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Smoking With Rachel Levy

Interview by Gary Fincke (Read the Story) March 29, 2011

Rachel Levy

Smoke Stacks by Ed Luschei

I just have to ask—Did Grammy really contribute the line that became your title?


 I made two promises to a friend. I promised to have a baby with him, provided that neither one of us are parents by age 35. I also promised to write a story about him, but all my attempts to create something wholly fictional fell flat, so I decided to “fictionalize” an autobiographical account of our relationship.

 I told my grandmother of the promise I’d made to reproduce with this friend using a turkey baster. I was expecting to get a laugh out of Grammy, but to my surprise she took the whole thing very seriously. She even gave me step-by-step instructions, assuring me that a turkey baster is just like a penis. I found the conversation to be very funny and very sad. I still have the instructions, which are crudely scribbled in a notebook, followed by crudely scribbled instructions on how to plant bulbs and how to make jam. I’ve yet to follow any of these “recipes.”   

What I liked best was the way you established voice in such a short time &mdash do you often listen for the voice of your narrator before you write?

 Yes. I’d say I spend equal amounts of time writing and not writing every story. First I do the “not writing.” I sit and listen for voice. I find it very hard to say anything at all if I don’t first establish a range in which to speak. When I think about voice, I think about the rhythm of language, which to me is a very important structural element. I find conflict, tension, and sentiment in rhythm &mdash I find story,” I guess. Often when a piece of prose is so short, it’s the rhythm that builds and breaks and makes me feel as if I’ve been taken somewhere, as if I’ve been moved from point A to point B.          

Given all the imagery throughout, do you also write poetry or even consider this an extended prose poem?

 I feel comfortable saying that I write prose, but sometimes hesitate using the word “story” to describe my work. I feel there is “story” in every piece I create, though I’m not sure my work lives up to the expectations that readers of “stories” harbor. I like the term “prose poem” because it suggests something hybrid or between borders, though I don’t claim to write prose poetry, either (and when I submit work to journals I always do so under the category of “fiction”).

 I find prose to be most interesting and vital when it is pushing against its own borders and conventions. As a reader, I like confronting work that I cannot fully name/categorize.

 I’m not exactly sure how to answer this question because genre/form is something I’m still working through with respect to my own writing. I do know that when I aim for the borders of genre and form, I can usually make the most of my talents and &mdash for whatever reason &mdash produce work that feels dynamic and genuine.

Another thing I liked about the story was the way the tone waffled between funny and poignant and even desperate &mdash how much revision goes into such a brief story to look for opportunities to work that tension?

 I revise as I go, so the habit of returning to a piece is not something I’ve incorporated in my writing process. I usually catch opportunities to work certain tensions as I’m drafting &mdash as I’m mastering the voice &mdash and I spend untold hours trying to exploit these opportunities before moving forward. I work very slowly, allowing myself to indulge in this compulsion to continuously revise as I create. I build sentence-by-sentence, but will often revise a sentence twenty times before moving on to the next. I guess my answer is: lots of revision, continuous revision.

A last question suits my own inclinations as a story writer &mdash do you write long as well?  In fact, do you think that it’s necessary to write long in order to write a “real” (that is, complex) story?

 That’s an interesting question. I don’t write long stories. As a reader, I prefer to read flash fictions and poetry (though I also read novels). There’s something about short stories when they exceed the realm of “flash” &mdash I find them hard to read. I find them hard to write, too. Maybe I lack the patience that longer stories require?

 Two of my favorite writers of the very short story are Diane Williams and Lydia Davis, and I think they manage to create complexity in small spaces. In Davis’s collection, Varieties of Disturbance, there’s a piece of flash called “Grammar Questions” in which the narrator is struggling to speak about her dying father. The result is a complex exploration of the efficacy and inefficacy of grammar. Maybe one could argue that “Grammar Questions” isn’t a “real” story, but is more like a recorded thought process. And yet I find “Grammar Questions” to be very complex and moving &mdash I want to call it a “real story.” Kafka is another great example &mdash no one would argue that Kafka’s work isn’t complex, right? &mdash and some of his stories are only a few sentences in length.

 There’s a certain complexity that arises in the short form, I think &mdash a complexity that comes from radically truncating and compressing story. There’s complexity that arises from absence, too, and very short forms often produce utterances that stand in complex relation to what goes unsaid. Perhaps it’s not really the “story” that is so complex in a piece of flash, but the way the short form exerts pressure on story.


About the Author

Rachel Levy is currently working toward an MFA in Fiction Writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her work can be read at ghostoceanmagazine.com.

About the Interviewer

Gary Fincke’s latest collection of stories A Room of Rain is just out from West Virginia University.  A novel How Blasphemy Sounds to God was published in 2014 by Braddock Avenue Books.  An earlier collection Sorry I Worried You won the Flannery O’Connor Prize and was published by Georgia.  He is the Charles Degenstein Professor of Creative Writing at Susquehanna University.

This interview appeared in Issue Thirty-One of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirty-One

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