Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Author Interview: Francis Levy

Recently, I posted a review of a new novel called Erotomania: A Romance. I was so intrigued by the book that I had to interview the author, Francis Levy, to find out how he came up with the idea for the novel.

Erotomania is an absurdist portrait of a modern-day romance. It follows James and Monica from their early days as couple that is forced to move into a nuclear fall-out bunker so their explosive sex life doesn't physically harm their neighbors, down the long journey to marriage counseling.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself, what is your background and how did you come to writing?

I was an English major at Columbia and always wanted to write. Actually trash that, I went to Columbia and felt like shit, just hated myself, felt inferior, undesirable, my long time girlfriend had left me, I then went to Yale Drama School, in a program they had in critical writing and continued to feel like shit. I constantly wanted to be top man on the totem pole. At Yale I began my long career oedipalizing reality. I constantly wanted what everyone else had. There is an expression you've got to want what you have. It took me about thirty years to learn that. I started writing for all the wrong reasons basically as a way of looking for attention. I think all writers do this to some extent and I'n ending my career with the same base motives. You will never hear a heartening word from these lips. I look at writing as an animalistic activity, a delving into an unconscious instinctual world; this is where the addictive power of writing comes from. This is a world that psychotics inhabit unwillingly and that writers are free to come and go from as they please. There is a deceptive veneer of humanism to the enterprise, but essentially it has to do with the will to power. Who used that expression? When I first came to NY after my years in New Haven, I got a job in publishing. I expected the literary world to be kind of cult of sensiblility, EM Forster had talked about "the aristocracy of he heart." It was nothing like that.

Q. How long did it take you to write the book and find a publisher?

It's a short book, but it took a couple of years since it was rewrirtten a lot. I had published a lot of short fiction, essays, humor, criticism in a wide variety of places including The Village Voice, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, The East Hampton Star, The Quarterly and so on, but I had never published a book. I have written other books which I tried to publish unsuccessfully and I was a little wary of the situation. So I actually didn't really do much submitting. I think I queried a few places and maybe sent some sample chapters out, but I didn't seriously set out to get published in the way I had in the past. I work with a very good editor named Maggie Paley and she showed it to her agent at the time Jane Gelfman. Jane liked it, but wasn't going to handle a first novel whose only destination was going to be Morgan Entrekin at Grove. He is the one that everyone thinks off when they have an edgy book. You have to remember that the situation in publishing is particularly bad now. It really sucks. I think one of her authors someone with a big track record had spoken highly of a small publisher in the midwest called Two Dollar Radio. That's how I heard of it. I went on line, looked up their submission guidelines then submitted, sight unseen. I heard back from Eric Obenauf the publisher. He liked what I had shown him and wanted to see more. I sent the rest and he offer me a contract.

Q. Your first release is entitled Erotomania: A Romance. How did you come up with the idea? From your blog, you specifically state that the book is not autobiographical in any way!

The original title of the novel had been Savage Fuck, then Savage Kiss, but the publisher wasn't hot on it. So my wife Hallie said, why don't you call it Erotomania. It's a word I frequently bandy about. The significance of the title for me really is that Erotomania is a pathology and pathology is a form of consciousness. My two characters start as animals. they are really walking ids and they they develop personality and consciousness. It's what allows them to get to know each other and it;s the thing that always draws them apart. The romance part came because from the first my publisher regarded it as a love story. I think his acceptance letter said somethinng like "you have reinvented the love story."

Q. I have to say that even though I’ve read a great deal of erotic romance and erotic, I found myself blushing at the sexual nature of the book. Was that something that you were concerned about all? Did you find yourself ever pulling back during the writing?

Never, not once. I don't regard it as pornographic or sexually stimulating either. I just wrote. You have to understand the language the thinking is all a little like Bunuel and Dali's Chien Andalou, a mixture of humor, sexuality and agrgression. It's not the language of reality, rather that of dreams. if you look at the sexuality in that context you will hopefully see it in another way. By the way I have nothing against pornography or writing that is sexually stimulating. One of my favorite books is DH Lawrences's The Rainbow--which is wonderfully sexy.

Q. The book is not set in a specific place, although the characters travel quite a bit going to various museums, and Jim travels for work. Was there a reason why you didn’t set the book, say in New York, or Chicago?

Again, this isn't reality. It's more of a dreamscape and hence I wasn;t concerned with that kind of verisimilitude.

Q. Although this book is written solely from the male point of view, we get a strong sense of Monica’s character. Did you find it a challenge getting into Monica’s head?

Not really, I have always been fascinated by women. One of my jokes which has some truth in it is that I have a lesbian sensiblity. That is, I have the sensibiity of a woman who loves other women. I don't think sexual consciousness need be defined by sexual orientation or biology. I can be a woman in a man's body for instance while not being a transexual, who desires a sex change operation. I love being a man, but I also love thinking about what it is to be a sexual or even non sexual woman.

Q. Not to spoil it for everyone, but both Monica and Jim have suffered a similar experience with a parent, was this a conscious decision on your part? And I noticed that it wasn’t really addressed during the counseling sessions?

