An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Valerie Ann Leff
First-time author of Better Homes and Husbands (St. Martin's Press, June 2004)
By Doris Booth
Author Valerie Ann Leff grew up in the same building that was home to Jackie Onassis and the Rothschilds, at 1040 Fifth Avenue in New York City. It is from this fashionable perspective that she delivers her first novel, BETTER HOMES & HUSBANDS (St. Martin's Press, June 2004).
The novel portrays the rich and famous people who live at 980 Park Avenue in a fictional pre-war co-op on Manhattan's elite upper east side. The book spans three decades from 1970 to 2000, and includes glimpses into the residents' marriages and sex lives, as well as into the lives of their doormen and domestic help.
Here, Valerie talks about the development of the book and her journey from living in the publishing capital of the world to becoming a published author. "Each character has points
of generosity, of being difficult, snobby, or mean. I wanted to get to the human concerns in there."
AUTHORLINK: What is the main idea of the story and whose story is it?
LEFF: I see it as the story of a community, not of the building. One reviewer called it a "group portrait novel."
No one character stands out, though I have my favoritesDick for one. He serves as the counterpoint to the strong female characters such as Beverly. I didn't intend this, but the women's movement plays huge part in the book. One woman has a biracial baby, another becomes an announcer, and another participates in Central American politics. Dick's a good man who is trying to handle what's happened in the world. They're the people who really interest me. Beverly interests me. She has been stiff and stuck and set in her ways. At the end she falls in love, and becomes a braver person.
AUTHORLINK: What is the main goal of the book.
LEFF: It is an exploration of humanity. My goal was to get inside this community that perhaps from another perspective one would only say, "Oh, that's just the rich of New York." I tried to explore the variety of people, and how each person has his or her own angle and concerns. Each character has points of generosity, of being difficult, snobby, or mean. I wanted to get to the human concerns in there.
AUTHORLINK: Do you feel you were right in telling the story from so many viewpoints?
LEFF: That was the real challenge of this book. Since no one person could know the whole story, it demanded to be told from several points of view. I wanted the reader to look at the characters and see them judging one another. I wanted them to see Beverly through Dick's eyes, for example. The book looks at people's preconceptions of themselves.
AUTHORLINK: How has your own background in New York City influenced the book.
LEFF: The characters get treated not as a class but as individuals. Certainly the Rothschild and the Onassis families influenced me a lot. I wrote about a community I know very well. There is something interesting about the upper echelons of New York City. Yet, for a novel like mine, the setting could just as well have been a small southern town like Ashville, North Carolina where I live now. One character resents that one, the other is trying to keep up with the neighbors.
AUTHORLINK: Did you know Jackie personally?
LEFF: Jackie and I did cross paths occasionally. I knew her as a neighbor. In my childhood I met the Kennedy children, Caroline and John Jr. I used to play volleyball with John when I was a toddler.
AUTHORLINK: Was your family elite?
LEFF: My father is a yarn manufacturer. I didn't feel like one of the special people in the building. The people in the building were just all part of what seemed like a normal childhood. "I have always written, not
as an art form, but as a tool
Leff AUTHORLINK: How did you become a writer?
LEFF: I have always written, not as an art form, but as a tool of expression. I kept journals of my life. I have worked in public relations and advertising. Back then I wrote a lot of press releaseswhich is what I call another form of fiction. I wrote crazy stuff like company histories.
Later, I was living in Los Angeles, enrolled in a Ph.D./ program in environmental geography, but I stopped that, too. I became really sick with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, and had to stop working. About the only outside activity I had was to go to a women's writing circle in Los Angeles. That's the one thing I could do. People there were responsive to what I was writing. And the writing bug kind of bit me in early 90s. I decided "This is it for me." So, I have stuck with it as a profession ever since. "I was very lucky. I was solicited by several agents who had seen my work in the literary magazines."
Leff AUTHORLINK: Is Better Homes & Husbands your first published work?
LEFF: It is my first published book. Before that, I had seven of the chapters from Better Homes published in literary magazines. My first piece was published in the The Sun in 1996. I have also been published in The Antioch Review, and other literary magazines.
AUTHORLINK: How did you find your agent?
LEFF: I was very lucky. I was solicited by several agents who had seen my work in the literary magazines. I settled on Bill Contardi at Brandt and Hochman because I liked the way the agency treated their writers. They are very kind to me. The earlier part of the journey had been rough. I went through a long and painful period of getting rejected by numerous magazines. One chapter in the book was rejected 50 times before being published. So it was time for my luck to change. By the time I had finished 12 chapters, 7 chapters had already been published.
AUTHORLINK: Your editor at St. Martin's is Diane Reverand. Did she make many revisions?
