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Pushcart Prize winning author E.J. Levy’s debut collection of fiction, Love in Theory(University of Georgia Press), has been receiving high praise. Publishers Weekly called Levy “a master of [her] form” and best-selling author Cheryl Strayed said, “Levy’s stories reveal truths about how we love and lose, trust and betray, with an intelligence that takes my breath away.” Indeed, the stories in this collection are funny, sad, and filled with unexpected moments that make putting the book down an exercise in heartbreak. Prior to the book’s release, Levy’s stories were published in the Paris Review, the Missouri Review, and the Gettsyburg Review, among many other literary journals, and the collection won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction.
Surprisingly enough, Love in Theory almost didn’t make it to print. Levy was kind enough to talk with Lambda Literary about her long road to publishing, the eroticism of academia, and of course, love.
This is your first collection of fiction. What was the process of putting it together like? How long were you working on it?
Many of the stories were written in the space of three years, while I was in grad school. But releasing it to the world was a longer journey. My friend Mark Steinwachs wisely says of the process of becoming a writer, “The writing gets easier; the psychology gets harder.” I think that’s true: I came late to writing, in my 30s, having inched my way toward it for years, while working as an editor for various publications. When I finally got to graduate school a dozen years ago, I was ready to work, and drafted three books in three years. This was one of them, though at the time I called it My Life in Theory.
I wrote the first story in the collection, “The Best Way Not to Freeze,” my first month in grad school, when I was battling panic at the idea of having to turn something in for workshop the next week. I’d studied economics as an undergrad, not English or Creative Writing, so the thought of having to present a story for critique was pretty terrifying, like undressing in public and letting people criticize your body. I was especially daunted by the idea of being critiqued by Lee K. Abbot (whom I’d heard many call the “best teacher of the short story form working in America today”). So I sat at my desk, panicked, and started writing about someone trying not to be frozen by fear as she was rock climbing; I made it a love story, but really, it’s a fear story. I pretty much raced through the writing of these stories, fear at my back, writing every day from 9am to 1 pm; after a few weeks, I figured out that I’d need nine or ten for a collection, so I began working toward that goal and hit on the idea of linking them through “theories,” since that subject kept cropping up. I was so afraid that I might never write a book that I drafted the bulk of the collection in those three years. All except two or three of the stories were written then.
But then the psychology got hard: I was contacted by a terrific New York agent, Elyse Cheney, while still in grad school, and she—to my amazement—signed me for the stories and proposed to take them out. But then the psychology got harder still; I was intimidated by her suggestion that I try to link the stories, resisted her suggestion that I cut some that I loved (like “Best Way Not to Freeze”); I suspect now that her suggestions were sound, but I basically stopped writing for six months and soon after I ended our contract, since working together seemed to be working against me.
It was a long, slow process coming back to writing after that. When a great editor at Norton expressed interest in the stories a few years later, along with my novel-in-progress of which she’d read 100 pages, I dropped the novel and turned to nonfiction. It was like that, for a long time. Lots of running away. Until last year when to my delight and amazement the collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award, which has launched a number of writers I admire (Ha Jin, Antonya Nelson, Nancy Zafris, Lori Ostlund, to name a few).
Did you have any sense you’d be writing a collection about love and the obstacles to being in a relationship when you started?
It’s funny, but I thought I was writing about the life of the mind, not love. But when I went to graduate school, I lost my partner in the process, who mistakenly thought I was leaving her! So I suppose that heartbreak permeated whatever else I was taking up in my writing.
I knew that I wanted to write about scholarly theories, to bring that heady intellectual terrain that I’d grown up with into the realm of fiction and art. The famous writing teacher and novelist John Gardner, who was Raymond Carver’s teacher, writes in The Art of Fiction, “life in the university has almost never produced subject matter for really good fiction.” I don’t believe that art is categorical, any more than I believe that love is—anything can be a worthy subject of art or love—so I took his claim as a challenge. I wanted to prove him wrong. Also, a few years earlier, I’d had a really passionate and tumultuous relationship with a brilliant political science grad student, who had made the sociologist/economist Thorstein Veblen and Walter Benjamin and Gramsci seem almost like sex symbols, or rather, coming from her their ideas held an almost erotic weight. And it was under that influence—that amazing pyrotechnic love affair—that the stories arose.
