An Interview with Sociologist Patricia Leavy

An Interview with Sociologist Patricia Leavy on the Release of her 20th book and The Rewards of Writing Social Fiction

Ashleigh Watson: Patricia, you’re a best-selling author and award-winning arts-based researcher, you’ve had a remarkable career in sociology and gender studies, you’re the editor of the pioneering Social Fictions series celebrating its fifth anniversary in July, and you’ve just released your twentieth title – an anniversary edition of American Circumstance – so let me ask, why do you write?

Patricia Leavy: I love writing more than anything else. I have since I was a kid. When I’m writing I lose track of time, even forgetting to break to eat. I become completely immersed and engaged. Had I been braver when I was younger, I would have studied creative writing and pursued a career as a novelist or columnist or something. You face so much rejection and critique with that career path, with such slim chances for success, that I didn’t feel emotionally able to handle it. As it turned out, it probably worked out for the best that I pursued an academic career as a sociologist first because it’s given me so much to write about, and a different perspective from which to write. I write because it’s my passion. It’s not like a job, but rather something entirely intrinsic to who I am and that’s always the main motivation.

How do you write? With a pen and a journal in a café? On a laptop in a book-lined home office? A sharp pencil and loose sheets of paper in some warm, sunny, outdoor location?

All of these ways. I always note-take and draft first with a pen and journal or loose sheets of notebook paper. There’s something about the process of writing by hand that’s critical for me. It’s how I get to know what I am writing. Then I usually move to my desktop or laptop. I have a beautiful home office with its own balcony where I do most of my work, but a couple of times a week I grab a notebook and head to a local café for a change of scenery. I live on the coast of southern Maine and in the summer I bring a little lap desk to the beach or a pool and work by hand looking at the sea. While I have my favorite color-coded Moleskin notebooks and those sorts of things, I can work with any materials. I’ve scribbled some of my favorite lines on old napkins and the backs of envelopes. The only thing I find I absolutely need to write is music. I always have my iPod in my bag in case I write outside of the house. I typically listen to female musicians while I work.

How does the process of storytelling come together for you? You’ve written three social fiction novels – Low-Fat Love, American Circumstance, and Blue – was the craft similar for each book or did you find them totally different experiences?

There are constants and yet each experience was also quite unique. In each instance I began with the central characters and getting to know them. My novels are very character-driven and in some ways I think of them as character studies. So I always begin with the surface level of who the character is or appears to be, and from the get-go I start going behind the surface so I can see them in their multi-dimensionality, their true fears, motivations, and positive attributes. Then I start deciding how I will let those aspects of the character slip out. For each book that has been different. For example, in Low-Fat Love we mostly learn about the complexity of the characters from the narrator. In Blue it comes out through character dialogue. Another constant was that I remained open during the process. I didn’t create rigid storylines, but rather allowed the plots to evolve naturally, as secondary to who the characters are. I did know the major plot points, including the ending for each book right from the start, but I didn’t know each scene in between and how we would get from A to B. I would close my eyes and let each scene unfold like a movie playing out in slow motion in my mind’s eye. So I would see someone open a refrigerator and then I would see what was in it, and that would lead me to the next moment and so on.

In other ways the storytelling experiences were quite unique, because I was trying to tell each story in a different way. Low-Fat Love was very challenging, I’m sure largely because it was my first experience writing a novel. I focused a lot on the power of third-person narrator voice coupled with interior dialogue to make micro macro links. I also focused on providing detailed descriptions of scenes, character’s homes, and those sorts of things so there is a lot of description in that book. In American Circumstance I really wanted to play with the power of time and interiority for getting to know characters. This brought its own challenges. For example, I had to figure out how to bring a four decade past into the narrative in the beginning, and then bring the reader into the present. I also had to find the balance between third-person narrator voice, showing characters in action and dialogue, and representing their inner thoughts. This was all vital to the subject matter of that book, appearance versus reality. Blue was very relationship-driven and so dialogue drove most of the plot, which was yet another way to try to tell a story. I really loved that approach because I found I got to know the core of the characters through their interactions with others.

