A Talk with Sara Levine

Sara Levine’s first novel, Treasure Island!!!, is a book about a book, that isn’t really about that book. It is scorchingly hilarious. A teetering, darkly humorous affair, tilting toward discomfort and interpersonal collapse. A train wreck from which you cannot avert your gaze. The book is successful, and courageous, because Levine creates a mostly, if not wholly, unlikeable narrator, and largely resists any urge to redeem her. And while it is this crazy, charming, self-centered voice that draws you in, the book is much more about the unreliable reader — picking and choosing the lessons in the text that may or may not apply to her own life. All of which creates an uneasy tension as we read, lured into nervous laughter, but never certain if we, the readers, aren’t also implicated. The following conversation, snappy as it seems, took place over a ten-month period, mostly due to the interviewer struggling deep into adulthood in the critical life-skill areas of focus and perseverance. Neither author nor interviewer have met in person and might very likely pass each other in an airport oblivious to the fact that they had rather thoughtfully talked about books and writing.

—Jason Porter

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INTERVIEWER

Your book is very funny. I imagine that once you found the voice of the narrator, you probably didn’t feel you had much choice. Is that close to the truth? Do you even worry about something like that, whether or not it’s too funny or not funny enough?

LEVINE

Thanks. The voice led me into comic territory, but I can’t let her say all the funny things she wants to. What the voice can say is dictated by the needs of the larger story. I cut a lot of funny lines not because they aren’t funny—or so I console myself— so the character’s underlying emotions—sadness, say, or fear—can come through. I also cut a lot of funny lines because my friends, or editor, convinced me they were tasteless.

INTERVIEWER

Is this something that gets easier as you progress as a writer, knowing the jokes or clever lines that you need to get out of your system versus the ones that work to benefit the voice or story?

LEVINE

I think it’s gotten easier for me. I’m working on new novel now and I don’t think I’m as patient with the funny stuff.

INTERVIEWER

I said the book is funny, but don’t mean to suggest it is only that. But because of the humor, and because the language is clean and economical, and I was reading along at a good clip, I found the other layers to the book sneaked up on me. You create a diversion of sorts — a ruckus around a screaming baby in a crowded market while your orphan assistant sneaks in and steals my wallet — and only then do I realize I have been walloped over the head, or in the knees and stomach, with unexpected meaning. The first thing that snuck up on me was the realization that this is really just the most awesome book report ever. Am I right? I mean, it’s probably not at all what happened, but I wanted to imagine that you set out to write a book report (I could say review, but I like the way report makes it sound like onerous busywork assigned by a teacher on the cusp of retirement). Maybe you had to choose between several titles, Treasure Island and Call of The Wild and Swiss Family Robinson, and the assignment was so below your gifts of imagination, and you really loathe following directions, and so to make the assignment interesting and worthwhile to you, you decided to conceive of an entire world and have the characters comment on the book both directly and through the choices in their lives that the book inspires. Is this anything close to what happened?

LEVINE

Thank you. That’s wonderful to hear! And I don’t think you’re far off to call it a book report. Originally I meant to write an essay on Stevenson. I was an assistant professor in a university’s nonfiction program and felt obliged to write a piece of nonfiction so I looked into Treasure Island as a matter of research. Just that fact—that I, a woman, with a serious purpose, was settling down with a boy’s book—struck me as funny. Then I got wind of her voice and threw out the essay. Her half-blind book report seemed more fun than any essay I could write.

INTERVIEWER

I love when things like that happen. A lot of people would think it would be a lot less work to write an essay than a novel. Do you often find yourself creating elaborate projects just to avoid something that feels daunting simply because it is less interesting to you?

LEVINE

That would be a handy evasion tactic, but I don’t find myself creating elaborate projects. Instead I find myself cooking.

INTERVIEWER

Well, for me, I’m pretty sure it was more fun for the reader as well, not to underestimate your potential as an essayist. Is this something you would be willing to advocate for all book reviews in the future, so that if a critic wants to review a book, the only way she can earn that privilege is to spend a minimum of one year writing her own novel which is an elaborate and invented response to the original novel she had set out to review? In this way the critic too would have to put something greater at stake in the process, something much more personal than a star or thumb or letter ranking system.

LEVINE

The star, thumb, and letter ranking systems rankle, but the professional critics don’t irk me as much as the bloggers. Why are they so rushed? One reader who describes herself as a “book lover” who read Treasure Island!!! while suffering from the flu. You can tell, from her post, that she crawled on hands and knees from the toilet bowl just so she could type a blog post about how much she disliked the book. Then, back to the bowl.

