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Renowned Author Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. Wins National Special Achievement Award

Renowned Author Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. Wins National Special Achievement Award
Photo contributed by Patricia Leavy

Who is the author?

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 fourteen nonfiction books including the best-seller Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice and most recently Fiction as Research Practice and The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research. She has also published two best-selling novels, Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance. She is the editor for five 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 and The Creativity Post. She frequently makes presentations and keynote addresses at universities as well as national and international conferences. She has recently been nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. The New England Sociological Association named her the 2010 New England Sociologist of the Year and The American Creativity Association is awarding her the prestigious 2014 Special Achievement Award.

Congratulations! You have just been announced as the winner of the prestigious 2014 Special Achievement Award by the American Creativity Association. You are receiving the award in recognition of your efforts to advance arts-based research. Can you explain that?

PL: Thank you. Arts-based research merges the tenets of the creative arts and scholarly research across the disciplines. Arts-based research practices offer us new ways to ask and answer research questions, may allow us to tap into issues that are otherwise out of reach, and perhaps most importantly from my perspective, they allow us to engage broader public audiences with social research.

I also understand that the award recognizes your book series Social Fictions which you created and edit for Sense Publishers. The series is being called “a watershed moment in the academy and publishing” and a “landmark achievement.” Please describe the series.

PL: The Social Fictions series publishes books that are written in literary forms and authored by researchers and informed by their scholarly research. In other words, this series publishes the products of arts-based research. We publish novels, short story collections, poetry collections and plays, as well as books that combine multiple arts-based practices. Each book contains a brief academic preface or introduction that explains what the book is about, the research and teaching experiences behind the book, the author’s choice to use an arts-based approach and the audiences for the book. What I think is really special about our series is that the books can be adopted as texts in undergraduate or graduate courses and they can also be read widely by the public. They entertain, inform and spark reflection. For this series I partnered with Sense Publishers, international leaders in educational research. It was a big thing for an academic press to take on a series of this kind which is sort of fiction and sort of nonfiction, and really challenges those categories. I’m very grateful to the entire Sense team. We’re all thrilled and humbled to be receiving this recognition.

It is my understanding that you’re the first sociologist to receive this honor.

PL: That’s what I’ve heard, but to be honest I’m not certain. While sociology has its own specific disciplinary awards, in the broader world of scholarly recognition the work of sociologists is often overlooked. I think this goes back to the polarizing and artificial hard science versus soft science dualism that privileges certain fields and ways of knowing over others. So I’m very glad to be accepting this award as a representative of my home discipline of sociology and as a member of the transdisciplinary arts-based research community.

I know you classify yourself as feminist. Do you think it’s harder for women doing this kind of work?

PL: Well, if we’re being really honest and if that is a valid question, and it is a legitimate question, then it sort of contains the answer. I mean let’s face it, when a man receives recognition for his work we don’t ask him if it was harder for him because he is a man. But perhaps more than gender alone I definitely think that when we label our work feminist we sort of put a target on our backs, but there simply is no other choice. I also think that all those who are working on the margins or trying to change what margins are, can face many challenges and obstacles. There is always resistance to innovation and border-crossing work. So I think that arts-based researchers and creative scholars in general face a harder time and when you couple that with a critical stance such as feminism that is only amplified. With that said, the rewards for carving your own path and standing up for what you believe in far outweigh the challenges. Further, to be fair, there are many female leaders in my field and related fields who have received recognition for their work, so it isn’t all one-sided.

The ACA has honored pioneers such as John Glenn, Earl Bakken, Jack S. Kilby, Anne Medlock and companies such as PIXAR and LEGGO, so needless to say, you’re in great company. What does this recognition mean to you?

PL: Well, obviously it’s very lovely, very humbling. Please know, I certainly don’t think I have earned this on my own, far from it. When I accept this award in September I will do so on behalf of arts-based researchers everywhere as well as the publishing team and authors for the Social Fictions series. Many people have forged and continue to forge this field and so I very much see myself as a representative. There are so many challenges and obstacles when doing this kind of border crossing work and I have heard from countless graduate students in particular that they have a hard time following their passion and convincing others that it’s OK. So I see this as very much a nod to all of them that in fact the work we are doing is legitimate and they should push on and carve their own paths. Mostly I see this as an opportunity to advance arts-based research and shine a spotlight on the capabilities ABR has for advancing public scholarship so that knowledge belongs to the many, not the few. I hope this award is one step toward continuing to create more spaces to publish this work and more opportunities for funding.

You routinely talk about yourself as in company with others, so I am curious who some of your greatest teachers have been, professionally or personally, and what you have learned from them that might be useful to others.

