Adam Levin: Interview

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Instructions

by Adam Levin

Chicago writer Adam Levin made me smoke my first cigarette. But it was out of politeness; he wanted to be sure that I’d had my nicotine before we sat down to talk. Last year, Levin published his ambitious 1,030-page debut novel The Instructions, which spans four days in the life of a brilliant ten-year-old protagonist, Gurion Maccabee, who may or may not be the Messiah.

Levin sat down with TriQuarterly Online this fall to talk about finding humor in strange places, teaching creative writing, working with an editor, being a terrible student, Borscht Belt comedians, and, briefly, a mechanical elephant suit.

TriQuarterly Online: You’ve got your giant book (The Instructions, 2010) and your story collection that's coming out (Hot Pink, 2012). I’m wondering what the editorial process is these days. Are you getting handwritten notes from your editors?

Adam Levin: It’s e-mail, it’s handwriting — we’ve got a system; we’re doing it electronically now. But my editor doesn’t like Word, so I send him Word documents and he sends me everything back in text format. So we would go back and forth, and my paragraph breaks would get lost, but it was good in a weird way because you’d see your work differently and think, “Hey, I shouldn’t break that thought there.”

TQO: Did you have any strange interactions about any particular section of your novel?

AL: Yeah, there was a scene, the goofiest one — because my editor, Eli, is pretty much always right. He’s the smartest guy I know, and I don’t like to lose arguments, so he’ll go the distance to win the argument. But one argument he did not win: there is a scene in The Instructions where June is lying on top of Gurion, and Eli was like, “This is fucking pervy, man.” And I was like, “It’s not pervy, man! She’s just laying on him!” And we went back and forth, and he was surveying people to see which of us was right, and I was like, “Fuck that, she’s laying on him, you don’t win this one.”

TQO: I feel like there’s some cultural context, too. To me this scene feels, well, correct, but I don’t know if that’s true for everywhere.

AL: And they weren’t even making out! There was a language thing, like, why can’t they just be next to each other? I’m still not sure why my editor was so uptight about that scene, or why I was so inflexible. It just seemed off that it should be a problem. I mean, when I was ten I’m completely sure that I wanted to lie down with girls.

TQO: How about short stories? Is there any crazy, seminal author you think everyone should read?

AL: Christian TeBordo is a great short story writer. He had a great book come out last year, The Awful Possibilities. And I love Padgett Powell’s stories.

TQO: I love Grace Paley.

AL: Me too, her first collection? Awesome. I fucking love Grace Paley. But she’s huge.

TQO: She is, but I still remember picking up my first collection of hers; I was like, “Wow, you’re allowed to write like this?”

AL: What’s funny is I dodged her forever because I saw her photo and I was like, “This is going to be boring-ass writing.” It’s bigoted of me, but then I finally gave in, and I was like, how the fuck was she writing this stuff when she was writing it? Which reminds me, there is a new book coming out that reminds me of Paley. It’s called Treasure Island by Sara Levine. But yeah, Paley is great. I feel like the great short story writers are known for that.

TQO: I think of short stories as a separate genre.

AL: Oh, it is. Totally. Well, not totally, but I think short stories and novels are as different as short stories and poetry are. A short story is supposed to do stuff in a way that novels aren’t necessarily supposed to do stuff.

TQO: So you were talking about writing for six-hour stretches at a time?

AL: Oh, sometimes more.

TQO: Let’s say you needed to power down from that — what do you do, watch three hours of The Price Is Right?

AL: Oh, I go take a walk.

TQO: I find I get more ideas when I go for a walk.

AL: You have to listen to loud music. So you think about stuff but it flies by. It’s a mindset. I’m a really slow writer, so when I get to the point that I’ve only written a quarter of a sentence in half an hour, or I’m shuffling a comma, and it feels all right because my caffeine level is so high, it’s like OK, go for a walk, get some food, take a nap. And at night I’ll just watch a DVD. And lately I’ve been drinking again, so hey.

TQO: Yeah, there’s always that.

AL: Not like I’m off the wagon or whatever, but I didn’t drink much for a while and I’ve found it helps to unwind.

TQO: I wanted to ask you about capturing thought process. The Instructions is written in first person, and it felt true to being in someone’s head. Did you have any strategies or ways of thinking about that?

