An Interview with David Samuel Levinson
By Mary Coyne and Anna Ryan
David Samuel Levinson is the 2011 Lamar and Marguerite Smith Writing Fellow at Columbus State University’s Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians. He has published one collection of short stories, Most of us Are Here Against Our Will, and his first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, is due out from Algonquin Books in 2012. His prose has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Slush Pile, Prairie Schooner, and The Brooklyn Review and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize several times. Levinson received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in New York. He served as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and has taught creative writing at The George Washington University, NYU, and the University of Texas at Austin. He has also received fellowships from the Ledig House in New York, the Jentel Foundation in Wyoming, the Santa Fe Art Institute, and Yaddo. Fiction by Levinson appeared in West Branch 65, Fall/Winter 2009.
WB: The short stories in your collection, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will, typically center upon upper-middle-class characters living in American cities like Austin, Texas and Los Angeles. These characters wrestle constantly with their own identities, and often the physical space in which the stories unfold exacerbates their discontent. We're interested in your own relationship to the settings of the stories.
DSL: I often wrestle with the physical space in which I find myself, so it's no surprise (to me, at least) that my characters wrestle with it as well. Of course, the struggle is ultimately an internal one, the landscape merely a way to dramatize it. I see the places about which I write as reflections of the characters. They either recognize themselves in the attitude of these places, or they don't. I have nothing particular invested in these landscapes, other than the fact that I know them, have lived in them, have left them. Or—long to return to them, if only to remember why I first lived in and then left them behind. But the places we live become a part of who we are, and who we are is so often in service to the places in which we live. Someone recently asked me where I did my best writing or, in other words, where I found it easiest to write. I thought about it for a second, even though I knew the answer long before the question had ever been posed. I said New York City without batting an eye. There's a containment, a self-exile, that must happen in NYC if you're to survive, and it's a great place for writing (though not so much for day-to-day living). I'm not a huge fan of crowds, or noise, so I found myself sequestered for much of the day, content at my desk, while the city went on without me. I never minded this. Part of being a writer, in my opinion, is setting a rhythm for the day. When I did venture outside, it was always to go foraging for food, to exercise, to have coffee with a friend. And then it was right back to the hole with me. Funnily enough, I rarely ever set a story in NYC, though I did finally finish one that is set in Greenpoint. And now that I live in Berlin, I'm really hankering to set a story there, but I find it tricky to write about a place in which I'm living. I believe a writer needs room to let the space inhabit him, and this is hard to do when you're passing the same sights all the time. It becomes something of a chore for me, in fact, to give a place life when I'm involved with it so deeply. But then this is also what keeps my characters struggling with their environments, either to stay in them or to move on. Place as tension. I think you'll find that this is a universal theme, and not just in fiction.
WB: A particularly distinctive feature of your work is the way in which you layer sources of conflict. In “Things You Can Expect From Your Loved Ones,” for example, Ruth Blum grapples with the suicide of her homosexual son. At the same time, she battles both debilitating arthritis and a husband who sleeps with her best friend. It’s hard to pull off a story with so many sources of conflict, but you manage it well. Can you talk about how you work with conflict in a story? How much is enough and how much is too much?
DSL: First, thanks for the compliment. Second, like Eudora Welty, I believe that place is a lesser angel and that feeling wears the crown. I have always striven to make sure that my stories are about people, first and foremost. And where there are people, there is bound to be conflict. I don't write quiet stories. At least, I don't think I do. And I don't tend to write about quiet lives. I write about failure and about desperation, about suffering and surviving, and because of it, my stories drip in conflict and irresolution. The two often go hand in hand and often make terrific bedfellows. So much of what I read today, as far as short stories are concerned, seems to lack dimension and depth of character. I always think to myself, after reading such a story, that the author could've done himself a world of good by wrecking the outer shell of his creation just a little bit (or a lot) more. Let us, the readers, see the gnarled fingers reaching for the aspirin bottle, and presto! We're far more likely to sympathize with the protagonist. There doesn’t need to be any sort of identification going on and the protagonist doesn’t need to be “good,” but as fiction writers it’s our duty to present reality in as many manifestations as possible.
