This interview originally ran in two parts on McSweeney’s
KROSS: So obviously you’ve been interviewed before, and undoubtedly people have asked to what extent you practice Judaism, how you became so knowledgeable, etc. You had to have had a Bar Mitzvah. I’ve decided you at least got that far. Did you actually study to become a scholar at any point? I’m hanging out with another Jewish man right now (same name as the last, strangely, but definitely a different person), and he said that the reading he had to do in Hebrew sounded sing-songy, so he recorded someone else reading it and memorized the song rather than learning the language. It worked. You didn’t do this did you? I feel like you can really read Hebrew. Do you know any other religion with any depth? Have you ever made a character from a different religion? I’d be curious to see some Christian logic as not presented by Hitchens. Although Hitchens has a great sense of accidental humor.
As for other religions, I was, like no few other angry Jewish teenage boys, into eastern religions for a bit, but I wouldn’t call my knowledge “deep” at all. I mostly just re-read the four noble truths and the eightfold path a bunch, and sometimes the Tao te Ching. At one point I had a bleached mohawk of unsculpted dreadlocks. A lot of the rest of the time I looked like a skinhead kind-of on-purpose. There were girls I thought would like that. I can’t remember why. I think I was right, though.
KROSS: So from Friday at sundown, to Saturday at sundown, if you allow yourself to write fiction but not work, does that mean that you don’t consider fiction work? You never start at a blank screen? You never have writer’s block or realize that everything is shit and throw things out the window on the highest story of your house and scream and stomp? Sometimes I go to other people’s houses, because they live on a higher floor than I do, and then I can throw shit work out with more emphasis. Do you do this? Is writing really so natural for you that you can do it on the day devoted to rest?
LEVIN: Writing IS work, most definitely. It’s just that it’s the kind of work that, for me, if I don’t do it every day, I’m not so great to be around; I’m a lesser human being.
As for getting angry about writing and staring at blank screens and stomping—yes, of course. That’s a lot of it. It’s not entirely pleasant. It’s not even mostly pleasant. I delete probably 90-95% of what I write, and the deletion is usually the most pleasant part. But then sometimes it’s completely joyful; sometimes I sense that I figured something out for a second, that I got a little better at it, and I’m all bodiless and flow-state, and there’s little I like more than that feeling.
KROSS: So, going back a bit: you’re a shrink too? As in, you saw the therapy schooling all the way through and went into practice? Or is shrink some sort of Jewish slang? Because it sounds like most Jewish slang. Is slang the right word? Should I be saying vernacular? Or something else? Either way, are you really a shrink in the sense that I know it? Who are you shrinking? What’s your specialty? This life experience must be pure gold from a writer’s perspective. You don’t have to admit it. That would probably violate some code of ethics.
LEVIN: I’m not a shrink. I got a master’s in clinical social work at University of Chicago, though, where there’s a huge emphasis placed on fieldwork. So what that means is I worked at a Partial Hospitalization Program for 17 hours a week my first year of school, mostly leading group therapy for really impoverished folks with dual diagnoses (most often schizophrenia and alcohol/drug-addiction). And then my second year, I worked 25 hours a week at Jewish Family and Community Services doing individual-, couples-, and family-therapy with all sorts of folks in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. I was between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four when I was doing that stuff, so, as you can probably imagine, I felt pretty young, especially with the couples-therapy, for which, just before I started, I grew a mustache, thinking it would old up my face, but I couldn’t hack it. The mustache, I mean. I woke up on a hot August night in week two of mustached life and freaked out, like, “There’s this THING on my lip!”… and shaved it off all bleary-eyed at three in morning.