AL: Gurion’s voice changed and developed as I wrote, and the novel is written as if it’s a document, so it’s a story that is aware of itself. It’s written as if it’s scripture, so that gave me permission to be more analytical. I tend to think [judging authenticity] is like third-level analysis. When you read shit that works, not to get all mystical, but take George Saunders’s story “Jon”—these are voices that don’t exist. He’s creating something that doesn’t exist, but they’re internally consistent, and you’re laughing. Images are created that pop. So you’re not like “This is inauthentic,” you’re like “This is fucking great!” Or that Wells Tower story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” It’s this Viking, and he’s narrating his Viking adventures, and that shit doesn’t exist, but it’s great. So if you work sentence to sentence, and you trust that what you’re writing is exciting, that authenticity question goes out the window, because what is authentic?

TQO: Well, it goes to believability. You’re right, you can break it down to the sentence level.

AL: Or even the paragraph level. Have you read any Stanley Elkin? That guy doesn’t write the way people actually talk. He’s brilliant—super-stylized, long-winded. But there’s something authentic there—it really sounds like a Borscht Belt comedian. At the same time a Borscht Belt comedian is a performer, and his narrator doesn’t sound like a comedian, but maybe fifty times greater.

TQO: Borscht Belt comedian? Is that a real thing?

AL: Yeah, you know, like a performer in the Catskills making corny jokes. Or like Barry Hannah in “Testimony of Pilot.” No one really talks that way; no one is quite that articulate.

TQO: I think it’s cool to have a heightened reality.

AL: In fiction there’s naturalism, but that’s boring to read, right? I mean, every reality is heightened and is not naturalistic. It depends which direction you want to go. Raymond Carver is like heightened lowness. Or Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son has moments where it sounds like a guy just telling a story at his best and most articulate moment.

TQO: So what kind of student were you when you were in grade school?

AL: When I was a little-little kid, I was not a good student because I did not pay attention. My mom had already taught me how to read and do math, and I remember these weird gaps. Like I would go to kindergarten class and they would talk about the days of the week and the months in the year, and I would have no fucking idea what they were talking about because I just wasn’t paying attention. Up until about grade four, I got bribed into being a good student. They’d say “Do your homework” and I’d say no, and they’d say “We’ll give you a sticker with a star on it,” and I’d be like “All right,” or they’d give me an eraser or something. In grade four I started getting in a lot of fights. And then by seventh grade it started getting harder. They gave me the SATs. Then they were like, “You scored well so you can take night school classes at the high school!” So I was taking night school classes when I was eleven, and it was bullshit. That shit was actually hard, and I didn’t care about it. During regular school I didn’t have to sit in the math class. I could sit outside with this other kid from night school and just mess around. I stopped studying, and at that point I became a shitty fuck-up kid.

TQO: It’s amazing to me, though, because you clearly had the discipline to churn out this long tome.

AL: Well I always read a lot. I don’t think I was lazy. I was just really into comic books, or really focused on Kurt Vonnegut, or really into some video games.

TQO: So you can hyper-focus if you feel like it?

AL: Yeah, being really dedicated to one thing has never actually been a problem for me. Grade school, high school were shitty for me because you have to do so many things. After a while it was clear I wasn’t going to be a scientist or a mathematician. So college was better because I could do what I wanted to do. Some of it I really regret, like not paying attention in history. You know, “the teacher smells, this is boring, I want to chase girls.” But once I’m doing something I’m interested in, I’m very into learning. I think that’s how most people are. If people are fucking up in school, often it’s because they’re being asked to do a bunch of shit that is totally irrelevant to them.

TQO: The first sentence of The Instructions reminded me a little of Stuart Dybek because he writes about these scrapes young men get into and about the strange and horrible things boys will do to each other in the name of entertainment.

AL: You know, I had never read Dybek’s Childhood and Other Neighborhoods until really recently. It’s weird, people are very into Coast of Chicago, and I love Coast of Chicago, but they’d put me off Childhood. But I was like, how can it not be good? And it’s fucking unreal—totally bizarre. The stories don’t play out how you’d expect. They’re way less attached to reality. It’s totally surreal shit, but it still sounds completely Dybek. There’s a story there that starts out with a guy dressed up in a mechanical elephant suit. There are these kids messing with this guy and vandalizing the suit while he’s in it, and it sort of changes perspective, and then a shopkeeper comes up and starts talking to him, and then it goes into a flashback. And I don’t want to spoil it all, but it’s unreal. It’s totally complex, but it works.

