Literary Sociology: An Interview with Dr. Patricia Leavy about ‘Spark’

Interview by Adrienne Trier-Bieniek

Acclaimed sociologist Dr. Patricia Leavy has published over twenty-five books, earning critical and commercial success in both fiction and nonfiction, and her books have been translated into numerous languages. She’s a leading research methodologist best known for her advocacy of arts-based research. She pioneered the method of “social fiction” which refers to fiction grounded in insights from scholarly research and is the creator and editor for the award-winning Social Fictions book series (Brill/Sense), which is the first academic book series to exclusively publish literary works. It’s fair to say, she’s a woman on a mission, dedicated to merging fiction and social science, and blurring trade and academic publishing. She’s received a slew of career awards, including an award named in her honour, and has been called “a visionary” and a “renegade.” With her new release, Spark, she’s tackling subjects like critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and the research process, all in the pages of a quick, fun, novel that anyone can read. Spark is a ground-breaking novel that seems both an impossibility and inevitability. Patricia is also a friend and colleague. I had the opportunity to speak with her upon the release.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: What is Spark about?

Patricia Leavy: It’s a novel that explores the research process, critical thinking, problem-solving, and transdisciplinarity. In terms of a synopsis, the protagonist is Professor Peyton Wilde. She has grown complacent, much like the students at the idyllic liberal arts college where she teaches. One day an invitation arrives. She has been selected as one of forty-nine individuals to participate in an all-expense paid seminar in Iceland. Participants, billed as some of the greatest thinkers of our time, will be charged with answering one question. Peyton arrives at Crystal Manor and is placed in a group with six other international participants— Liev an arrogant neuroscientist, Ariana an emerging neuroscientist, Dietrich an acclaimed philosopher, Harper a free-spirited dance teacher, Ronnie an enthusiastic collage artist, and Milton, a retired farmer. Peyton is assigned the role of scribe— the one solely responsible for the group’s final report— and her anxiety starts to simmer. When the participants hear the question they are to answer, they are dumfounded. As the characters unravel the meaning of the question, they are set on a transformational journey that is bigger than any of them.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: How did you get the idea?

Patricia Leavy: A few years ago I was one of fifty people invited to participate in a seminar on the neuroscience of creativity hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria. Receiving that invitation was like getting the golden ticket for the chocolate factory. It was an extraordinary experience. The seminar occurred at the actual Sound of Music house in Salzburg, an incredible castle. The participants were a mix of neuroscientists, artists, and a few others from around the world. I think we all felt deeply privileged to be there. With that, came a sense of responsibility to be of use while we were there. I’ll never forget touring the castle and being informed about its history. It is a place where both world leaders and Nazis have slept. We took the privilege of being there seriously. As a methodologist, I was constantly thinking through that lens. We were a group of strangers dropped down in a spectacular setting trying to engage in productive inter- and transdisciplinary dialogue and I kept thinking this was how to write a novel about the research process. For years I’ve advocated for the arts as a way to teach other subject matter and my earlier novels are all based on sociological themes. As a methodologist, I had wondered if there was a way to combine methods and fiction. In Salzburg, I got my answer. Over the course of the week the idea for Spark developed. After the seminar I spent some time in Vienna and wrote the entire outline. I put it in a drawer to allow it to stew. When I had met other commitments and felt the time was right, I began writing.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: You’re a proponent of arts-based research. For those who aren’t familiar, what is arts-based research?

Patricia Leavy: Arts-based research is an approach to research that includes many different practices or methods, just like quantitative or qualitative research. ABR exists at the nexus of the arts and sciences. It involves researchers in any discipline adapting the tenets of the creative arts in order to address their research questions. An arts practice may be used during project conceptualization, data collection, data analysis, interpretation, and/or to represent research findings. Arts-based research practices are useful for producing new insights, description, exploration, discovery, problem solving, forging micro-macro connections, evocation, provocation, raising critical consciousness or awareness, cultivating empathy, unsettling stereotypes, applied research, and contributing to public scholarship. 

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: Why did you turn to the arts in your sociological writing?