It wasn’t actually the kind of writerly gold you would expect (or I would have expected), this therapy stuff. I think I got a lot out of listening to the ways in which my clients told stories—all the different styles and vocal weirdnesses, all the ways they’d attempt to manipulate themselves and their listeners—but their stories were pretty unstorylike for the most part. Also, though, I guess I learned to pay a lot closer attention to people and to draw them out, and I had this one supervisor who made me do process notes from memory, meaning that after a fifty-minute-long session, I had to sit down and type up everything that was said by the client and myself, which turned out to be a lot easier than you might suspect, once you’ve done it a few times. Then I got into radical behaviorism, which sounds evil, but is actually kinda beautiful, except it’s also a little ruinous—kind of thing where you (or, at least, I) start being unable to take seriously the majority of the words people use, including yourself. Like, I was living with a woman at the time—call her June—and June and I would get into these fights where June would raise her voice about something, and I’d think of it like, “Something is cueing June to raise her voice. How do I get her to lower her voice? She’s talking about the over-fullness of our ashtrays, and when I say I will empty them, her voice is still raised, but when I sit down and uncross my arms, her voice lowers, except now she’s saying something about painting/her mother/money” or whatever. It was weird. That’s a hard job, psychotherapy. I was okay at it, I think—I didn’t harm anyone, and I think I helped a few people—but after doing it all day, I wasn’t as good a friend or boyfriend as I should have been. I was flat.
KROSS: Your book is literally open on my lap right this moment. Is that awkward? It’s always awkward for me when people say the same about my work.
LEVIN: Ha! You’re hilarious. I am nothing short of very happy to hear that my book’s in your lap. Maybe if we were on the phone or something, it would be awkward, but… nah. Is it awkward to talk to dudes who have seen your movies, or just if they’re kinda simultaneously watching one while communicating with you? When I was younger, one of my best friends was a stripper, and we each ended up dating a number of each others’ friends, so I got to know a lot of strippers, and there was definitely a bit of pity/contempt on the part of the strippers for dudes who came to see them dance—like, they wouldn’t want to talk to those guys. I wonder if it’s the same with movies. It seems like it could be, but then on the other hand maybe the fact that your fans aren’t physically proximal changes the whole deal? For all I know, the contempt/pity thing these strippers had wasn’t even remotely universal, and it was just that particular group that felt that way. Or maybe it was an age thing—we were all 19 and 20 or thereabouts…. I hope you enjoy the book.
KROSS: The awkward part is definitely when we’re on the phone and they suddenly make comments about Google. Even if they’re not googling me at that moment I know it’s inevitable past such a point. I feel like when I’m not on the phone with them they definitely don’t go near the Internet and therefore I’m safe. So then I stop calling. It makes marginal sense if you factor in denial.
As a stripper I remember only making fun of the customers who rightly deserved it. I loved the rest of them. This was a fickle system that really favored my whims and didn’t bode well for guys with poor hygiene and/or a tight grip on their wallets. As a porn star it’s not quite the same. I just assume the ones who say annoying things on twitter are mouth breathers and all the rest are a part of the robust red-blooded segment of the population that keep things moving forward, or at least own beer helmets and contribute creative punch lines. The things the non-mouth-breathers say on twitter rock my world.
Book is on my lap again. I can’t put it down.
LEVIN: All too often, denial is wrongfully maligned, I think. Have you ever heard of depressive realism? It’s pretty cool, and I learned about it over ten years ago, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately for some reason. Anyway, I’m guessing you haven’t heard of it because most people I know haven’t (only reason I did was I went to school to be a therapist back when). So what it is: There was a young woman (at Northwestern I think), a PhD psychology student, who disagreed with the assertion that depressed people have a warped view of the world. (The significance of this is that cognitive-behavioral therapists—the dominant school—base their methods for dealing with depression on that assertion.) Anyway, she came up with this really elegant study. She created a set of impossible-to-solve word scrambles (like XAANMRT and HJJNEYI and UTWPH) and gave the set of scrambles to a bunch of people to solve. Some of the people were diagnosed with depression, and some weren’t. On average, the depressed ones gave up on the scrambles much earlier than the non-depressed ones. Some of them even said stuff like, “This shit is impossible!” Which showed that the depressed ones, in this case at least, were suffering far less worldview warpage than the non-depressed, i.e. the depressed ones were more realistic. All of this to say that they were still depressed, which might — only might, because we’re scientists, here, and we don’t want to confuse correlation for causation — might suggest that they were depressed because they were realistic. Anyway, denial, inasmuch as it’s a blurring of reality, might in fact be a really good thing. Unless truth is more important than joy. Or whatever.
