Monday, December 3, 2007
Guest blogger: Caroline Leavitt
Caroline Leavitt is one of my favorite people. Not only is she a generous friend and kindred spirit, she's a wonderful writer. Her latest novel, Girls in Trouble was a BookSense pick and was named a top book by Mostly Fiction, and I know she has another in the works! (She has her own fun blog, Caroline Leavittville, too.) It was while we were talking about her latest work-in-progress that the idea of pets in books came up, and she sent me this sweet essay on "Animal Instincts and the Novel."
(I'm down in the New York metro area, Caroline's neck of the woods today, speaking at Partners and Crime and seeing her will definitely be one of the highlights of my trip!)
If I could, I would have six cats and four dogs. Or at least one of each. But I’m allergic. Really allergic. Sigh and alas. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t have a pet—which I did for twenty years, a beautiful, cranky, jagged shelled Vietnamese tortoise named Minnie. Minnie kept me company through my single years in NYC, and was even the litmus test for whom I would marry (Jeff was the only man who would eat dinner with Minnie perched on the dining room table). Minnie recently died, but because characters—and animals—live forever on the page, I paid homage to him by making him a character in the novel I’ve just finished.
My novel Traveling Angels is about how we forgive the unforgivable. It revolves around Isabelle, a photographer whose car crashes on a foggy road, killing a mysterious woman who is standing in the middle of the road, her car turned the wrong way. Wrestling with guilt, Isabelle becomes obsessed and involved with the survivors—and one day, impulsively, she rescues a tortoise in a pet shop, which becomes a catalyst in her relationships.
I never had so much fun writing the tortoise scenes. Nelson, the tortoise, not only gave Isabelle a deeper humanity, but I found that when initial readers were scanning the pages, they were always fascinated by him! Suddenly tortoise lore was interesting! Was it true that tortoises bite red things and the only way to get them to loosen their incredibly strong jaws is to put them in a bathtub (yup.) Do tortoises really make clicking sounds like reptilian music? (They sure do.)
My novel fast forwards thirty years at the end. “Nelson must be gone by now,” a character remarks sadly, but how could I let that happen? By novel’s end, he’s older and probably no wiser, but he’s still there, alive on the page and in my heart. Just like Minnie.