That complexity definitely comes through in each story. Once you’ve settled on a writing style or have found a focus in terms of storytelling, how do you decide what each book ‘needs’, in terms of research and narrative? Can you reflect on your arts-based research practice and how you actually navigate the doing of reading, writing, and research?

My fiction develops organically. Before writing Low-Fat Love I had already collected interview research with women, and some men as well, about their relationships, identities and body image issues, without the intent to write fiction. Because I was frustrated with traditional academic formats I turned to fiction, armed with my interview data as well as my own cumulative insights into these topics based on my professional and personal experiences. So a bulk of the formal research for that book was “already there” so to speak. I have continued to conduct interview research since, with my questions largely informed by readers’ responses to Low-Fat Love. Both the older and newer interviews have informed my other novels. While I’m writing I immerse myself into the pop culture worlds of the characters. In the case of Blue, there’s a running narrative about 1980s popular culture and art. I was obsessed with all things 80s while working on the book, not only to select appropriate references, but to fully engage with the feel, look and layered meanings I could tease out of the art from that time. I also did extensive research on the color blue and how it appears in art, which is the kind of research any novelist undertakes. Currently I’m collaborating with a visual artist and together we’re working on a collection of first-person short stories with visual art, based directly on new interviews I conducted. For that project I’ve been reading a slew of books by popular feminist scholars about relationships, love and self-esteem, which are all a part of the backdrop for the book. I’ve read several bell hooks books as well as books by Gloria Steinem, Cheryl Dellasega, Mary Pipher and others. It’s all necessary just to write these short little stories. There’s often much more that goes into a project than meets the eye. In the end the work should look effortless, but it isn’t.

Let’s talk about American Circumstance in particular. This June you’re releasing an anniversary edition of the text which includes a brand new epilogue. Can you talk about how you first developed this book, and what it was like to revisit it? What effect has time had on the story and the character’s lives?

American Circumstance explores appearance versus reality – how our lives and relationships appear to others versus how they are experienced. It’s a subject that I’m endlessly fascinated with. I decided to focus on social class, and the ultra-wealthy, because I thought it would be a good way to explore how the front stage and back stage are not always the same. It also allowed me to provide a window into the replication of wealth, power, and privilege in the US, with implications abroad. Given all of the economic changes in the years before I wrote the book, I wanted to look at the complex ways that social class shapes identity, relationships, and even the codes of friendship, such as what we do and do not say to each other.

When I first wrote the novel I wanted to mirror the experience of an impressionist painting which can look very different from a distance than it does close up, where you can see all of the little specks of paint. So I used the style of literary impressionism. Accordingly, the novel is divided into three parts, with the first (and longest) covering moments over an expanse of four decades. The second part unfolds over a period of a few months, and the final part transpires over just a few days. The idea is that you see a more distant view, and then an increasingly close up view, and all of this is enhanced by having a narrator voice dominate the beginning of the novel and increasingly representing the interiority of characters by the end.

This is the second time I’ve revisited a novel to put out a better version and it’s a really interesting experience. I find you really have to let go of your ego and look as objectively as you can at your work. I believe writers always improve and so it makes sense that you’re better equipped to write the story once time has passed. I really took a red pen to the book, in order to tighten it. Beyond improving as a writer, I think what time really does for me is give me insight into readers’ perspectives. I make a point to chat with readers at book events and conferences. I also routinely Skype into book clubs and college classes that use my novels so I learn what resonates with readers, what questions they have, and where they put their emphasis. All of that impacts how I approach revising as well as the new content, in this case an afterword, questions for further engagement and the epilogue.

Without giving away any secrets, what does the new epilogue bring to the story?