Patricia Leavy: I was frustrated with the limitations of traditional methods and specifically, traditional representational forms. Peer-reviewed journal articles and conference presentations are totally inaccessible to the public. I believe research should be beneficial to the many, not the few. On top of which, they’re also poorly read within the academy, shockingly so, with most academic articles having only a few readers. Some journals even count authors and editors among readers because they’re so desperate to make it seem there’s an audience. I felt the interview research I was conducting could be of use to both student and nonacademic audiences so I turned to the arts and specifically fiction. I’ve written several novels based on sociological themes as well as a coauthored collection of short stories. I use fiction to get at issues that are otherwise out of reach and to make my work more engaging and accessible, including to relevant stakeholders outside of the academy. Fiction also makes lasting impressions, and there’s neuroscience to support that. Readers have shared with me that my novels have stayed with them for years. I’ve never heard that about my journal articles.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: As you mentioned, you’ve had a lot of experience writing fiction intended for academic audiences. Why? What can you achieve with fiction that can’t be done in prose?

Patricia Leavy: It’s about both what you can do as a writer and how a reader will approach the work. As a writer, there’s freedom to explore topics and different points of view in a way that’s tricky or impossible with nonfiction. For example, fiction allows for the representation of interiority—what a person is thinking. That alone provides endless opportunities to show the gap between what people say and do versus what they think and feel. Interior dialogue exposes characters’ vulnerabilities, and those are the things that connect us, so fiction is uniquely able to promote empathy. Fiction also stimulates critical thinking and imagination. By using common literary devices such as gaps in the narrative, metaphors or similes, fiction invites readers to fill in the blanks in ways nonfiction rarely does. Here you can start to see how it’s not only about what fiction affords writers, but also what the experience of reading is like. To that end, readers approach fiction differently. It’s usually seen as a leisure time activity— something people take pleasure in. People’s defenses and tendency toward rebuttal are dialed down. That’s a very different frame of mind than when reading nonfiction or hearing an academic lecture for that matter.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: There’s a belief system that nonfiction represents “truth” whereas fiction is “made up.” How do you view the work of novelists?

Patricia Leavy: The whole idea of the binary is problematic, but that’s a topic itself. Novelists are incredibly honest and vulnerable. I view novelists as truth-tellers. They share their hopes, dreams, fantasies, fears, loves, losses, grief, and observations. They share their truth. The good ones share ours, too. Even though our characters and their circumstances may be quite different from us, they come through our filter— our human filter, our filter of knowledge, experiences, and concerns. There’s a profound honesty in the writing of fiction. It isn’t only novelists who understand this. Readers who are emotionally moved by a novel, connected to the characters, or immersed in the story-world, also understand the honesty involved. When I speak of the honesty in fiction, also bear in mind that in a general sense all fiction either chronicles or reimagines, or a mix of the two. Those acts are firmly grounded in “reality” or what we understand to be reality. Of all the work I’ve done, I consider being a novelist the greatest responsibility and privilege. The most truthful things I’ve ever written are in my novels. I sincerely mean that.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: There’s a hierarchy in the academy. Sociologists, among others in the social sciences and humanities, often receive less funding and less legitimacy. This is reflected in the mix of characters in the book. Can you talk about this?

Patricia Leavy: There are strong biases in the research world, favoring quantitative or so called “hard science,” itself a misleading and power-laden term. Calls for “evidence-based research” define what counts as evidence in highly limited ways. It’s built into the entire research apparatus. Those in the natural or physical sciences and quantitative social scientists receive far more funding than those doing qualitative, community-based, or other forms of research. They also have more opportunities to apply for funding. The socially constructed supremacy of quantitative research impacts journal ratings and publications, academic awards, and many other features of professional life. The biases aren’t subtle. The entire system is rigged in favor of one set of approaches. And I have no problem with quantitative research. It’s useful to study many things, but not all things. This is the very reason I wrote my book Research Design: Quantitative, Qualitative, Mixed Methods, Arts-Based and Community-Based Participatory Research Approaches.

Each way of knowing is valid and useful. But again, to return to your point, those in the humanities and social sciences are lower on the totem pole in the research world. Those in the arts are even lower, despite all the benefits we know art offers. So in writing a novel that follows a randomly lumped together group of scholars and artists from different disciplines, it seemed important to consider how the group dynamic might be impacted by how the world at large views and treats different disciplines. I’ve been in rooms many times where a neuroscientist or quantitative psychologist, for example, will actually tell an artist or qualitative social scientist that their work is less important and less difficult and therefore they deserve to earn less money. The way these different disciplines are treated within the research landscape begins to shape the people within the disciplines, including what they take for granted and what they assume to be true about their own work and the work of others. There are real-world consequences. So I wanted to expose this hierarchical system through the dynamic of the characters. I also think as much as some forms of research are under-valued, what is perhaps even more under-valued is lay or experiential knowledge. This is reflected in the character of Milton, the retired farmer that at first no one in the group takes seriously. Yet his experiential knowledge is invaluable. Again, my intent was to challenge the knowledge hierarchy that permeates the research space, and also to make reference to community-based and other forms of participatory, collaborative research in which lay knowledge is just as important as academic knowledge.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: You addressed this a bit in the last question, but you’re well-known as a research methodologist and you’ve penned some of the leading methods textbooks. How does this novel reflect that work?

