This interview between Krystal Languell and Rachel Levitsky took place June 2014. It references an interview with Nelson Algren, conducted by Alston Anderson and Terry Southern, first published in The Art of Fiction, No. 11. Winter 1955.
KL: Did you have any trouble getting your novel published?
RL: (Laughing) Yes, in that it was very hard to finish. No. But I should say it was (it would have been) very hard to get anyone who publishes fiction to publish my novel. Every single person that was a fiction editor who solicited parts rejected me (other than Evan Lavender-Smith at Puerto del Sol) and every single time I applied to residencies in prose I was rejected.
Sweetly, it’s published by Futurepoem, who never had any doubts about it and solicited it from me. They wanted it much sooner than it was done, so my problem in publishing the novel was finishing the novel.
KL: Which of your books sold the most?
RL: You mean, well, how do you judge that? I was never an SPD bestseller up until this book and that chagrinned me, to be honest. (Laughing) I felt competitive and mean about it.
KL: Do you think of your novel as being very autobiographical?
RL: (Laughing) No.
KL: Well, anyway, you do think of some one person who could have started you thinking about your protagonist since apparently you at first planned an entirely different book?
RL: Well, yes and no. I’m a big quoter of Bréton’s Nadja where he makes fun of novelists for exchanging the character’s hair color and then calling them a fictional character. Then he proceeds to draw Nadja and it’s a very ambivalent… I would like to be funnier right now but this is actually pretty serious… It’s a very ambivalent portrait in the context of his teasing the novelist for this horror show of changing hair colors, changing their address slightly, their name slightly and calling it fiction, and he says why bother, why not live in a glass house and write your fictions. Then he proceeds to make this portrait of Nadja which is highly suspect because what he draws is a very incomplete portrait of her, and then leaves her to the mental institution and says oh well, I can’t help her anymore and that was great. Bye! You know. So at the end, in a way, her disappearance, disavowel, the return to normalcy and completeness, is kind of like a hair color change. She’s so specified as Nadja and yet she doesn’t exist/can’t continue to exist, to be manifest as a fact—is this because it’s a novel and she can’t be? I would say in my novel I am trying to create a structural character versus an autobiographical or fictional character.
KL: How do you think you arrived at it thematically rather than a war novel?
RL: Well, it is a war novel and we are living in an endless war, a forever war, and so perhaps all novels are war novels. But this is particularly a war novel in that it is about the consequences of the constraints under which people live in constant war. So I agree with myself; I don’t think that anyone can not write a war novel and I do appreciate that there’s a kind of a resistance. I resist the puerile notion that you could somehow try to find other stories when you are living in a time of war.
KL: Was this one of those books that “wrote itself?”
RL: (Laughing) No. Yes, no, actually, no yes no yes no. It didn’t write itself but it said this is how I’m going to be written. And aren’t I compelling to write. It was fun for me, it was very satisfying to arrive at those sentences.
KL: Did it occur to you that this might be an unusual treatment of tragedy, using a protagonist like yours?
RL: Yes. So there’s two unusuals. One was that it was unusual for my protagonist not to be funny. I mean I think there is funny in the book but this book, of my books, resides more flatly or squarely in the realm of tragedy. But the tragedy is always yet to happen, and it does happen at some point but it’s never disclosed, it’s like there’s a blank space on the other side of the blank space that’s happened…
Tragedy is disclosed in the beginning, pretty much, and you sort of know where you’re going, and so the fact that there’s an accident that you always know you’re in the middle of is tragic but the fact that there is no disclosure of the accident is problematic, and yet the process of recognition is the singular process of the book. So in that way it’s also pretty fatal—erase that last sentence.
KL: Did you ever feel that you should try heroin in connection with writing a book about users?
RL: (Laughing) Um, I did the whole thing on heroin.
KL: (Laughing) Ok. Were you ever put down by any of these people as an eavesdropper?
RL: They always put me down by calling me an eavesdropper and furthermore they called me rich. They had a lot of fun with that. But eventually I gave them drugs and then they forgave me. And now they like my novel very much.
KL: Oh, it’s a happy ending.
KL: How much do you usually write before you begin to rewrite?
RL: Do you want me to tell the truth?
KL: I don’t care.
RL: (Laughing) Very little. I start to rewrite right away. I usually spend one year writing and six years rewriting.
KL: Perfect. Do you think of any writers as having influenced your style or approach?
RL: Yeah. This is a very serious interview.
KL: There’s some silly stuff coming.
RL: There are tons of people who’ve influenced my style and approach and I would say for style Ashbery and James, and I would say for approach Renee Gladman and Gail Scott.
KL: How about American writers?
RL: I should also say Proust. I wanted a long sentence after I read Proust in my early 30s. Americans. Outside of a particular experimental prose milieu I call Prose Prose (Gladman and Scott are elemental there, though Scott is from Montreal she’s still technically American) I can experience American literary novelists as terrible, except for Henry James.
