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Girls in Trouble by Caroline Leavitt

Caroline Leavitt is a columnist for the Boston Globe and the author of eight novels, including her addictive newest, Girls in Trouble. Leavitt's books are often praised for being readable, but sometimes this commendation can sound like faint praise, as if being readable, like being charming, is not a serious attribute. We like "readable," but maybe we don't respect it -- it is, perhaps, the literary equivalent of potato chips or ice cream. To dismiss novels that are readable as inherently lightweight, however, is a mistake. "Literature," said Iris Murdoch, "is meant to be grasped by enjoyment." (Washington Post)

Luke: "What inspired Girls in Trouble? Was it in part the Baby Richard case?"

Caroline: "I have one young son, and we wanted a second. We had a cousin who had a very successful open adoption so we started that process. While we weren't chosen (the birth mothers were suspicious of our professions--my husband and I are both writers. They also didn't love it that we had a "natural" son and felt we couldn't love their babies as much as our own. Not true, but there you have it...) We gave ourselves 6 months and during that time Imust have spoken to over 60 birthmothers, most of them very young. These girls wanted attention and support, and sometimes I felt as though they wanted me to adopt them. I couldn't forget them and I was fascinated by the lives they were leading and so, I wrote about them.

"Certainly, the Baby Richard case was on my mind. I felt so terrible for all the people involved. There was another horrible case in Ann Arbor, where a two year old was taken from her parents and returned to the birth parent. It's horrible. But what the newspapers didn't talk about was the fact that in the Baby Richard case the father had started court proceedings to get his birth child back days after the child was given up--it just took four years. But does it serve justice to give a four-year-old back to a birth parent? It's tragic, but I don't think so."

Luke: "Were there things you wanted to teach in Girls in Trouble or did you just want to tell a good story?"

Caroline: "When I write, I'm always writing to answer some question that I, myself, have, to try and figure out the answer for myself in the writing. I was really concerned with these young birthmothers. Because I couldn't have any more children after our son, my husband and I had tried to open adopt, and though we weren't chosen (!!!!) and eventually gave up the process. But I kept wondering about all the young girls I had spoken to, who seemed to want me to adopt them as much as their babies. I was really curious about how families are formed, and how people see themselves as a parent.

"The interesting thing is that before the book came out I got a lot of emails from adoption agencies who were thrilled that I was going to write about open adoption. The email I received from birth mothers wasn't so positive! They were afraid I would give them a bad rap, and they felt they had enough bad press. After the book came out, the birth mothers embraced me for telling their story, but the agencies were annoyed that I had shown some of the difficulties with open aoption!

"Of course, my primary concern is also just to tell a good story, to create characters that breathe on the page!"

Luke: "What were the questions you had going into the book and what answers did you reach? It seemed to me that you did reach some answers."

Caroline: "Hmmm, the questions I had going into the book were could you get over loss? If so, how did you do it? I was thinking in terms of losing your child, fear of losing your child, and losing your great first love. And I came to realize at the end that you can't get over loss. You just can't. It always stays with you. It doesn't mean you can't have a good life, but there will always be that undercurrent, that feeling of "what if" that you can never resolve."

Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Caroline: "A writer. Always a writer. When I was six, I began writing novels about an orphan who travels around the world."

Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Caroline: "I grew up in Waltham, Mass, which was pretty working class. About 5% of my high school went to college, the rest married, went to beauty school or joined the military. There were three groups, the jocks, the hoods and the outsiders who were dubbed the charming name of "faggots." I was an outsider, mocked for my straight A's, made miserable for my dress, and my boyfriend was routinely beaten up for his long hair! I couldn't wait to get out."

Luke: "How has your life been affected by your publishing eight novels?"

Caroline: "It's wonderful. I get to make up stories for a living, what could be better? The downside is while I do the thing I love, we've have rough financial times (my husband is also a writer) and no steady paychecks or affordable health insurance!"

Luke: "Would you rather write a great novel or have a great marriage?"

Caroline: "A great question. A great marriage. The older I get the more I realize love is what is important. You need that Freudian duality, love and work, but love is better!"

Luke: ""Fun to read." Have you heard that description of your work? Does it ever bug you? Is there ever a negative edge to that remark?"

Caroline: "Another great question. I have heard that--in fact there was this really interesting review I got in The Washington Post -- a full fledged rave -- that talked about how books that are "fun" are sometimes thought of as not literary, but here I was, an author who was both. I don't mind it, but I would mind being called a beach book or chick lit!"

Luke: "What's been the proportion of friends/relationships made to ones lost because of your writing?"

Caroline: "Much more made. People write me and sometimes I write back (oh, okay, always...) and friendships are born. Never lost a friend. Actually what's happened is often people think they see themselves in my writing when they aren't there. And for my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, I had a lawsuit because the names of the people (strangers to me) suing (Rozzy, Ben and Bea) were the names of my characters and the situations were similar. Ridiculous and insulting, because would I really use the same names of people I knew as my characters?"

Luke: "That's sadly hilarious."

Caroline: "It actually got worse...the publisher began asking me questions. "Are you SURE you don't know them?" It turned out they had lived in Boston, where my book was set and where I grew up, and then they moved to Pittsburgh where I was living when I wrote my first novel. I got so furious I was thinking of countersuing for defamation of character and the publisher got all bent out of shape because they didn't want to hold up publication of the book (all this happened in the prepub buzz.) In the end, the suit was dropped, I changed Bea and Ben to Lee and Len in the paperback and that was that. But I remember walking around Pittsburgh wondering who they were and why they had attacked me!

"I also had a stalker. A fan wrote me a letter saying how much she liked my book and thought I looked like I could a friend. I wrote a polite reply and next thing you know, I got a huge envelope full of photographs of her and her husband and her kids, all annotated with messages. This is Bob, you'll love him! This is our pool! You can swim here when you come to visit! The letters and photographs kept coming for about a month, even after I politely said thank you, but I am so busy, etc. etc."

Luke: "What do you remember about the best and worst interview experiences you've had (as an interviewee)?"

Caroline: "The worst time (which was not the interviewer's fault) was when my son Max was three. He had been told that I was going to be on the phone for a few minutes and he had a sitter with him. I was on national NPR (live) and suddenly we heard breathing. Loud breathing. And then a little voice said, Hi. I want a cookie. I calmly introduced him, and told him to ask the sitter. And then five minutes later, it happened again! The interviewer was very nice about it, but it was a little unnerving.

"The best are with the unexpected questions (like this one.) And though it can be unpleasant, it's interesting to be attacked sometimes. This has never happened with an interviewer per se, but people calling in were often furious about GIRLS and would make pointed attacks. Lucky for me, my best friend is a media coach and she had warned me to be prepared, and to always stay calm and say the magic words, "I hear what you are saying," which always seemed to calm irate tempers down!"

Luke: "Is your work literary or genre? What do those distinctions mean to you as far as your writing?"

Caroline: "I never understand what genre means--outside of mystery or chick lit or historical dramas. Of course I want to call myself literary--which reviewers seem to call me--but it's not a label I think about when I'm working. It would drive me crazy! I just try to think of the story and the characters and get into that "waking dream" state."