INTERVIEWER

This is probably easy for me to say, since it’s not my book, but isn’t it kind of awesome that this person was more disgusted by your book than the vomit that just came out of her mouth? I mean isn’t it a good thing to upset at least a percentage of the people who read your work? Or am I just trying to preemptively talk myself off the ledge before the (I hope) inevitable day when somebody explains how reading my work made them want to take their own life?

LEVINE

You’re right. Another reader said she wanted to tear the book to pieces, and a friend congratulated me, assuming I was proud to have made something that riled people. But I can’t claim I set out to rile people; I didn’t even let myself think that much about the audience. But if I put aside my ridiculously hurt feelings, I agree with her and Edward Albee, whom my friend quoted: “All great art is written against the audience. Because the audience wants the status quo.”

INTERVIEWER

This is also a book about reading and the very personal relationships we forge with books. I realize that last sentence sounds a little hokey, but you know what I mean, right? It’s a demonstration of just how subjective each reader’s experience is. Your protagonist takes an adventure yarn written originally as a serialized coming-of-age story, and applies lessons she misunderstands in the book to her life which she also misunderstands. It is, on a basic level, a funny premise, but it also serves to comment on how much of ourselves we insert into the narrative. With every reader the book becomes a variant on the author’s conception for the book. Was this something you had in mind, or maybe just uncovered as you found the story?

LEVINE

I had something like that in mind, from the beginning, though I’m sure I couldn’t express it as neatly as you just did. I did think some about Stevenson’s essay on romance and realism where he privileges the reader’s imaginative participation in storytelling. For RLS, if the reader consciously plays at being the hero, the scene is a good scene. Some people read to “escape”; some people read to more deeply enter their experience, by which I mean they may revel in the “otherness” of the story, and yet still make a play-by-play comparison with their own lives. Obviously it’s all right to use a book to better know yourself, but there’s always that danger that you’re so preoccupied with your own way of seeing the world that you miss the writer’s point completely. I bring this no doubt morbid self-consciousness to everyday conversations, too, i.e, you’re telling me about your day and I’m trying to listen, but some little voice is tracking what you’re saying against my own experience: how was my day?

INTERVIEWER

Which is kind of what we are all doing with social media, comparing our dinners with the dinner recently photographed by that guy we hated from high school. I’m not sure this is a question.

LEVINE

No, it’s your higher self urging you to get off Facebook.

INTERVIEWER

While I just got done treating the initial premise of your book as if it were an outlandish idea, is it really so crazy? I mean, people do do this all the time. Look at all the damage wrought by bankers who have taken to heart the collected works of Ayn Rand. Can you think of other books besides Treasure Island, and The Fountainhead, that would serve as even worse instructional manuals for self-actualization?

LEVINE

Sorrentino’s Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things? Anything by Thomas Bernhard? I don’t know; really anything would be a bad instructional manual. Novels have more than voice in them, so the problem is not the book per se but the reading of any book with diverse points of view as if only one point of view mattered. Novels are conversations. You’re going to get in trouble if you focus on one thread instead of the whole tapestry. I had a really good time thinking about how to embed other points of view into my novel; the narrator was the one telling the story—taking up all the oxygen in the room—but I wanted the reader to detect alternative ways of viewing the events she narrated (Lars, the parents, the sister, Rena—they were equally important voices, even though the narrator constantly minimizes or warps their points of view).

INTERVIEWER

Treasure Island is used as a guide by the narrator, but did it also serve that role for you while writing it? I mean, if I might assume you didn’t always have a clear sense of where you were heading with the novel, did you return to the original Treasure Island with questions, like ‘How would you resolve this, Treasure Island?’ or ‘How do I keep the narrative rolling, Robert Louis Stevenson?’

LEVINE

I did use it; it was my scaffolding. Often I thought about the “key scenes” in Stevenson’s novel and then wrote scenes to rhyme with them. For a long time I had an eavesdropping scene where the narrator listens at her bedroom door—to go alongside with Jim Hawkins’ famous scene in the apple barrel, where he hears the pirates plotting mutiny. But eventually my story took over and the parallels became much more oblique.

INTERVIEWER

We never find out the narrator’s name, is that because you were embarrassed that her name is Cindy?

LEVINE

I have lived for the day when some bright reader would realize that I based her on the youngest sister in The Brady Brunch. Now that you have the key to the novel in your hands, what will you do with this power?

But seriously, it never felt right to give her a name. At first, I wanted to focus on the ego and its devious workings more than I wanted to give a girl a surname and a zip code. And I thought that if I gave her a name, I’d be giving the reader an easy handle to pick her up and throw her out: “Oh my god, I hate that Amy Kulpinski!” Of course, a reader might still say, “I hate that narrative voice!” but you can’t wedge the same degree of spitting hatred into that phrase, can you? If I could get the reader to go along, turning the pages even while muttering, “Who is this person?”, the gap between reader and narrator might occasionally narrow. You might, in other words, recognize a tiny piece of yourself.

