Interview with Lois Leveen

Last week I reviewed Lois Leveen's wonderful Juliet's Nurse, a novel of Shakespeare's tragic couple, told from the viewpoint of Juliet's wetnurse. But rather than simply retell the story, Leveen delved into life for a medieval domestic, and made this humorous character warm, earthy, and human. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Leveen, so read on to learn more about her and her writing.

author lois leveen
Author Lois Leveen
What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

It didn't *have* a plot. I wrote poetry and essays and was even editor of the literary magazine in high school, but although I devoured novels, I never tried fiction writing until I was in college. At Harvard, I was taking the required composition class in a special section that allowed you to write short stories along with essays. Well, the teacher (whose name I have happily forgotten) read my stories and told me, "you don't have a plot." I thought, "oh, I don't know how to write fiction." And so I gave up and figured I'd be an English professor and write about other people's stories. Only at this moment, in retrospect as I answer your question, am I wondering why that instructor didn't try to teach me how to develop a plot. Why haven't I ever asked *that* question before?!?! It took a long, long time before I realized how creative I could be.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Yes -- I use a particular laptop computer, not the one I use for email, etc., and I sit in a very comfortable chair, no desk, with at least one and preferably two cats on my lap. The thesaurus is always in reach, a real book thesaurus which is so much better than the computer's version. And I'm surrounded by piles of books and articles so I can research particular points. I write first thing in the morning, 7 days a week, usually for 3-5 hours. The rest of the day, I might be reading for a project, or writing *about* writing, doing an interview like this, etc. Like many writers, I can be crabby when I'm writing, but I'm more crabby if I am not giving myself time to write every day.

Was Juliet's Nurse the original title of your book?

Absolutely -- the title came to me, and it sounded *so* good. That's why I reread Shakespeare's play, to see whether it contained enough for me to build a character and a world and a novel, and boy howdy, did it. Titling a novel can be so difficult, so it really is amazing to start with a novel that tells a potential reader EXACTLY what the book is about. And in this case, it told the author, too. Now I just have to remember to let people know the nurse has a name, Angelica. It's actually in the play, but only once, so no one remembers it.

As you were writing Juliet's Nurse, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Many, many of them! I didn't know Tybalt (Juilet's cousin, who is a bit of a hothead in Shakespeare's play) would be such a heartbreaker. My agent, her assistant, my editor, her assistant, and me: we all had these total Tybalt crushes. I didn't realize how important bees and beekeeping would become when I first introduced them into the book. I needed a job for Angelica's husband, and just chose that rather randomly, but then it shaped so much of the plot and the themes.

Most surprising, though, was something much bigger than a scene or character, because as I was deep in drafting the novel, I kept thinking, "this is a nice idea for a character and a story, but is important?" My first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on a true story of an African American woman who changed the course of history. So I felt like that book helped readers understand how much women, especially women of color, have done historically that has been forgotten. I thought maybe I was copping out if my second novel didn't do something big like that. When I got to the end of Juliet's Nurse, I realized that this is a book about how to survive immense kinds of suffering, about how to keep hoping even after loss, how in particular to respond to the death of a child, which is one of the most profound and devastating kinds of losses anyone can face. Oh yes, that surprised the heck out of me, that my little ol' novel was doing that kind of work.

Your previous novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, was set during the Civil War. This one is set in 14th century Italy. Was the shift in era and locale challenging?

Incredibly so. First of all, we live in such an immediate gratification moment, in which readers who finish a book they like want to get the next one from the author right away. Juliet's Nurse received a really, really wonderful review from earlyword.com, a site librarians use to pick books, but it begins by saying that fans of The Secrets of Mary Bowser have had a long wait for Lois Leveen's second book. Long wait? 28 months from one pub date to the next, which is amazingly so fast when you consider two factors: 1. the historical research, which as you say takes a huge amount of time, and 2. the fact that these books are "literary," in the sense of the quality of the writing. I spend a lot of time on editing the prose, trying to make every line, every word, right. I want to feel like my novels are a gift I am giving my reader, and that means taking time to do them well. Not that 28 months is a lot of time! (by the way, if you are wanting more from an author, getting antsy waiting for the next novel to be published, try rereading the book you've already read and loved; if it's a good novel, you will find so much more in it the second time through).

In terms of the particular leap from 19th-century United States (about which I knew a fair bit) to 14th-century Italy, your question gets at what was the hardest part for me. For The Secrets of Mary Bowser I used a lot of research by other historians, but I also did some of my own research, finding things in archives, 19th-century newspapers, etc. I even kept at the research after the novel was published, and wrote about what I learned subsequently about the historical Mary Bowser. But with Juliet's Nurse I couldn't do my own research. I can, in a pinch, book a hotel room or order dinner in modern-day Italian, but I can't read Latin, or even the kind of Italian dialects that were used in the 14th century. So I had to rely on what other historians have published. And also, it is embarrassing to admit this, but only when I started working on the novel did I realize that because the printing press hadn't yet been invented, we have far fewer books and other sources from that time period. That was frustrating, but I started looking at art and architecture as part of my research. If you have a painting or statue from Italy in the 14th century of, say, the Virgin Mary, often her clothing and hairstyle look like what Italian women were wearing in the 14th century, rather than what someone leaving in Nazareth would be wearing in 30 BCE. Because those Italian artists were historically inaccurate in their depictions, we have historically accurate depictions of their era. I guess what I'm saying is I learned to look *everywhere* for research, including cookbooks and medical guides (which I used for both novels). I love that stuff!

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I love to travel, although mostly my travel is doing talks about my book or doing research for another book, but that's taken me everywhere from Paris to London to Verona to Costa Rica in the past few years, plus all through the US. At home, I am a dedicated bike commuter, and my bike is covered in a leopard-print pattern so the whole city can see me coming. I play the accordion, with more enthusiasm than talent, and now I'm singing in a community choir in the same way. I pet my cats and like to do slightly nutty things like go to hipster square dances (I live in Portland, Oregon, after all). Oh, and I am now a volunteer urban beekeeper.

Read any good books recently?

I've been rereading The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, which is so weird and smart, and whenever I read it I wish I could write like that. Before that it was The Table of Less Valued Knights, by Marie Philips, because we met at a book event in Toronto. Next is a manuscript a friend wrote that is not yet published, one of the perks of being a novelist! The rest of my current reading is research for my next novel, and the topic is still top secret, so you will just have to wait a while to find out … patiently, I hope!

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My thanks to Ms. Leveen for her time and thoughtful responses.  You can learn more about her and her books at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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