“Death Is Awesome” – A Conversation with Adam Levin
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’m going to make the following rather bold proclamation without any qualification or hesitation whatsoever: Adam Levin is one of the best American novelists and short story writers under the age of 40 working today. I finally read his 2010 mega-novel The Instructions over the holidays last year and spent the better part of two weeks working through it. The novel is a throwback to the sort of sweeping and encyclopedic door-stopper Postmodern American novels of the last quarter of the 20th century that serious fiction writers tend not to write anymore. In The Instructions, Levin spends over a thousand pages detailing four important days in the life of Gurion Maccabee, a rather precarious and messianic 10 year-old who leads a revolution from within the confines of the Cage, a special lockdown unit in his junior high school. It’s a worldly, philosophical, political, theological, deeply funny and impressively written novel. It’s also – like such postmodern maximalist mega-novels as Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Barth’s The Letters that came before it – delightfully difficult and downright exhausting and intellectually demanding to read. It’s the sort of book people will soon start holding symposiums on, write long academic monographs about and compose reader’s guides and companion books for. Levin’s latest book, an impressive collection of ten short stories entitled Hot Pink, was released by McSweeney’s last month to plenty of critical acclaim and attention. In Hot Pink Levin shows himself to be not only a visionary novelist, but also one hell of short story writer too.
I talked to Levin for a couple hours a few weeks ago. I was scheduled to call him in Chicago at one o’clock on a Friday afternoon. Before I called I made the foolish mistake of trying to attach my new registration decal to the back of my license plate, a seemingly simple task that turned into a miserable, painful and absurd exercise in futility and borderline insanity. While fighting to get the postage stamp size registration sticker off the piece of paper it was (seemingly) permanently attached to, I realized I was about to be late for the call. I called Levin while I was in the midst of trying to repair the torn sticker with scotch tape and attach it to my license plate. Levin, with patience and good humor, stayed on the phone with me while I battled to get the registration decal attached and tried helplessly to figure out how to get my Android phone to record our call. After listening to me rant and complain about the Florida DMV and the fallibility of my phone for a bit, we finally started with the interview.
James Fleming: One of the particular things about Hot Pink that impresses me the most is your ability to move between different narrative voices with apparent ease, as well as how you’re able make your characters sound like real people without reducing your dialogues to veritable transcript-like conversations. All of your narrative voices struck me as being authentic and, moreover, totally believable. Each narrator’s voice seemed fully formed and unique to each story.
Adam Levin: I really appreciate that, man. Seriously, what you said about the voices in my work makes me really happy to hear. I’ve always wanted to be one of those writers who could develop unique voices and move between voices. So, yeah, I really like hearing that because that’s exactly what I was trying to do.
JF: So do you tend to build your stories around a voice or character, or around an idea or set of ideas? Do you have a vision as to what your stories are trying to say when you start them off or do you just go with what ideas come to you or where your characters take you?
AL: There’s no coherent world view or authentic place or something from which my stories come. I don’t have that in me as a writer or storyteller. That’s just not how I work. I get interested in different things at different moments and go where they take me. I’m still waiting for someone to sum up the meaning of my work so far or give a coherent statement about what it is I’m saying, which is what I guess critics are for.
JF: Are you back to smoking? I read in a couple of interviews you did when The Instructions first came out that you’d quit smoking.
AL: Well, I quit for six months after I turned in the galleys for The Instructions.
JF: That sounds awful.
AL: I know! The physical stuff – the actual symptoms – is the worst part of quitting smoking. I finished the book and suddenly realized that I was not a smoker any more. That realization turned me into a 14 year-old existentialist all over again. It was horrible. I remember Passover that year and how I was completely bummed out. Here I was sitting around looking at my family and thinking “all you fucking people are going to die, my whole family, you’re going to die.” Then I had a cigarette and within three drags of it all of that miserable stuff was gone.
JF: So you’re saying that smoking is not only cool but also therapeutic?
AL: No, death is cool. Death is awesome.
JF: I’ve struggled with smoking for ten years.
AL: Congrats, man!
JF: I’m pretty proud of myself. The thing about smoking is that I completely get what it is and that it’s completely a crutch. I’m basically a really low-level junky, addicted to that little bit of a kick and that bit of relaxation that one gets when one smokes. I know that I’m even more addicted to the habit and ritual of smoking than the chemical itself. I know I could, in theory, stop, but I don’t know how the hell I’d be able to write without it.
AL: That’s because not doing it – I mean not smoking – actually physically hurts. I have such a steady routine when I’m working, especially when it comes to using caffeine and cigarettes when I’m half asleep and slowly waking up and trying to get writing.
