E.J. Levy’s writing has been featured in Best American Essays, The New York Times, and the Paris Review, among other publications, and has received a Pushcart Prize. Her debut story collection, Love, In Theory, won the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award and the 2014 Great Lakes Colleges Association’s New Writers Award.
“Striking Matches in the Dark,” An Interview with E.J. Levy
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Leah Newsom. Of the process she said, “I had the pleasure of meeting EJ briefly after a panel at the Nonfiction Now conference where she read an excerpt of a new essay. She’s such a phenomenal writer and reader, commanding the attention of everyone in the room. When speaking to her, she was generous and personable. The collection Love, in Theory is wonderful, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to ask her about it.” In this interview, EJ discusses the function of autobiography in fiction, the influence of academia on writing, and how theorizing plays a role in writing and in life.
Superstition Review: Many of the characters in Love, in Theory have a connection to academia, whether they are adjunct professors, former professors, or raised by professors. How does academia influence your writing? What keeps you writing about university professors?
E.J. Levy: The novelist and revered writing-teacher John Gardner (who was, among other things, Raymond Carver’s teacher) claimed in his book The Art of Fiction that “university life is poor material for art”; I wanted to prove him wrong.
Categorical dismissal always rubs me the wrong way, so I took his statement as a dare, a gauntlet. Too often young writers—especially if they're at the margins of the cultural conversation in any way—are told that their lives aren't the stuff of art. Women writers hear this all the time, as have queer writers and writers of color and working-class writers. The brilliant novelist Louise Erdrich was told no one wanted to read about Indians, for god’s sake, before her first book, Love Medicine, was published. Anything, I maintain, can be fodder for stories and for art.
I also wanted to challenge American anti-intellectualism, the idea that authenticity is somehow at odds with erudition, that intellection is suspect, that the mind is at odds with the heart. It’s a dangerous myth in a democracy, where education and analysis are necessary to meaningfully participate in the political process.
And it seems a huge lie against experience. So much of our lives are lived in our heads, shaped by our thoughts and ideas, by books and art, ideas and politics; I wanted my stories to reflect that, to represent life as it is lived by many at the start of this new century.
So intellectual life, university life, seemed a good subject to me. I was in graduate school when I wrote many of these stories, and ideas were the atmosphere I lived in—they were as much a part of our conversation as movies and gossip and sex. Like most American writers and readers, I spent a good deal of my childhood and young adulthood in classrooms, so I wanted to write about that world, to examine how we live now, what we think about, what it is to be human in America at the start of this new millennium.
I first read fiction to figure out how to live, and I want to see life as it is in art. I don't live in a world of zombies, vampires, and ghosts; the people I know are haunted by ideas, by books, by desire and by family, so I wanted to explore that.
That said my current book isn't about university life at all. It's a posthumous memoir (told by a dead physician). Although it's based on an actual historical figure, requiring me to do lots of research into early 19th-century medical practices, so perhaps I'm not as far from the university as I think...or as immune to ghost stories.
SR: In your essay “On Living Apart Together,” published in The Rumpus, you mention that “it’s tough to be dumped for God.” This is a significant plot device and thematic element in your story, “Theory of Enlightenment,” which is my favorite in the collection Love, in Theory. How do you separate the autobiographical influence of this story to make it work as a piece of fiction? Does using snippets of autobiography make you feel more intimate with your characters?
EJL: Fiction is a magpie art, I think, in which writers borrow from life to deepen the imagined world; I’m not immune. I always want my fiction to feel like autobiography, to have the bite of truth, the frisson of fact, even as I write fiction precisely to escape the self, to transcend the personal. So for me autobiographical elements are employed as a bridge or step stool to another world, to the world of character, a way of throwing a rope to connect us, as I step into another life.
The question for me is always how to build empathy and sympathy between me and character, between reader and character, and in both cases drawing from life helps me get there, do that, helps me find my way into another life.
That said, I hadn't realized that I'd repeated that line! Yikes! How astute of you, and how ludicrous of me to have repeated it! That story—like a lot of my stories—does borrow small details from life, but the fictional lives portrayed bear little resemblance to my own. As you suggest, such borrowing offers a starting point, a point of intimacy with characters, whose stories can then unfold in very different ways than my own. That story “Theory of Enlightenment” is a good example: I started with a loss I'd experienced (being dumped for God), but the character of Renee is far from my own, her reactions are not mine--she sleeps with a stranger, picks fights on the street, battles her nagging Jewish mother, not to mention that she’s straight. When my first girlfriend left me, I moped, swore off women for a year, confided in my decorous Methodist mom, became a secular monk.
