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Exclusive: An Interview with Author Patricia Leavy about Inspiration and Balance

Photo contributed by Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.
Photo contributed by Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.
Sense Publisher's award-nominated American Circumstance by Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.

Patricia Leavy, PhD is an internationally known author (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Founding Director of Gender Studies and Chairperson of Sociology & Criminology at Stonehill College). She has published thirteen non-fiction books including the best-seller Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice, Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research: Using Problem-Centered Methodologies and Fiction as Research Practice. She has also published two novels, the award-nominated American Circumstance and Sense Publisher’s top-selling title, Low-Fat Love. She is the editor for four book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers. Frequently called on by the media, she has appeared on national television, radio, is regularly quoted by the news media, publishes op-eds and is a blogger for The Huffington Post. She frequently makes presentations and keynote addresses at universities as well as national and international conferences. The New England Sociological Association named her the “2010 New England Sociologist of the Year” and she has recently been nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry and a Special Achievement Award by the American Creativity Association.

What inspires you the most?

Art in all forms. I think one art form can inspire another. I might be at the ballet or flipping through an art book and something is unlocked. One form opens pathways to others so there’s endless inspiration if you’re open to it. Music can make you see colors, visual art can whisper stories to you; it’s an endless well. I love the arts.

Other than writing, what is the one art form you can’t live without?

Music. I always have music on when I’m working and I really think it’s connected to my writing. I’ve said this before but so many authors benefit from music, so many artists of all kinds benefit from music, and it’s isn’t always acknowledged. I know the music feeds my work in meaningful ways. Even in my leisure time I always have music on. It’s an integral part of my environment.

Favorite artists on your iPod.

Tori Amos, Bjork, Hooverphonic, The Cocteau Twins. There are many though really. I like everything from classical to pop. Sometimes my daughter, who is 13, gets me into different music too. I took her to the Katy Perry movie a while back and she’s been in heavy rotation on my iPod ever since. [laughs]

All-time favorite song.

Toss-up between A-ha “Take on Me” and Tori Amos “Caught a Lite Sneeze”

Current favorite song.

“Garlands” by Tori Amos. The song is not new, but right now it’s my fave and a building block for a project.

Do you have a favorite visual artist?

I have many but right now I am obsessed with Harold Stevenson. He’s a pop artist who was particularly big in the 1960s although he’s been painting and making art his whole life. He’s in his 80s now but I just discovered him. A scholar who is a fan of my work approached me at a book event in Europe and we became connected on social media and through email and she introduced me to his work. It’s been inspiring me as I work on revisions for a book about the arts in social research. His work is quite magical and he’s managed to have his own unique fingerprint which is what I admire most in creative people.

Do you ever get writer’s block?

No, not really. That doesn’t mean I can always write exactly what I want when I want. For example, if you tell me go sit down and write a short story, I can’t necessarily do that. But I always have more than one project at a time so if things aren’t going well one day with a certain project I work on something else. Some days I write more and other days I edit more, but there’s never a time when I can’t work because of writer’s block. I don’t really believe in it because writing is art but it’s also about discipline. Now bear in mind that means sometimes I write real crap and it has to be scrapped or totally rewritten, but at least I got something down on paper.

What is your best talent?

Recognizing the talent in others.

What is the attribute that serves you best?

Curiosity.

What attribute are you drawn to in others?

Creativity.

When do you get your best ideas?

When I’m making dinner believe it or not. I love to cook and most weeks I make my family dinner at least four times. I usually spend an hour or an hour and a half. I have a few sips of wine, start prepping vegetables and then bam, things comes into focus. Prospective authors for my book series often get acceptance emails while I am making dinner. If I have an idea for something I am writing sometimes I scribble it down on a paper towel or whatever is handy [laughs].

What do readers say to you when they meet you at book events or talks?

They whisper their stories to me. Sometimes they come to share their stories. If they’ve read one of my novels they might tell me about a relationship that’s been significant to them or a personal battle of some kind. If they’ve read the nonfiction, particularly Method Meets Art, they tell me about their struggles to carve their own scholarly and artistic path. Everything they share with me fuels my new work in some way and I’m very grateful for those encounters.

Is there a downside to meeting readers?

Only that you might disappoint them. People can develop ideas about you or relationships with your work that are different than yours. I know that you can’t be all things to all people so at the end of the day I can only be myself.

One thing people don’t know about you.

Every time I sign a book contract I experience panic that I am in over my head and can’t deliver. Every time.

What’s your secret passion?

I love movies. I go to the movies as often as I can and I have since I was a child. I try to see a movie in a theatre at least once a week. We also have a large DVD collection and we’re constantly watching things On Demand or on Netflix. I love all kinds of films and they definitely inspire me.

What’s the last movie you saw?