Do you have a favorite character or relationship in this collection, or one that you really identified with?
I’m so glad you asked that; for years, whenever I read one of these stories in public, someone would ask me if it was autobiography. It was clear that the fiction read like thinly veiled fact, but it’s actually not; in truth the only character that I identified with strongly is Richard in “Gravity.” Although I wouldn’t identify with him now. I think I wrote my way out of that situation by writing about him; I sort of left his psychology behind as I wrote through it, getting over that fear of being weighted by love, into a commitment that I couldn’t manage then. In truth, the dilemmas these characters face as they attempt to enter the “terrible, beautiful bodied world” (as Lisa puts it in “Rat Choice”) are not dilemmas for me now. I’m very fond of the orderly in “Three Christs of Moose Lake, MN,” because he is open to mystery, which to me is the secret to love. Being open to the mystery of another person and ourselves. Being vulnerable to what we cannot ever fully know and therefore cannot control.
Were there characters or relationships in this collection that were particularly hard to capture? If so, what were the struggles?
A great pleasure of writing fiction for me is feeling your way into another world or life or consciousness; most of these characters are unlike me, so it was a stretch to try to imagine what it might be like to be a fastidious straight woman of 33, or a suburban mother in her 70s, or a 20-something half-Korean daughter. (Oddly, writing the male characters was often easier, though I’d hate to analyze that too closely…) I don’t think I understood the fragility and fastidiousness of the unnamed protagonist in “Best Way Not to Freeze” (I’m a robust slob, nothing like her); nor did I really understand the relationship between the mother and daughter in “Small Bright Thing,” which was a problem when two literary agents wanted me to clarify motivations that were obscure to me, as I suspect they are to the character June. I suppose a lot of these stories began with a question of a kind–an acquaintance who mentioned having cut herself as a kid gave rise to “Small Bright”; a neighbor who seemed to have forged a gorgeous, fragile, lonely life inspired “Best Way”; interest in the Milton Rokeach’s effort in the early 1960s to cure three men who were convinced they were Christ inspired “Three Christs”—like that.
Did you draw on your own relationship experiences to write these stories?
Yes and no. I love that fiction is a magpie art, in which you can gather up all these shiny fabulous unrelated things and make them into something! So, I drew on people I knew, situations we faced, and I included a lot of curious things that I’d noticed in the world (like that very cool Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station in Cloquet, Minnesota); I drew on the great wit of my friends, but not on our lives—I hope—at least not directly. Most of these love affairs are invented out of whole cloth, save for two (I won’t say which two, though you can probably guess). But a lot of the “local color” came from life: a professor actually did say to a class of 25 students at the end of a term, “It was good for me; was it good for you?” But I’ve never studied Greek nor ended up on a professor’s desk (although I did have a temp job once where we discovered, in cleaning out a professor’s office, a well-stocked bar in his file cabinet). And I did have a partner leave me for God.
That said, the heartbreak in the stories is all mine—when I applied to graduate school, my longstanding partner thought I was looking for an excuse to leave, which I wasn’t. It ended our relationship; we’d lived together for years, exchanged rings, had dinner weekly with her parents, were picking out donors and planning on having a child, so I was devastated by that loss. I think that sorrow permeates the book, that and my affection for all those other beloveds who helped me fall in love with the world before and since.
Many of the characters in this book seem pretty unhappily entrenched in academia. In some ways their intelligence and political awareness seems to block their ability to form lasting emotional connections. What do you think the role of education is in these stories? Was this theme in any way inspired by your time getting your bachelor’s degree at Yale?
I think the idea of education or intellection as arresting has both personal and cultural roots for me. On the one hand, it’s something I wanted to tackle because I don’t think American fiction by and large engages this (scholarly or academic theories), much or well. Americans have an unusually ambivalent relationship to the intellect; the French seem perfectly delighted to blend erudition with the erotic, to enjoy the mind. But it seems a strange defensive streak runs through American culture, as if we were still nervous about not quite coming up to scratch; we’re happy to be technological, to discuss in detail matters of material culture, but we’re wary of intellection, as if it were suspect. Luxe or effete or decadent maybe. Or representative of a social hierarchy that we’d rather not consider (although given the nearly oligarchic nature of contemporary America, we’re pretty much over our former squeamishness about class distinctions and rank). I know that Eliot claimed this was an English liability as well, so maybe everyone just feels like the French are smarter. I mean, just look at how politicians have to toss in the word “folks” every so often or eat corn dogs in order to have credibility, as if being smart and well versed in policy were a liability, as if it were elitist to be interested in ideas and well educated.
