publish it simultaneously as academic research and as a novel for general readers. My boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband, kept telling me to think about bridges to build in the academic publishing world, where I had relationships and experience. I spent months thinking about it and eventually came up with the idea for the series. I realized the whole idea was bigger than my little book. The first publisher I pitched turned me down in a fairly brutal way, after feigning interest for months. The second publisher I pitched was also hesitant but we came up with a creative partnership arrangement. It turns out they were the ideal publisher. I don’t think the series would be what it is had it ended up elsewhere. Low-Fat Love was the launch title.

We asked you to pick an excerpt to share from another titles in the series. Please set it up.

It’s an impossible task with so much to choose from but I picked the following from J. E. Sumerau’s recent novel Cigarettes & Wine because it sensitively deals with timely issues relating to gender and sexuality. Instead of arbitrarily picking an excerpt, I took this from the preface. It’s simply a description of the book so people interested can consider picking it up.

Imagine the terror and exhilaration of a first sexual experience in a church where you could be caught at any moment. In Cigarettes & Wine, this is where we meet an unnamed teenage narrator in a small southern town trying to make sense of their own bisexuality, gender variance, and emerging adulthood. When our narrator leaves the church, we watch their teen years unfold alongside one first love wrestling with his own sexuality and his desire for a relationship with God, and another first love seeking to find herself as she moves away from town. Through the narrator’s eyes, we also encounter a newly arrived neighbor who appears to be an all American boy, but has secrets and pain hidden behind his charming smile and athletic ability, and their oldest friend who is on the verge of romantic, artistic, and sexual transformations of her own.

Along the way, these friends confront questions about gender and sexuality, violence and substance abuse, and the intricacies of love and selfhood in the shadow of churches, families, and a small southern town in the 1990’s. Alongside academic and media portrayals that generally only acknowledge binary sexual and gender options, Cigarettes & Wine offers an illustration of non-binary sexual and gender experience, and provides a first person view of the ways the people, places, and narratives we encounter shape who we become. While fictional, Cigarettes & Wine is loosely grounded in hundreds of formal and informal interviews with LGBTQ people in the south as well as years of research into intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health.

(Sumerau, J. E. (2017) Cigarettes& Wine, Leiden, Brill-Sense p. xv, reprinted with permission from Brill-Sense)

You’re a prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction. What does fiction offer you that perhaps nonfiction doesn’t?  

Freedom. I don’t censor myself or think about audience in the same way. With nonfiction you’re the dominant voice but with fiction, the characters have voices that might be quite different from yours. You can explore more ideas. So I write fiction for myself and hope if it touches me that it might do so for others. And possibility. Fiction is a process of discovery. I never know what I’ll learn.

 Can we look forward to more novels from you in the near future?

Yes. I’ve signed a contract with Guilford Press for my next novel. It’s exciting because they publish my research methods texts but it’s their first novel. They have both world-class academic and trade divisions and we’re working creatively on this project. The novel is in a new genre and totally different than anything I’ve written before. I’m not ready to share too many details but it’s a bit of an adventure, inspired by an experience I had at the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria. It’s intended for academic and general readers. I’ve also signed two more contracts with Brill-Sense for works of fiction in the Social Fictions series. The first is for a sequel to my Blue, although it can be read as a stand-alone novel. The other is something special for readers but we’re keeping it under wraps for now.

Please check back for Part 3 in our series with Patricia, which will focus on her social justice projects.

 

Learn More about Patricia Leavy:

http://www.patricialeavy.com/

https://www.facebook.com/WomenWhoWrite/

 

Call for Book Proposals:

Social Fictions Series (Brill-Sense, series editor Dr. Patricia Leavy): Authors are expected to have a PhD, MFA, or its equivalent. To submit, email the proposal form (download at www.sensepublishers.com), a draft of the academic introduction/preface (what the book is about, why you wrote it and how it can be used in college classes), your CV or resume, and the first 10 pages of the ms. to Mx. Shalen Lowell (Assistant to Dr. Leavy) at shalenlowell@gmail.com. Submissions considered on a rolling basis. Due to the high numbers of submissions received and the nature of fiction, only complete manuscripts will be considered. Simultaneous submissions are allowed.

 

Links to Selected Books:

Low-Fat Love at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/9462099901

Blue at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/9463003533

American Circumstance at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/9463005749

Low-Fat Love Stories at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/9463008160

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