Patricia Leavy on Spark
This interview appeared in Edition #5 of So Fi Zine. You can read the full edition here.
[In February and March 2019, I had a long interview-style discussion with Patricia Leavy over email about her latest social research novel Spark. We discussed many things and she gave long, considerate, detailed answers to each of my questions. We talked about how she wrote Spark and the novel’s reception. I asked about her about how she workshops her characters, her writing and editing practices, her motivations, and her advice for novice writers. I also asked about what she thinks fiction offers us, in a big picture sense. Here, I have curated some of her responses – Ashleigh Watson]
This novel, most unusually, came to me all at once, from the opening line to the last line.
I was one of fifty people from around the world invited to participate in the Salzburg Global Seminar session on the neuroscience of creativity. During my time there, at a spectacular castle in Austria, the entire novel came to me. I knew all of the characters instantly.
I actually had a sequel to Blue planned since the day I finished writing it. The natural thing would have been to write that first. However, I wanted to grow as a writer first. I wanted to challenge and push myself. So I decided to write Spark
One of the reasons I love writing fiction is because you can cultivate empathy. This is such a vital part of our humanity: the ability to see others with compassion. Fiction allows me to be a part of that…
Writing fiction has taught me to be much more empathetic, and Spark had a particularly deep affect on me in this regard.
Fiction gives us a way to imagine how things might be. Anything we can imagine, becomes possible. Whether we are imagining how something in our own lives might be different, or imagining how something in society might be different, fiction can show us a pathway. For example, Spark explores, in part, how we might pool our resources and expertise in order to better address any social problem that needs our attention. In order to do this in life, we need to be able to imagine what it might look like.
While the plot was more important in this novel than in my previous novels, I still see the book as character-driven. In some ways I view all of my creative writing as character study more than anything else, with the hopes that readers will see themselves in some characters and learn to understand and even care about others, who may be quite different from them.
In Spark, it was really about what perspectives needed to be at the table. So I knew which fields characters would be from and how that would influence the way they saw the world, as well as characteristics such as gender, race, and nationality. The only things I grappled with a bit were what art forms Harper and Ronnie worked in. I knew Harper needed to do something performative and Ronnie something visual, but I considered various options.
I do care deeply for each character that comes through my filter. My hope is always that others will care for them too. What’s been remarkable is how my own life has changed through writing fiction. By learning to care for even the most challenging characters, some of whom are based on the kinds of people that I’ve found difficult or unkind in life, I’ve learned to be more compassionate toward everyone.
When I quit my job as a professor to write full-time, I also moved from Boston to Maine. I’m the kind of person who loves to be alone and could truly sit for months writing on my own and be just fine. But I was worried with all of the changes that I wouldn’t have enough interactions with people so I forced myself to join a writing group at my local library. We met monthly and I bonded with one of the women in the group. She’s a lawyer by day and young adult writer by night. Although we’re in completely different genres, we get and respect each other’s work. We started meeting on our own once a week, sometimes less if we have travel or other obligations, and we’ve been doing this for about seven years. We email each other whatever we’ve been working on and then we each make hand written edits on the other’s work. We meet Sunday mornings, over coffee or tea, and review our feedback. It’s been absolutely invaluable. She’s a fantastic editor, but more importantly, it works well because she has no agenda other than helping me achieve my vision, and the same is true for me regarding her work. Kind of like a therapist or partner, you need to find the right person.
People usually want to focus on the good aspects, but I think those are more obvious, and the challenges less so. For me, the biggest challenge is that being independent forces you to promote yourself and your work. I imagine that’s not terribly comfortable for anyone. Most people would rather spend their time doing their work, rather than promoting it. I’m a shy person happiest alone, writing. Being an independent scholar and full-time author has forced me into more of a spotlight than I’m naturally inclined towards, and what’s worse, shining it at myself at times, which is quite awkward. I think people often misjudge my personality because they only see the social media side. Sometimes I want to lock myself in my office and hide. It’s an ongoing challenge.
I stew on my novel ideas for a long time, sometimes years, before I start writing so they’re usually fully baked by the time I begin. So the majority of what I write makes its way in, although invariably after countless rounds of editing. The bits that don’t make the cut often find their way into something else, which might be related to the novel, such as an interview or blog, or they might become the seeds of another project.
Nothing is wasted though. Everything we write makes us better at our craft. Even if a complete idea is never used, there is often a smaller idea, or sentence, or clever turn of phrase that finds its way into something else down the line. Some of my favorite lines in my books and articles come from something that didn’t work. That’s why it’s good to save everything, even work we don’t intend to publish.
We’ve been living in such dark times the past couple of years that I think the message of hopefulness is something people have been craving on deep levels. There’s also so much divisiveness, in the political world and academia. People are sick of it. Perhaps that’s why the book seems to be resonating.
My advice to other writers is to think about the essence of the character—what is their motivation, inspiration, biggest fear, and their emotional center? Who are they at their core? Build them from the inside out. Start with their essence and then build the external things that people “see” such as their physicality, profession, and manner of speaking. You are always servicing the core of who they are. I find by approaching characters this way you position yourself as someone sensitive to who the character is.
… and it’s then easier to make them multi-dimensional. It’s our vulnerabilities that connect us. Showing the behind-the-scenes of why someone behaves as they do, their internal struggles or motivations, and the gap between their private and public selves, is a way to bring characters to life and ultimately connect readers to them. In all of my novels I’ve tried to use interior dialogue and other literary tools in order to peel back the layers of a character over the course of the novel. Even when in the beginning they may seem simplistic or easily pegged, my hope is to show their multi-dimensionality. This was especially important in Spark because the book is meant to challenge the assumptions we make about others.
Anyone who is interested in writing fiction should give it a try. Start from where you are. You will improve over time. It’s no different than writing nonfiction or writing up research. None of us are born with those skills, we learn them over time, primarily from reading the work of others and from practicing.
Be unafraid to try, to play, and to begin where you are.