The writer Lee K. Abbott, who is often called "the best teacher of the short-story form working in America today," counsels writers to always include some small detail from someone they know and love in order to connect to character; he littered his fiction with his wife’s body parts until she protested, tired of seeing her moles in his fiction.
All of which is to say that, fiction offers a chance to start with life and depart from it, inventing scene and character and event in order to understand the meaning of events, the nature of human character. In writing, I naturally depart from the factual pretty fast; it’s often just less interesting than the possible imaginary. I usually am working from questions, Why would character do this? What has happened? At the same time, starting from my life enables me to contemplate what we often have overlooked: the lives of girls and women, too often trivialized, too often imagined in terms of het romance, not in terms of intellection or the complexities of female friendship.
I recall the writer Lev Raphael quoting a teacher of his—Margot Livesey perhaps—as having said that you should save some people in your life about whom you do not write, so that you’ll have someone who will still speak to you at the end of your life. But it cuts both ways—people will be annoyed if you write about them (or if they imagine that you have), and annoyed if you don’t. So ultimately, you have to tell your stories with all the humanity and integrity you can muster and just let those characters live in the world. Come what may.
SR: Many of your stories take place in New York City, but many of the characters start their relationships in the west. For example, in your story “Theory of Transportation,” Fran explains that she met Tuni in New Mexico, that they might have become lovers, but now they are just friends in the city. How does New York change relationships? What interests you about the lifestyle differences between New York City and the west?
EJL: How wonderfully observant you are; I’d never thought of that. I suppose this reflects family history: my mother is a Midwestern Methodist, my father hails from Manhattan, so those are the poles I traveled between emotionally. But I also think this reflects an American literary mythology of the twentieth century, a sort of reverse migration made by a lot of Western/Midwestern writers who sought themselves in the East (whether New York or Europe). Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace. It’s contrary to the national mythology of going West for self-invention, a reverse migration, but just as significant culturally.
I couldn’t meaningfully characterize how New York changes relationships, but I do think large cities are transformative, if you’ve not grown up in one, rather in the same way that travel can be: it’s an existential experience, to know oneself in a big anonymous city, to come to the metropole as an outsider and know oneself free of the usual social coordinates. That self-invention is transformative. It was also wonderful to discover what a small town New York City can be, how readily one can become acquainted with artists and writers one’s admired, to feel on a first-name basis with history.
I was amazed to find how literary New York was—unlike almost any other American city, it’s one in which people read literary novels in public. Books are talismanic there, or were in the 1990s, when I lived there out of college. At the same time, I was struck by how much like the West that city is, the wildness they shared—New York had its canyons of skyscrapers, as the southwest had its canyons; both places offer solitude, and vivifying dangers (in Manhattan, it was guns; in the southwest, it was snakes—although now Manhattan feels more like a gated community, manicured, and eerily safe for the comfortable classes, while the West has become a routine site of mass shootings, so I think my mythology’s a bit out of date). I miss that earlier New York, the Manhattan of my father’s youth, when he lived on 95th street, and striking out for the frontier meant moving to 96th street…I kid you not.
SR: Nearly all of the characters in this collection have a theory about love. My favorite is Lisa’s in “Rat Choice.” “Love is about self-transcendence…. To say ‘I love you’ is to make a gesture beyond narcissism; the whole point is to move beyond oneself, to say it is you I love.” What do you find interesting about the different theories of what love is? Do you have a theory you subscribe to? If so, what is it?
EJL: When I wrote many of these stories, I was recovering from a great heartbreak, the end of a marriage, or rather of a partnership that would have been a legal marriage if the state had recognized our same-sex relationship as such; we had built a house together, built a life together, were planning on having a child. Graduate school interrupted that, unexpectedly. I was shattered by the grief I felt and frankly clueless. I didn’t think I could go through another break up; I didn’t know how people made relationships that lasted beyond, y’know, two years or five. It was just so hard to lose people I loved and had thought I always would.
At that same time, I attended the wedding of a dear friend—the now wildly famous Cheryl Strayed—and a mutual friend, impatient with my grief over the recent breakup, said, “You want to know how to make love last, Ellen? I’ll tell you: you dig in your heels and stay!” That sounded awful to me, like something other than love. But I didn’t know what the options were, what other kind of love might be out there. A lot of what I saw passing for love looked more like a compromise struck with fear, self-doubt masquerading as affection.
I was actively trying to figure all that out while I was writing these stories, and then, through the process of writing them and falling in love again, I sort of wrote my way through the question to an answer that was meaningful to me.
