Wednesday, January 20, 2021

An Exclusive Interview with Patricia Leavy about her Definitive Novel-Set, Candy Floss Collection

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent sociologist and best-selling author. She has published over 25 books, earning critical and commercial success in both nonfiction and fiction, and her work has been translated into numerous languages. She is also the creator and editor for ten book series with Oxford University Press, Brill-/Sense and Guilford Press, the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal, and a blogger for various outlets.

In addition to numerous honors for her books, Patricia has received career awards from New England Sociological Association, the American Creativity Association, the American Educational Research Association, the National Art Education Association, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. In 2016 Mogul, a women’s empowerment network, named her an “Influencer.” In 2018, she was honored by the National Women’s Hall of Fame and SUNY-New Paltz established the “Patricia Leavy Award for Art and Social Justice.” Patricia’s latest release, Candy Floss Collection, is a set of three previously released novels that together tell a larger story about women, identity, and popular culture. Patricia is a long-time supporter of Mental Fitness, Inc, and a blogger for We Are the Real Deal and we’ve spoken with her many times over the years. We recently had a chance to chat about her breathtaking new collection, which has been called her “definitive statement.”

Candy Floss Collection is being called “Epic,” “Brilliant,” and “Absolutely delicious.” Congratulations! What does that mean to you?

Thank you so much. I’m enormously grateful. My hope was that this work would resonate with readers so every kind word means the world to me. I’ve devoted a significant portion of my life to writing these novels. This collection essentially caps off a decade of writing.

Please describe Candy Floss Collection.

Candy Floss Collection is a set of three previously released novels: Low-Fat Love, Blue, and Film. Together these novels create an overarching message about what it truly means to live a “big life” and the kinds of relationships we need with others and ourselves along the way. This is not a traditional trilogy. This collection can be understood as installation art. We follow each female protagonist and cast of offbeat characters as they search for love, friendship, and a sense of self. The characters must learn to mind the gap between their lives as they are and as they wish them to be, to chase their dreams even as they stumble on their insecurities, and to never settle for low-fat love. Along the way, characters are imaged in the glow of television and movie screens, their own stories shaped and illuminated by the stories in pop culture. Set in contemporary New York and Los Angeles, with special tributes to 1980s pop culture, each novel questions and celebrates the ever-changing cultural landscape against which we live our stories, frame by frame.

Even if someone has read the novels as standalones, I hope they will pick up the collection. The novels have each been revised and there’s a new preface and afterword. Beyond those revisions and additions, there are nuances in each novel that are signposted in the others—so you see more, when you read them as a collection. Moreover, there is a larger story and message—an arc— that is only revealed when all three are experienced chronologically.

What’s the tone of the collection?

There’s an arc from darkness to light. It’s no coincidence we end with Film, which is a light-driven media. But as often is the case in life, the journey from darkness to light is not linear. While overall Low-Fat Love is the most melancholy of the novels and ultimately Film is the most hopeful, there are moments of joy, humor, and love in each book, as well as moments of despair. It’s simply that the balance changes over the course of the books. In Low-Fat Love the characters primarily suffer in isolation so there’s a real sense of loneliness. In Blue and Film, there are strong relationships, both friendships and romantic partnerships between people who truly see each other. I hope by the time someone finishes the collection they’ve gone on an emotional and perhaps cathartic journey that ends with a sense of possibility.

When did you first have the idea for the collection? Why did you want to put this out?

Once I wrote Blue, I knew there was going to be a third novel. At that point, it became clear to me that I was actually creating a three-part installation. It really isn’t a trilogy in the traditional sense and each novel truly can be read on its own. But I knew that together I could create something larger than the sum of its parts. Putting out this book completes a work, a decade of writing, and a lifetime of thinking about certain themes. I’m very grateful my publisher allowed me the opportunity to present my full artistic vision. It’s actually rare for authors. When you think about it, other artists do this all the time. For example, musicians often put out different versions of their work, whether it’s new recordings, live recordings, cover songs, or boxsets or other “greatest hits” compilations. We accept that a song with good bones can be interpreted in different ways. This is true for every art form, fiction included. I’ve rewritten or retooled my fiction before. For example, this collection actually includes the third published version of Low-Fat Love, and each one is different. I think it’s easier for us to accept with music perhaps because of its ephemeral nature. Fiction is printed in black ink, but the possibilities are endless. I’m proud of these final versions.

What are the messages underscoring the collection?

There are a few big ones. Don’t settle in life or love. Reject “low-fat love” or toxic relationships, including with yourself. The pop culture and art we make and experience helps shape our lives. A “big” life is one in which we’re engaged in work that’s meaningful, whether that’s the work we’re paid for or not, and relationships that helps us to become the best versions of ourselves. We can have both passion for what we do and for those we love, we needn’t choose. And above all, we are possibilities.

Many of the characters in this collection are in their twenties, which you’ve talked about as a special time in terms of figuring out our identities.

There are different seasons to our lives. Each decade of our lives offers something special, but of course we don’t get it all at once, we have to live each time as it comes. There’s a freedom a lot of people have in their early twenties that’s unique. It’s a time for being with friends, falling in love, getting our hearts broken, and figuring out who we are, often without being too tethered because we haven’t yet made the choices that define our lives. For all that’s exciting about this time, there’s a lot that’s tough too, and probably made tougher because we experience so much in a heightened state. The cliché is that youth is wasted on the young. The greatest gift being a writer is that you get to relive different times in your life and bring the wisdom you have now that you couldn’t have had as it was unfolding. On the page, you get a do-over, you get to go down the road not taken. Novelists are able to bring the benefits of hindsight and experience. When you’re in your forties, for example, you bring the experience of your twenties, thirties, and forties to the table. I know what it was to be in my twenties, but I also have some distance from it. I also think it’s important to note there are primary characters of different ages in these novels, including women in their thirties and forties.

