Caroline Leavitt’s With or Without You is published today. She shares five books about love—and fame—interrupted, noting, “To me, the best literature involves characters yearning and struggling to have something—and in my novel With or Without You, it’s love and fame. Simon, a once famous rock and roller whose shine is fading now that he’s in his forties, is having second thoughts about his longtime partner, but when she goes into a coma on the eve of a big break for him, he makes the decision to stay with her until she’s well. But when she emerges with a totally different personality and a striking new artistic talent (which can happen in a coma), she suddenly has the fame Simon still yearns for—and she doesn’t want. While I was writing, I reread four novels that had always been important to me because of the way they dealt with this theme, and then, to my delight, I found a brand new one.”
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Yes, this is a brilliant book about racism and injustice, but at its heart, too, there is a crucial question: What do you owe the person you love—especially when both you and your lover change? How long do you put your life on hold for another, and how do you live that life when everything is so different? Jones’ genius is to make each of her characters, Celeste and Roy, so deeply sympathetic and richly alive that you feel the complexities of each’s dilemma. To me, the most moving part of the book was the one deeply compassionate line at the end, when Roy, with someone new, talks about now having “a different type of good” now. It’s a line that is both terrifically tragic and incredibly hopeful, and that kind of mix is what I aspire to in my own work.
Jane Ciabattari: When I reviewed An American Marriage for BBC Culture I called it “nuanced and evocative,” and concluded, “An American Marriageis a compelling exploration of the thorny conflicts that drive us apart and bind us, the distorting weight of racism, and how commitment looks across time—and generations.” Jones portrays changes Celeste and Roy undergo during his years in prison in part through the letters between the two—what they say, what is left out. Did you find the epistolary sections of the novel enlightening?
Caroline Leavitt: I loved the letters, especially the ones Jones put in that were just one sentence, or two, which sometimes had more emotion packed in them than the longer narrative sections. Yes, Celeste and Roy had an intimate and complex relationship through the letters, but since he was in prison and she was not, their communication was missing a whole lot of nuance. Letters don’t give you the body language that real-life interactions offer, the facial cues. You can’t always read tone in a letter, and as a reader, I sometimes had to wait for a return letter to figure out the deeper meanings. I had to fill in the spaces, which I liked. I had to read the letters with an eye to wondering if this was a letter that had been rewritten and deeply thought out or if the character was just pouring out their heart on the page. And the one letter-line of Roy’s, “Everything I do is a love letter addressed to you.” I thought that was brilliant.
The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer
In With or Without You, Simon gives up a chance to be a rock star again to stay with his long-term partner, who is in a coma. He hides his love for another woman because what would that do to Stella? Doesn’t he owe her allegiance while she is getting well? But The Dive from Clausen’s Pier is even more morally ambiguous. At the beginning of the novel, Packer’s heroine is about to break up with her fiancé, when he dives from the pier to impress her, and winds up paralyzed. Expected to stay and care for him, she instead runs away to a new life in NYC. It’s a shattering, shocking moment. Yes, she eventually comes back, but it’s to a way of life, not to him. Most wonderfully in the novel, her fiancé is a good guy, who understands why she did what she did. There are no villains here, and that’s what deeply impacted me.
JC: At the beginning, Packer’s narrator Carrie muses, “My mind was on the long untangling I felt was coming our way.” She is so ambivalent about marrying Mike that she has refused to set a wedding date. Then everything changes, in an instant. Mike breaks his neck and is paralyzed. Carrie is torn between staying with him and being independent. Were you influenced by Packer’s ultimate narrative choice?
CL: I was haunted by it because it was the kind of moral choice where no matter what you decided, you were doomed. Stay with a man you were about to leave because he’s injured, and you are betraying your deepest self. But leave, and how selfish are you? Do you not owe someone you once loved anything? But at the same time, what really influenced me in Packer’s work was how unsettled Carrie’s choice made me, as the reader, because I wasn’t sure what I myself would do, how no matter the choice, there would most definitely be a cost to living with it. And though I never saw Carrie’s final decision coming, it somehow felt like a third choice, the one I had not considered, but when I thought more about I realized how much sense it made because Carrie had grown and changed. Bad choices, growing and changing and a sense that there might be a third choice you never considered—all of that influenced my writing.