The epilogue continues the impressionist theme I developed in the book, going from the longest expanse of time to the shortest. The epilogue carries this through by unfolding over the course of just twenty-four hours. The chapter is called “The Road Trip” and takes place a couple of months after the conclusion of the novel. What I love about it is the glimpse it provides into how cultural biases are experienced across America. The novel as a whole is meant to play with readers assumptions– what we assume about people based on status characteristics like social class or gender. The epilogue takes this further by looking at how these characteristics might be viewed and experienced across the country, and consequently, how place matters. I actually wrote the chapter at the time I originally finished the novel and held on to it to release at a future time. I’m so glad I did that because I look at the transphobia happening in the US right now with these fear-based bathroom laws, and I think, wow, this was really the right time to release this short story about cultural differences, identity and safety in America. The epilogue is one of my favorite parts of the book.

What is the most rewarding aspect of writing social fiction from (and as) research? What kinds of spaces, representations, or ways of thinking has this opened up?

It’s been enormously freeing. I can get at things I can’t access in any other form. I’m able to create layers of meaning, and tap into something in our humanness, and express those things in ways that affect readers.

This July is the fifth anniversary for the Social Fictions series. Over the past five years, the series has carved out a very exciting and radical space within academic publishing. What was the biggest challenged you faced when getting the series off the ground?

First I had to find an academic publisher willing to take it on. I spent several months going back and forth with a different publisher who eventually passed on it, afraid he’d lose money. While I was heartbroken at the time it worked out for the best. Sense Publishers turned out to be the ideal publisher for the series, although they weren’t sure about it either, afraid they’d lose money. I actually invested my own funds in the beginning, paying to produce the first book, my novel Low-Fat Love. After that the challenge became marketing, which to some extent remains our biggest challenge. For example, it’s been tough to convince professors that the books can both be substantive and well-written. This comes from an assumption that art and scholarship are antagonist. I’ve worked hard to select books that are intellectually engaging and good pieces of art. They’re good reads. As our books have gained legs and received various accolades, those biases have begun to erode. Marketing to general, non-academic audiences is an ongoing challenge as well. This is true for any publisher of fiction, but more so for an academic press not positioned to market to broad audiences. As a goal of the series has always been public scholarship, we’ve made great efforts in this direction with increasingly optimistic results.

And what has been the most rewarding part of being Editor of the series?

Publishing beautiful, innovative, brave books that ought to be published but likely would not be if our series didn’t exist. It’s been especially exciting working with authors for whom this was their first book or first published work of fiction. Seeing the impact on the field, and even the adaptation of my term “social fiction” has also been wonderful.  There’s been enormous growth in the field in a short period of time which is very promising and I’m honored to be a part of it.

The series has published many brilliant texts, and I’m sure it’s hard to pick any favourites. Instead, can you tell us a text from the series that surprised you, one that challenged you, and one that really moved you?

If the Truth Be Told: Accounts in Literary Forms by Ronald Pelias definitely surprised me. His intent was to play with readers’ sense of fact and fiction and to trouble those assumptions. He succeeded. Of all readers, I am well situated to accept the validity of fiction as creating credible, authentic accounts and I read tons on the subject. Yet I was captivated by his unique, beautifully written book and to your question, as I suspect other readers will be, he surprised me more than once.

Critical Plays: Research for Embodied Change by Anne Harris and Christine Sinclair definitely challenged me on a personal level. The protagonists are two art education professors, one of whom was an artist first who turned to teaching to earn a stable living, with the hopes of continuing to be an artist. The character struggles and in a brilliant monologue dares to say what many artist-researchers think and fear, in different ways: whether they are living the life they really want to, whether they are true artists, and whether they’ve sold out. As someone who wanted to be a writer and first became an academic, I was challenged being confronted with some of my own inner thoughts over the years.