KL: Do you think you write like that?
RL: No, well, I don’t know. I was told yesterday that my speech is disjunctive. And I would say that with Henry James there’s disjunction within one sentence. But I actually think my sentences are not as disjunctive in this novel. I think I make arguments, that’s why it took me a long time, that I really thought through certain historical and social logics so in that way I think, no maybe, maybe there’s some correspondence between the disjunctiveness as a reading experience. It takes me a really long time to read Henry James because his consciousness is not singular, his subjectivity is not, it doesn’t stay in one place, it’s sort of a roving subjectivity and that’s very exciting to me. I don’t know if I do that or not but it makes it hard to read Henry James while feeling very compelled by the necessity of reading Henry James because it’s what I like the most. But actually I’m happy to read a sentence for days and not move on with the story, I leave stories in the middle all the time as a reader. I don’t know that if as a storyteller I’m the same or not. I leave stories in the middle for other stories by I usually go back to them if you know me long enough. It takes years. (Laughing)
KL: How about Pharrell?
RL: Like the singer of “Happy”?
KL: Yeah, the original asked about someone named Farrell that’s spelled very similarly.
RL: (Laughing) Well, people love him. I would love to have a conversation with him about what he means by happy and if he was on heroin when he wrote that song and if he’s on heroin still. I was really inspired by the guy who was arrested for giving Philip Seymour Hoffman the heroin. Did you read the articles about him?
KL: No, I didn’t realize something had happened.
RL: And he’s this musician who’s worked with all these famous bands and jazz bands. He’s a working musician who sells a little heroin to his friends. He has a small side gig in order to keep himself supplied and he had so much dignity about his situation and his life as a user of heroin and all the ways in which it was this really decent addiction to have, livable, and he was very careful, his health was good, and how aligned he was. It was very interesting to see drug use aligned with dignity rather than remorse and a program of recovery or sobriety and redemption. Yeah, getting better, you know that American idea for improvement. They made a big deal of arresting him, they fucked up his life. They made him this murderer. He’s just a dude who did drugs with another dude.
KL: Do you vote locally?
KL: What do your publishers think of that?
RL: (Laughing) My publisher supports me being a communist.
KL: Do you think there’s been any sort of tradition of isolation of the writer in America as compared to Europe?
RL: I think that America has a tradition of isolation as compared to Europe. Period. Which is not to say that there’s not a lot of yammering, a butt-load full of yammering, which may be about isolation or trying to avoid it, as writers. There’s a lot of noise being a writer these days. There’s not really a lot of interesting conversations about sentences or form or the way writing, actually writing, intersects with politics. It seems very self-referential to me.
KL: How did you fall into it?
RL: (Laughing) It broke underneath me.
KL: Were you trying to dramatize a social problem?
RL: Does dramatize mean analyze?
KL: I don’t think so.
RL: No. I was trying to make intimate the social that we live in which goes back to the question about American isolation. So we don’t even know the contours of the social that we’re in. We’re innocent to our own condition. And it’s true, it’s weird, I was trying to do all that stuff but I would really argue vehemently that what I was trying to do was also about form.
KL: Do you try to write a poetic prose?
RL: Yes. No. I try to write a poem, a sentence. So I would not say a poetic prose, I would say a poem prose. I think when people say poetic prose there’s something really flowery about what they’re picturing. Like poetic means vague.
It’s one of those terms these days that’s been used very poorly, like the term Romantic. I find what it often means is that it’s pretty—poetic means pretty—because people don’t expect prose to have nice, decent sentences so anything that has a sonic quality or prettiness to it is poetic. I don’t like that in poetry or in prose. But I like poems sometimes, I like the unit of the line, I like sound as speech frame, I like assonance and all the kinds of things that have stress and all the prosody, I like prosody. All those things help to create structures in your brain to understand what you don’t already understand. That’s why I like poetry. But I don’t think it’s pretty necessarily. I don’t mind it being pretty; actually I think my sentences can be rather beautiful, I’m sorry to say that, I know you’re not supposed to say that kind of thing about yourself. There’s plenty that just sound like a Sears catalogue as well.
KL: What do you think of Faulkner?
RL: Ah, Faulkner. You know the first thing that comes to my mind is Amiri Baraka and that one of the last things he said to Lee Ann Brown was that she should read Faulkner. It was something he said to her and it was something she was talking about recently after he died. I think he’s an amazing prose writer (as well as being an amazing poet). So I guess that’s an addendum to my list of American writers.
KL: It’s interesting that Hemingway once said that you and Faulkner were the two best writers in America.
RL: Can you say that again?
