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Good writers often make good conversationlists. That seemed to be the case when we brought the two award winning writers Jenifer Levin and David Pratt together for a free-ranging conversation. The two talked about everything from critics and adolescence, to sources of inspiration.
Jenifer Levin is the author of four novels, Water Dancer, Snow, Shimoni’s Lover, The Sea of Light, and a short story collection, Love and Death, & Other Disasters. Her work has been nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award and Lambda Literary Award. Her short fiction and nonfiction are widely anthologized. She has also written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The Forward, and others. One of the first openly gay authors to be published in the mainstream, the Washington Post once dubbed her part of the “lesbian literati,” a term she has never really figured out. Levin graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in Creative Writing and Comparative Literature. She is currently writing her fifth novel.
David Pratt has published short fiction in Christopher Street, The James White Review, Blithe House Quarterly, Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly, Velvet Mafia, Lodestar Quarterly, and other periodicals, and in the anthologies Men Seeking Men, His3 and Fresh Men 2. David holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the New School. The Lambda award winning novel Bob the Book is the second novel he has written, and it is the first to be published. His latest novel My Movie was released this year by Chelsea Station Editions.
The following is the lively dialogue between the two writers:
Jenifer Levin: Tell me how—and why—you began writing.
David Pratt: I wrote as far back as I can remember. As a child I made books and assembled a library. I wrote because, even at a young age, I sensed that I would have very little from this world except what I created myself. In my teens I became interested in theater, but writing remained in the background. I vomited out a novel the summer after college graduation, but I did not follow through because I had in my head that I was a theater person. I was afraid of the force of that novel. It was violent and rageful, and it portrayed my family very negatively. It was my coming out to myself, just before I left home. But it was a playwright friend, John Mighton, who ultimately encouraged me to go back to fiction in the 1980s. He read some preliminary drafts I had done and was very excited.
Now, you just released your first major piece of nonfiction after writing so much fiction. I want to ask you some process questions. What, for you, were the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction? How do you inhabit the characters’ points of view differently?
JL: I’ve written fiction from a very early age. But I first won awards! money! for essays. Crafting nonfiction taught me how to express ideas as well as sentiments, made me a disciplined writer. In youth my essays focused on literature and historical and anthropologic themes. In adulthood the focus has generally been more personal.
But I’m primarily a novelist. Actually, reading Shakespeare taught me more than anything else about structuring long fiction. Beyond his extraordinarily specific use of language, Shakespeare delineates the essential elements of narrative drive: You need at least one BIG character, caught up in difficult circumstances. These circumstances may be of human design, or arise from natural catastrophes, but in all cases the character must navigate treacherous territory. That’s the basic narrative landscape. Like real people, characters are driven by strengths and flaws. Desires, ambitions, psychological and political pressures make them act in ways that have a ripple effect. When two or more big characters mix it up: a tsunami!
Insofar as inhabiting points of view: For me, a novel always starts with physical sensation. Characters arise as nearly tangible entities within and start talking. I’m not hearing voices—I’ve got enough problems—but over time they gain form, personality, purpose. I come to know the way they move, their very smell. I sit right behind their eyeballs and see the world as they do. Then the fun begins! But while I have the tools to create a fictional world, fidelity to these characters and the psychological truths they embody dictate how that world is used and what happens within it.
Now, short fiction is often a different affair. You’ve just published a marvelous collection of short stories, and I’d like to hear about the evolution of your work over time.
DP: I think I write with greater self-awareness now, post-MFA, than I did twenty years ago. One of the major pieces in My Movie, “The Addict,” was my first published story. I wrote it with little technical awareness. I thought the incident, which happened almost exactly as written, made a great story, so I wrote it and sent it to Christopher Street. It happens to be very precise, but mostly I lacked precision then. Many of my stories wanted to be novels, like “The Snow Queen,” which is so epic and episodic. I construct a world first, then tell a story. Sometimes, to make a story, I animate a world with an incident that feels abrupt. On one level, the story “One Bedroom” is about me as author animating a stuck state by introducing a horrifying vision. Maybe that’s how God made the Universe. Wait. That sounds way too grandiose.
