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Exclusive Interview: 20 questions with acclaimed author Patricia Leavy

American Circumstance by Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.
American Circumstance by Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.
Photo contributed 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 a dozen 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 Special Achievement Award by the American Creativity Association.

1. Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes, but I wasn’t brave enough so I went down another path and taught for many years as I eased my way into writing. I think that’s how it was meant to be for me. I learned so much as a professor and I think my writing reflects my teaching experience.

2. What is your writing routine?

Well, this continues to change. In addition to my own writing I am the editor for 4 book series so there is a lot to manage. Usually I respond to urgent work-related emails first thing in the morning and then get to my writing. I spend most of the day writing and editing and then return to “business” details in late afternoon. I have to be flexible though, because I also do interviews with radio and news and quite a bit of travel for conferences and book talks. A trick I’ve had for 15 years is to use whatever time I can find-- I don’t wait for chunks of time or ideal conditions. And I never leave the house without something I am working on in my bag. You never know when you’ll be stuck at the auto repair shop or somewhere else and have some time to work. I also think it is important to see your work through the eyes of others (before it is published) so garnering feedback is a part of my routine too. I meet weekly with a writing buddy, Celine Boyle, which is indescribably helpful. She’s enormously talented and really gets my work and helps me realize my vision. I also meet monthly with a local writing group which is also very valuable. Oh, and I should mention that I always write with music on and I never leave the house without my IPOD. Sometimes when I edit I put DVDs of concerts or music videos on so that in addition to music I have some inspiring visuals in the background. So many writers benefit from music but may not think of talking about it. It’s important to acknowledge how one art form influences another.

3. What motivates you?

I think a desire to learn, grow, engage in storytelling and express oneself artistically motivates most authors and that is certainly all true for me. I am also a proponent of public scholarship. So much of the work researchers do never leaves the academy and is of little value to anyone except for a few experts. I believe research should be engaging, accessible and valuable to broad communities. With this in mind, I am an advocate of arts-based research which is when researchers adapt the tenets of the creative arts in their social research projects. My novels and nonfiction books are informed by commitment to arts-based research. This movement has really taken off in recent years and so I am motivated to continue to do my part. Through my own work I have also been able to build spaces for others to get their work out there, through my book series. Carving new spaces for other creative people is a huge motivator.

4. What are three words that best describe your body of work?

Creative, feminist, evolving

5. Other than your computer and writing supplies, what are the 2 most important things in your office?

Loads of art books which I use for inspiration, and two postcards from the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam-- on the way into my office there is a postcard of her diary on a small table and taped on the wall next to my computer is a picture of the only window she and her family were able to look out during their entire hiding period. The postcards are good reminders of how fortunate I am, how so many suffer in oppression and what a privilege it is to be able to be an author. I’m quite aware of unearned privileges, which are benefits in life that we get by luck of birth. We don’t deserve them any more than anyone else. Everyone should have the right to pursue their happiness and yet so many people aren’t given a chance through no fault of their own. Being given a chance to carve a path of my choosing is a privilege and it’s good to remember that.

6. What are some of your favorite books by other authors?

There are so many. In graduate school I was lucky to work with Professor Stephen Pfohl at Boston College. His book Death at the Parasite Café was pivotal for me. I think his work introduced me to the idea that social science writing can be creative and artistic. That book planted a lot of seeds. Soon after I discovered the work of Carolyn Ellis and Laurel Richardson--two gorgeous writers who also opened me up to the idea of writing in new forms, experimenting and using the personal as a platform. They inspired me to be brave and to dig deeper. I sort of think the books I loved as a kid are never far from me either. I love all things Dr. Seuss and only now can appreciate what an innovator and social justice advocate he was. In my spare time though I’m obsessed with memoirs by celebrities, artists, you name it. These are what I take on vacation with me. My favorites are: Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright, All that is Bitter and Sweet by Ashley Judd and Piece by Piece by Tori Amos and Ann Powers.

7. What book do readers most identify you with?

Well, there are two. Method Meets Art which is a nonfiction book and Low-Fat Love which was my first novel.

8. Do you ever feel limited by being associated so closely with those works?

No, I feel fortunate. I’m grateful that audiences have found my work which is the most any author can hope for. Of course as an artist you always want to grow and move on to the next thing, but really having a track record affords you opportunities to do so. My two books with Left Coast Press on transdisciplinary research and fiction as research were huge passion projects for me and doubtfully would have been possible without Method Meets Art. Working with the right people is important too. Some publishers want you to re-do what you’ve already done, if it’s successful. I align myself with people who are also committed to innovation and creativity. For example, my partnership with Sense Publishers works extremely well because they are totally open to new ideas. There’s nothing better for an artist or scholar.

