Author Interview: Caroline Leavitt

A story of love, loyalty, loss, and resilience, With or Without You is a page-turner that asks the question, What do we owe the other people in our lives, and when does the cost become too great? We spoke with author Caroline Leavitt about the inspiration for the novel, audiobooks she loves, and more.

With or Without You is a moving novel about twists of fate, the shifting terrain of love, and coming into your own. With tenderness and incisive insight, Leavitt spotlights a woman’s unexpected journey towards her art.”

Madeline Miller, author of Circe

Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.

Years ago, I was in a coma. I had a rare blood disorder and wasn’t expected to live, and doctors gave me memory blockers to blot out the pain. When I miraculously survived, my mind was blank of the event, but my body was plagued with post traumatic triggers that spiraled me into panic.

Needing desperately to understand, I began to research comas and I discovered, to my shock, that some people woke…better, with brains and personalities scientifically altered. One homebody woke up speaking fluent Mandarin and moved to China. A shy teacher with a tin ear woke up a charismatic piano virtuoso and began filling concert halls. These people became totally different with different memories!

I knew that to heal from my trauma, I had to somehow create new memories for myself, too. For With or Without You, I created a New York City couple in their 40s, Simon, once famous and now a fading rock and roller, and his sensible partner Stella, who goes into coma. Unlike me, she remembers everything. Unlike me, too, she wakes with a totally different personality AND an extraordinary talent, being able to not just paint gorgeous portraits, but to capture the inner lives of her subjects, giving her a notoriety she can’t handle and the fame Simon yearns for.

Through Stella, I got to reexperience my coma in a new way and be released from my trauma. I realized that you can create new memories to heal the old. I know this is true. Because I did.

In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise listeners about your audiobook?

You get the experience of three Stella personalities in the book: Stella before her coma when she is a very practical nurse with very concrete plans for how she thinks her future should look like, Stella in the wonder of her coma when everything is upside down, and Stella post-coma when she is a different person with a new amazing talent, new memories, and the need to grapple with that.

Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?

Yes, and it always startles me, because it makes my characters more real to me, and more alive! I can’t just dismiss them as my creations at all, because they are actually talking to me, and I find that amazing!

Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

I love audiobooks. The last time I was on tour, before the pandemic, I would sit on trains, planes, and sometimes buses, just listening to stories.

I love Lily King and I loved Euphoria, and Xe Sands narration of the story was so alive and so moving, that it actually amplified the experience I had had from reading the book. (OK, I admit that I have a soft spot for Xe Sands because she also narrated the audiobook of my 1950s novel, Is This Tomorrow, and she went beyond the call by dressing up as one of characters and sending me the photos!)

A Burning by Megha Majumdar, is an astonishing novel, and the audiobook of it, read by six different voices of Indian descent, was absolutely mesmerizing. And so intimate that I felt that I was there.

Note: Check out our author interview with Megha Majumdar here.

What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?

Independent bookstores and booksellers mean everything to me. First because I grew up in indie bookstores and so did my son. There is a unique pleasure in being able to browse books that you can find nowhere else. I also am indebted to booksellers who would come up to me and hand me books and say, “Oh, I know you are going to love this.” And they have been always right! I love the feeling of community you get—it’s true that no place has a soul unless they have an indie bookstore. Professionally, the indie bookstores have saved my lifetime and time again. Not just by featuring me at their stores, but by hand-selling my work—sometimes even calling other indie bookstore owners to talk about my book with them!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

I hope that you will listen to my characters and fall in love with them—and then you will let me know! And thank you so much for listening.

Header photo by Jeff Tamarkin

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