SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Caroline Leavitt's "Cruel Beautiful World" is a coming-of-age novel for characters of different ages. Set in a time when the world struggled to come of age in the time of Woodstock, the Manson murders and the Age of Aquarius. Lucy Gold is 16 and runs away from the home she shared with her big sister, Charlotte, and their aunt, Iris, since their parents were killed in a car crash during their childhood.
Lucy doesn't run away to Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village but, with William, her English teacher, to the wilds of Pennsylvania where this sudden, new couple discovers that playing house isn't quite the same as making a life. The story of Lucy's rebellion, Charlotte's struggle to find her and herself, and Aunt Iris's secret is the story that sweeps us along in "Cruel Beautiful World." Caroline Leavitt joins us from New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
CAROLINE LEAVITT: I'm thrilled to be here.
SIMON: And I gather this book started with something that really happened to you.
LEAVITT: It did. I've been obsessed with this book since I was 17. I sat beside this girl in study hall, and she was telling me how she was engaged to a much older guy who was a little controlling. And I didn't really understand that.
A year after I got out of high school, I heard the news. She'd broken up with him, and he had stabbed her to death. And it just haunted me. I couldn't figure out if she had been with him for so long, why didn't she see signs that he might be violent? How did somebody stay with somebody like that who was controlling?
And it wasn't until four years ago, when I was looking at click-bait (laughter) on the internet about, you know, 10 celebrities who aren't very nice people, that I happened to...
SIMON: (Laughter) I think I've seen that one, yeah.
LEAVITT: (Laughter) ...That I happened to see a posting from my high school friend's sister who was still obsessed with the crime and what had happened. And there were all these unanswered questions. And as soon as I saw that I thought, oh, I have my story.
SIMON: Yeah. And you've written about the fact that you had a dark passage in your own young life just a couple of years thereafter, too, didn't you?
LEAVITT: Yes. I - about 10 years after my high school friend died, my fiance died very suddenly, two weeks before our wedding. And I was just cataclysmic with grief. So I got it in my head that the only way to get over the grief would be to get involved with another person right away.
SIMON: This is the, you've just lost your cat; you need a kitten.
LEAVITT: Yes. Yes, exactly (laughter). I needed a cat. Instead, I got a vicious lion. So my friends told me it was a terrible idea. My grief counselor said if I did it, she wouldn't treat me. And I said, I don't care. I can't grieve anymore. It was just too hard.
So the boyfriend I chose - it was OK at first because he lived in the future and we were always busy. And then he started to monitor my food. I was 100 pounds, and he kept telling me, always in his very sweet, soft, gentle voice - honey, you really could lose another 10 pounds. It would be so great for both of us.
He didn't want me to see my friends. He didn't want me to see his friends because he thought I was flirting with them. And the final straw was when I went to look at a novel I was writing and I noticed that a whole chapter was missing. And it was replaced by this very weird chapter, and it had Groucho Marx jokes in it. And it was strange and not well written. And when I turned to him, he looked at me and said, it's better, right?
And we had an argument about it. And I kept saying, it's mine. It's my work. You didn't even ask permission. And he said, well, you and I are the same person. So what's yours is mine. What's mine is yours. And that's when I understood my high school friend. And that's when I got free of the relationship and I began to think more and more about, how do you recognize control?
SIMON: Wow. But you wind up writing a novel about Lucy, Iris and Charlotte?
SIMON: That's how it works?
LEAVITT: For me, that's how it works. I get haunted by something, and I want to write about it. And it sort of pulls its way out.
SIMON: Yeah. So I got the impression that when Lucy runs away with William, her English teacher, it's actually because she loves Charlotte, her sister, and doesn't want to see Charlotte go off to college.
LEAVITT: Yeah, I think that's correct. I think Lucy's running away was more she wanted to feel special. Her sister was going off to Brandeis. She was going to be alone. Iris was was telling her she was going to have to be a secretary. Running away seemed romantic and dramatic and exactly the thing a naive 17-year-old would do.
SIMON: I love Aunt Iris, the aunt with a secret. And she hates growing old, doesn't she?
LEAVITT: Yes. And I have to tell you, Iris is really an homage to my mom. My mom is 99 years old now. And she's...
SIMON: God bless.
LEAVITT: Yep, she's - she had a terrible marriage. My father died when he was 50. She didn't want anything to do with men ever again - hated my boyfriends, hated my sister's husband. And then, when she was 90, she couldn't stay in her house anymore, so we had to put her into one of these independent living places, and she was not happy. She would call me every night and yell at me.
About a month later, she called me up and she was ridiculously happy. And she said, I've fallen in love for the first time in my life.
LEAVITT: (Laughter) And I went to visit her and Walter, her boyfriend, who was charming and smart and they were like teenagers. They were holding hands. They were together four years. And then what happened is my mom began to get dementia. But right before she totally got dementia, Walter, her boyfriend, fell and he died.
And my sister and I decided that we were not going to tell her that he had died. So right now, my mother still thinks Walter is alive. She still thinks she sees him. She thinks she talks to him, and she's happy. And that, of course, makes me really happy.
SIMON: Has this novel been a chance to work through what happened to you a few decades ago?
LEAVITT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It's sort of - the more I was writing it, the more I understood about what was happening...
SIMON: What happened to you - what happened to your friend and then what happened to you...
LEAVITT: Yeah, what happened to my friend and how sad it was that there was no one there to to help her. And, I mean, when I was in my controlling relationship, there were people to help me, but I just didn't want to listen to them (laughter). But it was a way for me to forgive myself and say, well, at least I got out.
SIMON: Caroline Leavitt, her book "Cruel Beautiful World."
Thanks so much for being with us.
LEAVITT: I'm so thrilled to have been here.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDY SONG, "SKINNY LOVE")
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