JL: Who dares to create without grandiosity? But…I’ll bring you back to Earth. One reviewer said your style was sometimes “autistic.” (Now, to be fair, you asked me to bring that up..!)
DP: I did! I liked that comment. It alludes to coping strategies used by marginalized people. Judith Halberstam discusses this in The Queer Art of Failure, which I recommend — failure as a queer strategy. So, call my style autistic! Call my characters failures! By most measures they are, or will be, in the eyes of the world. How much hope can the hero of “Not Pretty” have? I’m not, of course, being cavalier about autism as a condition. But the condition and the aesthetic quality may be linked. Oppression creates behavior we call “compulsive”; might it create or aggravate behavior we call “autistic”? Oppressed people get stuck in loops. They construct mental fortresses. They pursue goals in ways others find incomprehensible. What the hero of “The Addict” does makes no sense, except to him. The boy in “Not Pretty” eats garbage in order to save money. “Calvin Gets Sucked In” asks, what if we lived lives composed only of the repeating, looping tropes of porn films?
JL: Personally, I think critics who skewer our work should go fuck themselves. So let’s talk inspiration! What events or impressions in the real world inspire your fiction?
DP: My story “Not Pretty” started with a young man I saw on vacation once; he was about 19; the unhappiness was deeply, hopelessly etched on his face. It hurt to look at him. It was summer at the beach, but he was covered head to foot. I had to write his story. I forget how I got the idea for “Calvin Gets Sucked In.” It’s The Purple Rose of Cairo with gay porn, an idea that almost wrote itself, not unlike the idea for Bob the Book. The problem was the end: Calvin comes back out of the porn film, then what? My publisher, Jim Currier, suggested a few strategies, one of which ultimately clicked. Then the very end: Calvin touches his TV screen. I had it crackle with electricity, then realized modern screens don’t do that. I went and touched my own TV and found that whatever polymer they use now feels almost like human skin. That gave me my ending. And two of the stories are lifted almost exactly from life: “Please Talk to Me, Please” and “The Addict.”
Knowing you and being familiar with your work, I know that you do bring real life into your fiction. How has this played out?
JL: I do, sure, but only to serve the work itself. When I wrote Water Dancer I was swimming, running, weight-training—and taking too many fucking showers a day—with college swimmers, triathletes, and a few marathon swimmers. The marathon swimmers stunned and inspired me. I thought: How could somebody not write a novel about this? But as a writer there were additional experiences I absolutely needed to incorporate on a flesh-and-bone level. So I swam a lot in rough water, did a 5-hour swim in a pool; but after doing 2 miles in 50-degree water I could really write Water Dancer—that experience pounded and informed me. Likewise, my time in Israel gave me an experiential basis for my third novel, Shimoni’s Lover. But, although I use real-life experience to create fictional worlds, these worlds aren’t about my real life or anyone else’s; they are all make-believe.
What do you think about make-believe? You titled your short story collection My Movie. That suits the material, and I want to know more about your relationship with media and how it informs your art.
DP: Movies were my first obsession, the film and the reels and cameras and projectors themselves. I was also obsessed with movie ads in the paper. When I was ten or eleven, movies began to reflect the sexual and social revolutions of the late 1960s. The ads were suggestive in a way they aren’t now, in a way they can’t be now. My desire and curiosity were wrapped up in my love of movies, even though I couldn’t see most of the grown-up movies of that era. TV also fascinated me. It was my baby sitter about that time, as I grew too old for a real baby sitter. In high school I made a few attempts at super-8 movies, but mostly I was spending all my free time on theater. I longed for the personal contact and personal acknowledgement. Movies don’t have that. They did not seem as much fun to make as they were to watch and be a fan of.
