The Shattercolors Magazine Standard Interview—Author Version: Robert Levin
Conducted by Robert Scott Leyse (2008)
(Interview consists of 15 pre-set questions. Authors have published at least one novel or short story/poetry collection.)
1) Why did you begin writing, and how long have you been doing so?
I started writing when I was ten, the day after my mother showed me a booklet of stories that my father, and in his own hand, had written for her. In just weeks my mother had a volume of my collected works to read. Not counting interruptions that are common to the biographies of all writers of any merit—intervals devoted to drinking, drug abuse and womanizing—I’ve been writing ever since. Which is to say for some time.
2) What does your writing routine consist of?
I write best in the period that immediately follows waking up. To arrive at this special place more than once a day—and I’ll swear to the death that this is the sole reason—I take frequent naps.
4) What are common sources of inspiration?
Reading writing that’s superior to mine, especially writing that addresses, or touches upon, my own themes. That and conversations with people who at once encourage me to express my ideas and challenge me to better articulate them.
5) What does a book need to do to get you to read it from beginning to end?
I rarely read books for entertainment purposes alone. (I use presidential debates for that.) I belong to a generation that read books to learn more about life. I would open a new novel by Hemingway, Steinbeck or Faulkner with the expectation that my consciousness would be raised. To sustain my interest, a book still has to be telling me things I don’t already know.
6) Who are some of the authors you most admire?
I admire, and for a variety of reasons, a great many writers. The four who’ve had the most direct and enduring influence on me are Norman Mailer, Ernest Becker, Amiri Baraka (when he was LeRoi Jones) and Dave Barry.
7) How familiar are you with the literary canon?
I was a lit major in college and I’ve read most of the classics. That there remain significant gaps in my reading is something I tend not to flagellate myself over anymore.
8] What’s your take on politics and literary endeavor?
If you’re asking if it’s okay for writers to make a political tract of their fiction I’d say that there have certainly been writers who’ve done that and managed to create exceptional literature in the process. But fictional prose that’s intended to convey a political message is usually too bridled by its agenda for me to take much pleasure in reading it.
9) What are your feelings about formal vs. free verse?
If I were a poet, and I learned early on that I wasn’t, I would probably worry about such details. As a reader, it’s the vision and talent of the poet that concerns me, not the discipline he or she is coming from. Having said that, and having been inundated by classical verse in school, I’m more likely to look into a poem that’s been composed in a modern rather than a traditional manner.
10) Do you feel “flash” fiction (300 words or less) is a viable form, or nothing more than a writing exercise?
It’s an exercise when that’s all that it amounts to. It becomes a legitimate and viable form when a writer who’s using it writes something terrific. For me, however, form always follows content. I might write a piece that by chance came to 300 words, but I would never deliberately confine myself to a pre-fixed word count.
11) When not writing, what do you do for amusement?
You mean besides Googling myself? Well, that’s it. I Google myself.
No. There are times, of course, when it’s absolutely necessary to empty your head of thought. But advancing in age and a considerable distance shy of what I hoped to accomplish by now, I try, when I’m not writing, to not stray too far from it. My choices of recreation tend to be things—books, theater, films—that promise to be intellectually stimulating and to keep my mind sharp.
12) What’s one of the most annoying things you can think of?
What’s guaranteed to spill bad chemicals in my brain is arrogant stupidity.
13) Briefly describe what you consider to be one of your standout childhood pranks.
I’m put in mind of an incident in a nursery school when I was five. Precociously philosophical and already cultivating the maverick persona I would continue to hone throughout my life, I was prepared to question every custom and convention I came across. In this particular case, and in respect to the different uses assigned to various waste disposal receptacles, I found myself challenging what seemed to me to be the arbitrariness of strict designations. Removing my fresh feces from the toilet, I placed them into an adjacent trash basket. (When five minutes later what I’d done met with universal condemnation from my peers and supervisors, I was convinced that I was onto something.)
14) What are your upcoming projects/works in progress?
Edward Albee was ready to punch me in the mouth when I asked him a similar question years ago. Later, in respect to my own work—and with all proportions kept, of course—I would understand his rage. I can lose a piece forever by discussing it. (And it makes no difference if the response I get is negative or positive.) Talking about ideas in the abstract is good—it’s invigorating. But describing something I’m writing, or planning to write, is, in effect, to “publish” it. And with what should have been the final step of the project already taken, I tend to separate from it. The sense of urgency and the emotional engagement with it that I need to go on slips away.
15) Care to conclude with a sweeping philosophical statement?
It’s been a conviction of mine for quite a while that to stifle too much consciousness of our mortal condition—or to twist and belie the unacceptable fact of it—constitute the true objectives of virtually everything we do. We can immerse ourselves in endless discussions about the economic, social, political, psychological, historical and cultural factors that determine and shape our beliefs and behavior, but when we do that we are obfuscating the most important factor: the need, constant, urgent and universal—and demanding the cultivation of all manner of evasions, illusions and delusions—to mollify our fear of extinction.
I know how disagreeable this notion is, even to people inclined to concede the truth of it. To acknowledge what’s really driving us leaves us to confront precisely what we’re trying to flee. We want to stay ignorant of where we’re coming from and with good reason. But considering what’s going on in the world right now, the failure to recognize for what they are the distortions of reality that we concoct and entertain in order to deny the prospect of oblivion can come at a very high price for everyone—a price that’s greater than the rewards. The Muslim suicide bombers who’ve discovered a quick and certain passage to eternal life (the objection to a Western presence in the Middle East is only a rationalization), and the Christians who helped to twice elect a dangerously feckless president because he professed to share their belief in death-transcending myths are just two of the more salient demonstrations of my point.
Now if you were to ask me what I think writers are for I would say, with my bias duly noted, that it’s to enlighten us on this issue (and its myriad secular as well as religious aspects). And I think that authors, however edgy, deep and “serious” they may be, who ignore or skirt the critical dynamic of death denial—who don’t in some way attempt to remind readers of the real purpose of their actions—are only reinforcing the reader’s willful innocence. They’re writing, in essence, what amount to childrens books.