Saturday, February 16, 2013

Interview with Author Joel Levinson

What inspired you to write your first book? My 'adopted' Bosnian daughter, Aida, and three of her friends were sitting around my dining room table one evening, sixteen years ago, and mentioned in several brief sentences what a man from their town had to do during the Bosnian War in the interest of love, devotion, and respect. What they told me was so heart-shattering, so stupefying, that I was compelled to start writing the very next morning what I thought would be a short story.

Do you have a specific writing style? I believe my writing style was first influenced by the clarity I endeavored to achieve in my writing of non-fiction. Then that 'style' was 'corrupted' by my readings of Cormac McCarthy's works, which take the English language to extraordinary poetic heights. His influence in my early fictional works was excessive but then I began reading E. L Doctorow and found a wonderful balance between poetic expression and compellingly simple narrative. I seek to write accessible novels but ones that transport the reader with descriptions that make place and action jump off the page with (how did he do it) verisimilitude. My novels must also, in the final analysis, indirectly convey the complexities of emotion, history, and significance that underlie all human interaction. I want to tell stories that people will never forget.

How did you come up with the title? The book's title was originally Dark Bird Screaming, which came from a dream the protagonist has on the front lines of the Bosnian War. That title, still loved by many, seemed over the top; too emotionally hyped. Then the novel was called Embers and Ashes for a time. Then, through conversation with my son, Aaron, as we discussed the essence of the story and the arc of the invented main character's personality, I/we arrived at The Reluctant Hunter.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp? This novel is laden with messages, which are hopefully concealed but discoverable in the fabric of the story. These include: The corruptive power of violent conflict; truths about the highs and lows of human nature; the tragedy of war among brothers; the healing power of love; the power of a personal sense of justice; hidden acts of goodness that are so hard to perceive; the consequences of prejudice; the price of conflicts flamed by madmen and carried out by thoughtless youths; the love and hate that can coexist for another person; different views about hunting and the use of weapons; the tyranny of tradition in human affairs; the many faces of god . . . and a view of the world without god.
How much of the book is realistic? The story is totally a work of fiction, but it is based on some facts and historical events. The only fantastical aspect of the story is a dream scene.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life? The story is pieced together from scraps of information told me by my Bosnian 'daughter' and her refugee friends, from books about Bosnia and the Bosnian war that I read, from email exchanges with individuals on both sides of the conflict, from websites related to the war, and from an email with a UN peacekeeper.

What books have most influenced your life most. A few of those I remember: Cormac McCarthy's Sutree, No Country for Old men, All The Pretty Horses, Child of God, and Outer Dark. Lucretius' On The Nature of Things. Sir James Jeans' The New Background of Science. E. L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate, Lives of the Poets, and World's Fair. Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Louis Begley's As Max Saw It. Jeremy Bernstein's Quantum Profiles. Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Philip Roth's Everyman. Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending. Harper lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. James Agee's A Death in the Family. Mark Jenkins' The Hard Way.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor? E. L. Doctorow
What book are you reading now?
Faulkner's As I lay Dying, plus about five others.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Just read Experience in the New Yorker by Tessa Hadley and thought it was fabulous.

What are your current projects? I will be resuming work on a non-fiction treatise titled The Daring Diagonal: Architecture, Geometry and the Impact of Revolutionary Thought plus a new work of fiction that is semi-autobiographical and based on my life as an architect before turning to writing.

Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members. My self-confidence and my blossoming as a writer both at Perkiomen Preparatory School and later at Penn.

Do you see writing as a career? Yes, my new career.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book? Very little, but I might expand on the development of some characters.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated? When I was in 8th grade I wrote a story about a horse that died . . . and I was forever smitten.
Can you share a little of your current work with us? The Reluctant Hunter took me 16 years to write. I had to fit it in while I was also running my architectural practice. I rewrote the story about 70 or 80 times and have all the versions to prove it. What happens in that novel lives in my mind as if the events were as real as 'real' events I've lived. Some of my greatest moments as a human being occurred as I brought to life this tragic story.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? Understanding the complexities of human emotions and finding them in my stories.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work? E. L. Doctorow. As others have said, he 'looks for open wounds of the heart,' and is 'an impeccable stylist' writing with exceptional clarity and precision.'

Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)? I did not travel at all for The Reluctant Hunter but intend to go to Bosnia for the first time this spring. I have travelled the world, which has been helpful in gathering images and knowledge for use in my new book The Daring Diagonal.

Who designed the covers? The cover was designed by an exceptional graphic artist recently graduated from Temple University. Her name is Amanda Lippert. The images on her website gave me goose bumps.

What was the hardest part of writing your book? Learning how to write FICTION. Aside from a few courses I took for old folks like me, I am self-taught.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it? Writing the book involved a process of self-discovery. I also discovered that I could write in a few instances as well as authors I long admired.

Do you have any advice for other writers? Be true to yourself and dig, dig, dig for the deepest truths.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers? I would love to hear how YOU experience my novel.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life? The challenges were mostly psychological because I never experienced war and I never was faced with the challenge that confronted the protagonist; a challenge that no man should ever have to face.