At the same time, personally, my interest was inspired less by my years at Yale than by growing up with smart, sad people—people who knew several languages, physiology, art history, economics, who were masterfully smart, but making a total mess of their personal lives. It took me years to grasp that love is not a competitive sport.
Nature is such a beautiful, surprising, and often humorous aspect of these stories. One of my favorite scenes is in “Theory of the Leisure Class,” when the group of elderly bird watchers see the black widow eating her mate and are so discomforted by it because it reminds them that they, too, will die someday. How do you think nature informs the human relationships in these stories?
Thanks so much for saying that. For observing that. It’s a smarter question than my answer will be, I fear. But I’d say that nature is part of the love story here, because for me it has been an enduring beloved, a first love.
I was really struck by Gil’s statement in “Theory of Enlightenment”: “Being happy is a revolutionary act.” Especially because in the end, even though they go to great lengths to find happiness, many of your characters don’t succeed. What kind of revolution do you think it might take to for these characters (or hell, anyone) to be happy?
A friend asked me years ago when we were working the night shift at a socialist bakery in Taos, “What has changed your life?” I’d grown up believing that difficulty and pain were the best teachers, what forged us (very Calvinist). But I realized when she asked me this that only one thing had actually altered the course of my life profoundly, saved me and set me on a whole new path, and that was love: specifically falling in love with my first female partner, Wendy. It altered everything. It made a heretofore unimaginable life possible. (It made it possible for me to get a degree with high honors from Yale and slice bread for a living so I could read a lot and love my life and her.) Ultimately, I think it’s the deep self-acceptance and simultaneous self-forgetfulness or self-transcendence that comes of love that is revolutionary—whether that’s love of a cause or a country or another person. To be happy and to suffer, we love.
You also edited the Lambda Award-winning Tasting Life Twice. What are the differences between writing and editing for you? What aspects of writing do you bring to the editing process and vice versa?
Fiction takes me somewhere I don’t know; it leads me into places that I can only follow; it’s almost passive in a way. Tasting Life Twice was the result of an idea, it was a polemic of sorts, a gauntlet that I was very intentionally throwing down. I’d read Stephanie Grant’s wonderful short story “Posting Up” in a ‘zine in Brooklyn and thought, If this had been written by a man or a straight woman, it would be in The New Yorker right now. I still think that’s true; it’s a terrific short story and the real reason that I created the anthology. So, I was complaining about this injustice, how great gay male writers like David Leavitt and Michael Cunningham had broken through to the hallowed pages of The New Yorker but a lesbian story still could not…and my housemate in Park Slope, Alison Chi, got sick of me and said, “Why don’t you do something about it instead of complaining.” So I stormed into my office and drafted the proposal in like a week. And because it was the era of Lesbian Chic in the 1990s, and because of the efforts of a friend’s terrific agent Laurie Liss, it got picked up and actually became a best-seller for a while in independent bookstores and LGBT bookstores. I was thrilled when someone told me they’d seen it in an airport in like Atlanta! That seemed like a break through to me, the true mainstream, right there next to the Mentos.
What is your next project?
I’m writing a novel about a 19th-century physician, who fought duels over beautiful women, vastly improved medical treatment for natives, slaves, and women, rose to a very high military rank, only to be discovered on his death to have been a woman all along. S/he was at the center of a homosexual scandal that rocked the colonies and London; Twain and Dickens both took an interest in her, and so have I. She’s amazing.
Finally, for the sake of cheesiness, what’s your own theory of love?
I’m from the dairyland of the Midwest so I’m a huge fan of cheese! I think (I hope) I’m done with theories of love; these days, I’m for love, in fact. I think Thomas Merton said it well, “We are what we love.” So, if I have any theory on the subject now, it would be to choose well what you love and then love with all you’ve got; in the end, it defines us, as much as we try to define it.