Stacey Levine wrote a fiction collection, The Girl with Brown Fur, which will be published in 2009. She is also the author of My Horse and Other Stories and the novels Dra— and Frances Johnson. Her fiction has appeared in Fence, Tin House, The Fairy Tale Review, Yeti, and other venues. She wrote a libretto for an opera, The Wreck of the St.Nikolai, based on battles between the Pacific Northwest Quilyeute tribes and Russian fur traders. This was performed in Seattle. She likes to stay at home.
David F. Hoenigman: Are you ever surprised by the feedback you get from readers?
Stacey Levine: A few people have indicated they think my work is codified. It is, in a certain way. And they think only I know the code. That’s not true at all. The syntactical/symbolic “code” I use (and it’s really only one layer of my fiction, anyway), comes from a specific interpretation of familiar symbols, and the idea that they’ve taken root through history in the human psyche. I’m certainly no Jungian, but I’ve learned a lot from Jung’s disciples’ writings about dream interpretation. So, as a very basic example, there’s an awareness that a car may feel not only like a car but like oneself, one’s body. A bird is like a little corollary to a person’s wishes. A lake feels like a lake, but also like the Uncanny Unknown: the unconscious part of the mind, with the frozen-in-time childhood terrors that you’ve never reconsidered as an adult, like the sensation that you’re somehow responsible for some bad luck that’s happened to your family, but you don’t know why. It’s not a one-to-one correspondence that Lake equals Fears, but a sort of awareness of this dimension, that things are not as literal, as plain, as they seem, and that a huge subtextual, subterranean maw exists right beside us. That “code,” if you will, is present in my writing. This is why I really, really love the cover design of my new book, The Girl With Brown Fur. The artist, Dorothy Smith, was fully in synch with this. She put all these little hand-crafted images together into a dreamy collage: a car tire, a pipe, a bicycle, a seed pod. Her choice of imagery is spot-on. It’s the perfect cover for the book.
DH: Can you tell us more about the book?
SL: The Girl With Brown Fur is a group of 27 short stories. They were written over a long span of time, but most of them are fairly new. I usually tend to place voice, ambience, tone, or what-have-you in the foreground, rather than plot or full-on characterization. And that’s true in this book, although there are at least two stories that are fully more traditional in their use of fictional conventions…I like “Parthenogenetic Grandmother,” a story that, once I began writing it, clearly told me what it wanted to be (it’s not one of the more conventional stories). Written in the first person, it’s the voice of an intense young woman who lives in a remote cabin. She’s locked into an unpleasant situation with her grandmother (or some grandmother-like entity who was recently born); she feels imprisoned.
In “Lax Forb,” a businessman has crippling fears that he does not really exist. This one is written in a much different voice than the grandmother piece. It’s in third person, and in a faux-naïve style that may faintly recall the artificial, gee-whiz tone of vintage pulp genre novels. This is a style I’ve worked with a lot. I used it in my novel Frances Johnson. “Lax Forb” is wildly unrealistic, engaging an almost exclusively metaphoric engine. While Lax is on an airplane, the pilot comes walking through the cabin, handing out little books of puzzles; he talks to Lax openly about air crashes and God before he moves on. Then the plane actually crashes, but the lack of realistic detail lets the reader know that the action is weighted somewhere beyond realism. Can the piece stand as a weird tale on the literal level? I don’t really know! Lax’s plane ride might be seen as a stand-in for…what? Maybe for the journey the character endures through his life, with his gargantuan fears and extensive coping mechanisms, or maybe for his relationship to his wife and other people.
DH: Do you ever fear that you don’t really exist?
SL: Not literally! But I stole this idea from something mentioned in many psychiatric case studies I’ve perused; it’s described as something like the “fear of being annihilated.” People either have this or else they have a fear of annihilating everyone else around them. This is the kind of thing that comes out in dreams, but rarely, of course, in daily life. I suppose it could emerge while a person is on a date. Wouldn’t that be fun?
DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
SL: I think it’s clear from my writing that I grew up in the suburbs and had enough to eat. That security, plus other factors, gave me the freedom to think about internal struggles, the interstitial moments of life, the striking beauty of those moments, struggles regarding identity, self/interpersonal/social connection, and so forth.
DH: Can you give us a few examples of these interstitial moments of life? Why are they so significant to you?
SL: Well, what is anything worth if we can’t look past the obvious? Here’s an example from my book Frances Johnson– Frances and her friend Nancy are sitting together, facing each other, having a conversation, when without speaking of it, they suddenly begin to lock their legs together, pulling, scraping the legs together—not really kicking, but struggling with their legs in a way that escalates into a sort of mini emotional volcano. This comic scene suggests, in part, the minutia of infantile emotions—rage and possessiveness possibly—that come into play when we do something seemingly simple.
DH: Did you feel people got what you intended them to from Frances Johnson?
SL: My sense was that a lot of readers and most of the reviewers saw that it was very humorous. That side was as important to me as was the novel’s more serious side about human connection, summed up a bit when Frances asks Nancy: “‘Isn’t it funny to think that each person has a separate, beating heart? Wouldn’t it make more sense if several people shared a central heart of some kind?'”
DH: Can you talk about Dra—? Do you agree with the Kafka comparisons?
SL: Well, since Kafka lived and wrote, everyone and everything has been affected by his vision, you know? So the question really is: “Is Kafka still with us; does his residue remain in our atmosphere?” The answer is of course yes.
Dra—-, even more than Frances Johnson, also looks at the infantile emotions in children that remain alive in adults. Rage over being left out, greed, jealousy, neurotic fixations over toilet issues…I was being deliberate and kind of tongue-in-cheek about those things. There is even a pretty over-the-top reference to jealousy in the early childhood sense as Dra— sidles up to a man and woman while they’re, so to speak, in bed (I think the couple is lying down in an office corridor). This aspect of the novel was really fun to consider and compose.
For more information on Stacey Levine, visit staceylevine.com
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.