SAIC Professor Adam Levin publishes his first novel
by Thania Rios, Staff Writer
Creative Writing Professor Adam Levin’s debut novel, “The Instructions,” has been winning accolades from all corners: Chicago Magazine called it a “megapage masterpiece,” and Harper’s Bazaar declared Levin one of the “Names to Know in 2011.” A thousand-page epic, “The Instructions” tells the tale of ten-year-old Gurion Maccabee, a Chicagoan, problem student, potential messiah, and the leader of an explosive preteen uprising. Taking a break between book tours and grading papers, Levin spoke to F Newsmagazine about voice, process, and just how he accomplished such a massive feat.
Thania Rios: Did anyone tell you that this was too ambitious a project for a first novel?
Adam Levin: I had some pretty supportive friends and teachers. That said, when I set out to write it, I was not like, “I will write a thousand-page novel!” Had I said that, maybe some of them would’ve said, “That’s no good.” But the book took nine years to write, so over that period of time, as it got longer, maybe people wanted to tell me it was a bad idea, but they were like, “He’s put in so much time! We can’t say that to him.”
TR: What came to you first? Was it a character, or an idea? What made you start writing this?
AL: Voice. It was a very different voice at the time, but the way I start everything is with voice. The first line I ever wrote for it is “I towel-snapped the ass of The Janitor.” I wrote that, and I thought I was going to be writing about this one kid I went to junior high with. Rapidly, I decided that it wasn’t going to be about that kid; it was going to be about this kid I ended up writing about, Gurion, but who Gurion was changed as I wrote it. It’s a pretty boring answer, but I don’t start with any ideas.
TR: How did you develop that voice? Was it something that “wrote itself,” as some writers claim, or is it something you have to consciously work on?
AL: It was both. As time went on, I wasn’t having to consciously work on it as much, but at first, there were certain things I wanted to watch out for. I didn’t want it to be cute — I was guarding against cuteness — and I didn’t want it to sound like Holden Caulfield. I love Holden Caulfield — like, a lot — but I think a short-cut to making a narrator sound like a kid is doing a weak impression of Holden Caulfield.
TR: And you mention that explicitly in the book.
TR: Some words of wisdom from Bam.
AL: Yeah, yeah! Exactly! So a lot of developing the voice was dodging stuff. As it went on, I started thinking about what it would mean for a kid to be a potential messiah, for him to be really smart, so I sort of had to allow the sentences to get a bit longer, I had to allow his lexicon to get a bit larger. Eventually it just sort of gelled. But it took a while.
There’s a section in there called “Story of Stories,” the fourth chapter, which I wrote in a much different voice. Or, at the time, it was in a much different voice. I was thinking that it’s one of the narrator’s assignments for school, so he would have a different voice, because he has a different voice for school.
But then I started seeing that I wanted him to do a lot of the things he did in “Story of Stories” in the rest of the text, so I figured out how to do that. There was a lot of back and forth with the opening few hundred pages. The back half of the book, though, not as much. I pretty much had the voice down by the time I got there.
TR: So did you spend markedly more time writing that first half? It took about nine years, right?
AL: The first half is the most re-written, especially the first hundred pages. As the book sorted itself out — and I imagine it’s this way with a lot of novels — the voice sorted itself out, and I sort of had to backtrack and catch it up to where it got.
TR: What’s your daily writing process like?
AL: It’s boring! I’m thinking I might change it now. Recently, I quit smoking. I used to chain-smoke at my desk and it’d be a Hemingway first-light sort of thing — sometimes I’m teaching 9:00 a.m. classes at SAIC, so I’d wake up at 4:30 and smoke and write.
TR: And do you have the desk described in the book: the modified front door with a mail slot doubling as an ashtray?
AL: Not anymore! Now I have a real desk — though I guess it’s a table, since it doesn’t have any drawers. But I’d wake up, work for however many hours, go to school, come back, work a little more, and the days I wasn’t teaching, I’d work for a lot more hours.
TR: Are you an hour-guy, a word-count guy, or do you think of that as a bad way to approach writing?
