Smoking With Sara Levine

by Nancy Stebbins Read the Story December 22, 2010

I was intrigued by the energy in this piece, and the sense that all of the narrator’s frenzied activity compensated for a problem that couldn’t be solved by the simple act of giving things to charity. And then suddenly it could be solved by giving something to charity. The ending felt perfect. I’m curious how this piece started and evolved. Did you have this end in mind from the beginning?

Well, the germ was autobiographical in that I’m always emptying out our house. If I haven’t used something in a year, I figure I should give it to someone who will use it. Probably I was suspicious of my own impulses to shed. Giving to the Salvation Army is almost a public gesture-you haul in your offering, collect a receipt, report to the IRS. It looks like charity, but of course it can be something else. Once I had that woman cleaning out, I only knew that her donations had to escalate. It was funny to me that after hurting her partner she would find it necessary to give him away. She’s good in public, but not so good in private. She’s what Chogyam Trungpa would call a spiritual materialist.

It’s interesting that you empathize with the narrator’s partner. This gave me a different understanding of the story; I had assumed a more feminist angle, where there was a background of (maybe unspoken) conflict that she was acting out by giving him and his things away. Have other people read that angle into the story?

Oh, I like that reading! It seems plausible to me, though as you say I haven’t supplied the reasons for her anger. Maybe he’s been atrocious and the donations are her slow way of readying herself to ditch him. I am all for feminist readings.

The gap between the speaker’s self-concept and her underlying (perhaps unconscious) motivations is rich with possibilities. Does it come up often in your writing?

It does. I’m interested in unreliable narrators. Even my essays veer away from sincere and straightforward voices. I love working the gap between what the narrator says and what the reader sees. A lot of my writing privileges irony and subterranean statement.

The title of your story feels like it hits the mark, but I can’t say exactly why. How did you come up with it?

I don’t know. It came quickly, with the last sentence, probably because I wanted to mark the story as a fable. Also the title was an opportunity to exploit the gap between the speaker (who thinks she’s on the right path) and the implied author (who wishes to suggest otherwise). I’m making this all up now, of course; I didn’t think about it at the time. And you know what? I read Brecht’s The Good Woman of Sezuan when I was fifteen and was probably just waiting for a chance to steal from it.

You write fiction and creative nonfiction. Do you have other creative outlets in addition to writing?

I was going to say ‘no,” but now that I think of it, some weeks I spend more time drawing than writing. My daughter, who is six, is a dream collaborator. But writing is the main thing.

About the Author:

Sara Levine's fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Nerve, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, and many other magazines. Her essays have been anthologized in Best of Fence and The Touchstone Anthology of Creative Nonfiction: 1970 to the Present.

About the Interviewer:

Nancy Stebbins is a former editor at SmokeLong Quarterly.