Monday, January 16, 2017

Interview with writer Laurie B. Levine

Author Laurie B. Levine is kicking off a new week with me. We’re talking about her debut YA coming-of-age novel, Now I Know It’s Not My Fault.

Laurie B. Levine has a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Syracuse University, and is Clinical Fellow in the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. She has been in private practice, helping people understand their trauma stories, for more than twenty years. Now I Know It’s Not My Fault is her first novel.

Welcome, Laurie. Please tell us about your current release.
Alexandra Geller is a bright, 14-year-old from an accomplished, well-educated family, coming of age in the big hair 1980’s. The sudden death of her mother five years ago, and her relationship with her well-meaning but emotionally unavailable father, leaves her vulnerable as she tries to figure out who she is. Early in her freshman year, she’s befriended by Paula Hanover, a young, attractive science teacher at her high school. Alex is thrilled to be chosen by this woman and relishes the feeling of finally “belonging” to a mother figure. Paula’s intentions aren’t so benevolent, as she slowly and carefully draws Alex into a relationship designed to meet her own needs, not Alex’s. Desperate for maternal attention, Alex finds ways to ignore the vague sense that something is wrong. Her compelling story sheds light on a common, but rarely talked about kind of trauma which is subtle, and occurs under the radar.

What inspired you to write this book?
I started writing this story several years ago but then put it down. I was inspired to pick it back up after a female teacher in our town was accused of sexually abusing several male students. There were two objectives for me in writing this book: the first, to shed some light on the fact that women can be abusers too. There’s a lot written in abuse and trauma literature addressing men as abusers, but very little about women. I wanted to write a story that depicts an attractive, charming woman in that role. The second objective was to draw attention to a more subtle form of abuse. When most people think about child sexual abuse, they think about an adult engaging in direct sexual contact with a child. Now I Know It’s Not My Fault highlights a kind of abuse that occurs under the radar, but can be just as damaging.

Amber and I sit, sideways, in the first two seats closest to the door and lean against the blackboard. My knee begins to bounce as Mrs. Hanover finishes up with another student at her desk. 
She walks over with a huge smile and says, “Alexandra Geller. Who did you bring with you?” She always calls me Alexandra and I hate it. Everyone calls me Alex except Mrs. Hanover and my grandmother. 
Nervously, I stand to introduce them. “This is Amber.” Paula shakes Amber’s hand as I drop back into my seat. I’ve seen my father offer a handshake, but never my mother, or any of her friends. I decide women shaking hands is commanding and resolve to start doing it. 
Standing over us wearing black jeans, tall black leather boots, and a long, clingy v-neck gray sweater, Paula asks, “What can I do for you two?” 
With my hands dug into my jacket pockets I answer, “I don't understand the parts of a cell.” 
She smiles. "What they are or what they do? 
“Plant cells or animal cells?” 
She smiles. “Let’s start with a plant cell. Can you name the parts?” 
“Nucleus, golgi bodies, endoplasmic reticulum…those cleaning thingies,” I say using my fingers to count off the properties I can remember. 
She looks amused. “First off, the ‘cleaning thingies’ are the vacuoles. And the endoplasmic reticulum is part of an animal cell, not a plant cell.” 
“See. I don’t understand,” I say with a grin. 
“Where’s your book?” She repositions a chair from the second row and sits facing me. 
“At home. I use hers for class,” I say gesturing toward Amber with my thumb. 
Paula laughs. “It’s probably going to be easier for you to learn Biology if you actually put the time in to memorize the material.” I bristle. I must look discouraged because she says, “Look, it’s okay if science isn’t your best thing.” 
In that moment, something inside me quiets. I feel understood by an adult for the first time in a very long time. 
She continues, “Plant cells have a cell wall, animal cells don’t. And those cleaning thingies, the vacuoles, are in plant cells but usually not animal cells.” 
I sit up straighter. “Okay,” I say slowly, not really absorbing what she’s saying. 
“Let me draw them for you...Where’s your notebook?” 
“In my locker,” I say without any hesitation. 
“Really?” she says with one raised eyebrow. “Take off your jacket and give me your hand.” 
I offer her my right hand, palm up. 
She pushes up the sleeve of my shirt, to the middle of my forearm. Her fingers feel cool against my warm skin. She cradles my hand in hers, across the desks. Her thumb rests along the inside of my wrist keeping me still. I hold 
my breath and think, Holy shit! She’s touching me. Paula begins drawing a plant cell and its structures on my palm. The sensation of the ball point on my skin tickles but I resist the urge to pull away. I look up at her. Smiling, she holds my gaze until I drop my eyes. I blush. Mesmerized by her touch, I don’t hear anything she’s saying as I stare at the diagram written in her loopy handwriting and blue ink. 
Luckily, Amber is paying attention and asks, “Why do plant cells have cell walls and animal cells don’t?” 
Paula says, “That’s an excellent question. Good for you.” Amber beams. I’m instantly jealous. 
Paula answers, but looks directly at me when she does. “That’s just one of the mysteries of the biological world you have to memorize. Now, let me draw you an animal cell.” 
I fish through the pockets of my jeans and pull out a Kit Kat wrapper. “Finish on this,” I say. She smiles again but this time her brown eyes seemed to sparkle at me. 
She says, “I knew you were cute, Alexandra, but I didn’t realize, until today, you’re also really funny. You’re so shy and quiet in class.” My cheeks redden again. I laugh nervously as I tuck my hair behind my ear. 

What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m not actually writing anything now, but I am percolating on a story that picks up with Alex, the main character in Now I know It’s Not My Fault, ten years down the line. I really like the character, and it would be interesting to see where she is after college and how her experiences with Paula affect her life into adulthood.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I published my first article when I was a 23-year-old graduate student, so I guess I’ve technically been a writer since then. I’ve been a therapist for more twenty years and it’s hard to think of myself as anything other than that, professionally. But I think publishing my debut novel probably means I’m now a writer also.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I’m a Marriage and Family Therapist and I have a private practice in the town where I live, so most days I see clients. Although, I almost never work all day, which often leaves me large blocks of time to write. I enjoy the balance of doing therapy and writing. I have to admit, I always use the open blocks in my schedule for writing. I have three kids and a giant dog who need my attention.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I almost always write the music of the Fleetwood Mac station on Pandora.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a young child, I wanted to be a jockey. I was small and loved horses so it seemed like an obvious choice.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I’m a bit shy, and both love and hate all the attention my book is getting.


Thanks for being here today, Laurie. All the best with your 'percolating'!


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