Kate Braithwaite talks to Caroline Leavitt about cold hands, Communism and a new use for social media
Caroline Leavitt, author of nine novels, including New York Times bestseller, Pictures of You, has turned to writing about the past and fallen in love with “the wonderful discombobulating feeling of living in two time periods.”
But Is This Tomorrow wasn’t conceived as a historical novel per se. “It was actually a surprise to me to find myself writing a historical novel,” says Leavitt. “I just thought it was a story about a family and a lot of it had to do with my own upbringing which was in the 1960’s. And then the more the story came out the more I thought it could be better served in the 1950s which was a much more oppressive time. It just took off from there.”
Leavitt enlisted the help of interns and a professional researcher but talks most enthusiastically about her use of social media.
“I would go on facebook and twitter,” she says, “and just put out a call for people. I’d say I need to talk to somebody who was a cop in the 1950’s or I need to talk to someone who was a male nurse. At least five or six people would come forward for each thing and their stories were just incredible.
“The guy who was a male nurse told me about how doctors would always smoke in the rooms when they were seeing patients and they would encourage the patients to smoke as well because it was relaxing. I spoke to a woman who was a pastry maker in the 50’s and she told me that she used to always put her hands in the refrigerator before making a pie because cold hands make the best crust.
“It is details like that, that you can’t always find in books, and these great personal stories that I used. I have a folder full of conversations with people that helped to make the book alive.”
In Is This Tomorrow, Ava Lark, an attractive Jewish divorcee bringing up her son in the conservative suburbs of Waltham, finds herself even more of an outcast when her son Lewis’ friend, twelve year old Jimmy, disappears. The isolation experienced by Ava and Lewis is something Leavitt lived with first hand, growing up in a Jewish family in Waltham. One of her characters, Bob Gallagher, who expresses many of the paranoid and extreme views of the period, was based on a neighbor Leavitt remembers well, as a twelve-year-old girl.
“I was a writer even then,” she says. “I carried notebooks with pictures of movie stars and this neighbour stopped me and pointed at one of them saying, “That guys’ pink. Why are you carrying that notebook?” At other times it was children asking questions like, “Why did you kill Christ?” She was even asked where “her horns” were.
The only family Leavitt remembers having an even tougher time than her own were the family of a divorced woman and her two kids. “The men would look at that mother and speculate, while their wives found her threatening. Children were told not to play at their house because they were dirty.” From these memories, Leavitt has created Ava, a woman ahead of her time, an entrepreneur, someone who wants to belong but finds it incredibly difficult because of the times in which she lives.
“It was a highly political time,” says Leavitt. “There was so much fear about the Russians and who was a communist. They had a list of how you could tell if someone was a communist. A lot of it had to do with if they smiled inappropriately or they didn’t salute the flag right away then that person was a communist and that was something to be really afraid of. There was a whole mythology that if the communists came to America then our society would be decimated and we would be slaves. It would be a joyless, dark society – like 1984. People did say things like if the Russians got there first we wouldn’t be able to see the moon. People were very paranoid and I think when you are paranoid, you do and think really stupid things.”
Leavitt’s careful research into her period shines through. She tells me: “I also looked at a lot of vintage materials and old movies and educational film clips, especially in terms of the fear of communism. The title actually comes from an old vintage pamphlet called Is This Tomorrow and the cover are all these big scary looking Russians with the communist insignia on them running after a nice American white family who are screaming. Today, it’s hysterical.
“And I looked at a lot of pamphlets about how to surviving a nuclear attack. That was something people were very much afraid of. They actually believed that you could survive. They said if you were in a nuclear attack and there was a lot of radiation, all you had to do was wipe your feet off before you went into the house so you wouldn’t take the radiation inside.”
Leavitt laughs as she tells me this. We are both laughing. And alongside the seriousness of the novel’s social commentary, there is a rich vein of humour. Leavitt has immense affection for her characters and for the times she is writing about. This comes out most clearly when we talk about cooking – an important part of any 50’s woman’s life, and especially Ava’s.
“I also looked at a lot of vintage cookbooks,” she recalls. “Those were pretty hilarious. “Meals Men Love” is a real cookbook. The cover shows all these men’s faces and they were all smoking something – cigars or pipes. The whole message of that cookbook was that men don’t cook. They can grill and they can toss a salad but they cannot cut up the salad and they cannot make the salad dressing. When you read through that book, the message is always – he’s had a hard day at work. You want to make meal a presentation, you want to make it special and you want to make him smile. One of the recipes I remember was called a meatloaf train. Instead of shaping your meat into a loaf, you were supposed to shape it into something like a train. And then you cut up carrot circles and those you embed in the meat loaf so it looks like the wheels and you cut up very thin slices of celery to make the windows and the final thing is to take very hard green peas and cut them in half to make the heads of the passengers in the windows. It’s just a hilarious culture. In the same books they would say things like you can’t have Russian dressing because it’s subversive. It’s the same thing as calling French Fries “Freedom Fries” if you don’t like the French.”
I’m happy to hear that Leavitt is currently at work on another historical novel. She tells me she’s moving from the sixties towards the early seventies and “ugly times” of the Manson murders. So far it’s about hippies and the back-to-the-land-movement. It will be fascinating to see how it turns out.
Posted by Kate Braithwaite