David Samuel Levinson's debut novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, came out from Algonquin Books last spring to high praise. The brilliant novelist Caroline Leavitt called it an, "extraordinary, shocking, funny novel about writing, art, fame and mystery," and Entertainment Weekly noted its "great melodramatic scenes, full of delicious prose." If there is such a thing as a typical first novel, this isn't it: as another reviewer put it Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence is a "smart, page-turning genre bender." David and I have become fast friends since our books came out at the same time and I was thrilled when he agreed to share his writerly smarts with us here:
VP: Because my first novel had a long back story behind it, I often assume that other authors have gone through similar trials and tribulations to reach publication. Apparently, that’s not always the case. But, in your instance, there’s a true saga that led to the eventual publication of your fine first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence. Can you share the publication story behind the story?
DSL: Everyone has his own journey to publication. Some journeys are easier than others. Mine was atypical, and here's why: back in 2007, my agent sent the manuscript of ALBTS around to the big publishing houses of NYC. A few editors were interested and there were calls set up in which I spoke to them on the phone. There was a small bidding war and in the end I went with an editor at Harcourt (before the merge). She had a solid reputation for being a good though ball-breaking editor and she had a successful track record with first-time authors, so I thought, Why not. Besides, I couldn't pass up the amount of money she offered. I'd been living on about $12,000 a year in New York and while my advance wasn't ginormous, it was enough to change my life for the interim. I could finally take a breath and relax, or so I thought.
I met my editor for the first time in August of 2007 at her house in upstate NY. We had a grand time, smoking cigarettes and drinking ice tea at a picnic table in her backyard. I liked her a lot. We discussed my novel, going through it page by page. But then halfway through it, she set it aside and said, "The rest of it needs a thorough rewrite." To make a long story short, I spent the following year rewriting and rewriting and rewriting—all of it to her specifications. Each chunk of pages I sent her were met with stony silence, then absolute dismissal. "You're rushing," she told me once in an email. She was right about that, so I slowed down and took my time. But even this wasn't good enough for her. My last correspondence with her was in May of 2008. Ultimately, the contract was dissolved and I went to Chuck Adams, who was kind enough of buy the book from Harcourt. I say kind enough because ALBTS might never have found another home had it not been for Algonquin. So the book I wrote is the book that was published, more or less. I'm thrilled with it and I'm equally thrilled that I'm with Algonquin.
VP: Through that experience with your first editor, you had to stand by your vision of your novel. Do you think that you learned something not only about publishing, but about yourself as a writer that will be helpful going forward with future books?
DSL: Oh, did I! Mostly, what I learned from all of this is that even if you spend ten years laboring over a book, it can still go out into the world and do nothing. ALBTS is a very ambitious first novel. It's also a book that's kind of out of step with all the other novels around it. First, it's a book about writing, writers, and publishing—three very big no-nos in the industry—and second, it's very self-referential and metafictional. It's a serious book about about serious things. In the 1800s, you could get away with writing about writing and have the end result be serious. In today's world, writing about writing and writers has to be sarcastic and funny if it's going to be met with any kind of exposure. Every book about writing that's been written in the last twenty years, save but a few, have been ironic and funny and light-hearted. I wanted to cross genres, so I wrote a mystery/thriller that used literary tropes. I wanted to twist the genre up and come up with something different, even new. It was an experiment I set for myself and I love the outcome. It's quite Nabokovian, or so I've been told, but I'm afraid that no one really knows what to make of it at bottom. It's a novel about novels, about ideas, about literature. But it isn't slight or light-hearted and it doesn't pander to the reading public. It's a novel about integrity, about where stories come from and who has the right to them and what happens when you steal a story from someone else and make it your own. In this day and age, I thought this was a perfect theme to tackle, given the amount of stories circulating on the internet, etc. But again, I'm afraid this topic just isn't as interesting or riveting as werewolves, zombies, and vampires. So to answer your question: I'm going to keep writing the novels I want to write because there's really no rhyme or reason why this book sells and that book doesn't. The writing seems almost superfluous to the buzz and hype that occurs around certain books. Once a book gets the NY Times stamp of approval, it's all set to exceed expectations and then even some of those books don't go anywhere. Basically, it's a total crap shoot and lots of luck and so you only have yourself and the novels you write to count on.
VP: The actual writing of Antonia took you many years. Can you describe how your manuscript changed and improved through those drafts? How did you use other readers in your process?
: The book was a total mess to begin with, as most first drafts are. Catherine was much older and the style of the writing was fairly stilted, Henry Jamesian. I wanted to write a 19th-century novel and set it in the present. I showed my writing group at the time a couple of chapters and they all said the same thing—it need a facelift. So I gave it a facelift. I made Catherine much younger and I updated the language to make it more germane to the current culture, because of course it's your job as a writer to please everyone but yourself. Haha. But something began to happen when I began to shake the dust off it. It entered a different phase of life, younger, more vibrant, and I thought, I can still write a 19th-century novel because I'm dealing with 19th-century themes and people. All of my characters long to live in a different era, an era before television and the Internet (the book is set in 1991, long before cell phones and the Internet), an era that was far more simple and more connected. I find that our era is so fractured and discombobulated that it's no wonder certain books flourish. They reflect the culture in which we live. Well, I wanted to write a novel that reflected a culture in which we don't live. Even though it might have a similar look and feel to our current millennium, it isn't. It's otherworldly, even old worldly, and the characters in the novel behave as such.
I didn't use other readers in the process, actually. I just gave it to my agent, who then sent it out. Everyone has an opinion about this or that plot or this or that characters and since the book was mine, I thought my opinion counted the most. So, no readers for this one.
VP: Was your first book, the fine collection of stories, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will, an easier ride—both in terms of the writing and the publication? Did writing it prepare you to write Antonia or do you have other novel manuscripts in your draws that did that instead?
DSL: MOUAHAOW was a much easier ride, yes, and that's because I never wanted to write a novel. I feel far more comfortable in the short form and think I'm pretty damn good at it. I think the topic and themes in ALBTS mirror my frustrations about having to write a longer work, when in reality all I have ever wanted to do was to write short stories. I hate writing novels, actually, and find them ultimately tedious and boring. I like reading them, but I don't like writing them. They take, well, look how long it took me to write Antonia? I don't have that much time or dedication to give another novel. So I'm pretty sure I'll write my next one in ten days and be done with it. And yes, like every other writer, I have a couple of novels that are decaying in a desk drawer. They didn't help me one iota in writing Antonia and I learned nothing from them. Don't be fooled—writing a novel and finishing it doesn't mean that you've unlocked the key to a successful strategy for writing novels at all. It just means that you wrote one. Every novel is different. Every novel comes with its own interiors and its own ulterior motives and it's up to you to tame the fuck out of it before it gets away from you. That's what a novel is to me—an untamable beast that a publisher buys, smacks a dollar sign on, and pushes into the world. Sidebar: I love how it goes from a work of art to a work of commerce in a matter of seconds. It's amazing that shift in thought and design—the spectacle of it all is something I try to nail down in ALBTS. You begin as this unknown person at a desk and you end up having umpteen conversations with your editor about covers. The whole racket is insane!
VP: What advice do you have for aspiring writers these days? What should they not do?
DSL: The only advice I have for aspirants is this: be confident in your convictions or be eaten alive.
VP: So, what are you working on next?
DSL: I'm working on a novel tentatively titled, When Noah's Raven Came to Town. It's my September 11th novel. That's all I can say.