Conflict is simply one ingredient in a stew of literary ingredients, but conflict is the most important of them all. Forget about dialogue, about setting, about imagery, about narrative, about any of it, because without good, solid conflict you've got nothing to go on. We spend much of our lives trying to clean up messes, tying up loose ends, working toward closure and, ultimately, catharsis. But fiction is about untying loose ends, making things messier; it’s about openings, dissolution—none of which is possible without the catalyst known as conflict. In my real life, I often shy away from confrontation. In my fiction, I strike out and head directly for it. I bloody my hands. I get on my knees and root around in the muck and the shit that terrifies me. It's all terrifying anyway, so I might as well have a little fun while I'm facing it. Conflict paves the way for revelation and epiphany, if those are the kinds of stories you're telling. (And those are the only kinds of stories worth telling, in my opinion.) Conflict leads to transfiguration, and transcendence. It is the spice on your tongue and the sweat on your forehead and the eruption of gas in your bowels—but damn if that chili wasn't the best you've ever had. That's how I want my readers to come away from one of my stories—upset, dyspeptic, discomfited, irritated inside and out, moved.
You can never have too much or too little conflict. What you can have, however, is a story that suffers from anemia of spirit, that takes itself way too seriously, and that obscures its better intentions by hiding behind some sort of clingy ideology. There are many wonderful short story writers out there who tell wickedly sad and wickedly funny tales. Alice Munro is a favorite of mine, precisely because of her use of conflict. Her stories are insanely packed with it, and they're delicious because of it. (To this day, "Miles City, Montana" is still one of my favorites.) But here's what I really think—conflict is what starts a war. It's also what starts a great work of fiction.
WB: You mention that in your own life, you shy away from confrontation. It seems as if writing allows you to face the things we fear most as humans (loss of love, failure, loneliness, etc). In your stories, however, musicians, writers, and sculptors alike often resist acknowledging their faults. Jed, the protagonist in “The Cheerleader’s Kiss,” buries himself in his screenplay to avoid confronting the problems accumulating in his real life. How do you respond to the general notion that artists often hide in their work?
DSL: It's true that most people (readers) assume that if I write a first-person narrative, then I must be the narrator, especially if that narrator is male and of a certain age. This, of course, is hogwash, though it isn't hogwash for everybody. What I mean is: I don't write autobiographically, ever. I might draw on certain people and certain situations or events, but I never willingly use my own life to tell a story. Perhaps this comes out of the idea I have that I was born with an imagination and that when a piece of writing is good, it makes use of that imagination to the fullest. Or perhaps it's simply because I'm a very private person and I want the intimate details of my life to stay mine. What I share with the world about myself is not necessarily on the page. In fact, much of the time I'm as horrified as the reader when one of my characters says something off-color or does something reprehensible. Yes, it's a bit of a thrill for me when these things happen, because I do tend to walk a fairly moral line. I like to think of myself as a good person, just as I like to think of my characters as good people who often go bad. They're certainly fun to write, and in some way I suppose I'm working out my own badness, my own foibles, through them—i.e., through the fictive lens.
You'll never catch me writing a story about a boy who was raised in Texas to middle-class Jewish parents. I'd feel far too exposed, and, besides, that story just isn't interesting—at least the way I see it. Maybe that will change in time, and I'll eat my words someday, but until that day comes…All of this is to say that I try very hard to hide who I am in my work. Very hard. Because the story isn't about me, or what I've experienced, or how I feel about this or that (though the latter often comes through in voice and tone). The story is about the invented universe and the characters that populate it. It isn't about me, the writer, David Samuel Levinson, stepping into the narrative and telling the reader how to think or how to feel. It isn't a tattoo that screams, Look at me! It's about stepping out of the narrative, but leaving enough of my own personality in it so that the story's recognizable as mine. This would be my ultimate and crowning achievement—to have someone read one of my stories one day without knowing I wrote it, and to have him say, after he's finished, That was a Levinson story, I'm sure of it! The fear, of course, is that I'm not gimmicky enough, or minimal enough, or whatever-is-selling-these-days enough and that I'll be lost among the thousands of others doing exactly what I'm doing—telling realistic, neo-traditional tales, with epiphanies and revelations and lots of drama. These are the kinds of stories that moved me as a child-reader, and these are the kinds of stories that move me today.
WB: Your personality and style certainly do emanate from your stories. We’d be interested to hear more about your literary influences—you’ve mentioned Eudora Welty and Alice Munro. Which other authors and stories do you find yourself returning to for inspiration?