But this “grip on their wallets” business—you mean that literally or figuratively? Like, did you pick pockets? That would seem really dangerous. I used to want to be a pickpocket, myself. Too much Oliver! growing up, I think. I always wanted to be the Artful Dodger. Now I just want to run a ring of backgammon hustlers.
KROSS: I took one symbolic logic class. I believe you took ten, or more. If they make more than that.
On psychology—I know about this depressive realism thing too. That was my major. You wanna know what’s more depressing than depressive realism? The fact that studies show that depressed people have a more accurate view of themselves. See, Depressive Realism is just a theory. Those studies are empirical evidence. Sorry about the random adherence to the rules of capitalization.
What else… no I never picked pockets. I’m convinced that the pockets that would be worth picking are too hard. Large wads of cash move more noticeably than small wads. Also, I’m morally opposed to theft.
LEVIN: Why’d you major in Psych? The choices are: A) You wanted to be a therapist; B) Psych professors, especially the ones teaching surveys, tend to be amazing performers; C) You wanted to figure out “what was wrong with [you]” (I actually don’t think C applies to a lot of people, despite its being reputed to be the number 1 reason); D) It’s pretty easy; E) It’s more fun to think about individuals than it is to think about most other things; F) Lots of relatively easy multiple choice questions on the tests; G) Some of the above; H) None of the above. I was G: A, B, D, E, and F.
KROSS: Why psychology? Because they forced me to pick a major. I was a junior and had a shit ton of units in both that and philosophy already, and someone said if I was a philosophy major I’d never get a car loan. Something about being broke for life.
KROSS: Ok, you. First off. I read your book. Then I did it again, because I started down the wrong path, not realizing it was not a novel, and I was so curious how these two might interact—lesbian Susan and the poor gay boy with the middle class-to-rags-to-riches father—but then Susan died, and I thought, that’s weird. I guess the book is gonna jump around in time. Then you introduced me to a whole new character, and I was like, Wow! So much going on here! How can he possibly wrap all this up in this number of pages? You see, the book didn’t feel quite as thick as The Instructions. Then, right after Franco went to jail and the fat kid didn’t pay the burger kid, I thought, Hmmmmm. And then I realized we were dealing with short stories.
But I love short stories! They are better than novels if you must know. It’s just that they usually say something on the cover or the back in a thin italic, like this: Stories…
So, with that out of the way, I started over. If you’ve ever blindly read a short story not realizing it wasn’t a novel then you might realize how truly different one’s reading approach should be. Or maybe you already know that, considering your line of work. So on the one hand, Bravo, and on the other hand (the hand commenting on your skill and delivery and my general enjoyment of the book), Bravo!
Here is what I believe: I believe that you personally at one point did think that hot pink meant pink that looked hot on people. I believe that because I believe nothing other than real life experience could invent that. I think that Billy is one of the finest pieces in there, even though I think others are going to focus more on Susan and, like you did, Hot Pink. I think when you wrote the description for how to make a Jenny (In How to Play “The Guy”) you actually sat someone down in front of you, or you sat down in front of her in sunglasses, and she didn’t know you were watching. Which is OK. I do that.
Seriously. Bravo on the book. Applying that level of logic to an ass is a feat in itself.
LEVIN: Aw, Kayden. Sorry about the confusion. Thanks for going at it twice. And thanks for the Bravo.
As far as I can remember, I’ve never read any short stories thinking they were novels, but I’ve done the opposite multiple times—I’ve read any number of novel excerpts in magazines, thinking they were short stories, and thought, What a weak ending this otherwise enjoyable chunk of fictional prose has.
I don’t know if I agree that stories are better than novels in any objective way, but I think that stories have a much greater potential to be perfect than do novels, and I definitely re-read the stories I love many more times, and with a much keener eye, than I re-read the novels I love. Like, Saunders’s Isabelle or Civilwarland or Jon, or Salinger’s For Esme with Love and Squalor, or Hannah’s Testimony of Pilot, or Gogol’s Overcoat, or Babel’s In the Basement, or TeBordo’s Rules and Regulations, or O’Connor’s Good Man Is Hard to Find or Good Country People, or Elkin’s Poetics for Bullies—I’ve read each of those no fewer than thirty times, some as many as fifty or sixty, I think. Whereas the novels I love most—excluding those from before college that got me obsessive, like Vonnegut’s three biggies and Catcher In the Rye—I’ve read, at most, six or seven times.
