Caroline Leavitt Interview
Carolyn Leavitt: First, I absolutely adore the inventive playfulness of your writing. You alphabetize what either George or Lizzie likes. You tumble back and forth in time. Even the chapter headings alone (“What George Loves about Lizzie”) are quite wonderful. How did you come to structure the novel like this? Did you ever worry that the chances you took might not pay off (They do, they do.)?
Nancy Pearl: At the beginning, I didn’t even think I was writing a novel. Book people know me as someone who recommends good books to read, but when I was (much) younger I defined myself by my writing. In high school and college I wrote a lot of poetry, but sometime in my late twenties the lines started coming as prose rather than poetry. I started writing short stories, one of which, “The Ride to School,” was published, in Redbook in 1980, and the line that came to me was “My mother talked to us all the time,” the first sentence in the story. (It didn’t seem to be at all workable for a poem.) That’s similar to the way George & Lizzie began. While I was recovering from minor surgery and under the influence of a moderate dose of painkillers, two characters appeared to me. It was clear (although I don’t know how or why) that their names were George and Lizzie and that they met at a bowling alley in Ann Arbor when Lizzie accidentally lofted her ball into the lane where George was bowling, ruining his possibly best game ever.
(Incidentally, I’m sure it was in Redbook that I first read “Meeting Rozzy Halfway,” and began following, with great pleasure, your writing career.)
That’s all I knew at the beginning, but I found myself thinking about them, pretty much all the time. Slowly I got a sense of their lives, both separate and together—it almost felt like they were telling me their stories. At some point I just felt a need to write down what I’d discovered about them both.
I didn’t have any particular writing strategy or even a plan. I’d just write down scenes, or snapshots, as I came to think about them whenever they occurred to me. For example, I’d be lying in bed before I fell asleep thinking about George and Lizzie, and something specific about their lives would seem so especially significant or interesting that I’d get out of bed, go to my computer, and try to capture it on paper. I gave each of these sections a simple descriptive title (like, “How They Met”) to remind myself what snapshot I was describing.
Eventually, I discovered that I’d written a novel of the sort I most loved to read: very very character-driven, filled with references to things I love (poetry, novels, football, mandel bread, for example) and a little bit quirky. It never occurred to me that I was taking chances – I was just writing about George and Lizzie’s life for my own entertainment and pleasure.
Carolyn Leavitt: What kind of writer are you? Do you outline or follow the characters? Do you have special rituals?
Nancy Pearl: I think I’d call myself an intuitive writer; a less kind description I might use of myself as a writer might be haphazard. Basically, I followed George and Lizzie and went where they led me. I’ve always been interested in people’s lives and would happily spend hours listening to them describe their backgrounds and upbringings. So it makes sense to me that I wanted to know everything about George and Lizzie: all the big and little details of their childhoods, their friends, their families, what books they loved, what people they loved, why they made the choices they made. Really, it was like falling in love with someone and wanting to be inside their skin to discover how he’s put together. What made him the person he became and who he is right now.
Sometimes I wish that I had outlined the novel. I think then it might have been easier (and taken less time) to write. As it was, I had to wait until I learned something about G and L’s relationship to finally sit down and describe it on (virtual) paper. And at the point when the question that had to be answered was whether their marriage was going to endure, it seemed like I had to wait for them to decide and then let me know, and it seemed to take months and months for them to figure it all out.
Carolyn Leavitt: I love that your characters talk books. Lizzie loves Edna St. Vincent Millay, there’s talk of A.E. Houseman and Lord Byron. It truly makes me love the characters even more. How did you go about choosing what books you thought each character might love?
Nancy Pearl: It’s probably no coincidence that the authors and books that Lizzie loves are the same ones that I love. I had a very different sort of unhappy childhood than Lizzie’s but books were always the place I went for comfort and sustenance. I think that Lizzie turns to reading for the same reasons that I did.
Carolyn Leavitt: Lizzie suffers with “announcers in her head” that chastise her for ruining things in life or for deserving punishment. Since I have those in my head, too, I’d love to know about the birth of that idea and why you think some people just need those announcers.
