An Interview with Stacey Levine

Stacey Levine is the author of My Horse and Other Stories, which won the PEN/West award, the novel Dra– and the novel Frances Johnson, which was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Her fiction has appeared in Fence, Tin House, Yeti, Denver Quarterly, and The Fairy Tale Review. She has also written for Bookforum, American Book Review, The Stranger, and The Seattle Times. A Pushcart prize nominee, Stacey was awarded the Stranger Literary Genius award in 2009.

Matthew sat down with Stacey to talk about her new collection of stories, Girl with Brown Fur, out now from Starcherone/Dzanc. In the process, they discussed lassitude, deadlines, continuously being eaten by the present and unfortunate school pictures from the 10th grade.

There are writers who spend months smoothing out a single bit of dialogue. Then, there are writers, such as yourself, who seem so full of ideas they can’t sit still. Case in point: you’ve written novels, short stories, plays for puppets and radio dramas. You’ve also studied journalism, produced theatre reviews, book reviews, food criticism, and an especially excellent portrait of a topless and fire-breathing PacNW dissident named Ara Tripp. Where does all that energy come from? Is there one writerly title that feels most comfortable?

I can kind of happily say that I know what it’s like to spend a year and a half on a 7-page story… It’s something I love doing, working very slowly and surely to get it right (if I think the thing is progressing). So, actually, I do have the ability to sit still… Actually, I see myself as someone who wastes a fair bit of time just sitting around. All the work you mention…it’s been spaced out over a long period of time, so, I have been writing consistently, but not usually in insane, upset, caffeinated streaks. I think that only happened once, when I was in graduate school at UW.

About the writerly titles you ask about: Right now I feel best just working on my favorite thing, which is fiction. Mostly that’s because I make a living these days at a job that doesn’t involve me writing stuff.

When you do sit down and write, are you there to compose a story/review/scene from a play, or do you go after whatever feels right that morning? Is the inspiration for, say, a short story, coming from the same place as for a longer piece of fiction, or a piece of journalism?

A few nights ago, at Elizabeth Austen’s Elliott Bay reading that celebrated her new book of poetry, Every Dress a Decision, the author said something essentially like:  “There is no muse more sacred than a deadline.”  It’s so true. Deadlines are the motivators. It’s not as often about inspiration as about getting it done and finding inspiration within the parameters of work time.
But if I do get extremely inspired, it’s for fiction or creative work, not journalistic writing, which, after all, is just a job. It’s just not as yummy or tonally varied or evocative as fiction can be, no matter how great the subject (and interviewing Ara Tripp in Charlie’s dimly-lit bar was pretty great). So when I sit down to write these days, I’m usually trying to complete some kind of creative work that I’ve already begun and I have this desire to get over the lumps and possibility of lassitude and make it work.

Well, Starcherone/Dzanc just released your most recent victory over lassitude, Girl with Brown Fur. It is an excellent collection of twenty-eight strange and beautiful stories. Tell us about how that all came together.

Ted Pelton at Starcherone (a great guy, incredibly smart, who has been working with intense devotion on building up that press for several years and he lives next door to Niagara Falls) had been asking me for about two years for a manuscript, and his request didn’t sink in because I was being daft. Then I realized it would be a great match, so I came creeping back with an email that was like, “Do you still want to see something?” Just a few months after that, Ted was running over to Chicago or Ann Arbor for meetings with Dan Wickett at Dzanc and, suddenly (from my point of view), Starcherone was under the Dzanc umbrella. So I had not known that Dzanc would be part of it. A year before that, Starcherone had been completely independent.

You used the phrase “perfect match” in referring to Starcherone, which I completely agree with. They’re a great press and, in coming together with Dzanc, have created quite the home for innovative authors, especially in the short story department – Alissa Nutting, Robert Lopez, Matt Bell, to name a few. As a writer or short fiction, what draws you to that form? What does a short story allow you to do that can’t be done in longer fiction?

With a short story, you can control it immediately, or semi-immediately, and it’s intense. So it’s fast gratification. I like that short work can jump to the heart of the action or conflict without any build-up.

I attended a reading of yours last summer where you read from one of your novels, Frances Johnson. At one point you paused over a particular line – not because of its word order but because you were displeased with what you had written. While shaking your head you said, “Who was I when I wrote this?” Such a great little moment. I wonder if you could dive into that a bit more. How do you feel you’re a different writer from before?

I said that because the line I read aloud sounded insane to me. Feeling weird or alienated from what you’ve written some years before—that’s many writers, right? It’s akin to suddenly seeing your 10th grade class photo. Jarring. Ew. You become a different writer as you become a different person through time.

A 10th grade class photo is a nice way to put it. I think there’s this assumption that, because the work has been printed onto a page, it’s officially done and can be carried around and cracked open forever, creating the same effect today as it will twenty years from now. Of course, it’s far more fluid than that, sentences age the way haircuts do. When you’ve finished a piece, do you ever deliberately shift gears? As in, “I’m done with that, let’s try this now.” How important, and conscious, is change in your writing process?

I don’t decide to shift gears that purposefully or deliberately, but when there’s an opportunity to change a note, it always seems a good thing to do. And though change is a necessity and important, I don’t think about it as much as I think about the now. The now is a thing you can feel and, until it happens, change is just an abstraction. I’m pretty sure Murakami has a character in Kafka on the Shore who describes the future as something that’s continuously being eaten at every moment by the present? That is preeminently nice.

While on topic of the present and the future, what have you been working on lately? What’s coming up for you?

An editor at U Nebraska Press’s French Voices Series asked me if I would be interested in doing the Foreword for Coda by Rene Belletto. The novel’s narrative is so hard-edged and precise, all fitted together like a row of piano keys. It’s like a cross between Robbe-Grillet and detective genre fiction.

Great. Okay, last question. A bookseller question: what are you reading right now?

Howard Jacobson, Brent Staples, Lidia Yuknavitch. All wonderful.

Stacey Levine read with Ryan Boudinot, Maria Semple, and Matthew Simmons at the Richard Hugo House on Thursday, May 26th as part of their Cheap Beer and Prose series.

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