How about you? What are your media influences?
JL: The first was theater. Theater suggests action through dialogue. But in life things happen through motion and multiple shades of perception, too; film has the power to suggest action in all these ways. Film narrative is more like that of the novel. Good theater is a religious experience. But good cinema is an experience of magic. As you’ve said, dreams are made flesh. I would add that in good fiction, flesh is made dream. That’s the transformative potential of art. Readers experience our fictional worlds as internal possibilities. They perceive our characters within themselves. Sometimes, they even break through the barrier between imagination and the subconscious, into a dream state. On that level, art is Cabalistic. But you can’t set out to do this; you can only tell your characters’ stories.
Speaking of which, you have several adolescent characters in My Movie. That makes for wild, changeable storytelling. What was your own adolescence like?
DP: My adolescence was the best of times, of course, because at that age the world was new and vibrant and almost unavoidably filled with hope, but it was also the worst of times, because I could not imagine the bad stuff would ever change. This is what the novel I am working on now is about. Plus, I had two fearful, pessimistic parents (prominent in that angry, violent novel from summer 1980) who believed they were stuck with what was, so I thought that way, too. If anyone so much as intimated that I couldn’t do something, I crossed it off. I was closeted, so I did not want to go where I might have to justify myself to a new set of people. I had a huge thing wrong with me, so why bother trying anything new? A year abroad or learning to kayak — all pointless, because nothing would fix or compensate for my huge flaw, which utterly invalidated me.
How about your teen years?
JL: Sheer misery. In childhood my friendships with boys, trekking through woods, swimming, baseball, fishing, sustained me. In adolescence those things vanished. Being a Jewish kid in a new neighborhood put a target on my back. But I was weird, anyway: masculine, hypersensitive; other kids just brutalized me. Years lost to suicidal depression. Reading/writing/imagination saved me. I was lucky to survive, get into college, live and work in Israel and then in New York City, rediscover my physical self through sport again, live an openly queer life—and keep writing.
DP: “Night of a Thousand Jeters” certainly deals with the athletic part of your life, and also with public image and stardom.
JL: Not exactly. I don’t know what to say, really, about public image and stardom. This is such a crazy time historically because we’re saturated 24/7 with crude images of unnecessary commodities, people humiliating themselves on “reality” shows that have nothing to do with reality, etc. Theater and cinema make human life larger than normal, potentially heroic, but television and computer screens make it smaller. One result of staring at this diminished image is that people begin to conceive of themselves as less powerful than they truly are. “Jeters” is about the lack of the hero cult in everyday life. This leaves an enormous hole, and all the other goose-shit gushes in to fill it—but heroism is not the same as stardom or public image. So “Jeters” expresses the respect I have for great athletes who lay their bodies on the line but also sense their mythological importance to society. That’s why my sons adored Derek Jeter. And being young men of color, they saw in him a brown-skinned hero—our nation’s potential destiny.
But restoring the heroic is essential to our entire species’ survival. No matter how fucked up we are, we each have an absolute duty to become a hero in our own life—by that I mean to accomplish difficult things, overcome whatever daunts and haunts us. It’s what we’re here to do. It makes the world better. The power of it is very real—I want my sons to feel that. But the essay is also about parenthood within the context of a very flawed life—my own—in this nation that has abused its own heroic greatness: idealizing greed over human values, reacting to 9/11 with terror, taking away citizens’ rights. America is so much better than it has become! “Jeters” also touches on my experience of Cambodia, where my kids were born. My first time there I felt the Holocaust. It was chaotic, surreal, hungry people searching for lost family, cities in rubble. Narrow, blood-stained cells where human beings had experienced hopelessness, had been tortured to death. And out of this genocide came my children. So in terms of understanding human grief and love, my journeys there changed me permanently. Parenthood changed me even more.
Any final comments, David Pratt?
DP: Yes! Buy indie! Support small presses! And you?
JL: Read books! Live hard! Love freely.