An award-winning fiction writer and poet, Donald Levin is the author of The House of Grins, a novel, and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine. He has worked as a warehouseman, theatre manager, medical transcriptionist, advertising copywriter, scriptwriter, and political speechwriter. He is currently professor of English and chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Marygrove College in Detroit and lives in Ferndale, Michigan.
Yes, I have always wanted to be a fiction writer. And when I say “always,” I mean from the time I was a little boy, as long as I can remember. I was always writing stories when I was little. And I’ve always loved mysteries . . . when I was a boy I used to write stories based on the old Dragnet television series. When I was very young my father brought an old typewriter home, and as I look back on that today it felt as if I had found my instrument, just like a musician. I loved the heavy thunking sound it made when I would type the words in my made-up stories, and I loved the magical feeling of being able to make sensible marks appear on the page. I don’t think I’ve ever lost that sense of wonder at creating something where there was previously a blank emptiness.
And isn’t that what art is? We conjure it as if magically out of the air, and suddenly there is a narrative, or a song, or a painting, or a dance, or any other thing that wasn’t there before, that helps us to understand who we are and where we came from. As the theatre manager in Shakespeare in Love said, it's a mystery.
I should say that for a long time I had given up fiction . . . I was not having any success in my writing (in the sense that I wasn’t finding publication for the things I wrote) and after a while all the rejection just overwhelmed me and I decided I needed to pursue something else. It was a painful decision, but I knew I couldn't continue along that path. I was used to writing, so I found work as a writer of nonfiction . . . I became a hard-working professional writer writing almost every kind of thing there is to write for more than twenty-five years. My jobs ranged from speechwriter for the commissioner of the Department of Health in New York City to freelance industrial video scriptwriter on projects for clients like IBM and General Electric. As a writer I developed very disciplined work habits that I draw upon every time I sit down to write something today. When people say they’re stuck for inspiration I sort of snicker up my sleeve because I learned early on not to rely on the fluctuations of inspiration when I needed to write something; I learned how to staple my butt to the chair and get it done.
Well, to make a long story short, eventually I felt like I had come to the end of that way of living, and decided I wanted to go back to creative writing; I had never lost that need, and I felt the "chops" I had developed as a professional writer would come in handy. I also decided that I wanted to become a teacher, and help students learn to do what I had learned over the course of my working life. I was in my late 40s by the time I decided I wanted to teach in college, so I returned to graduate school for the doctorate I knew I needed. I started writing fiction again but at one point I began writing poetry and found that I enjoyed it quite a bit and thought, “Man, I’m never going back to fiction!” But then my college asked me to write our accreditation report, a three-year-long project that brought my poetry writing to a halt but did remind me how much I had enjoyed the long form of a book-length work. So I went back to writing fiction and the result was Crimes of Love. I still write poetry when I can; at this point in my life it’s more a matter of which I have time for. I think of poetry as a sprint whereas the novel is a marathon; both have their rewards and joys.
So it sounds like the moral of the story of your development as a writer is to stick with it?
Oh, absolutely. As I developed as a writer I had to deal with a lot of rejection, and that sort of forced me to come to terms with what I wanted to accomplish as a writer, and what it actually meant to me. And I realized that the important thing was to write, to create, to be a maker. I came to understand writing as a life expression, and I knew unless I did it I would always feel as though a part of me was missing. Sometimes my students who have an urge to write ask me if I think they should become a writer, and I always tell them no, don’t do it . . . that is, unless you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. Then the answer is easy. That’s pretty hard-won wisdom for me.
Love that..."don't do it...unless you can't imagine yourself doing anything else." Precisely how I feel about writing! How do you go from an idea for a book to its completion? What is your process?
For me it’s very much a matter of making it up as I go along. I’ve heard some people (Joyce Carol Oates is one) who say they just outline the story and go ahead and write it. For me that would be boring . . . part of the adventure is starting out not knowing where you’re going to wind up. So when I’m writing a draft in fiction I have a general sense of what I want the narrative arc of the story to be, but then I try to leave myself open to going where the story and the characters take me. I always heed Hemingway’s advice to stop one day’s writing at a point where I know I will start the next day . . . but then I listen to the characters who tell me what they should be doing, and I listen to the overall story, and I go where all the signs point me.
