Do you remember when your father used to say that talking to yourself was a sign of intelligence?

Yes. Lol.

 

Do you want to talk about your book?

Not really, but I will.

How did your early years in New Orleans influence your writing of A KIND OF FREEDOM?

I lived in New Orleans until I was 12. Then my mom and I moved to Connecticut, but because my dad and most of my family were still in New Orleans, we went back all the time, and it’s truly the only place I think of as home. So the rhythm of the city always lived in me. I lost my accent, but the voices of my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, are the earliest ones I remember. I learned to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen in New Orleans East. She taught me what to put in the beans, and that you make them on Monday. At elementary school, we wore K-Swiss tennis shoes with our uniform skirts, ribbed each other at recess, and danced to Jubilee All at assembly. The praline man waited for the end-of-day bell to ring so we kids could charge across the street and buy candy, pickles and potato chips from him. I say all this to say that New Orleans is such a special place, and my memories of it are so vivid. The language, food, music, and demeanor of the city are so rich I felt it would have disadvantaged me to write about anywhere else. More than that, no other place moved me to write about it as solidly as if it were a character itself.

Where are you?

I’m at Legend Upper West because it’s the only establishment within a one-mile radius of campus that isn’t swarming with undergrads. It’s the first day of school. Their excitement is too exciting. It’s a humid day and it feels like summer, and there’s too much libido and lust for learning in the air. I’m sitting here with a bowl of plain white rice.

Did you write your novel about Emilia Bassano Lanyer because you disagreed with a professor?

Well, I heard a talk about Emilia by A.L. Rowse, a British historian who gave a lecture at UGA when I was in graduate school. Rowse was convinced that she was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It thrilled me to think that not only may she have been Shakespeare’s girlfriend, but was a poet herself—and an early feminist! Writing about her brought together two strands of my life that had been separate: my love of the Renaissance and Shakespeare and my feminism.

But Rowse had a low opinion of her character, based (I thought) on his misogynistic attitude. I wanted to question that attitude, so I decided to write about Emilia from her own point of view, as a woman struggling to survive in a time when her life would have been severely restricted and constrained by laws and anti-woman beliefs, yet also a time of excitement and possibility.

Brian SmithI imagine you are very used to seeing your words in print after nearly two decades as a journalist and columnist. In fact, I saw you contributed music essays to two books published earlier this year. But does it feel different to have your very own work of fiction published? How?

It’s terrifying. I’ve written things in the past that had real consequences. Twice I had my life threatened from stories I wrote. One time in Detroit I was punched so hard in the face my eye was swollen shut for days. The guy hated what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure I was just telling the truth.

With fiction, it’s a different truth, a bigger one (we hope) in that the stories can ultimately define whatever moment we’re suffering through, or bouncing through with joy in our steps. That’s what my favorite writers, like Dorothy Allison, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Willy Vlautin, Denis Johnson, Jim Harrison, Harry Crews, and Charles Bukowski always did or do, somehow. I hope I can do a little of that for someone, somewhere. It’s about self-definition, and empathy for the world around us. I’m always terrified I fail at that. So that’s what’s scary.

author-photoI’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to speak with me.

You’re very welcome. I suppose it must seem odd though, to be addressing questions to yourself.

 

Indeed. Yet at the same time, I seem to recall your remarking that when you reread this book, by which I mean your recently published story collection This is a Dance Movie!, it almost felt to you as though the work had been written by another person.

That’s very true. The majority of these stories were written and published between 2008 and 2011.

color-author-photoOkay, I know you’ve been really nervous about this self-interview, but why don’t you just drink a cocktail, grow a pair, and I’ll ask you some questions.

(The author makes a vodka gimlet.)

 

So, who are you, Micah Perks?

That’s exactly why I didn’t want to do this. I knew you were going to be like that.

 

Like what?

A wiseacre.

DSCF6152Apparently Christine Rice was in a foul mood the day I called to chat about her debut novel Swarm Theory (University of Hell Press, April 2016). Although I did not read the book, nor had I done my research, I expected her to be more gracious. Sadly, she was rude and uncharitable. I had heard the rumors but, alas, she was much, much worse than the stories Hypertext Managing Editor Chelsea Laine Wells had shared with me (temper tantrums, screaming, etc.).

The following reflects our conversation. I have deleted all expletives (hers) from this draft. For the unexpurgated interview, click HERE.

amina_gautier5.creditjennibryantI notice that every time someone asks you when you’re going to write a novel, you get pretty snippy about it. Sometimes even—dare I say?—downright snarky. Do you hate novels so much?

I don’t hate novels at all. There are many novels I absolutely adore! A Lesson Before Dying, The Age of Innocence, Beloved, The Color Purple, Erasure, Fight Club, The Known World, Montana 1948, Not Without Laughter, Passing, Quicksand, The Remains of the Day, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Their Eyes Were Watching God –just to name a few.

 

Don’t you want your books to sell? Don’t novels sell better? Why don’t you just shut everybody up and write one?

I am a writer who is a literature scholar and professor and that is the lens through which I look to see the world of writing. So I know that there is no correlation between a book’s advance or publisher and the book getting invited into the academy.

Kristopher Jansma credit Michael LevyKris, now that I have you here, can I ask what exactly this book of ours is about?

This “book of ours” as you put it, is a novel called Why We Came to the City, and it is about five friends living in New York City, struggling with their big dreams and small mortalities in the face of overwhelming odds.

 

That sounds like something that I could really identify with.

Is that a joke?