Interview with Stacey Levine
Stacey Levine is a Seattle-based fiction writer whose books include My Horse and Other Stories, and Dra--, a novel, both published by Sun & Moon Press of L.A. Her second novel, Frances Johnson, was published by Clear Cut Press of Portland, Oregon, and was a finalist for Washington State's 2006 Book Award. She has won a PEN/West Fiction Award, an Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, Fence, the American Book Review, The Stranger, The Seattle Times, Fodor's travel guides, and various anthologies. Formerly a creative writing instructor, she is now working on a second collection of short fiction.
You probably get this a lot, but I think the main reason I'm a fan of your work has to do with style and tone—there is something unique in the way you blend light and dark, absurd and grotesque. Your writing makes me think of David Lynch only more heightened, with better dialogue. Who/what would you say your influences are, or how would you describe how your style took shape?
As a student I read lots of Kafka, Duras, even Wittig. Voice-driven writing of all kinds. Like a lot of people in school, I adored the idea of disputing realism's conventions. I don't have as much of a problem with those conventions now. Except they still couch lots and lots of terrible writing. You picked up on something—I really paid attention to Lynch's films. They floor me. My favorite is his early short "The Grandmother." I think a writer's style also emerges wholly organically, too, that is, from the person's brain/body, i.e., if the brain contains a certain amount of stored fear, for example, or awe, or learned generosity, anything like that will flavor the writing.
One of your recurring themes is physical abnormality—I'm thinking in particular of the stories "The Hump" and "The Son" and Frances' face in Frances Johnson. Doctors show up a fair amount, too. I mean, bodies are strange things, but is there anything in particular you want to say about the body, or about medicine?
This device comes straight out of the tradition of fairy (and other) tales. The witch—a dubious person—has a wart on her nose. The good princess has flaxen hair. It's never that the princess has brown frizzy hair. So physical type is indicative of character. I like playing with that overly simplistic kind of frame. But there's something else, too. It's very clear, if you read psychiatrists' case studies, that people commonly somatize their emotions. The body expresses what the voice cannot. It's really common for a kid who feels fundamentally unloved to have chronic acne. Even blackouts and dizziness and stomach pain, like 80 percent of it is caused by "feelings." I'm not saying the ailments aren't real. I work in a hospital part-time, and you see this all the time, even in emergency room cases. So, for me, it's satisfying to create characters who, like many real people, are unaware that their symptoms may express repressed emotions.
Another recurring theme or image which always makes me laugh in your stories is food. Food often seems to be a joke in your work, whether it's a lump of gray meat, or "a beef luncheon at a nearby restaurant" or the strange, hard seeded crackers in Frances Johnson. There doesn't need to be a conscious reason for this, but since we're talking here... is there?
Food is part of life…
I guess I'm just wondering if there is anything besides dark humor behind the images of food as, like, unappetizing but necessary.
This might depend on the story/passage to which you're referring. Sometimes the food might be like a character's physical appearance, i.e., a reflection or metaphor of an inner psychiatric state (i.e., bad or gross food). It's also a trick of composition. Adding disparate elements to a fictional composition can be a good thing, because it adds textural layers.
Do you prefer the novel form over the short story, or vice versa? I feel like you tend to want to subvert the traditional demands of the form anyway, but does the novel have any demands that are harder, or more annoying, to fulfill?
I prefer the short story form. The opportunity to be super-precise appeals to me. Yes, novels are more annoying, because you usually have to flesh things out, and I am all over that breathtaking opportunity for art in brevity.
Frances Johnson is set in a small, fictional Florida town called Munson where there is a volcano called Sharla. Why Florida?
I'm not really sure, but I liked that it has three syllables. Also, I lived in Fort Lauderdale for a short while. That state is like no other with its ambience of mayhem and disaster.
So, the theme of this issue of Switchback is Dialectic vs. Antimony. As one of the editors put it, this is both a mouthful and a headful. But I see a lot of antimony in your work—characters who will simply never understand each other, ideas that will never coalesce, creatures (like the small, dog-like horse in "My Horse," and the dog in Frances Johnson) who will never come to terms with their human owners. Can't we all just get along?
I think you mean acidic, distressing relationships between people. I don't think that is the big theme of my work, though it might be a side effect of my themes. My work would be more about the individual struggling to master autonomy, authentic presence, and so-called selfhood among intimate others—family, neighbors, etc.—despite all kinds of abuse and subterranean psychological barriers that make the world dystopic and weird. And no, we cannot all just get along! That only happens on Teletubbies. The world is more complex than that.