Picture Perfect [Costco Connection, January 2011]
By Hope Katz Gibbs
The Costco Connection
From a fatal car crash and the death of a parent, to the drama of comforting a sick child and coping with infidelity, life’s greatest emotional challenges play out in the pages of Caroline Leavitt’s “Pictures of You.”
Here’s the scenario: Two slightly desperate women get into their cars late on a September afternoon in an attempt to run away from their marriages. But on a windy, foggy highway they collide. The survivor of the fatal accident is left to pick up the pieces, and not only of her own life. Within months she becomes intimately involved in the lives of the other woman’s devastated husband and fragile son, who suffers from chronic asthma. Can they build a new life together?
“I’m always obsessed with what pulls people together, and what tugs them apart, particularly families,” the award-winning novelist explains. “I love to try to figure out how people are their best, or their worst, in difficult situations. In ‘Pictures of You,’ my goal was to explore the idea of how well we really know those we love, and whether or not we can open our hearts to forgive the unforgiveable. Can life can be derailed without being ruined?”
This novel, which is Leavitt’s 9th in the last two decades, is the first with an air of mystery to it. She also tackles one of her own personal sorrows. Like Sam, the boy in the story, Leavitt suffered from life-threatening asthma as a child.
“It was always a shameful thing for me, something that made me feel weird and different, so I never talked about being sick with anyone,” says Leavitt. “But years ago, the character of Sam popped into my head and wouldn’t go away. I didn’t like the idea of writing about asthma, but when I told a good writer friend about it she wisely advised that if I didn’t want to — I probably should.”
Then a wild thing happened. As Leavitt wrote about Sam, her symptoms began disappearing.
“I don’t think it was the asthma that was being healed as much as my personal shame of being a sick child,” she insists, noting she also tackled her phobia of driving head on in the book. “Suddenly, I was talking to everyone about the things I had buried for decades, and I honestly felt better.”
Of course, Leavitt has long known that writing is a cathartic experience. A writer since she was a child, short stories had been her passion. But soon after winning first prize in Redbook magazine’s Young Writers Contest for “Meeting Rozzy Halfway,” several New York agents called asking if they could sell it as a book.
“When one of the agents successfully sold it, she called to tell me the good news — and I nearly threw up,” jokes Leavitt, who shares that turning the short story into a novel was the most painful thing she has done in her writing life. But by the end of the two-year process, she found a new true love.
“Writing a short story is like going on a great date, and writing a novel is like embarking on a marriage,” she believes. “You really get to know your characters, and you get extremely involved in their stories. I could never go back to the dating phase of my life.”
Leavitt, who fesses up to being in her “southern 50s,” says that writing is a drug to her, one that keeps her sane.
“In my books, I delve into difficult situations and work them out,” she says. “It’s where I put all the things I’m afraid of and obsess about. This makes me a much happier person in regular life.”
Fortunately, her husband can relate. He’s music journalist Jeff Tamarkin, the author of “Got A Revolution!,” the critically acclaimed biography of the legendary 1960s San Francisco rock band Jefferson Airplane. He is also the associate editor of Jazz Times, and has been an advisor to the organizers of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Grammys.
“Our son Max is 14 and never reads any of our articles or books,” Leavitt admits. “Why would he? Both of his parents are writers, and it’s kind of boring to him. But at some point he or one of his girlfriends will want to. Now that could be the topic for a novel.”