JF: Norman Mailer once said he paid attention to reviewers only because they directly affected his wallet.
AL: I like that!
JR: Do you pay much attention to what critics and reviewers say about your work? Are you the type of writer who eagerly awaits every review and frets over even the slightest negative comment, or do you ignore the critics and reviewers entirely and just, you know, go on with what you’re doing?
AL: Neither. One reviewer, Jonathan Messinger in Time Out Chicago, actually told me something about my use of voice that I didn’t know. Now that was pretty awesome. I actually learned something from a reviewer about some aspect of my own work. I guess my concern is not quite as directly monetary as Mailer’s. I mean, I want money, but I really want to have readers. A shitty book review means less readers and that possibility bums me out. I write books and stories so they can be read. If I get a nice review and someone reads something of mine because of that review then that’s a victory. I don’t have any positive or negative shit in my head, though, when I write or when stuff is published and I definitely don’t obsess about any of it.
JF: It seems that virtually every review or write up on The Instructions compared you in terms of scope and style to David Foster Wallace. Let me ask you this: if we think in Bloomian terms – you know, in terms of Bloom’s theory of the anxiety of influence and all that – then what writers are you writing against? Who do you feel you might be trying – either consciously or not – to write against or despite or because of or in response to?
AL: When I was younger I thought I had to, you know, do Salinger bigger than Salinger did Salinger. I guess I see books as being–or at least capable of being–in conversation with each other. There’s no one that I think I’m trying to outdo. There are writers who have an influence on my work and who I don’t want to replicate. Wallace is someone who I love but who I don’t want to mirror. I used to have to overcome Wallace and not write with a bunch of footnotes and allow distracting gestures. I don’t think I came off too Wallacy in The Instructions.
JF: Is Pynchon an influence on you?
AL: Not really. I’ve never actually read all of Gravity’s Rainbow.
JF: One of my professors in grad school who taught Gravity’s Rainbow regularly said he suspects that maybe one out of ten people who own the novel have read it, and maybe half the people who teach it or write about it have finished it even once. Still, there was something about The Instructions that reminded me a bit of Pynchon. It’s not that you write or even really think like Pynchon. It’s not something as obvious as that. I think there’s something in the book in terms of the mix of sometimes dark and sometimes absurd humor and seriousness – particularly the way you move between them so quickly and suddenly – that is reminiscent of Pynchon. That and the sense of your novel – and your stories too, for that matter – taking place within a fully realized world, one which the reader can become completely absorbed in and, moreover, can come to actually believe in for all its weirdness; all of that reminds me in a way of Pynchon.
AL: Thanks, man. I never thought about or realized any of that at all.
JF: Are you familiar with Gaddis’s novel J.R.? I ask because The Instructions reminds me a bit of J.R. J.R. written mostly in the form of conversations, which The Instructions isn’t, but the central characters – very bright, very clever young boys accomplishing incredible things in opposition to authority – remind me of each other.
AL: No, I wasn’t aware of J.R., until I was already well into writing The Instructions so it wasn’t an influence. In terms of influence, though, there were moments when I was writing The Instructions when I worried that the story was coming off too much like Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1964.” It was a challenge to keep my protagonist kid-like. He’s really nothing like Salinger’s Seymour. As a writer you can easily do the cute whimsical kid thing but I didn’t want to do that. I guess in The Instructions I was trying to be consciously as un-cute as possible.
JF: What else did you have on your mind when you were putting The Instructions together? Was there anything else you were trying not to do or copy or echo or allude to?
AL: I really didn’t want the book to become an overt religious allegory, so I was always conscious of that.
JF: You teach creative writing at The Art Institute of Chicago. How does teaching creative writing inform or hinder your own writing?
AL: Teaching keeps me sharp on a craft level. I have less time sometimes for writing because of my teaching responsibilities, but I have more time to write than any other job. Honestly, when working with my students on their writing I’ll notice mistakes I’m making in my own work.
JF: You didn’t major in English as an undergraduate, right?
AL: I didn’t, no. It wasn’t a bad thing, not majoring in English, at least for me. I had a cousin who was an English major in college and over the course of that time he learned to hate reading. I loved to read, but I didn’t want to just read what I was assigned. I’ve always had a sense that reading and writing could be dangerous activities when done in particular academic settings for the purpose of close study. I don’t like being told how to read and write. I’ve always had an anti-authority thing about me. I don’t like thinking about the way literary critics work. Plus, writing all of those papers would’ve sucked.
JF: You have an MFA from Syracuse. How did you like the process of work-shopping your material and actually working under deadlines and off of assignments?