TQO: So where are you teaching now?

AL: I’m a visiting artist at SAIC (School of the Art Institute).

TQO: How do you like it?

AL:  I love it. I get to work with undergrads, and the undergrad program is pretty small, so I get to see them as they develop as writers from year to year. Every writer progresses and plateaus, but undergrads are great because they progress a lot quicker, because often they’re not great when they start. But the dedicated ones, the hungry ones, you tell them “Read this, read that,” and they read it all over winter break and just one semester later they’re already so much better at writing. I thought I would have to teach them the avant-garde stuff because it’s an art institute. But they’ve all read, and love, The Age of Wire and String [by Ben Marcus], but haven’t read much or any Hemingway.

TQO: That sounds validating. Did you plan to be writing and teaching, or did you think, “Oh I’m a writer, so I’ll have to teach simultaneously”?

AL: Oh, I was going to be a social worker. I have a social work degree. And when I was at Syracuse, I thought I would graduate and be a social worker and a writer. Then I had George Saunders as a teacher, and like me he hadn’t studied just English, so I had him as a model.

TQO: I didn’t study writing or English in undergrad either; I didn’t really like those classes at the time.

AL: Yeah, and in undergrad I had some writing workshops, and they were like the cliché bad version of a workshop. They were just kind of lame. But in the MFA, having good-quality, thorough peer feedback, it was really rewarding, so by the time I got out I realized that I wanted to teach creative writing.

TQO: Is The Instructions on audiobook? It’s so long.

AL: I was contacted about that. I never followed up.

TQO: Could you abridge it?

AL: I couldn’t; I wouldn’t want to. Maybe an editor could. My editors were talking to translators about that, and I was like, “I’d prefer it wasn’t abridged,” but if it’s in another language it’s not like I’d know. But so far no one has abridged it, and in other languages the book can be even longer.

TQO: I’m very interested in something you said in one of your previous interviews, about how you wrote standing up for a few years. I just built myself a stand-up desk, so I don’t just sit down all day. Why were you standing?

AL: I sat until my back got totally screwed up because I had this rolling executive chair; it would creep back while I was crouched at my laptop, so it messed my back up.

TQO: Physiologically, when I’m writing and really cranking, I can feel my body needing a lot of energy, and I’ll have to sit still and eat a lot of carbs. So I feel like it might be too difficult to write a novel while standing up.

AL: It was the worst fucking thing ever. It was terrible. I’d have my coffee and my cigarette, and I’d have to worry about where to put them. I’d load up my coffee with sugar. And I’d smoke a lot. I quit for about six months. It was a bad move. I did it the day I turned in my corrected galleys. I read this quit-smoking book and I quit. I had been smoking forty to eighty cigarettes a day. I went cold turkey. It was crazy. I thought it was easier: the more it hurt, the more I was aware of it. And then I was like, “Holy shit, I finished my book!” And I elected to start smoking again.

TQO: So you’ve spent most of your life in Chicago.

AL: Other than grad school in Syracuse, yeah.

TQO: Is most of your work set in Chicago? Do you think about sense of place, or as Chicago as a character?

AL: I don’t think about place that much. I love Chicago, but I don’t look at the skyline and think, “I need to write about that.” So it’s more about my comfort here. I know the grid, the trains. As a reader, too, I’m never like, “Oh, this writer really nailed this specific place I know.” That’s certainly not the primary thrill.

TQO: I like that you went to “thrill” there; that’s come up elsewhere for you, like you’re saying literature should have that excitement factor. That literature’s purpose isn’t to be a primary source document or a history of how things really were. That it’s not important for someone to look at a story and say, “Culturally, this is how Chicago was at that time.”

AL: Yeah, I don’t give a shit about that stuff. Really, when I read, I like to be excited. I like to be engaged; I don’t think it’s important that a story documents how things were. Reading Don Quixote, I’m not like, “Wow, this is what Spain was like”; I’m like, “Wow, these two crazy dudes are puking on each other. This is hilarious!”