DSL: Funny, but I think that this is the hardest of all the questions you've asked, if only because my influences change all the time, as I hope my writing changes, and grows. But that said, I have always found the Russians a great source of inspiration, those vast epics of the nineteenth century. I don't write anything like they do, yet I feel an aching in their prose that I love and try to emulate. Mostly, I like to read fiction that has something to say, that does something. I like novels that tell a good story through interesting plots and characters. That's actually not as easy as it appears, I've learned. Many times, we read books with either/or—either it has a good, compelling story or it has good, compelling prose. E. M. Forster, one of my literary heroes, had both, in my opinion. So did James Baldwin. So did Du Maurier. So do Donna Tartt, Dale Peck, and Robert Goolrick, to name a few. These are writers who create fantastically wild plots and people them with fantastically well-drawn characters. Lately, I find myself reading more and more detective fiction, like Chandler, like McDonald, like Cain, not because of their use of language—I don't consider any of them to be great stylists or wordsmiths—but because of how they construct plot. Plot. It's an overused word, but it's also a word that has lost its meaning, I think, or if it hasn't lost its meaning, then its meaning has been subverted. Recently, an editor rejected one of my stories because he said that the plot was too neat. I still have no idea what he means, really. The plot was too neat? It makes me think of a grave, actually, and the grass that grows over it a year after the body has been laid in the ground, hiding what is below. Plots are what lie below the story and what give the story its nuclear-holocaust glow. As far as I can tell, the greatest works of literature have had the same "the plot is too neat" syndrome—think about Howards End, for example. How everything ties up so nicely, though so inevitably. Think about Rebecca. Think about Beloved. Think about Another Country, or Giovanni's Room, or What Makes Sammy Run? Honestly, I am sick of reading character-driven books, because the characters are usually anemic, which means the plot is also anemic. Plot arises from character, not the other way around. So, when I get into a plot jam, I usually go to the great plotters—Collins, Du Maurier, Tolstoy, Tartt, Ellis, even Munro—to see how they've done it, and then, to do it differently, to make it my own.
WB: Could you tell us more about the title Most Of Us Are Here Against Our Will and how you selected it to represent this collection?
DSL: Titling the collection was perhaps the easiest part of the entire enterprise and of a piece with the making of the book as a whole. Every character in the collection is in a situation that is against his will. Much could be made of this, of course. Fiction is usually about characters in dire situations, having to deal with trouble sometimes beyond their control. I found that the title story, “Most of us Are Here Against Our Will,” related perfectly to all of the stories in so far as the characters' wills were being tested time and again.
WB: Your forthcoming novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, marks your first venture into longer fiction. What’s the novel about? How does the process of writing a novel differ from that of writing a short story?
DSL: Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is a novel about ambition. The conceit is fairly simple: a widow in a small college town rents her cottage to the same renowned literary critic who'd panned her late husband's novel and whose review might or might not have contributed to her husband's untimely death. It's a literary thriller, an homage to the great literary thrillers of the past, such as Rebecca and The Woman in White. I began the novel in the fall of 2003, and have written a dozen or more drafts of it since then. Look for it in the fall of 2012.
As for the difference between writing a novel and writing short stories, I can only say this: a novel is like a house into which you move for years. The house needs constant attention, or else it will fall down on you. But it is a kind of shelter, and for this, you must treat it with kindness and gratitude. If not, the roof will cave in on you, and the house itself will pick up stakes. The great thing about a novel is how many rooms you have through which to walk, how the rooms change as the novel changes, and how many doors you can discover that lead to other rooms, other doors, and of course the occasional brick wall. Short stories are like rented studio apartments. You know where everything is after a while, and you don't have a lot of room in which to breathe. The 500 square feet is yours to do with as you please, but it is only 500 square feet, so you must be careful about what you put in the corners, and tack up on the walls. Every detail counts. Too much clutter and the place takes on a haphazard, and claustrophobic feel. Too spare, and it doesn't quite feel lived in. But once you're done with the story, you get to break your lease on that particular studio (it's much harder when you liked living in it, but c'est la vie, c'est la histoire!). You get to find another apartment, with more room, or less, depending on your mood. And you begin to move in once again.