Monday, March 7, 2022

TBR: Say This: Two Novellas by Elise Levine

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


It’s a cold spring in Baltimore, 2018, when the email arrives: the celebrity journalist hopes Eva will tell him everything about the sexual entanglement she had as a young teen with her older cousin, a man now in federal prison for murder. Thirteen years earlier, Lenore-May answers the phone to the nightmare news that her stepson’s body has been found near Mount Hood, and homicide is suspected.


The two linked novellas in Say This follow Eva’s unsettling ambivalence toward her confusing sexual relations with her cousin, and construct a portrait of her cousin’s victim via collaged perspectives of the slain man’s family, in a multi-faceted exploration of the devastating effects of the aftermath of violent crime.



Which character did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which character gave you the most trouble, and why?


The character Jim in the second novella, “Son One”—the father of the murder victim—is tetchy, in thrall to memories good and bad, self-blaming, accusatory, and bad-joke-telling even in his grief and in the face of a debilitating stroke. Exploring his emotional and tonal range—and allowing myself that latitude in developing his character—was a fascinating, rewarding process.


I did, however, really struggle over the course of about a million drafts with Eva, the central character of the first novella, “Eva Hurries Home”. As with Jim, she’s also very complex, with so many layers to peel away. But one of the most challenging aspects of writing her lay in showing that her chosen, recent uncoupled situation—she’s broken up with a series of romantic partners—is not pathological, that it’s not a negative response to the sexual exploitation she experienced as a young teen. As an adult at this moment in time, she’s reveling in her sense of independence from partners, finding herself in a freeing, unencumbered, undistracted state that allows her to finally reckon with her past and her cousin’s transgressions. Steering this aspect of her character felt tricky: I could feel the opposing pressures of traditional and still-pervasive depictions of women alone as blighted, unnatural, unhappy, inherently wrong, and had to keep checking that I wasn’t unconsciously resorting to these same old tropes, and that instead I was pushing back against them.  



Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


The lows arose from the usual questions I have when writing, and which lead me through seemingly endless revisions. Can I get the pieces to hold together and achieve a narrative momentum? Which was especially the case with this book, since I used a fragmented form, with very short, elliptical sections—plus the two novellas needed to link up. Other, equally important questions I grapple with: am I doing justice to the characters’ complexities? Can I locate clarity even in the heart of their very human irresolutions?


The highs also came through the usual channels: my good fortune at having some insightful readers willing to suffer through my drafts, including my long-time editor John Metcalf—who somehow convinced me, as he always does, to overcome my rampant self-doubts and heed my drive to see the characters’ inner lives and actions through.   



What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


It’s not exactly advice, but I keep these words of Joy Williams close to my heart: “Whenever the writer writes, it’s always three or four or five o’clock in the morning in his [sic] head.” Her words remind me to feel less afraid of exploring the dark places of character.



My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


Surprise #1. I was more than half way through writing the first novella, “Eva Hurries Home”, when the idea to use an abecedarian form—beginning each section with a successive letter of the alphabet, a – z and then z – a—for “Son One” occurred to me. It made so much sense: Eva is a compulsive list maker as she strives to quell her confusions and the chaos of her emotions, and the slain man’s family in the second novella, also roiled by powerful feelings, might also employ lists, even more highly ordered ones, as a method of emotional containment. Another compelling reason to write an abecedary: earliest examples of this formal approach to writing are found in the ancient Hebrew liturgy, and this sacred lineage spoke to this contemporary, secular family’s deep yearning to locate meaning in the face of the unspeakable.


Surprise #2. I thought, uh-uh, no way can I pull off using this form. It sounded excruciatingly difficult. At least try, I told myself. Deep breath, laptop out to the front porch, give it an hour, see if anything happens. And it did happen: the constraint helped break open the characters, providing an emotional through-line by which I could chart their experiences. In fact, developing and revising this novella came much more quickly for me than for “Eva Hurries Home”.



How did you find the title of your book?


I had the titles for the separate novellas from their inception, but not one that would tie the two together. They’d each undergone numerous revisions before I added a brief section to “Son One” in which Lauryn, the sister of the slain man, is trying to think of ways to name her thoughts and feelings toward her brother and his death. In the new material, she at one point lands on the phrase “Say this”—and, since “Eva Hurries Home” also centers a character in the process of attempting to name her experience, I realized I’d found a title that worked for both novellas. 



Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Sorry, no recipes! Just lots of food mentions and related sensory memories in the novellas, especially in “Eva Hurries Home”—like Eva, I love to eat, hate to cook. But now that I think about it, the various food items do make for an intriguing ingredient list: jicama from an aspirational DC salad bar, the boiled hot dogs Eva’s cousin used to cook, the greasy noodles she orders in on the night she’s at home considering the celebrity journalist’s request to interview her. Plus the fresh sea beans—those crisp, iodine-rich vegetables that grows in marshy, coastal areas, a few stalks of which she snaps off and chews when as an adult she returns to the narrow peninsula in southern Washington State where she and her cousin once roamed. Place together in large bowl, stir well? Okay—maybe not!












DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.