KL: (Repeats question)
RL: And I wrote a book about heroin? (Laughing) Well, you know what I have to say about Hemingway. He really wanted to sleep with Gertrude Stein. Anyway, he’s a half-good writer, or not an all-good writer.
KL: You make this distinction between a reader’s book and a book for yourself, what do you think the difference is?
RL: Well, I would like to edit myself and change my mind. I would like to disavow saying that. I think readers are produced by marketing. And I’m a communist so I think they can be unmarketed to and freed, liberated from the market and then we would all be readers. But I think of myself as a reader, I am a slow reader, but I find reading to be really hot. I’m not really answering your question. Yeah, reading is hot, capitalism is not hot.
Once we are freed of marketing as connected to our reading, reading will be hot for everyone, that’s what I wanna say. What’s hot for the summer? What’s the question?
Alright. Well, I’m reading about tragedy. I’m reading tragedy. I’m going to see a lot of movies, I’m going to the beach. I want to have a lot of sex and I want a tan.
Oh I’m reading Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’ll just read a bit of a poem I read with Susan Briante on a beautiful rock outside of Tucson. The poem is “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe.” This is from the middle (lines 34-50):
Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.
That’s where I’ll end. It’s sort of a random section.
KL: Obligation to whom?
RL: Obligation to you, my love.
KL: Is that all?
RL: Are you everything?
RL: Yes, you are.
KL: Do you find that you take more care with a thing like that?
RL: I’m trying to take care with a thing like that and all other things like that which are all other things.
KL: Do you feel that any critics have influenced your work?
RL: Yeah, I just got this amazing email from John Godfrey, the poet John Godfrey, and he read the novel, and he said a lot of interesting things about what my poetic style was and he said he had one mere quibble, and it was very generous and sweet, he was being so sweet and he stressed it was a mere quibble, not a quibble, and then he talked about my sashay habit, I so appreciated it, and he zeroed in on exactly the thing I get chagrinned by when I read the book where I use “or” to offer two opposites so I can approximate what I’m trying to say. He suggested it presents an if not this then this, and I was really moved by that.
Sometimes you need someone… like I just went to see my mother in LA, she lives near LA, in the desert, and I wasn’t going to see her because she has been mean. I’ve been sort of working my way through having had a mean mother, but I also wanted to because it was a really contained visit and I was like well, you know, she’s my mother! I love her. It’s damning myself to love my mother, and I just needed someone to say go and finally Tisa Bryant was like GO. Sometimes you need someone. On one hand there’re these life coaches, there’s a really good article on life coaches in Harper’s about how the field comes from the folks who brought us The Forum. So, you know, I do free lay secular life coaching now as party favors. (Laughing)
KL: No, I’ll have to go to a party.
RL: You’ll have to go to a party, it’s a hit. I used to be able to drink a lot and now I have to do party favors, so. So on one hand there’s life coaching where you pay someone to say, go ahead! Live your life! Do the things you’re supposed to do, and on the other hand sometimes you just want a friend to say, do this thing, and I felt like when John Godfrey wrote that it was like a friend saying, yeah, you’re right when you stop at these sentences, there’s something you need to formally explore and reconsider. It was really loving and thought-out. When someone’s actually interested in making better form, better language: Yay!
KL: How about this movie, your novel.
RL: Well, thank God you asked, I’m excited about it. It’s gonna be filmed on Fire Island this summer, in the nude and dot dot dot, to be continued.
KL: Did you have anything to do with the script?
RL: I have everything to do with the script, no, I have something to do with the script. I find it very painful to read other people’s scripts of my work but sometimes pain is good.
KL: Didn’t Simone de Beauvoir dedicate a book to you?
RL: Yes. It’s called The Second Sex.
Rachel Levitsky’s books include Under the Sun (Futurepoem, 2003), Neighbor (UDP, 2009) and The Story of My Accident Is Ours (Futurepoem, 2013). She has also published several chapbooks including Renoemos (Delete, 2010) and Dearly,(A+Bend, 1999). She is a member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, and she is an officer of the Office of Recuperative Strategies. She is core faculty in the activism-focused MFA in Writing at Pratt Institute. She is currently working on collaborations with Simone Kearney, Susan Bee, Marcella Durand, Ariel Goldberg, Christian Hawkey and Lonely Christopher.
Krystal Languell was born in South Bend, Indiana. She is the author of the books Call the Catastrophists (BlazeVox, 2011), Gray Market (Coconut, 2015), Last Song (dancing girl press, 2014), and Be a Dead Girl (Argos Books, 2014). In early 2014, Fashion Blast Quarter was published as a poetry pamphlet by Flying Object. Forthcoming work includes a collaboration with Robert Alan Wendeborn, Diamonds in the Flesh (Double Cross Press), and a collection of interviews, Archive Theft (Essay Press). A core member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, she also edits the journal Bone Bouquet.