Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest today, Richard Michael Levine.
Richard has written magazine articles for many national publications, including Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, New York, The New York Times Magazine and Esquire, where he was a contributing editor and wrote a monthly column on the media for a number of years. He has been a staff writer and editor at Newsweek and The Saturday Review, received an Alicia Patterson fellowship, and has taught at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
His bestselling non-fiction book, Bad Blood: A Family Murder in Marin County, was published by Random House and New American Library and has been translated into several languages. His poetry has been widely published in literary magazines and anthologies and collected in Catch and Other Poems. His short story collection, The Man Who Gave Away His Organs: Love and Obsession at Midlife, is forthcoming from Capra Press in July 2015.
Norm: Good day Richard and thanks for participating in our interview.
When did you first consider yourself a writer and what was the first piece you wrote? What happened to it?
I thought of being a writer—or at least a journalist—when I was quite young. I sometimes think people become writers because that’s what they’re told they do well at as early as grade school. I remember writing an earnest letter to established journalists at the time like James Reston and Walter Cronkite and Eric Sevareid asking them what I should study to become a journalist. Amazingly, they all answered, and most said the same thing—study Russian (it was the height of the Cold War), which I eventually did, though by the time I became a journalist I hardly had occasion to use it. I can’t imagine established journalists would respond to a kid’s earnest letter these days, but maybe I’m wrong.
I don’t think I actually published anything until some short stories and poetry in the Wesleyan University literary magazine. Then in graduate school in the Department of Slavic Literature at Columbia, I published an academic article (I’m sure I’d be embarrassed to read it now) on something to do with Chekhov—the way he frames stories like the painter Rouault or some such silliness. About the same time I began working at The New Leader magazine, no longer with us, and wrote some book reviews, including a longish essay on Norman Mailer that, some years later, I was thrilled to hear from Willie Morris that Mailer praised. I was in charge of the letters column, and when we had designated more pages for letters in the layout than we had letters to fill them, I wrote letters to the magazine. To make life easier—and because he was so susceptible to criticism—I would pick fights with our film reviewer, John Simon, so we’d exchange letters issue after issue without his ever knowing that his correspondents and his editor were one and the same.
I spent a year and a half in Poland as part of my graduate study and met David Halberstam, who was the New YorkTimes correspondent there at the time. I asked him if I could intern with him but he said he preferred to work alone. He advised me to write some travel articles for the Sunday Times travel section when I took trips around East Europe, which I did and they were published. He was engaged to a beautiful Polish film star at the time, who became his first wife, and since he couldn’t speak Polish, they tried to communicate in French, which he spoke haltingly. When that didn’t work, they would sometimes ask me to translate for them. I hope I wasn’t responsible for the demise of the marriage.
Halberstam left the Times in the late 60s to work at Willie Morris’ Harper’s magazine, and I got my big break in journalism when he recommended me to Willie. The first article I wrote for Harper’s ended up being a cover story called “The End of the Politics of Pleasure” about Adam Clayton Powell in retirement. I went fishing for wahoo with him off his boat in Bimini. Much more fun than studying Slavic languages and literature, so I quit the department before writing a doctoral thesis for free-lance magazine writing, interrupted now and then by editing gigs at magazines and teaching in journalism departments.
Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer and how do you stay focused when you write?
Richard: Everything about writing is difficult for me, but probably getting started on something heads the long list. And I clearly don’t have any tricks for staying focused because I usually don’t. One exception is meditating for a half-hour or so in the morning, which sometimes gets rid of the writing jitters. I also like to have a first paragraph that I think, at least at the time, is so good that the world is leaning forward on its toes for the rest, and also I like to have an ending in mind, however vague or changeable, that I can work towards.
Norm: What do you think of the Internet market for writers?
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
Richard: In nonfiction, where my rules are much stricter of course, I will certainly edit quotes and sometimes combine quotes from the same person if they do not misrepresent the thought. Less often, I’ve been known to rearrange the time scheme of events somewhat for narrative effect, though my conscience can plague me here and I try to avoid doing it. For one thing it can screw up people’s memory of their lives, since the story often becomes the reality even in their own memories.
I think it’s fine to avoid the linearity of events to make a better story, starting in the middle and going to and fro, as long as it’s made clear that I’m skipping around. I’ll sometimes change names and identifying characteristics for the sake of a person’s privacy, though here too I usually indicate that I’m doing this.
In fiction, telling a good story is paramount even when some or even most of the material is based on real events. I’ve occasionally made the mistake of not changing real events and peoples’ characteristics sufficiently, so that they recognize themselves. This has often led to long emails from me to the offended parties about the relationship between art and life and the primary obligations of a writer, although they rarely buy it. These kinds of wounds usually heal with time, and I can’t remember losing a friend because of a story, although more than once I’ve worried that I would. People should generally take to heart Janet Malcolm’s fierce and controversial opening words in her book on the Joe McGiness-Jeffrey Macdonald case and book that writers—I’m paraphrasing here—are always selling someone out.
Norm: How has your
environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Richard: In every possible way. I’m not a religious person but I am Jewish, middle-class and grew up in the suburbs of New York, and those influences are all over my fiction and poetry in ways too numerous to count—especially in my kind of humor, choice of characters, themes of stories and on and on.