Now, I’d say that love is more like a collaborative art project, or a great meal, or like a garden that you cultivate with your beloved—it’s a built thing, like fate, requiring attention, cultivation, but when it’s done well, it feeds you, sustains, nourishes, is a thing of beauty.
SR: In your stories “The Best Way not to Freeze” and “Small Bright Thing” you use objects to develop the theme of the story: one, an instruction guide on what to do in cases of hypothermia, and the other, very expensive rugs. How do these objects come to mind when writing a story? How much research do you find yourself doing in order to write about them?
EJL: I’m doing quite a lot of research now for a novel set in the early nineteenth century, because I know next to nothing about life in the early nineteenth century, but for the short stories, I didn’t do much research. The objects that you mention came to mind much as such images do in dreams—in imagining the world, these scraps from actual life appeared on the page.
“Best Way Not to Freeze” was the first story that I wrote in graduate school and came about as the result of sheer panic: I had a story due in my first workshop with the famously exigent Lee K. Abbott, and I was terrified that I’d fail to write anything at all. I’d written all of one and a half stories in my life by then and had already dropped out of grad school once (at the U of MN). So, quitting seemed a real possibility. So I was sitting at my desk, panicking, writing in my journal, Just don’t freeze, just don’t freeze—a moment straight out of The Shining--when I recalled something that a wilderness guide had told me years before about seeing a novice climber freeze on a rock face. She managed to talk the climber down by saying, “Just make a move!” Which was precisely the advice I needed myself then, to just make a move, so I did—I wrote a scene about a woman freezing, mid-climb, scribbled it in my journal, then typed it into my Macbook. And I worked back from there by asking questions—what had happened to her, how did she get there, who was she, etc. By the end of my four hours at the desk, I had the story written. The weird list of hypothermia symptoms was something I had seen at a camping store once; it just seemed to belong.
As to the rugs, they came from a story a friend had told me about a woman collecting valuable textiles in a rough part of Chicago. I had to do research into textiles to know her world, but the image of her collection was where the story started, and the question it gave rise to—why would someone collect such fragile beautiful things and what would such a passion do to one’s human relations? Oh, and the specific rug she buys was one I’d seen described on Antiques Roadshow once, which just stuck on the flypaper of the mind.
SR: I find myself captivated by the cover of Love, in Theory: the flow chart of all the different possibilities and definitions of love in these stories. How much influence did you have over the design of the cover? What brought you to this concept?
EJL: Thanks, I love that cover, too. It was inspired by the cover of Janna Levin’s novel, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines. One of the pleasures of working with a great independent press is that you get a chance to weigh in on such things; so I suggested this flow chart, inspired by the cover of Levin’s book. And the designer worked from that and came up with a few options. We agreed this one was best. She’s won at least one award for the cover, so I’m glad her work has received attention and that her generous effort to include me paid off.
SR: In your essay “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” you write, “I practiced a sort of secular asceticism, in which repression of desire was for its own sake deemed a virtue.” Desire is a common theme in many of your stories, a word used often. What attracts you to the word desire? What forms does it take in your writing?
EJL: I have a convert’s enthusiasm for the term, I suppose. I grew up among people who were wary of desire, as if it were a weakness, suspect. We believed in reason, and so I came of age with a really clear idea of the “right” way to live, the importance of having defensible positions and politics, a debater’s view of life, but I didn’t love anything deeply. I didn’t know for a long time what I might authentically want. And that lack of understanding—or repression—almost killed me, literally.
So when I finally came to recognize my desires (for women, for art and books, to be a writer), it was revelatory. Like I’d finally found a compass; for the first time I was oriented in my life, in my body, in the world. It changed everything. All the tentativeness, all the dependence on others’ approval, sort of collapsed abruptly in the face of that orienting desire, that abrupt appearance of a self and a perspective that I’d feared might not actually be waiting in the wings.
So in many ways, that is my subject. Desire in its many forms--salvific desire, destructive desire, refracted through ambition, sex, children, art, food. For me, it’s really the pulse of life.
SR: In the same essay you say, “education is ultimately the fashioning of a self through the cultivation of discernment and taste.” In your story “My Life in Theory,” your narrator says “The whole point of an education, as I see it, is to help you take the world personally, to put you on a first-name basis with history.” What interests you about speaking theories? How does one's theories define who they are?
EJL: It’s interesting to put it that way, “speaking theories.” For me, such statements are not about theorizing as much as attempting to extract understanding from experience and pass it along. I suppose that’s what I often read novels and short stories for, to grasp wisdom that proves all too elusive in life. Or, maybe I’m just pontifical.