The last movie I saw was The Monuments Men and it really made an impression on me. First of all, of course it’s about a time in history, not so long ago, that we can’t learn enough about. The atrocities are just incomprehensible and yet, we must try to learn as much as we can. But mostly it had me thinking about the importance of art to people. How much it means, how valuable it really is and what people are willing to do to protect cultural objects, like art, which are in fact people’s culture.

If your life was a film, who would the filmmaker be?

Baz Luhrmann. I sort of like the idea of life being a grand, epic tale with loads of music, great love and a few surprises. Now of course you’re catching me on a good day. On some other day I might say Lars Von Trier or something, you know someone who only sees the dark side. But on a good day, I’d go for a modern-day musical.

What would you most like to improve on in your work life?

Not second guessing myself. When I make decisions about a project, whether it’s the cover image or any number of things, sometimes I go back and question my decision over and over again. I’m working on trusting my myself and my vision and recognizing that, hey, that’s the decision I landed on at the time and there’s no reason to go back and second guess it. I’m a work in progress in this area.

Your feelings about critics.

I don’t spent a lot of time thinking about critics. I can’t devote the energy to it. I understand what it is they do, but for me, I choose to focus on my own original creative output and helping others get their work out, not critique. I will say and have said before that what I have a problem with is when people, in any area of life, bash each other for sport. There’s never a need for that.

Favorite classical author.

Virginia Woolf.

Favorite contemporary author.

I have several and I have been fortunate to meet some of them so I think I should leave it at that instead of highlighting one over another. But of those I have never met, Alice Walker is high on my list.

How do you balance your personal life with your professional life as an author?

I think finding balance is a process for a lot of people, myself included. When you work from a home office it can be especially tricky. Just creating boundaries with my family about what’s a “good reason” to come talk to me when I am working. There’s also the issue of time off and when the day ends too. The potential to work is always there. I recently had an experience where someone asked if I had a certain holiday off and I thought, well gee, I don’t know. When you work independently you need to make sure to build in time for a personal life. I’m getting much better at that. I like to have fun, to go to the movies, meet my friends and travel. That said, writing is rarely far from my mind.

Behind every successful person there are usually many others helping them. Who is one person that helps you?

There are so many! I’ve had the chance to publicly acknowledge many of the people on my team, without whom I couldn’t do this work. Since we were just talking about balance I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about Monique, my personal trainer. People often ask me how I get so much done and the truth is that no one can do it all. I have made sacrifices in some areas of my life, especially fitness. A few months ago I found Monique, she does Pilates, yoga, ballet bar sculpt, and things like that at her private studio, the Human Element Studio http://humanelementstudio.com/. I can’t tell you how much she has already improved my life. We just clicked right away. She excels in an area that is difficult for me and I really admire her for her accomplishments and wisdom. As it happened, she came into my life shortly before a difficult personal time relating to a death. She has been a guiding force helping me through it. Overall, what I really think she is doing for me is helping me achieve more balance in my life and she’s teaching me to pay better attention to the mind-body connection. I believe finding that balance is helping my creative output just as much as my personal life.

Have you had one seminal moment in your career as an author that you feel has made a big difference in your success?

Yes, absolutely. I had experienced some unexpected success with a book that opened many doors. Suddenly I really had two paths I could go down. I had the opportunity to do the cash in sort of route where you pick a project because it seems like a money-maker and people are willing to fund it at a high level. Or, you stay true to your creative impulse. I must admit there was a part of me that was torn because when you’re a writer, you’re aware that opportunities can dry up at any time. I asked my husband and he said the choice was so clear. Everything I had achieved and that mattered to me had come from prioritizing creative and intellectual pursuits above other considerations, in terms of my publishing career. So of course I chose to stay true to my vision and that has served me very well. In fact, it is what sustains me.

How do you measure your success?

By staying true to my vision and my voice. I think that’s the truest measure of success and people can get caught up on sales, reviews or awards, which I think can be distracting and harmful. When publishers are willing to fund my projects as I envision them, I also feel that is an achievement. I won’t compromise on the intellectual or artistic integrity of the work. At the end of the day, my work is intrinsic to who I am and I can’t betray that. Having people on the business side who believe in and are willing to back my projects feels like an accomplishment.

You’ve published fifteen books in a little over 10 years and you’re the editor for four book series. What’s the secret to your success?

Hard work and risk-taking. I try to be as fearless as I am capable of. I take risks and I understand that not everything will turn out as well as I may have hoped, but risk-taking and challenging oneself is vital. And I also work hard and take a lot on. You can’t achieve much without hard work. There really aren’t short cuts or secrets.

You can find Patricia at www.patricialeavy.com

Sense Publishers is currently offering free shipping and a discount on Patricia’s novels, Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance if you buy them directly from www.sensepublishers.com and use promo code 24601 during check-out.

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