Probably my most embarrassing moment connected with writing came when I turned in a story in a college fiction writing class—the only one I ever took, possibly because of this experience—taught by the poet Richard Wilbur. The story took place on a southern plantation in pre-Civil War days, and Wilbur let me know in no uncertain terms and in front of the whole class that I should stick with what I know. I realize that plenty of fine writers claim they use nothing from their lives—Ann Patchett has said this repeatedly—but I’m not one of them. If you can use something in your own life to good effect, why go out of your way to avoid it.
For this reason I read almost no science fiction or fantasy literature and usually avoid historical fiction. If I want to know what happened in a particular time and place, I’ll read a nonfiction work of history to get the real scoop. I’m usually most interested in news about my own life or lives somewhat related to mine. I realize you haven’t asked me, but my favourite American writer is Philip Roth, partly for just these reasons.
Norm: Why have you been drawn to writing essays and where do you get your ideas for these essays and short stories particularly your most recent work, The Man Who Gave Away His Organs: Love and Obsession at Midlife
Richard: I used to write essays, particularly when I was writing a media column in Esquire, but I haven’t done it in a while. I miss it and may get back to it, since ideas interest me greatly and the essay format is often the best way to discuss them.
Ideas for stories come from life of course, but often from reading too. I read two or three newspapers a day and tear out and save in a manila folder items that interest me and I think might be developed into stories. The title story of my short story collection came from an article about a guy who had donated a few organs, to his wife’s great distress. As I recall, I used almost nothing about him except this general notion, and then exaggerated it out of all recognition for dramatic effect.
Norm: How did you come up with the title The Man Who Gave Away His Organs: Tales of Love and Obsession at Midlife?
Richard: Well, that’s the story I’m talking about. After I wrote and titled it, that story seemed to work best as an overall title for the collection because it’s somewhat catchy and surprising and because it illustrates the subtitle as well or better than others. I thought about using “Becoming Burt Reynolds” as the title of the collection for the same reasons, but finally chose the other.
Here’s an out-of-school
admission about the subtitle, while I’m at it. It was somewhat of
an afterthought, literally—I thought of it after I wrote the
stories. I suspect most subtitles are afterthoughts, just as most
“prefaces” are written after a book is completed. Generally, a
writer writes individual stories and not a series of stories he
intends to go into a collection.
The whole idea of a collection is
usually an afterthought. Publishers would much rather publish novels
than short story collections, because novels can sell more copies and
have the potential to be the kind of breakout books that support the
industry. (I remember my editor at Random House, which published my
nonfiction book Bad Blood: A Family Murder in Marin County,
telling me that if the book didn’t sell well—happily it did—I
could thank James Michener, the house’s bestselling writer at the
time, for subsidizing it.)
If they do publish a story collection, they would prefer that it have continuing characters. Failing that, a common theme will sometimes do. A few of the characters in The Man Who Gave Away His Organs occur in more than one story, but I realized after the fact that there was somewhat of a common theme I could use in a pinch, thus Tales of Love and Obsession at Midlife. Most of the male protagonists in the stories were middle-aged, and I decided to emphasize the fact by having them all be around fifty and mentioning that fact in the stories. I even aged one of the characters twenty or so years to fit in with the general scheme. Still, truth to tell, it is a scheme, something of a pretext, even if it did sort of work. I don’t know if the subtitle warmed the hearts of publishers or not. But the book did get published, and I’m sure plenty of fine short story collections don’t.
And the fact is that there are quite a few short story collections that sell well (or at least “well for a book,” as a writer friend puts it), and I think it’s time publishers took a gamble on more of them. By the way, just to give a plug to a deserving short story collection that probably didn’t sell that well but should have (I did my part by pressing copies on friends), take a look at A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray. I don’t know him or even know if he’s written anything else, but it’s a fine book.
Norm: What do you want your work to do? Amuse people? Provoke thinking?
Richard: Amuse people, provoke thinking, elicit empathy, expand a reader’s experience by telling stories that haven’t been told before, maybe even do a tiny part in using the language in different ways (writing beautifully is something I always aim for, however seldom I achieve it)—all that. But above all, I hope my books entertain people. It’s hard to keep readers in their seats without entertaining them. And I’ve been known to toss away books that didn’t entertain me without any hesitation, unless I’m reading for specific information or to learn about a subject (these are usually nonfiction books). Life is too short to read books you’re not enjoying, and there’s always a stack of books I’m hoping to get around to sooner rather than later.
Norm: Are the characters in your most recent work based on people you know?
Richard: Some are, but I won’t tell you which ones or which people.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
Richard: I have a WEBSITE
Norm: What is next for Richard Michael Levine?
Richard: I’m writing more stories and poems. And I have a novel in mind. (Are you listening to this, publishers?)
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
I’m always grateful when I’m not asked what kind of pencil or pen I use (but will answer anyway because you’ve been so nice about not asking me: a rather soft and very thick no. 2 pencil by Ticonderoga meant for kids, I assume, because it has “My First” printed on it. I just like the feel of it.)
Norm: Thanks again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.