In any case, I’m much happier to hear someone say she prefers short stories to novels than the other way around. The short story deserves more champions. What are some of your favorites?
I never thought “hot pink” meant pink that looked hot on a person, but I definitely did think—till really pretty late in life—that “No Woman, No Cry” was advice to men, rather than comfort addressed directly to a muse. This was a source of some minor shame for awhile, but then I heard the poet Bruce Smith say he used to think the same thing, and he’s really smart, so I didn’t feel so bad.
I’m glad you dug Billy. That was one of the last ones I started, and it’s actually one of the ones I have the most fun reading aloud.
As for How to Play The Guy, not at all (I feel like I’m disappointing you. One reason why I’m usually reluctant to talk about my work is my fear that doing so might turn off someone who likes it—or someone who would like it if they read it—via undermining whatever beliefs they’ve nurtured/would nurture about it or its making. So maybe, for the sake of readers, and potential readers, and my own mental well-being, I should just make it clear here, however parenthetically, that any time I say anything about my own fiction, I’m making up roughly 80% of it.). There was a friend of mine in high school who told me he’d heard about a game really similar to the one described in the story, and I thought, years later, that that would be a cool thing to write about—that someone who’d want to play the game would be someone I’d be interested in thinking about and reading about. And then I started thinking about what kind of person he would be, and how, because he was a person, and people tend to think they’re right, and often righteous, he might believe the game, fucked up though it is, were good. And I think the main things that keep coming up in my work—the things that I end up writing about without realizing it till whatever I’m working on is finished or nearly finished—are the ways people make sense of who they’re friends with, and the ways they make sense of their behavior with and toward those they consider their friends, and the game ended up being about a certain type of three-way friendship that I think a lot of people have experienced at one time or another, if not multiple times, as much as it ended up being about the game and how the damage to girls that the game presumes to repair is damage to which the game itself contributes. Meow meow meow, etc.
Anyway, I think fiction can’t help but be drawn from life, though my work is rarely what anyone would call autobiographical.
KROSS: OK now I’m going to have to go back and reread How to Play the Guy with this new take on it. I still think the description of how to make a Jenny means you’ve studied one in real life. The way her finished product looked was the strongest visual for me.
LEVIN: Yeah, certainly. I studied angry, suffering girls all through junior high and part of high school. At least, I studied how they looked, what they said, and what it was like to talk to them and overhear them talking to others. And, beyond that, I’ve been a part of any number of triads with weird power-differentials, sexual tensions, and bizarre groupthink. I didn’t mean to suggest in that last email that I pull fiction out of the air, but rather that I tend to feel zero obligation toward giving an accurate retelling of any sequence of events that I’ve experienced. Like, when it comes to The Instructions, I was certainly in crazy love with a red-haired painter once, I was definitely a ten-year-old who liked to get in fights, I was always obsessed with loyalty, and I even suspected I might be the messiah for awhile, but none of that played out the way it does in the novel (obviously). Or, when it comes to Frankenwittgenstein, I do have twin siblings, but they’re sisters; my dad’s not an inventor or an obsessive, though he’s a deeply supportive and kind man who probably works a little too hard; I’m not gay and so never had to come out, though my older-brotheresque cousin is and did; and my mom never loved a rhubarb farmer, though she did pack us really great lunches for school with notes in the bags.
KROSS: You mentioned you had been sitting on the idea for How to Play the Guy for a while. At least the idea of the game as a concept for something to write on. Do you sit on everything for long periods of time before you work them into something? Just let them stew? Do you let the story take the turns you want as it goes or do you have the beats and resolution in some type of order before you sit down? Do you always know when you’re finished? Does reading your best work give you goosebumps? (You can be honest about the goosebumps—you’ve been very humble and modest thus far.)
