Subjects Discussed: Ways to state exclamation marks in conversation, unreliable narrators, verbal flair, taking qualities away from a character to create a voice, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, on Levine not believing that an author has a “real” voice, the academy perspective, unnamed protagonists (referred to as “UP” during the conversation), surrounding an unpleasant character with very nice people, how to separate an author’s viewpoint from a character’s unpleasant perspective, displaying items on tables, writing a book of short length, early drafts of Treasure Island!!!, being edited by Alice Sebold, parrots in heat, getting rid of fat jokes, stereotypical dialogue, American fiction that plays it safe, scabrous characters in contemporary fiction, political correctness and market conditions, creating family details, the inverse of a Facebook profile, placing the emphasis on ego, thinking of a book as a mindspace, not giving readers handles, Lydia Davis, the book’s Cymbeline-like ending, the endings of Victorian novels, four core values, author vs. character temperament, not being a good reader, Alain de Botton, “The Essayist is Sorry for Your Loss,” vocational experience, how to determine how to treat a parrot terribly, reading books about parrots, thinking about gender, living a life a certain way, and reading Stevenson biographies.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Correspondent: I’m not sure how we can say this while also respecting Stevenson. Shall we say Treasure Island Chk Chk Chk? Should we say Treasure Island — maybe Island with extra exuberance?
Levine: Yeah. I think it’s the exuberance I want.
Correspondent:Treasure [in high-pitched voice] Island!!! Something like that?
Correspondent: Okay. The author of Treasure [in high-pitched voice] Island!!! Sara Levine. How are you doing?
Levine: I’m fine. Thank you.
Correspondent: I’ll try to do less of that as the conversation progresses. But anyway, I wanted to first of all ask you about just what it takes to create such a winsome unlikable character and to perpetuate that for so long. How much do you feel is going over the line or enough? What do you need to do to invite the reader in to someone who is quite literally ineffable? There is no name for this character. So what of this? How does this start?
Levine: Well, how does it start? Or how do I do it? I guess those are the same.
Correspondent: How do you do it?
Levine: Well, I’ve always been interested in unreliable narrators. And part of what interests me is that there’s this gap between the narrator and the author, the implied author. And so I think what you have to do is vary that gap. If the character’s completely unlikable, despicable all the way through, the reader will toss the book aside. But I guess with this narrator, I thought, well, I’ll let her have a few things. I’ll take away compassion. I’ll take away generosity.
Correspondent: You took away quite a bit. (laughs)
Levine: Yeah, I took away a lot. But I will give her language. I will give her verbal flair. And I think that maybe that’s what keeps people interested.
Correspondent: Verbal flair? As opposed to the flair in Office Space. I mean, what do you mean by this?
Levine: Well, I just think she has a — I would say, a syntactically ambitious voice. It’s a very written book.
Correspondent: Taking qualities away. I mean, how did so many qualities get taken away over the course of this? I mean, is this just your inevitable reaction to generating conflict? To create someone who might even be described as sociopathic on some levels.
Levine: And has been. Well, you know, Stevenson himself had this idea about character formation. He said that it’s a kind of psychic surgery. And he described how he did Long John Silver, in fact. And he said, knife in hand, he thought about a friend of his. Henley. And then he cut away all his finer qualities. And left him with courage, but not much else. And I think that’s what I was interested in doing. Was taking somebody that I knew, but taking away those qualities that would help her on her passage. You know, for comic purposes.
Correspondent: So the verbal flair and the syntax — this is something of a buffer. This invites the reader into broaching someone who is just really unlikable normally, do you think?
Levine: I think. I mean, I think there has to be verbal energy there. She’s funny. If she weren’t funny, I don’t think it would be so fun to be in the company of someone like that.
Correspondent: So humor is the secret way with which to peer into these sordid human qualities.
Levine: Perhaps. Perhaps.
Correspondent: So really much of this was just really a way of keeping yourself entertained. That was really the m.o. for this book?
Levine: Well, yeah, and I’m also always interested in perception. What of my favorite parts of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is this tiny little part where the sister-in-law is talking about the money that her husband was supposed to leave to the girls. And within the course of one paragraph, although it’s third person, you watch her rationalize how they shouldn’t give the money to the girls. Maybe they’ll just give her some dishes. They’ll give them even the second best dishes. And so with this book, I think I was interested in rationalization and ego and certain psychological patterns. And so I wanted to let her be devious in ways. Ways that I think all people are devious. For the purposes of the story, she’s more devious than most.
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