Bestselling author Caroline Leavitt discusses the near-fatal illness that shaped her new novel Is This Tomorrow, about the lives affected when a boy goes missing in 1950s suburbia.
Zola: What was your research like for this novel? Did you study cold cases of missing children?
Caroline Leavitt: I was very quickly overwhelmed by the research. It took me four days just to try to track down what cops in the 1950s used instead of yellow crime tape. (Answer: wood horses and rope!) I hired two exceptional high school students as assistants, and a professional researcher, too. But my favorite thing was to get on Facebook and Twitter and ask for real life stories and real people. I found a guy who was one of the first male nurses in the sixties, and he told me how doctors always smoked and how patients were encouraged to smoke in their rooms because it “would relax them.” I found a master pie baker who told me that if you put your hands in the freezer for a while, you can make a great crust. Cold hands are what you want!
Because my character Ava becomes a pie baker, I did a lot of research around food in the fifties. I found a lot of vintage cookbooks and most of them always had items called “Meals Men Like!” Men could grill meat or toss the salad, but that was it. Lots of the food was sort of disgusting, like overnight salad, where you douse iceberg lettuce with a cup of oil and a cup of mayonnaise overnight and then serve it the next day. And I can’t forget the meat loaf train, which had carrot wheels, and split-in-half peas for the heads of the passengers.
I also learned a lot about Communist paranoia. You couldn’t serve Russian dressing because it’s subversive. Pamphlets told you you could simply wipe the radiation off your feet before you came into a house! Kids believed they could “duck and cover” under their desks and no bomb could hurt them.
And, of course, the role of women in the 1950s was fascinating. Women couldn’t get mortgages without a man attached. Women didn’t really work because they were supposed to stay at home and tend the house and the children, but there was a separate want ads section for women. Every ad listed qualifications like “must be perky, pretty and pleasing.” And to be a divorced woman in the 1950s was a scandal.
I didn’t study cold cases of missing children, mostly because I’m a mother, and while I believe in writing about what scares you, those files would have been a little too close for comfort. I did have to research a lot of 1950s cop procedures in a missing child case, what kinds of questions they might ask, what they might do, and what they could learn. What fascinated me is that it’s only been very recently that things like Amber alerts have been in place. Back in the 1950s, no one expected a child to vanish, and when and if a child did, no one really knew what to do or how to optimize the search the way they do now. I found that terrifying beyond belief. Kids in the fifties could roam around on their own—no one really watched them.
Zola: You’ve said in an interview, “I usually set my novels in places where I’ve lived so I remember what it feels like to live there.” This novel is set in Waltham, Massachusetts, where you grew up. What was it like writing about that place again? Have you visited since you moved away or did you draw everything from memory? How similar is the neighborhood in the novel to the one you grew up in?
CL: Writing about Waltham was a case of “you can go back home again.” I had a really unhappy childhood because I had three strikes against me. I was smart, which was looked down upon in my hardscrabble neighborhood. I had asthma, which got me bullied because asthma is such a noisy and visible disease. And my family was the only Jewish family on a Christian block. So I learned early on what it was like to be an outcast. A lot of what Ava and her son Lewis go through happened to me. I was asked where my horns were; I was accused of killing Christ. I had to take a test in school about Jesus and the apostles (and I flunked it), and I just yearned to belong. When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to leave and never come back. I remember what that pain felt like.
But my parents still lived in Waltham, even if I no longer did, and I still visited, and I saw Waltham changing into what it is today—which is pretty great! Waltham today is totally different. My mom lived in her house up until a few years ago, but the whole town is very hip now, with a lot of great restaurants. It’s a really desirable place to live because it’s so close to Boston, too. When I grew up, you had to be the same, but the last time I came home, there were all races living on the block, a lesbian married couple, a gay married couple—and everyone was friendly!
Zola: You were deathly ill at one point and expected to die after giving birth. Did that experience, of thinking of your child being one parent short, influence this novel?
CL: Wow. No one’s ever asked me that question, and I’m so glad you did because that nails it. Absolutely it influenced every page.
I had a perfect pregnancy, an easy delivery, and then just as I was about to go home, my life turned into a nightmare. I had a very rare blood disorder, something called a postpartum Factor VIII inhibitor, where all my blood just stopped clotting. The hospital had never seen anything like it, and they kept giving me emergency operations just to try to stop the bleeding, and they finally put me in a medical coma for two weeks and gave me memory blockers so I wouldn’t remember the pain. I was in the hospital for about three months, and at one point, they called my family in to say I was not going to make it. But at that moment, this German hematologist who was about to retire insisted they do an expensive test because she thought she might know what this was, and then they did, and I was diagnosed correctly, and I got treatment—mostly hundreds of transfusions, my veins glued shut, not being able to move.
The hardest thing for me was not being able to see my baby. I was swimming in morphine, plus I had the memory blockers, so I never could remember my husband visiting me, which he did every day. I began to believe that my husband and child were dead, and the hospital was afraid to tell me. It was terrifying.
But when I did convince myself that they were alive, then I was sick with fear that my son would grow up with only one parent. It made me crazy that I was not allowed to see him for his first two months because they were afraid he might catch what I had, or that the stress of seeing him might make me sicker. I knew how important those first few months were for bonding and I felt so terrible, like my son was being cheated.
I did get well over the course of a year, and it took time for Max to bond to me. I was so cognizant of all the moments I had missed with him, and I wanted to be with him as much as I could. Being sick made me very attuned to the fact that at any moment, anything in your life can change. I think that’s why I’m always so crazy busy working. I feel I may not have enough time. Both my husband and I worked at home so we could be with Max. Sometimes I think we just have to both stay alive until Max is an adult. Writing about a single parent like Ava was difficult, but writing about the mother of a missing child was even worse.
Zola: In the book’s acknowledgements, you thank author Jodi Picoult and call her your fairy godmother. What brought you two together? Do you have a favorite Picoult novel?
CL: Oh, I’m so glad you asked that! When Pictures of You came out I tracked down Jodi and asked for a blurb. She said she was really busy, but to send the book anyway, so I did, not really expecting anything, thinking she was just being polite, because I had heard that was the way she was. The next thing I knew, Rainy Day books was tweeting me saying, “Do you know that Jodi was here last night in front of 500 people and she told everyone they have to read your book?” I was astonished. She said that same message at every stop. Not only that, I was Googling myself one day and I saw a book review of Pictures of You in Newsweek magazine! I rushed to look at it and it was written by Jodi. You have never met a more generous and dedicated writer—and everything she did, she did without telling me just because that is the way she is. I owe so much to her, and even though I knit her scarves and gloves, it can never repay what she does.
A favorite book of hers? Her last book, The Storyteller, really got to me, because of the Jewish theme in it, and because it’s such a dark story, about how we can forgive the unforgivable, and should we? I love that she tackles such thorny issues.
Zola: Rose and Lewis are avid readers from a young age. What were three of your favorite books when you were their age?
CL: Oh, I love this question! My three favorite books were A High Wind in Jamaica about proper English kids on a pirate ship who betray the kindness of their captors. I loved Harriet the Spy because Harriet was so feisty and funny. And I carried around Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, because Bradbury made everything seem possible.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.