Nancy Pearl: I have those voices, too, constantly, and they’re never saying anything positive about me: I always assumed that everyone did until a youngish woman, a writer, who read the novel in its completed form, asked me if I thought that Lizzie suffered from incipient schizophrenia. I never thought that Lizzie had schizophrenia – that would make it a totally different sort of novel (and a vastly different Lizzie), but it was surprising to discover that there are evidently some people who aren’t being beat up by these critics in their head. Like almost everything that happens in the novel, Lizzie and the voices never seemed to be a decision that I made: it was just a fact of her life.
Carolyn Leavitt: This jubilant novel is a lot about secrets, but what’s fascinating to me is that the person who suffers from the secrecy is the secret keeper, and not the one to discover it. Can you talk about that please?
Nancy Pearl: I think that the secrets Lizzie keeps from George—about the Great Game and her feelings for Jack—are emotionally paralyze her. It’s as though she never got past the way she felt when she was 19: Her primary feelings are shame and regret, and she’s furious with herself that she could have been so stupid back then. (But in Lizzie’s defense, weren’t we all pretty dumb when we were nineteen?) When George tells her that she has the emotional age of a three year old, he’s clearly exaggerating in the heat of the Difficult Conversation that they’re in the midst of, but he’s also not that far wrong. And keeping those secrets from George isn’t doing their marriage any favors, is it? It’s created an insurmountable wall between them, making it impossible to really have an intimate relationship. I couldn’t imagine what would ever cause Lizzie to tell George anything really important about herself, especially about the Great Game or Jack. And honestly, I don’t think she would have ever told George about Jack if he hadn’t seen the letter from Marla. She was pretty much forced into it by circumstance. And I think that the cause of Lizzie’s greatest shame – the Great Game – is something she’ll never tell George about. I’d say that the secrets hurt both of them, but in different ways. Can a marriage survive these sorts of secrets? I’m still not sure.
Caroline Leavitt: What I loved most about George was that he believes in the possibility of happiness. At one point, he tells Lizzie that a particular death is not a tragedy, that things sometimes just happen in life. And meanwhile, Lizzie is obsessed with someone from her past and in a way that clouds her real future. Again, I’d love for you to talk about this.
Nancy Pearl: George’s beliefs about happiness are completely foreign to Lizzie: it’s as though he’s speaking in a language that not a huge number of people know, something on the order of Esperanto or Balto-Slavic. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that Lizzie knows that her life would be a lot happier if she accepted George’s worldview. It’s very hard for her to do so, mostly because of her parents. It’s hard to think you’re a worthwhile person when you’re being treated as though you were a lab rat, constantly under scrutiny. I think when readers look at Lizzie and George’s marriage, or the failure of their marriage to achieve real intimacy, they’ll blame Lizzie. And I can’t deny that Lizzie is not at all easy to live with: she’s prickly and depressed and keeping those secrets from George. Worst of all for a marriage, she sees everything in terms of black and white, a zero-sum game – someone’s always right and therefore the other person is wrong. Someone’s good and someone’s bad. Someone wins and someone loses. But George also bears some responsibility for the state of his and Lizzie’s relationship. He assumes that Lizzie would be happy if she only accepted his optimistic view of the world. Though he does that with the best of motives—because he genuinely wants Lizzie to be happy—it seems to me to reflect a lack of understanding of how and why people change and (oh George, I am so sorry to say this) maybe also a lack of sensitivity to who Lizzie is. I don’t think you can argue someone into making changes – they have to come to a decision to change on their own. It’s not until the end of the novel that I see Lizzie acknowledge that maybe the past, or part of the past, anyway, has too strong a hold on her and if she lets some of it go, she’d be happier. But I hope at that point that she realizes that giving that part of herself up doesn’t make her the loser or the bad one in the marriage.
Caroline Leavitt: What’s obsessing you now and why?
Nancy Pearl: Like many people, I am obsessed with the current political situation, which I find both frightening and incomprehensible. I have an M.A. in History and still can’t understand how we got to this place where the cornerstones of our democracy are threatened and it’s impossible to find Republican senators and representatives who will put what’s right for the country above their party affiliation. All that being said, I spend a lot of time avoiding reading the news because it’s so depressing and instead I am listening to many sports podcasts and following many sports teams and figures on Twitter, especially those devoted to basketball and football. I am also obsessed with my grown children’s happiness and what I will wear on my book tour.
Caroline Leavitt: What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Nancy Pearl: None – I l