PL: Well, it’s a tough question because there are so many people who have inspired me, some of whom I have known personally and others who may not even be alive but their intellectual and artistic work has lit a fire. So with knowing that this list will leave many out, and I’m reducing what they have taught me, here are a few examples that come to mind. My favorite authors, Carolyn Ellis and Laurel Richardson, have taught me about the relationship between vulnerability and generosity, and they have taught me to experiment, trust my point of view, and to create spaces for others to share their points of view. My favorite musician, Tori Amos, has inspired me to carve my own path and about the importance of never betraying or losing your voice and vision. My father taught me to make my own luck, which has ultimately been the basis of my career and the intent with which I live my life. My husband, Mark, has taught me to be kinder to myself which is an enormous gift. And my greatest teacher, my daughter Madeline, in many ways gives me a model for how I would like to live. She teaches me to be brave, bold and compassionate.

You’ve alluded to battles with publishers in several of your interviews? What challenges have you faced trying to publish your work, which is now widely considered ground-breaking?

PL: I think most authors and researchers face challenges publishing their work, and I certainly have. In fact, the Social Fictions series which is part of the basis for the American Creativity Association award was rejected. But I think it’s important to understand that each project needs to find the right publishing home and so when something is rejected I just look at it as a poor fit. Different projects need different homes and when it aligns well it’s fantastic, even if only for that particular project. Over the years many different publishers have taken a chance on my work and I’m indebted to each of them. Publishers make a big investment and so I don’t begrudge them their cautiousness especially when it comes to work that is deemed riskier. But I do think they need to help us expand the bounds, which means they need to get a little creative too. I get frustrated when I hear things like, ‘Well, the way we market doesn’t sell those kinds of books.’ To this I say, maybe you need to change the way you market. That battle aside, I’ve learned from each project and each publisher and I’m grateful to them all. Right now I have a mix of three publishers that I bring my work to, each is suited for different parts of my larger project. That is working really well for me and I hope it’s mutual.

What are you working on now?

PL: I just finished up the second edition of my book Method Meets Art which is coming out in January, 2015. That was a labor of love. Several colleagues and I are founding an online ABR journal we plan to title Art/Research International. I see it as a way of giving back to the arts-based community. I’m also working on several book projects including expanded anniversary editions of my novels Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance and a book called Low-Fat Love Stories which is a nonfiction exploration of how women settle in life and love. I have a few other books in the hopper, including the most challenging research book I’ve ever taken on which I’m writing for Guilford Press, and a creative project that I’m sort of working on in secret. But I think that’s as much as I’d like to say about those at this time. I plan to take a few years to crawl into my own personal writing hole and I hope at the end of it to be releasing more than half a dozen books.

With the business of the five series you edit, coupled with your own creative output, do you envision a time when you step back from either the series or your own writing?

PL: Well with each of the series I see myself as building a structure which doesn’t necessarily mean I will always manage it. I don’t know. I don’t see myself ever walking away entirely but maybe taking a backseat and handing off more to the team. We’ll have to see. It is important to me to create new spaces for emerging voices with different points of view and to be in conversation with others. The series do this.

In terms of my own creative output, there are some intellectual topics I want to tackle as well as artistic challenges I want to take on. It all requires time which is the one thing there never seems to be enough. But I think it’s really important to explain that there is a relationship between the series and my own creative output where one protects the other. I partly began the first two books series so that my livelihood would never be tied to my writing alone. When one is paid for their scholarship it becomes quite tricky, right? We all need to earn a living but we can’t compromise on our intellectual or artistic vision. By creating the series I felt it was a step of protection for my freedom and integrity in my own creative output, because my livelihood is not dependent on my own personal book sales. I can write anything I choose and that is freedom.

We’ve talked many times over the years and so I wanted to give you an original question. You’ve compared your books to ketchup and mustard, dresses and fashion shows, and so on. In the spirit of the metaphors you often use to talk about your work here’s a question. Fans of your work know about your fondness for Tori Amos. She once compared herself to anchovies and said if she was potato chips she’d get to go more places but she’s anchovies and they are an acquired taste. So, are you anchovies or potato chips?

PL: [Laughs]. That may be my favorite question I’ve ever been asked! My answer is that I’m anchovy flavored potato chips. I think the idea driving all of my work is to take something, some ideas, that few have access to and make them available to many others. And I mean available in more than one way. Access means a couple of things. For people to really have access to your scholarly work first of all it needs to circulate in places where people can find it. But access or accessibility also means that if they do find it they’re able to engage with it. If it takes a PhD with a certain specialization to be able to read and understand the jargon in your work, no matter how you distribute it, the work is not accessible to broad audiences. So while I might like anchovies and I want to share them with others, as Tori Amos said, not everyone wants those hairy little things even if you offer them a taste. So I guess I’m trying to marry anchovies with potato chips so that anchovies can go more places.

Incredible answer. Given the award you are receiving my final question is: What is creativity to you?

PL: I guess the last answer sort of gets at it for me, the idea of combining things in new ways and finding ways to expose others to your work, that’s creativity.

For more information please visit

In honor of her ACA award, Sense Publishers is offering free shipping on her novels Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance and all Social Fictions titles here:

Method Meets Art Second Edition is available for pre-order here (at a discounted price):

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