INTERVIEWER

Maybe that’s what spurned on the angry reviewer who hammered out her Yelp-esque review before washing the puke off her hands, she recognized a piece of herself (aside from the ones in the toilet) and that pissed her off. Do you hate animals? What about parrots? Are parrots animals?

LEVINE

I don’t hate animals, nor do I love them. I have to take each one on an individual basis, though I admit I’ve never met a snowy owl I didn’t give the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was twenty and object strenuously to factory farming and zoos. I went to the aviary in Pittsburgh last summer and saw some wing-clipped parrots in a corner, imitating ring tones. Isn’t that depressing? I know people love to keep parrots as pets, but I wish that we left them in the wild.

INTERVIEWER

Or at least a humane distance from our ring tones. Still on the subject of animals, taking out a goldfish on loan is such a very sad image, for all involved. Was there any particular inspiration for this? Memories of a terrible job or general pet misfortune, or the inability as a child due to limits outside of your control that prevented you from full-time pet ownership?

LEVINE

As a child my family had a dog and it was altogether a happy experience. (At least for us; I guess we have no way of knowing really how it turned out for Charlie.) The last few years I’ve wanted a dog but I also can’t deal with the commitment. I like to travel! I like to move around! I like a lot of room on the sofa! So maybe The Pet Library comes from a place of personal evasion. That and the memory of my elementary school carnival where the prize for knocking over a milk bottle was a goldfish in a plastic bag. We used to carry the fish home and they were dead within weeks.

INTERVIEWER

When the central premise is revealed, (mis)using Treasure Island as a guide book for reclaiming one’s life-course, I at first anticipated a series of questionable decisions that would put the narrator on a more traditional adventure trajectory — flight from home, stowing away on boats or trains, pirates, treasures, wooden legs, bottles of rum — but instead our narrator sails into much more treacherous waters: Domesticity. It’s a scary, angry, dangerous place, with emotional land mines at every turn. Was this a conscious strategy?

LEVINE

Absolutely, and thanks for recognizing it. Stevenson deliberately excluded sex and women from Treasure Island. The masculinity of adventure literature in general interested me—the convention of the adventurer as someone in flight from women. In the real Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins has a nice cry as he says goodbye to his mother, and then he’s off, as if quitting Mom is his passport. I wanted my narrator to try to escape into “clean, open-air adventure”—but wind up instead in the over-heated indoor air of the domestic. Her parents’ and her sister’s psyches—that’s the territory she’s loathe to explore. That’s why she’s thrown into the emotional and erotic heart of her family. It would be easier for her to climb aboard a schooner than deal with the intimate details of her parents’ sexual life.

INTERVIEWER

Jonathan Franzen advises against writing in the first person. Does that make you even more excited that you did?

LEVINE

Honestly, and at the risk of sounding like a jerk, I’ve never followed Franzen’s work, nor his career, with much interest. Now I think if only I had revered him, loathed him, or cultivated a less indifferent stance, I might be able to stand up on the kitchen table, and beat my chest and scream, FUCK YOU FRANZIE! I DID IT!!!

Does anyone call him Franzie?

But seriously, Franzen and I read some of the same writers (I too am an enormous fan of Paula Fox), but I feel indifferent to the aesthetic advice he doles out.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of advice, you teach writing if I’m not mistaken. Are there rules like that you find yourself passing on to your students, even if there really aren’t any universal rules for good writing? Like, never use the word ‘moist’ or your narrators can never have a dream about looking into the mirror while talking to themselves about September 11th?

LEVINE

No rules. Major prejudices, of course. But no rules—only ruthless attention to convention and innovation.

INTERVIEWER

It seems like it could become incredibly addictive to write in the voice of an insensitive narcissist. Was it?

LEVINE

The thing I am working on now—it is premature to call it a novel—is written in the third person from five different points of view. It may not come off, but it seemed better than continuing with the narcissistic first. That said, maybe I will come back to the insensitive narcissist later. I love Nabokov’s Despair, Pale Fire, and Lolita. But I also love The Luzhin Defense and Pnin and am glad every book Nabokov wrote wasn’t told by a maniac. A few people have asked, “Is there going to be a sequel?” I was uneasy to realize how readily I might write one. So to make my writing life as difficult as possible, I started writing this other thing.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything more you might want to say about this new other thing?

LEVINE

I am working on a novel about a woman and a ghost dog. Probably the less said about that, the better!

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