AL: I don’t think there’s a bad way — I think that nothing is universal. One of my friends, a graduate of SAIC, Adam Novy, he writes at night. That’s totally strange to me. So nothing is universal. But I’ve quit smoking, and the thrill of waking up and getting that fix of nicotine was part of it that’s gone, so we’ll see where the process goes now. … I screwed up my back, so I stop when my back starts acting up. Then, I go take a walk, and that ends it. But in grad school, I worked way more hours — I’d work ten, 12 hours a day — there, I’d word-count obsessively. But I stopped that once I started teaching more classes. It would drive me crazy.
TR: “The Instructions” has been getting a fair amount of media attention. How do you balance things like interviews and touring with teaching and writing?
AL: I’m not getting a lot of writing done. That’s what’s folded. It’s like: I’m teaching, and I’m doing interviews, and that’s it. But it’s okay for two reasons — the reason I’m not going crazy because of it is because I was already thrown off by quitting smoking anyway, so I’m sort of like, “Okay, this is the little gap I have,” and I have my second book coming out next fall, so soon I’m going to have to start editing that with my editor, so now I just have to keep my head above water.
The media stuff is going to end within a couple of weeks. Then it’ll be good; then I’ll have all the time in the world. Well, not really, but relatively speaking.
TR: How have you been dealing with the attention this book has been receiving? When you were writing this, did you ever think this was going to happen?
AL: Sometimes! But most of the time, no. But sometimes, you fantasize …
TR: Yeah. But writing teachers always tell you not to expect anyone to read it.
AL: Right, right. But it’s not like I’m a rock star. It’s not like I walk down the street and people are like, “That’s him!” But once in a while, I have an interview or someone blogs about me. And other writers are a little nicer. But there’s not much to deal with. It’s not like I’m Kurt Cobain — he became famous, and everything was different, and that was the end for him.
TR: Yeah, I don’t imagine that happens very often in the literary world.
AL: Not all it. Once in a while, some dude comes up to you at a reading and says, “I read your entire book!” And that makes me very happy.
TR: You mentioned your short story collection, “Hot Pink,” coming out in 2011. How do you shift between these two forms? Especially since the voice of “The Instructions” is so distinct. Did you ever have to tell Gurion to shut up?
AL: Yeah! I’m never going to do that voice again.
TR: So no sequel?
AL: Oh, no. No. Hell, no. A sequel would betray — if there were a sequel to the book, that would be terrible. I’m sort of an anti-sequel person to begin with. There are exceptions, but if you write a thousand-page book to begin with, you’re not allowed to write a sequel.
TR: That’s a pretty good rule.
AL: If you write five 200 page books, you can write a sixth book, I think, but if you write one thousand-page book … I don’t know! Maybe someone will do it. Maybe it’ll be good. But honestly, with the collection, I guess I’ll find out.
A lot of the stories I wrote before “The Instructions.” Well, I shouldn’t say that. Some of them, I wrote during the first few years of “The Instructions.” I’d put down the novel and work on the stories; I’d put down the stories and work on the novel. But that was only for the first couple of years. One or two of the stories, I put down “The Instructions” to work on for a couple of weeks, but that’s it. So for all I know, it could be horrible — I’ll come back to them and go, “Oh, no!”
But for now I’m excited to work on something different … I think with stories, as with the novel, I never put limits on myself … It’s going to be as long as it takes. I edit so obsessively, I’m not big on spilling a lot of drops. So some of them are pretty long — 60 pages — and some of them are shorter.
In terms of mindset, what I always found was that, for me, when I was doing the bulk of the stories it takes me a really long time to write them. Two to three years for each one. There are periods where I’m working where I feel like writing new stuff, periods were I feel like editing stuff, and periods where I feel like finishing stuff. So I would usually finish two or three stories I started a couple of years earlier in proximity to one another, and then I wouldn’t finish a story for a couple of years.
TR: So is it all in editing for you?
AL: Oh, yeah. If I’m thinking about what an average workday looks like — if I wrote a thousand words in a sitting, I’m going to end up keeping 100 to 200 of those words. … I edit every day. I’m a little too tight-assed, so I don’t advise it. You can get stuck that way, and I often do. But with stories … I tend not to move forward until I get everything in order.