My friend Cheryl was asked how she has the courage to tell her personal story with such honesty; she says it’s hard not to. In her Dear Sugar columns, she sought to find and share wisdom in a painful past. I think we share that aesthetic—a desire to find and share the wisdom that experience, that life, has thrust upon us.
But I agree with Charcot, theory is good, but it doesn’t stop things from existing. When I came out as a lesbian in my twenties, I had a very clear idea of who I was. Sapphism seemed to explain everything, to give my whole life shape. A poet friend says that when we die, we see that our life has been a poem, but we cannot read or understand the poem’s meaning until it is over. I felt like I grasped the meaning of my life then, when I came out as queer. But not long after I turned forty, my father died, and my world was upended, and now I am married to a man and have a child. I’m still a lesbian, still seeing through those same eyes, but that theory of self, that label, didn’t preclude unexpected love from existing. So naming things does not always define or contain, I hope. For me, writing and theorizing are more like striking matches in the dark, a brief illumination to see our way forward.
SR: I find it interesting how much of your writing revolves around food. From your Pushcart Prize winning Essay “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” to “Artichoke Hearts” to a character in “Rat Choice” who smells like avocados. How does food influence your work? What makes you keep writing with food in mind?
EJL: Food is what sustains us. How could anyone resist such rich metaphor? I could say that my mother was a fantastic cook (she was), that I had an eating disorder (I did, until I came out), that food fetishism seems a feature of late-capitalism (true, too). But I’m not sure I can really answer why food is a focus for me in prose. Partly it’s an accident. The fact that the first essay I ever wrote—“Mastering the Art of French Cooking”—was selected by Susan Orlean for Best American Essays 2005 and then awarded a Pushcart Prize, then generously included in some wonderful teaching anthologies, nudged me in the direction of drafting a food memoir. I had accumulated a few pieces and “Mastering” had gotten attention, so it seemed reasonable to write other food essays, as an attempt to avoid finishing a novel. Now, I’m finishing both. But I also come from a family that eats a lot…
SR: We’re holding this interview because of the Nonfiction Now conference in Flagstaff this year. However, I’m asking a lot of questions about your book of short stories. I’m curious, what are you working on? Do you find yourself more interested in fiction or nonfiction right now? Why?
EJL: I tend to write both fiction and nonfiction simultaneously, as they vent different sorts of creativity and cognition, I think. So, right now I am belatedly finishing both a memoir (see food question above) and a novel. I’m interested in both genres, as a writer and reader—David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Joann Beard, Eula Biss, Sebastian Junger, EB White, Patti Smith, James Agee, Virginia Woolf, among others--have written astounding nonfiction that I return to again and again, but the books that have changed by life have all been fiction (Baldwin’s, Woolf’s, Agee’s, among them). I write each as the subject demands; they enable different things.
SR: How is your process different when you write fiction as opposed to nonfiction?
EJL: It’s feels almost tonal, the difference between writing fiction and non-. They allow for such different cognition, such distinct creative processes. (Novelist and essayist Nick Delbanco says it’s helpful to write in both genres, so you have a wall to rest your head against when you get tired of banging it on the other.)
For me, they offer different openings, different opportunities. Nonfiction is great for having a conversation with one’s time, for bearing witness, for holding forth; when I write fiction, I am aiming to have a conversation with humanity through time, to get at something lastingly human, writing back to books from the past and (with luck) to readers in future, a letter in a bottle. As Proust said, novels are where the real news is, news that remains new over time.
Writing fiction, the facts of my life may or may not serve as a starting point, a seed for story that then takes me somewhere else, taking me into lives I have not lived; in nonfiction, I aim to rigorously adhere to the factual, seeking meaning in what has occurred, what actually exists. Instead of inventing events, I aim to understand and find meaning in what is. The latter requires research—searching my past, and researching facts in the world. Fiction allows me to leave behind my life and my moment in time; nonfiction requires me to scrutinize the tea leaves of the actual, examining what’s in one’s cup, what it might mean.
SR: Also in your story “Rat Choice,” one of your characters analyzes life through the use of literary terms. You write, “Now, lying here alone, awake, at night, she goes over the narrative of their life together looking for clues, what she might have noticed and failed to, the tropes, foreshadowing, repeated imagery, all the things she tries to get her students to consider but cannot. She thinks about character, point of view, motivation, tense, how one action led causally to the next.” Does this section represent a feeling you have experienced, which links your writer’s vocabulary to your life? How does being a writer change your outlook on the world?