AL: My time at Syracuse was three of the best years of my life. It was just a phenomenal experience. For three years all I had to do was write. I went there because it’s where I wanted to go out of the places I was accepted. George Saunders, who’s on faculty there, was my hero and I worshiped his work. He’s brilliant and I had the opportunity to work closely with him. In a good MFA program you get all this time to write, you have no money worries. Something like six students out of several hundred were selected for the year I went in so I had serious, passionate people who were serious about their writing and who had read stuff I’d never read. There were also a number of really great teachers there, people like Mary Karr and others. It was great because they’re reading your stuff and giving you opinions about how it’s working or not. For anyone who’s real serious about their writing it can’t hurt if you’re in a good MFA program. You can really get a lot out of it.
JF: How much of The Instructions was written at Syracuse?
AL: Maybe 250 or 300 pages were written at Syracuse but all of that was heavily revised. I didn’t workshop any of The Instructions when I was there but I did workshop many of the stories that are in Hot Pink. My thesis consisted of what became The Instructions and was done one-on-one with George Saunders. So much of the book, obviously, ended up changed since then. The novel developed over nine years. The best stuff I did at Syracuse was the short stories.
JF: How much of The Instructions is autobiographical? Did you draw significantly from personal experiences in it?
AL: Not directly and not that much. There are some basic things in the novel that I took from my own life. When I was a kid for a while I seriously thought I was the messiah. I think a lot of Jewish boys think that. I also had a lot of questions in Hebrew school, like what’s really going on in Sodom and Gomorrah. I did go to a similar school as the one in The Instructions, and there was a “Cage” program there but I wasn’t in it. I was always obsessed with questions of loyalty and I was also in love with a redheaded painter like Gurion is. I also hung out with some of the rougher kids in the school.
JF: Do you have a particular place – or particular places – where you write?
AL: In my office at home, mostly.
JF: Do you write every day?
AL: Yeah, every morning I wake up and go and write something. Sometimes I take a break from writing for awhile but I find that when I do that that I become boring and other people become very boring.
JF: What’s it been like promoting Hot Pink?
AL: I’ve been doing lots of interviews like this one. I’m also doing readings and going on tour.
JF: Do you mind all of that promotion stuff?
AL: No, not at all. It’s actually pretty great. When you’re out there giving readings and doing signings and talking to people you realize people are actually reading books still.
JF: What are book tours like?
AL: Book tours are awesome. I mean there’s always a special bus with clean needles for drug injections and there are always at least three girls available for fellatio. You show up and go to the bookstore and everyone lifts you up on a thrown like it’s a Jewish wedding, people bow down to you, then you do the reading, get some more fellatio, then do some drugs, then you get some more fellatio …
JF: And they give you really pure cocaine too, right?
AL: Yeah, but they also always have good heroin available too.
JF: What’s up next for you? Are you working on another novel?
AL: I want to sink my teeth into writing a short novel next. I can’t carefully plan out something like that, though. That’s not how I write. Ideally I’ll be able to write a book fairly quickly this summer.
JF: How’d you end up connecting with McSweeney’s as your publisher for The Instructions and Hot Pink? What’s your relationship with McSweeney’s been like?
AL: I’d published some short work with them before they accepted the books. Eli Horowitz – the managing editor over at McSweeney’s – really helped me get the stories themselves into better shape for publication. I showed him The Instructions and he was a great, great help with helping me develop the novel into what it became.
JF: Do you read much? One of my college writing professors always told me that a professional novelist will probably be one of the worst read people you can meet. I interviewed Mailer years ago and he told me he rarely read contemporary fiction or much of anything that wasn’t project- or work-related.
AL: I read like a maniac, almost exclusively fiction and mostly fiction published since the 1950′s and later. I read as much stuff as I can. Fiction is exciting to me. I don’t have patience for much non-fiction or anything like that. I’m not a big idea writer. I don’t have big ideas I sit down with when I write. What thrills me as a reader is shit that doesn’t sound like other shit I’ve read.
JF: Do you read comics and graphic novels at all?
AL: When I was growing up I loved comics, especially books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. I still love comics because comics can do all sorts of things in a simple, clear way that fiction cannot. People often talk about graphic novels as being novels per se but I see the graphic novel as a totally different art form from the traditional novel and a very cool one at that.
JF: A number of reviewers have been referring to you as the next big Jewish-American male novelist, the eventual inheritor of that sacred throne long held by Philip Roth. How does that notion strike you?
AL: When I was younger I really cared about that sort of stuff but frankly it’s easier to write when no one gives a shit about you or what you’re doing. I mean it’s flattering that people think things like that about me and my work, and I hope I live up to what people think I can do, but I can’t really think or worry about that stuff.