Do you draw on your own experiences to access different times?

I think novelists are always simultaneously living in multiple times. We relive, remember, and rewrite our own stories so that we can write the stories of others. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that just because we’ve been reliving something as inspiration for a book doesn’t mean the people from our past are doing the same. That’s tricky. For example, my novel Spark was inspired by my experience at the Salzburg Global Seminar. Because I was writing a novel inspired by it, I thought about that experience and the people there every day for four years. In my mind it was as if the seminar had just happened. It was fresh and probably romanticized because of how long I had been thinking about it. But I can’t expect that by the time the novel came out four years later the people I shared that experience with had been thinking or feeling the same. To them, it was likely long out of their minds. So it’s tricky, because as a novelist, we keep our pasts close to us.

The 20-something characters in Candy Floss Collection are incredibly authentic and reminded me, and many reviewers, of what that time in our lives is like. As a writer, how did you approach this?

I use pop culture for inspiration. I immerse myself in certain television shows, movies, music, visual art, whatever it might be for a particular project. I’m old school and I have a huge DVD collection of my favorite tv series and films that were important to me at some time in my life. When I’m writing characters in their teens or twenties I re-watch the tv series I watched when I was that age. It brings me back to how I felt when I originally watched them. Characters that were important to you can do that, they can stir up who you once were and what it felt like. It’s not about watching new tv shows with 20-somethings. Technology and fashion change, but it’s the emotions of early love, first betrayal, and deep friendships that matter, not whether or not we’re using a payphone or smart phone. It’s about feelings. Pop culture allows me to access deep wells of emotions and experiences from throughout my life so that I can relate to what my characters are really going through.

Is there an emotional toll on you as a novelist?

Yes. Writing fiction is the most immersive, engaging thing I’ve ever done. That brings many highs, but there’s another side. When I’m writing a novel I’m completely immersed in that world as if it’s my own. I feel everything the characters feel. And I draw on personal experiences as needed to get to their emotional states, which can be cathartic, nostalgic, or painful. You can’t simply un-feel when you power down your laptop or cap your pen. When the project is over, a residue remains. The more I loved writing a novel, the deeper the imprint.

You talked about how as a writer you use pop culture for inspiration. Pop culture also plays a significant role in each of the three novels and the collection as a whole. Reviewers have called the various novels “love letters to pop culture.” Can you talk about this?

Pop culture is active in our lives. The music we listen to, movies and television we watch, and so on, helps shape our identities, our perceptions of what relationships look like and feel like, and what a “big” life means. We have emotional connections to these things too. Our favorite song, movie, or television show matters to us. We don’t all select pop culture the same way nor does it impact each of us precisely the same way, but we are all influenced by what we consume. Pop culture may be toxic in our lives or it can help us illuminate our own stories or it may inspire us. So I take pop culture and our relationship to it seriously in all three novels. I use pop culture in different ways—as a series of signposts, metaphors, symbolism, and in order to move the plot forward. Each novel has nods to the others, including specific pop culture references, images, and themes. For example, A-ha’s “Take on Me” comes up in Low-Fat Love, denoting a character’s self-esteem struggles, and then resurfaces in Film, as another character fully comes into her own. There’s an arc that’s illustrated via the pop culture references. There are numerous examples of references reappearing and taking on entirely new meanings, as the three novels illustrate a journey to self-actualization, which is why I’m so grateful to put them out in this collection.

What’s the overall message about pop culture and art?

The art we make and experience can save us.

Who’s the audience for Candy Floss Collection?

Anyone looking for a little comfort or inspiration. They’re meant to be fun, quick reads, but with food for thought. It would be wonderful to see this collection read in book clubs allowing readers to talk about each novel on its own and also how they feel about the work as a whole.

What’s one message you hope readers takeaway?

We are possibilities. There are many lives we can live. We can choose each day.

What’s next for you?

I just finished a nonfiction book project that will probably be coming out at the end of the summer. After releasing my last two novels, Spark and Film, back-to-back, I had planned to take some time off from fiction, but I’ve been more inspired than ever before. Honestly, creatively it’s been the best time of my life. With this collection I’m leaving the style and genre I’ve done in the past behind, and moving on to new genres and new ways to write. I have five novels in the works, all are departures, three of which are completed. I’ve written a love story that’s about how we can heal by allowing love in our lives, from friends, lovers, and art. Really, it’s a love letter to love itself, in all its forms. Differing from my other novels, aside from the female protagonist, the other main characters are all male. It’s the most personal thing I’ve ever written. The style is completely different than my earlier novels as was my process for writing it, which was immersive, cathartic, and joyful. These novels all unfold in real-time, no interiority or flashbacks, so we experience the characters as they experience each other. I fell so in love with the characters that I’ve written three more novels following them. Each novel deals with love and something else: love and healing, love and doubt, etc. The first of these epic love stories will probably be released in late summer. I can’t wait. I’ve also been working on another work of fiction, a dark novel about betrayal, denial, and America set in a small seaside town. It’s more than halfway done, but I’ve put it aside because these love stories captured my imagination.

Candy Floss Collection on Amazon:

Candy Floss Collection at Brill:

Learn More about Patricia Leavy:

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