EJL: Thank God this does not prove true in my life. I suppose there was some dreadful period in my twenties and maybe early thirties when I might have applied a cost-benefit analysis from economics to my love affairs, trying to get emotional distance, but that passed, thank god.
SR: How did attending an MFA program, and now teaching in an MFA program, influence your writing?
EJL: I came late to writing, in large part because I believed too much in the notion of talent. It’s an unfortunate superstition, a curse. I truly believed that if you weren’t called by God or by an editor at The New Yorker to write, you had no business doing it. So I studied other things, Latin American Studies, economics, history. And only very slowly did I make my way to writing, long after graduating college, after having held a series of crummy jobs, including a night clerk at a hotel, a prep cook in a women’s club, working as a copy writer, a bookstore clerk (which was actually a GREAT job), founding an LGBT newspaper, writing freelance journalism, eventually becoming a film-magazine editor in Manhattan.
I was past thirty before I took my first creative-writing class, a night class at City College with the writer Maureen Howard…a year later, I applied to grad schools, got in, won some prizes, then dropped out, because I couldn’t write. I was terrified that I’d be exposed as talentless, if I presented new work, so I brought to workshops the same crummy story and a half that I’d drafted to get in to grad school and when that wore thin, I dropped out…
Still, I wanted to write. So when my friend Cheryl called to say we should apply to grad school together, we did. I was working as an environmental activist, having given up hope of ever becoming a writer, convinced that I didn’t have the talent, but I still had that dream. We applied and got in everywhere, but we chose to go to different programs. I knew that I needed teachers more than money or time; in truth, I was still waiting for someone to tell me I could do this work, write, which is nuts.
Happily, luckily, an august visiting writer came to my MFA program that first autumn and generously did just that. He was a writer who’d launched many famous writers, and was famously hard to impress. He told me that my story was a failure, but that I was the real thing. That he bet on winners, that I wasn’t a long shot. In short, he told me what I’d been waiting decades to hear: that I could do this, write. Thanks to him, I wrote three books in three years, as if I had been given a flying carpet. It made it clear how important belief is to action, how much of what stands in our way is simply doubt, our ideas about how things are. It was life changing. I learned a vocabulary of form, how to work, how to finish; I learned faith.
As to teaching in an MFA program, honestly, I’m not convinced that teaching posts are ideal for prose writers. It can be too comfortable. A little too easy to confuse the important work of teaching with the important work of creating—they require similar energy. When I was hired straight out of grad school to join the MFA faculty at American University in DC, I was won over by the imprimatur, by the card that seemed to make me an official writer. And I needed the cash. But teaching can delay and distract from completing books. I love teaching, but I’ve just gone to half time in hope of clearing more time for that most important work: reading, writing.
SR: A book review by Elderman in The Rumpus claims that Love, in Theory is hopeful. She writes, “The story ends on a note of possibility, the possibility that the narrator with her partner can ‘invent some other form of love, something tender and spacious at one time.’” Though some of these stories have rather bleak moments, many relationships falling apart, I agree that there is an air of hope strung throughout the pieces. Tell me, when you set out to write these stories, how did you intend for hope to play a role?
EJL: I was certainly hoping my romantic life would take a turn for the better in those days! And, I did place the final story at the end of the book because it is hopeful; I like that the parting words are “Happy Ending.” I still believe in those.
But what place did hope have in writing these? I loved what a reviewer for Le Monde said about the stories earlier this year, when they were released in France: “Although the characters in these stories seem to believe that literature is inadequate consolation for the disappointments of life, these stories are strong evidence to the contrary.” I wanted the stories to offer the hope that art does, the consolations of truth and of beauty.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
EJL: I have two—one in my partner’s house in the Virginia countryside, one in Colorado, where I teach part of the year. In both spaces, I work at a big dining table pushed against a wall in my office, bookshelves on one side, original art by friends on another, an enormous dictionary or the OED at hand. Stacked on my desk against one wall are a dozen books for researching the novel I’m working on now.
I like working on several projects simultaneously, which helps reduce writing panic—it enables me to turn to one manuscript when I’m freaked out about another. At present, I’m pretty deep into three books—two fiction, one non-. So I have a lot of manuscript pages, and they are piled on my desk like cairns. Each book, its own stack. They tower around the cleared space where my MacBook sits. It’s like a campground clearing at Bryce or Zion, surrounded by stone towers. It’s sort of a visual reminder that the word paradise comes from the Persian word for an enclosed place, a clearing. It lets me sit down in the morning, write in my journal, then choose a book to finish that day. For me, paradise is there in that cleared space on the desk, each morning.