All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry
Before Larry McMurtry won the Pulitzer, he wrote this slender book that I found in a used bookstore. I still reread and love it. Here we meet Danny Deck, a naïve young writer on the cusp of fame where everything goes wrong, from bookstore visits to his tangled love life. He ends up alone, drowning his manuscript in the Rio Grande. Everything for Danny is interrupted—the fame he’s promised, the women he believed loved him—and yet, rather than a tragic novel, the book is full of fierce, comic moments and the promise of something better, if only Danny would grow up just a little bit more. That mix! Tragedy and comedy! It gets me every time.
JC: How did Danny’s road trip in El Chevy contribute to this young writer’s tale?
CL: I think Danny’s road trip is as haphazard as his ideas about what he’s going to do with his life. It’s a totally perfect metaphor for his thinking, driving around in a beat-up car that might not make it, having relationships that more than likely won’t make it, thinking he has a plan, having weird encounters, and instead of really growing in his travels and his life, he’s getting more lost. Even worse, as he moves forward, his losses increase. His friends recede in his rearview mirror as he leaves them. Instead of his writing satisfying him more, pushing him forward, it feels here like it ruins him. The interesting thing about Danny is that in subsequent McMurtry books, he’s mentioned as “Danny who’s gone missing,” and characters are very wistful about him and he is almost a legend, and Danny doesn’t return until a much later book, Some Can Whistle, where he’s a retired TV writer living in a Texas mansion when the daughter he never knew comes calling. I was sorely disappointed by this turn of events! But I think in his way, in that particular book, Danny was, too. We all wanted so much more for him.
The World According to Garp by John Irving
I was lucky enough to be able to interview Irving recently, and the one thing that struck me was his proclaiming that he always writes about the fear of someone he loves being hurt or dying. And for the character of Garp, that fear keeps coming true. But Garp is also about fame and its discontents. Garp grows up in the shadow of his famous mother, and to his chagrin, while he is writing what he hopes is great literature, she is penning a bestseller about being a “sexual suspect.” For both Garp and his mother, the price of fame is murder—and the loss of loved ones. What’s really interesting to me is that before The World According to Garp, Irving had written two other books, which were mostly comic. It was only when he really delved into his obsessions about loss that he, to my mind, created a masterwork.
JC: The losses Garp experiences, including the death of one son and severe injuries of the other, trigger his breakthrough work. Is that not a clear definition of the dark side of fame?
CL: Oh yes, it most certainly is. Irving has said how he cannot write any novel until he finds what he is most afraid of, and then he has to dive in and write it. And I think that is true for the character of Garp himself. Somehow, when the unthinkable happens with his sons, Garp realizes that life is nothing like what he thought it was, and he suddenly has a choice, like all of us do in tragedy. He can either close himself off because of the terrible pain of the losses, or he can turn his pain into art and give it purpose. When he puts that knowledge into his art, it’s a gift because ideally it can help people understand more about their lives without having to experience the pain that he did. And of course, brilliantly, in the novel, Garp’s fame becomes like one of those terrible gifts the Greek Gods were always giving mere mortals. You want fame? Fine, pain comes with it.
You Again by Debra Jo Immergut
I’m a quantum physics junkie and this new novel deals with the science of whether or not we are all living all time periods of our lives at the same moments, and what would happen if we could interact with those moments. Could we change our former choices—and our former selves? The heroine, in her 40s, having given up a life of being a talented artist to work for a boring pharmaceutical company, to her shock, encounters her former 20-something-year-old self. The novel is about being haunted by our past self and our future self, asking deep questions about identity, fame, love, memory and time—all my favorite subjects!
JC: How does Immergut make her story so suspenseful?
CL: Oh, she totally derails us. We get hints of something terrible that happened in 2015, interspersed with what is happening in her past and in her present, and we read to find out how they are all somehow connected. The heroine has no idea if she is hallucinating or if what she is experiencing is real—and neither do we, and that is what is so fascinating, and why you keep turning the pages. You’re never quite sure whether or not you are reading the truth—or whose truth it might be. And Immergut adds files from a neurologist, a detective and a physics professor which ramp up the suspense, the mystery and the unsettling feeling of trying to put these brilliant puzzle pieces together.