When you asked about one that really moved me two immediately sprang to mind. Blackeyed: Plays and Monologues by Mary Weems is a powerful collection of plays and monologues about Black experiences. It’s absolutely gripping. Mary was actually one of the first people to submit a proposal to the series, although at the time I couldn’t publish her work. She sent in a short play called “Meat” about the murders of Black women. It’s so powerful and moving that although I could not publish it at the time for various reasons, I never forgot it. Years later when the series was a success I emailed Mary and offered her a blank contract. That is how Blackeyed came to be. “Meat” is a part of the collection and recently won a Cleveland Arts Prize. I was also deeply moved by Arts-Based Research, Autoethnography, and Music Education: Singing through a Culture of Marginalization by Miroslav Pavle Manovski. I first read it when it was a dissertation up for an arts-based educational research dissertation award given by the American Educational Research Association. I was on the awards committee. It was our unanimous first choice because we were all so moved by it. In short, it’s about the systematic bullying and tormenting the author faced, largely for being gay, and how music and music education provided a path through the pain. I was so moved by it that after he received the AERA award I emailed him and offered him a publishing contract. Amazingly his manuscript had been rejected by several publishers. I believe he is our only author who never had to submit a formal book proposal.

You’re a vocal proponent of public scholarship and public sociology in particular. At its best, what do you believe work like the Social Fictions series has the potential to achieve?

I think it will help us reach the potential of sociology, which you captured beautifully in your recent article about novel writing in sociology. Social fiction is helping to show sociologists what is possible. This is a discipline meant to live outside of the academy, but there’s always been a disjuncture between that goal and the reality of how research has been conducted and disseminated. Social fiction raises the bar because it calls on us to engage with new forms, those that have a chance at meeting the promise of our discipline.  More people outside of the academy have access to sociological work because of social fiction, and I think there is enormous potential for that to increase as these formats continue to gain legitimacy and students are more empowered to work with them.

What impact do you see work like this having on Sociology in the future, as a professional academic discipline?

In your article you wrote eloquently about a couple of things that I think really speak to this. First, the benefits to those committed to public sociology. Second, the ability to link the micro and macro levels, providing a panoramic and personal viewpoint, and to place readers within those imagined realities. This is the “sociological imagination” realized. I think as more sociologists become aware of this approach and teach with social fictions in their courses, they will understand the real potential of this work and it will help push the discipline forward. We need more publications and more professors teaching with this work in order to have a largescale impact on the field. I hope that happens.

And finally, where do you hope to see Social Fictions in another five years? What are you aiming for yourself?

I’m not sure. I’m open to what comes next. We surpassed my initial vision long ago and since then I’ve just remained open. A year ago I was thinking about an ending point for the series and even thought book number twenty might be it. But here we are releasing the twentieth book with several others under contract and coming down the pipeline. Recently we’ve had some interest in foreign translations. That’s very exciting to me and something I’m actively pursuing. As for myself, I want to continue to push myself and to hone my craft. I have plans for more novels, in the genre I’ve written in as well as other genres. I want to explore what else social fiction might be used for.

Ashleigh Watson is a current Ph.D. candidate at Griffith University in Australia. Her thesis, comprised of a sociological novel and exegesis, explores fiction as a form of sociological work. She has recently published short fiction with SCUM magazine and Bareknuckle Poet Journal of Letters, and an article with Cultural Sociology.

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. is an independent scholar (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Chair of Sociology & Criminology and Founding Director of Gender Studies at Stonehill College). She is widely considered an international leader in the fields of arts-based research and qualitative inquiry. Her twenty published books include Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice (first and second editions), The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research, Fiction as Research Practice, Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research and the best-selling novels Low-Fat Love (first and second editions), American Circumstance (first and second editions) and Blue. She is series creator and editor for seven book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers, including the ground-breaking Social Fictions series. Known for her commitment to public scholarship, she is frequently called on by the US national news media and has regular blogs for The Huffington Post, The Creativity Post and We Are the Real Deal. For her work advancing arts-based research she has received numerous awards including the New England Sociological Association 2010 New England Sociologist of the Year Award, the American Creativity Association 2014 Special Achievement Award, the American Educational Research Association Qualitative SIG 2015 Egon Guba Memorial Keynote Lecture Award, and the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry 2015 Special Career Award (she is the youngest recipient). Please visit www.patricialeavy.com for more information.


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