Writer Sara Levine is stubborn. Though prolific, published in prestigious literary magazines like American Short Fiction and on edgy websites such as Nerve.com, Levine resisted the notion of putting out a book.
“I kept insisting that I did piecework,” Levine says, “an essay here, a prose poem there, a few stories, a series of aphorisms. I had been doing these strange short fictions for a while before it occurred to me that I might gather them together without any great damage to the universe.”
Once she heard that Caketrain Press planned to hold a chapbook contest judged by Deb Olin Unferth, whom she “admired on many levels,” Levine broke down and submitted some work. The resultant short story collection, Short Dark Oracles, is as incisive, intellectually probing and wryly funny as its author.
Levine spoke with Our Town about her writing process, her forthcoming novel and one unexpected consequence of childbirth.
Our Town Do you have a favorite story in the collection?
Sara Levine I don't subscribe to the idea that a writer has a "real" or "natural" voice that she needs to find—a superior voice, waiting, beneath the layers of awkward syntax and the crud of bad grammar, to be excavated. But I feel closest right now to the voice of "Baby Love." I'm sure there are other stories about the intensity of the mother-newborn bond, but when I wrote "Baby Love," I'd been reading around in the motherhood literature and hadn't found them.
OT You’re a parent, has parenting changed you as a writer?
SL Parenting is an exalted and humbling experience. It's changed almost everything about me, including my long-held scorn for people suffering from hemorrhoids. Honestly, it's hard to take this question on in short format; I want to start throwing bibliography at you. (See Jane Lazarre's The Mother Knot; see Tillie Olsen's Silences, see Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born; see Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work). Parenthood heightens my awareness of the larger world but also brings home my limitations as a human being. Many of the writerly habits I had before becoming a mother I chose to abandon. I've also made choices that make the cultivation of solitude harder. Because I'm aware of the clock ticking, I have less patience for bad work—my own as well as other people's. On the other hand, I suspect I have a better sense of where the story lies for me.
OT One piece in Short Dark Oracles, "A Promise," is a sort of magically realistic look at selfishness and child-rearing. What inspired that story?
SL My daughter likes that I work, but not that I work out of the house. She would prefer that I work at her school, or at least drive an ice cream van. So likely that story comes from my own ambivalence about rushing out of the house each morning. Also, here's the shocking confession the Sun-Times blog readers are waiting for: one day a conductor on the Metra Union/Pacific North line forgot to punch my ticket, and I let him walk on by. Now that I've told you this, I expect to be arrested tomorrow morning when I arrive at Ogilvie Station.
OT What’s your writing process like?
SL Slow and inefficient. I begin things and then put them aside. I look at the same run of sentences, or paragraphs, or pages, over and over, hoping to be able to read it through without feeling mortally offended. It usually takes years, since I'm a better reader than I am writer.
OT Is there a specific piece you’ve written which advanced your ability or confidence as a writer?
SL Finishing a novel gave me a small amount of confidence, but I trust this will evaporate before I can put it to any use.
OT Who are your influences?
SL Too many to name. Here are who wash up on the shore today. (Lucky for me, a beachcomber has arranged them in alphabetical order.) Machado de Assis, James Baldwin, Donald Barthelme, Max Beerbohm, Thomas Bernhard, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Bowen, Jane Bowles, Rachel Cusk, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Henry James, June Jordan, Steven Millhauser, Vladimir Nabokov, Grace Paley, Helen Simpson, Muriel Spark, Christina Stead, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joy Williams, Virginia Woolf. Look out, here comes another wave. . .
OT Tell us about your soon to be published novel.
SL Treasure Island!!! will be published by Tonga Books, a new imprint of Europa Editions. Europa publishes mostly literature in translation, and Tonga was created to bring dark, edgy English-language books into the market—the sort of books likely to be overlooked by mainstream publishing. Europa has published some of my favorite novels from the last few years (Elena Ferrante's The Days of Abandonment, Alina Bronsky's The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine). Add the fact that the editor of Tonga Books is the writer Alice Sebold and you might understand why I'm speechless: I have nothing to complain about. [The novel] is about a woman who sets out to remodel her life according to what she thinks are the "Core Values" of Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure book, Treasure Island. I won't tell you all of the Values, but one of them is "HORN-BLOWING." Chaos ensues. "Funny," "shocking," "creepy," and "revelatory" are some of the words flung at it lately, words I don't mind looking at sideways. But truthfully I prefer to leave descriptions of the novel to other people. Even the plot summary I just gave you makes me want to run away and sit in a dark closet.
Sara Levine's fiction has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Iowa Review, webConjunctions, and other magazines. Her essays have been anthologized in The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction and The Best of Fence. She wrested a PhD in English from Brown University and is now chair of the Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Purchase Short Dark Oracles at http://www.caketrain.org/shortdarkoracles/
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," is forthcoming from Counter Point Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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