LEVIN: I don’t have a lot of ideas, so I don’t really sit on things. When I do have an idea, I usually write at it for awhile, delete what I wrote, give up, try again, give up, try again, and continue doing that till I find my in via some sentence I like. Like with Frankenwittgenstein, I remember having the idea to write about a puking doll, and so I wrote this short, cataloguey-sounding description of a puking doll, and I thought I was done, but I wasn’t. The thing was really cold and conceptual, so I started writing about the inventor of the doll, and then I started wondering who would be narrating the tale of the inventor of the doll, and so I started writing from the point of view of the inventor’s son, and then I had to figure out what he was like, what his story was…
But then with the story Hot Pink, I just sat down and started writing sentences with a certain sound to them, a certain voice I liked, and I think I wrote the first couple paragraphs in one sitting, wanted to do something with them, but didn’t know what, and I tried on and off for about a year and a half, failing to get the same sound to come through, deleting almost everything I tried, till finally I got the next few paragraphs right, and understood more about the narrator, and then just let him talk a lot till he got to something plotty (the grapefruits, in this case), then cut back what didn’t get him to the plotty thing, then went after the next plotty thing, which was governed by the previous plotty thing and who the narrator had thus far revealed himself to be, and just kept doing that for six months. That’s how most of my work usually goes.
That’s also the thing that helps me know when I’ve gotten to the end, which I almost always know. I.e. Each story, as it proceeds, narrows its own possibilities; gets closer to a place of zero wiggle-room, till finally it seems it can only go in one or two directions, at which point I tend to try to figure out what I’m failing to see—what third direction it can go, what direction would feel equally as inevitable as either of the two more obvious ones, and when I find that direction, I feel surprised and nervous, and that’s how I know I’ve found it, and that’s how I know the end is the end. And then I go back and do my best to tailor everything in the story toward making the end as significant as possible.
Short answer: I let the story take the turns it wants to when I’m writing it. Once I’ve got the end down, I revise to make the beats beatier and the climax maximally intense.
When I finish a piece that I think is good (which I guess is any fiction I finish—I don’t let anyone publish it if I don’t think it’s good), I get all kindsa goosebumpy and weird and upset and joyful and hard-to-be-around, and sometimes I do get a lesser version of that feeling (those feelings?) later, when it’s in print, but I can never tell if it’s an authentic response to having just read something good, or if it’s more like a flashback of that feeling of having finished. I’m a ham.
KROSS: And why did Hot Pink become the title of this book over the other short story titles?
LEVIN: Hot Pink became the title of the book because I think it’s the best title in the book—like, I’d want to read a collection of stories called Hot Pinkquite a lot, and I’d expect a collection called Hot Pink to be very good—and I have a particular lot of affection for the story. I think it’s the one that surprised me the most as I was writing it.
KROSS: Which author intimidates you?
LEVIN: The writers who intimidate me the most are probably Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy. I’m a pretty inarticulate conversationalist, and a spaz, and I’ve got a filthy mouth, and my spastic inarticulateness magnifies a hundred-fold when I’m not smoking, a thousand-fold when I’m nervous and not smoking, and I imagine that if I were to ever have the opportunity to drink a drink or eat a burger or something with one of those writers, it wouldn’t happen in a smoker-friendly environment, and that even it were to happen in a smoker-friendly environment, and even if I weren’t somehow made nervous by the meeting, my baseline spastic inarticulateness would still be sufficient to annoy them and embarrass myself, and instead of enjoying their company and getting them to crack jokes and gleaning wisdom about fiction from them, I’d end up forgetting myself and cursing a lot and cracking all my knuckles over and over while swaying back and forth and hawking phlegm onto the carpet and removing my shoes to scratch between my toes. Or, from fear of doing all that stuff, I’d just go completely silent and bore them.
KROSS: Who chooses your cover art?
LEVIN: Eli Horowitz, my genius editor, commissions cover art, and we talk about what I might like on the cover and what he’d like on the cover, and then he shows me a bunch of sketches by the artist(s) he commissioned, and then I say stuff, usually over-analytical stuff, and he renders it more intelligently, delivers it to the artist(s), and we get more sketches, and go back and forth, and then I get to a place where I don’t trust myself anymore—where I like three or four things a lot, but with this or that reservation—and I tell Eli to choose because, apart from being a brilliant editor, he’s a brilliant book designer, and then he makes a choice, and it’s always (i.e. both times), far and away the best choice possible. I love the covers of my books.