There was nothing consciously addressed with regard to the creation of Monica or Jim's back stories. They just evolved. However, I am a great believer in the significance of manifest content. In other words if you spot a relationship then there is a signifance to it. I am still seeing things in the novel that I hadn't consciously noticed when I wrote it. I'm a very regimented person. I work on a strict schedule the same time everyday etc, but when I actually get into the act of writing I'm in a rather manic state. It's like a good therapy session that is painful at the same time. I delve into area I might not have been aware of ideationally, then I wake up from my dreaming, only to return to the wet dream or nightmare the next day.

Q. The character of the relationship counselor, is almost the anti- Dr. Phil. Is he based on someone you know or a completely fictional creation?

It's a total fictional creation, as is the whole novel. I will say this however. I have had lots of experience with psychoanalysis, and marriage counselling both and let me add I only satirize or caricature that which I love. I actually have an article in the current issue of the psychoanalytic journaol Contemporary Psychoanalysis entitled "Catricide, Matriciide and Magic: the Artist as Chimera."

Q. Food also plays a major part in the book, particularly Chinese food. You live in New York, what are your favorite Chinese food restaurants?

I used to eat in a place called Jade Mountain. It was between 12th and 13th on Second. It was the old combination plate kind of deal with the naugahyde booths and linoleum tables, a staticky oldies station playing in the background. I always ordered the Number #1` chow main, egg roll, fried rice and wanton soup. The Chow Mein sign is still up there on the building if you pass by. Now it's a bar. It was run by a guy named Reggie Chan. He was chief cook and bottle washer. There was a delivery guy, but Reggie made deliveries sometimes too. One day the delivery guy didn't make it to work I guess and Reggie got hit by a flat bed truck while making a delivery. That was the end of Jade Mountain and a whole period of my life. My kids grew up there. When I got my black belt we had my party there.

Q. Monica and Jim spend a great deal of time watching TV. Are there any shows that are must see TV for you?

I watch no TV. I am not against it. I just watch no TV I don't have the time.

Q. What are some novels that you could read again and again?

War and Peace, The Brothers K, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq

Q. Who do you admire and why?

I admire mostly dead people, Chekhov, Freud, I loved Bergman more than my own life. He is the Shakespeare of film. I hate being entertained and I hate beauty which I find alienating, but I love art and artists whose currency is human pain. That is something I identify with. It's not the pain of living that is so difficult. It is being alone in it that has always been the problem for me. I don't find a movie like Through a Glass Darkly disturbing in the least for instance. I find I solace in it. When I first saw the great Bergman films I was overwhelmed with the feeling of consolation.

Q. What is your writing process? Do you plot extensively first or do you tend to “fly in the mist?” Has your process changed over time? Do you write multiple drafts or clean up as you go?

No plotting. I write as I go, I try not to think. Ideation is the enemy of invention for me. I never say I have an idea for something. A line or succession of lines occurs and I'm off to the races.

Q. You work out seven days a week, you manage your family’s real estate holdings as well as a homeless program called Safe Haven, and you’re in analysis, when do you find time to write?

I write at the same time every day for starters. I write and weight lift in the mornings. then I go to karate or spinning or I jump rope, then I go to my analytic appointment, then I write some more. In the afternoons I write again and rewrite. I am usually working on three different things at the same time. For instance I recently completed a long essay on my analysis called "Pscyhoanalysis:The Patient's Cure."

Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

As I have said before writing is an irrational activity; that is where the power comes from, but to deal with the huge amount of irrationality unleashed, a firm regimen is necessary. The discipline, the regimen is everything. It's what allows the process to take place. I no more think about feeling like writing than I do feeling like working out. I just do it , the same time everyday. I rarely feel like working out. Who does? Do you know anyone who wants to do something that is difficult and exhausting?I feel the same way about writing.

Q. You are also the co-director of The Philoctetes Center here in New York. Can you talk a little bit about the Center and what it does?

The Philoctetes Center is psychoanalysis, neuroscience and humanitires. We run roundtables and are now running an increasingly ambitious research program. We have a poetry series and a jazz improv series and we have a collaboration with Film Forum where we preview films of theirs that have artistic or psychological resonances. We ran a whole series on creative process showing films about Kiki Smith, Chuck Close, Louise Bourgeois etc. Chuck Close and Kiki Smith came to talk about these film. The center began as a discussion about imagination. Imagination being the palette of psychoanalysis we were interesed in what creative people who have a particular intense connection to unconscious life could tell about analysis and conversely what analysis could tell us about the process of creativity.

Q. What are you planning to work on next?

Two things. I have a collection of interrelated short stories, really fables called The Kafka Studies Department. I term these "emotional mysteries." They are illustrated by my wife Hallie Cohen , who is a painter and chair of the art departmen at Marymount Manhattan College. My next novel is nearing completion. It's called "Seven Days in Rio" and concerns a sex tourist who gets waylaid at a psychoanalytic convention.

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