LEFF; Diane has edited a number of works by wonderful women writers, including Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. She didn't make many revisions to my book. The publisher wanted to put the work out very quickly for the summer reading season in June 2004.
During the month-long editing process, Diane's suggestions helped me weave a tighter story. It was a challenge to tell the story from different points of view and keep the threads moving forward. I completely rewrote the introduction after brainstorming with Diane, and it's a much better piece as a result.
AUTHORLINK: Were other publishers interested in making you an offer?
LEFF: Yes, another house was very interested. But St. Martin's made me a solid two-book offer. "Getting a publishing
offer felt like I had just
had twins. "
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to sell the work?
LEFF: It happened quickly, within about six weeks after I turned the manuscript in to my agent. He sent it to a number of houses before landing the St. Martin's deal. One house was very interested but thought the book too literary.
AUTHORLINK: Do you believe your New York background helped sell the book?
LEFF: I believe it helped a lot. There's a lot of interest in selling books about New York. So growing up there gave me an advantage. But I don't think it gave me any advantage in terms of learning to write.
AUTHORLINK: How did it feel to have St. Martin's make an offer?
LEFF: Getting a publishing offer felt like I had just had twins. My husband and I were in Guatemala where we had just adopted an infant son. I was busy changing my first diaper when the call came that St. Martin's had made an offer. I turned to my husband and said," Honey, can you finish the diaper. I have to wipe my hands and take this call."
It's funny, but I have waited until I was 45 to do the two most important things in my lifeadopting a baby and publishing my book.
AUTHORLINK: How has the life-style change from New York to North Carolina been for you?
LEFF; I have lived in many places including Milan. At the age of 35 I returned to New York City as a still-single want-to-be writer. It really wasn't much fun. New York is about accomplishments. It's not like the TV program Sex in the City. I wanted to live in a smaller community, and I love being outdoors. I met my future husband at a friend's party, and the relationship just seemed right. So moving to North Carolina wasn't a tough decision.
"When I was writing Better Homes and Husbands, my favorite way to write would be to go away alone for three to five days and get into a deep trance."
Leff AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now?
LEFF: I am working on another novel, but I don't want to talk about it yet. It's under contract with St. Martins and scheduled for completion by December 2005.
AUTHORLINK: What are your writing patterns and habits?
LEFF: I am very bingey. When I was writing Better Homes and Husbands, my favorite way to write would be to go away alone for three to five days and get into a deep trance. I typically don't even worry about eating or sleeping. Obviously, it will be a little different now with a baby in the house. There were so many voices in Better Homes that I often found myself speaking the dialogue out loud, like a crazy person–especially when portraying Angelita and Raphael. I wanted to get the Hispanic accents just right.
AUTHORLINK: How does it feel to have become published?
LEFF: Wonderful! I could say it doesn't matter whether you get published, but if you revise a work ten times, you want somebody to read it. So much of writing is about communicating to the reader on the other end. I can only enjoy what I am doing if I know that someone out there will read and relate to the work. I enjoy being part of this great conversation between writer and reader.
AUTHORLINK: You founded the Great Smokies Writing Program?
LEFF: Yes, when I arrived here there was no good writing program for adults in the area So I connected with the University of North Carolina in Ashville and the director of the creative writing program and I put together an extension program at the University which includes a monthly reading series. I now teach there. The project is my pet.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have any words of advice for aspiring writers?
LEFF: Just don't quit! "It takes a lot of courage to sit down and go into a fantasy world having no idea if your work will ever be published."
Leff AUTHORLINK: What do you believe is the key to succeeding as a writer?
LEFF: I see so many talented people who can't necessarily get ahead. Those who have arrived have stuck with it and worked really hard. It takes a lot of courage to sit down and go into a fantasy world having no idea if your work will ever be published. Everything I have had published I have edited and edited, and have let other people read it.
AUTHORLINK: Can you go too far with letting other people read your work?
LEFF: Definitely. You have to figure out what to listen to, and what not to listen to. This is also true of sending your work out to publishers.
I had one of my stories rejected by 150 magazines. But I knew it was good. So I kept working at it. Many students I see expect to go straight into the New Yorker, and that's just not reality.
AUTHORLINK: How would you like the world to view your work?
LEFF: I would like for people to read my work and say, "Oh, yeah. I recognize that feeling. It's real to me." I want people to connect with the work, and I also want them to be entertained. A story should be pleasurable, not light and fluffy, but enjoyable.
I hope my writing will spark the reader to think. That's why I didn't tie everything up in a neat ending. I want them to imagine what happens next, to join in the creative process with me, and I want them to have fun!