Patricia Leavy: Well, in a few different ways. Spark is designed to sensitize readers to the research process, critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration. I never could have written Spark if I hadn’t written so many methods texts. You need to know your stuff inside and out in order to weave it into fiction in a way that isn’t cumbersome. The process of writing my textbooks and especially Research Design, made me comfortable enough to take this on. Also, throughout my career I’ve been writing about how different approaches to research and knowledge from different disciplines is all valuable. For example, I’ve written about the arts for many years. The characters in the novel and the journey they take reflect my belief that each discipline and approach to knowledge-building has value. I also wrote a book about transdisciplinary research years back. That was a pivotal book for me, just in terms of my own thinking. It became crystal clear to me when I was doing the research for that book that real-world problems of import can only be effectively addressed with transdisciplinary approaches. The real-world isn’t structured the way the research academy has designed itself, with each discipline in isolated silos. Social problems don’t fit neatly into categories. Most problems have multiple dimensions. This is true from cancer to school violence to climate change.  To truly address these issues we need to pool our expertise and resources and approach them holistically. This is reflected in Spark.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: The novel also touches on issues such as intersectionality. Can you talk about that decision?

Patricia Leavy: My novels are always meant to reflect real life, even when imagining how something might be different. We all live in bodies that are at once gendered, sexualized, racialized, and so forth. Intersectionality is always there, whether we choose to address it or not. I made the decision to explicitly address intersectionality, although in a pretty subtle way, because the novel is designed to be used in college classes and promote critical thinking. I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to include something so basic to our lives within unequal and hierarchical societies. There are also issues of power and group dynamics that come to bear in the book. I don’t think we can authentically represent these issues without acknowledging the role of status characteristics or social identities. I thought it was particularly important since many of the characters are academics. I wanted to show that even those who occupy the role of educator often have many lessons to learn when it comes to race and gender. We all have work to do. As a novel, Spark can be read by anyone so I hope casual readers who observe the group interactions and then hear how the characters in question make sense of it, are prompted to reflect on the different realities people are forced to contend with.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: Who is the primary audience for Spark?

Patricia Leavy: There are two audiences. General readers looking for an adventure novel of sorts or just looking for inspiration.  In some ways it’s a novel about reigniting the spark buried in each of us and reimaging our personal and professional lives.  With all of the divisiveness we see in the world these days, people may see it as a reminder that different people and different perspectives can live together harmoniously. The characters offer a roadmap toward something more respectful and hopeful than what we see in politics or on social media. I also wrote it for academic audiences. I envision the book being used as a springboard for reflection and discussion in a range of social science and education courses including introductory classes, social problems, and research methods. I could also see it being used as a university-wide freshman reading book. In some ways the experience of the characters arriving at the seminar mirrors the experience of arriving at college. Just like the characters, new students can feel both excited and overwhelmed, they may have anxiety about measuring up, meeting new people from different backgrounds, and ultimately learning about themselves and the world. There are positive messages in the book for students. I see Spark as an easy fit for many kinds of courses. It’s meant to sensitize students to the research process, the principles of collaboration, critical thinking, and transdisciplinarity. It’s the kind of book that students are apt to enjoy reading and to make it classroom friendly I’ve included discussion questions as well as research and writing activities. I can envision lively class discussions. Individual researchers can also read it for pleasure and perhaps a little inspiration.

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek: What do you hope readers take from it?

Patricia Leavy: The characters in the book are in search of a new way to see and I guess that’s what I hope readers get as well. Over time the gap between our ideals and hopes and the realities of our professional lives can grow larger. If this book could help inspire readers to close that gap a bit, I’d be overjoyed.

Spark is available here: Spark at Guilford (use promo code 7FSPARK for 20% off & free shipping in US/Canada)

Learn More about Patricia Leavy:

Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, PhD, is chair of sociology and anthropology at Valencia College. She is the author and editor of numerous books focused on popular culture. Find out about her work at Www.adriennetrier-Bieniek.com.

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