Then there’s an awful lot of revision involved. Because of the way I work, I never know how the story will end when I start out, so I always have to go back to the beginning to shape and craft the story. And then there’s a lot of revision after that . . . shaping the general movement of a the book, shaping scenes, figuring out how to move the story along as fast as possible, shaping sentences, and choosing words that say what they need to say. When I write I edit as I go along to a certain extent, but I don’t tarry overlong because I know I will be completely rewriting it as many times as necessary. For example, I rewrote Crimes of Love five separate times to get to the current version.
When I’m working on a project I write every day. If I have the luxury of being off for the summer or on sabbatical (as I was last fall) then I start work around 10 and write through till late afternoon; otherwise I write whenever I can fit in several hours at a time, usually the morning when I’m freshest. I’m pretty disciplined, as I said, so I can sit and work for hours. One of the things I learned as a professional writer is not to depend on inspiration; you create your own.
Crimes of Love is the first in a planned series of mysteries starring police detective Martin Preuss. It’s about the search for a lost child. One cold November night, Martin Preuss is called out to join a frantic search for a seven-year-old girl with epilepsy who has disappeared from the streets of his suburban Detroit community. Unwilling to let go after the county sheriff’s office takes the case from his city agency, he strikes out on his own, following leads across the entire metropolitan region. Probing deep into the anguished lives of all those who came in contact with the missing girl, Preuss must summon all his skills and resources to solve the many crimes of love he uncovers.
Sounds fascinating! What was the inspiration for your latest work of fiction?
Well, there was a definite moment when I came up with the germ of the idea that became the book, but I don’t think I can talk about that because it would be a “spoiler” . . . to know where the original idea for the book came from would be to know a bit too much about how the plot turns out. Sorry! But I can say that I knew immediately it would be the first in a series of mysteries that followed a continuing cast of characters. I think readers enjoy encountering the same group of characters because they start to know them and enjoy their company, almost like a group of old friends.
I agree...book series tend to be very successful. I know as a reader, I enjoy them and I also don't like to let go of the characters I meet in stand alone titles. Do you base these characters on real people, or do they come from your imagination alone?
That’s a great question. It’s a little of both, actually. As a general rule, when I create characters I feel a little like an actor building a character for a role. Like many actors, I feel like I have to be certain of the exterior of the character first (how a character looks, how she sounds, what her taste in clothes is, what would make me recognize her in a crowd, and so on), and once I have a good sense of those characteristics then I can start working in toward the personality. I often find that I have to start using the exterior of someone I have seen and then I can develop an interior life for that person. Sometimes I’ll see someone in the street and file away characteristics to use later, for example. A lot of times my characters are combinations of personality traits and backgrounds from a number of different people.
Every once in a while there are exceptions to this. In Crimes of Love, for example, there is a character named Toby, who is Martin Preuss’s 16-year-old son. Toby has multiple handicaps, and lives in a group home near his father. Toby is very much the beating heart of the book. Toby keeps his lonely, isolated father connected and grounded, and constantly reminds him (and us) what’s really important. Toby exists as a fully-formed character in the book, but he is a loving and precisely drawn portrait of my own grandson Jamie, from how he looks and acts to how he sounds. Jamie died this past September after having been in a coma all last year. I wrote Crimes of Lovewell before Jamie died but I had always planned to build into the book some of the amazing lessons I learned from him in his twenty-five years. And now the book serves as one of the many ways for me and my family to remember that extraordinary young man. All this isn’t necessary to understand Toby in the book, but it helps to enlarge your understanding of where the character comes from.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished the first draft of the second Martin Preuss mystery, and I’ve begun the long and enjoyable process of revising that. I’m hoping for a summer 2013 release of the second Preuss book. I already have the ideas for the next books after that, so I’m hoping to be working with these characters for a good long while.
Where can readers find your book and connect with you online?
It’s available as a trade paperback through your favorite online book retailer, as a Kindle e-book, and by ordering through bookstores everywhere.
Any final advice for novice writers?
Yes . . . keep reading, and keep writing. And don’t let anyone ever discourage you.
Thanks so much for allowing me to speak with your readers today! I loved the experience.
You're welcome! Thanks for guesting at The Mustard Seed today. I enjoyed chatting and getting to know more about you and your work.