9. What’s your favorite of your own books?

American Circumstance, my latest novel. Without a doubt.

10. Why is it your favorite?

I always look at my books after they’re published and think about the things I would change or tweak. This feels the closest to what I was after. Thematically American Circumstance explores appearance versus reality which is a theme I’ve been fascinated with for years and I think many people are. The characters and the book as a whole have a truthfulness and complexity that I’m always after. I think the theme comes through on different levels. When I was writing it I also felt like it was sort of a love letter to people who have been important in my life, some who I haven’t seen in years. I think that love and hopefulness comes through. At least I hope so. I also tried not to shy away from challenging subjects that deserve attention, so a book that appears to be mostly about relationships among the wealthy is underscored with narratives about gender, sexual violence, privilege, power, social class and a whole host of topics I think are important. From an artistic point of view I feel that I grew during the process. I pushed myself and I think I achieved some lovely moments. The truth is in the smallest details in this book and I took great care in that regard. I’m proud of it.

11. Do you have a least favorite of your own books or something you wish you hadn’t published?

Sure, but I can’t rat out my own work (laughing)! I will say that for many years I collaborated with others on several books and when a collaboration goes well it can be enriching and you learn a lot, grow as a writer and produce something you’re quite pleased with. But when it doesn’t go well, when there are power plays and all of that negativity and imbalance, the work suffers greatly. I have definitely experienced that and in the process I have learned the art of walking away.

12. What’s more fun, fiction or nonfiction?

Fiction is probably more fun but also more challenging. I think nonfiction is my forte and I always return to it, but that could change. Of course I don’t see fiction and nonfiction in polarizing terms. In many ways they are quite similar. In writing in either format one aims to express something truthful. I’ve written about that in my book Fiction as Research Practice.

13. Best compliment from a reader.

I found myself when I found your work.

14. Strangest comment from a reader.

A woman once asked me in all seriousness if Low-Fat Love was about her and of course I knew nothing about this woman (laughing). She seemed surprised and taken back when I said no. I took it as a huge compliment.

15. Your thoughts on negative reviews.

You can’t control how others react to your work. I try to have my own relationship with my work that isn’t dependent on the good or bad things others might say. With that said, what I have a problem with is when people try to tear others down. It’s like bashing people and their work is sport for some. Or it’s done with such carelessness, as if the person doing it didn’t contemplate how they make the artist feel or how they impact their reputation. That bothers me in all areas of life. Ok, something isn’t your cup of tea. That’s fine; it’s fine to say so and even give a reason if you feel the need, but to bash something someone created and use overtly cruel language, that offends me when it happens to anyone. And it isn’t just writers or artists. For example I experienced that as a professor. Students would write course evaluations and every once in a while a displeased student would just go off and say cruel things, as if you’re not a person. That’s where I draw the line. There’s never any need for that and when it happens I always think it is more about the person launching the criticism and their ego or insecurity.

16. Who inspires you the most and why?

Tori Amos. She’s my favorite composer. Her live shows are incredible and soul-nurturing. She is remarkably prolific and so I can listen to her music every day. I admire her as an artist, trailblazer, activist and businesswoman. She’s a genius and not just musically. I have learned more from her than anyone about how cultivate creativity and build a career as a feminist artist. People come to me for business advice much more than writing advice and few know how much I have learned from Tori and applied to my own career. I acknowledge her in all of my books and have thanked her privately but few know the scope of her influence on my life and work.

17. What does your writing mean to you?

It’s intrinsic to who I am. It’s also my place of gratitude. I feel deeply fortunate to have been able to build a life out of doing something I love so much. I know it’s a privilege. And I have to acknowledge my wonderful spouse, Mark, who has made real sacrifices so I can follow this path. As a proponent of public scholarship and arts-based research I also feel like my work is a part of a much larger movement and that’s important to me. I think about my body of work as contributing to the field and that carries meaning for me.

18. Favorite quote.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”-- Toni Morrison

19. Best advice you ever got.

Always bet on yourself.

20. Your advice to aspiring writers.

Develop your own relationship with your work that isn’t dependent on what others think about it.

For more information please visit www.patricialeavy.com

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