Cruel Beautiful World: A Conversation with Caroline Leavitt

10/04/2016 03:12 pm ET

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt delivers on the promise of the novel’s title. Here we watch the lives of Iris Gold and her two adopted daughter spiral out from the home and life they once shared. While some of their fate is indeed cruel, the beauty of life and love does find a way to still shine through.

Speaking of love shining through, I’d love to know how your mother’s experience of falling in love at 93, which you mention in the acknowledgements, informed your writing. What did you learn from watching the real life love story unfold?

I watched my mom change because of love. Her whole life opened up. She was easier to talk to, more loving. But she made me feel so hopeful, that you could find love at any age, that you could be happy, too. It’s quite a gift.

I loved Iris’ pluck and determination. Life threw her many curve balls, but she kept playing. What do you hope readers take away from Iris’ experiences?

My mother and sister always joke that I am the Pollyanna of the family. I always try to see the bright side, to fix the dark side until it, too, is bright. I’ve had some horrific things in my life—my fiancé died in my arms two weeks before our wedding, I got critically ill with a mysterious blood disease after giving birth to my son with my new husband. No one thought I would recover, but I kept telling myself, like a mantra, “You can do this. You can do this.” And I did. I think I want readers to just know that nothing is final. You can always change if you are brave enough to do so, to take that risk into something better. And you have to learn to look for the beauty in life and to grab for it.

The Manson Family murders and the general time period of late 1960s cast a pall over Cruel Beautiful World. Why did you choose this time period? What did it take to write about it so convincingly?

I was young when 1969 turned into 1970, and I remember what that felt like. The sixties were goofy and wonderful and yet they had a profound sense that we could change the world, we could end poverty, we could end racism. And then the 70s hit, and the war escalated into Cambodia, there still was poverty and racism, and all the peace groups began to use weapons. I went to Brandeis and was a year ahead of Susan Saxe and Katherine Ann Power, who joined with an ex-con to rob a bank for the revolution. They killed a cop and went underground for years. I couldn’t believe it—all this loveliness from the 1960s, the flowers in your hair, the peace marches, and it came to that. How, I kept wondering, do you still live with ideals?

I also talked to people who had lived near the Mansons on Spahn ranch. My favorite quote was from a guy who said, “Well, they were hippies, but not the good kind.”

I’m haunted by Lucy’s experience. One question that kept coming to me over and over again was did Lucy actually have agency or was she a victim from start to end?

I absolutely LOVE this question. And I think the answer is both. She fell obsessively in love with someone who controlled her, who thwarted all her attempts to call home, to get out. By the time she realized she wanted to go, she didn’t know how to, so she had to ask for help. She was still a kid in so many, many ways. I think she would hate being called a victim, but she sort of was, with William’s controlling.

What keeps you returning to the page each day? What keeps you engaged with writing?

I love it! I can’t not do it, even when it’s hard and I keep thinking that I should go to dental school instead. There is something so completely wonderful about being lost in another person’s world. I love talking story with other writers and with my editor. I love the whole process. I write a book to figure out something that is haunting me, so it’s really my own personal Valium.

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