INCONVERSATION

SPECTACULAR INK
DANIEL LEVINE with Benjamin Percy

Dan Levine and I didn’t just go to college together: we roomed together, took many of the same classes, acted in some of the same theater productions and chased some of the same girls, hefted weights at the gym, spent hours refining our impressions of certain tweedy professors and loudmouth students, slammed Jello shots and shotgunned beers and took in deep skunky lungfuls of whatever herb we could score, trekked our way to a skeezy tattoo parlor to get inked, ate countless cafeteria servings of chicken parm in each other’s company, dressed up as the Karate Kid skeletons for Halloween, high-fived Method Man at a Wu-Tang Clan concert. We also dreamed of being writers and shared books and brainstormed ideas and felt enraged or depressed or sky-high excited depending on how our creative writing workshops judged the many awful stories we penned. So you can understand why I’m so thrilled about the release of his debut novel, Hyde. It’s gorgeously written, impeccably researched, psychologically gripping—and when you read the Q&A about the novel below, know that you’re privy to two old pals catching up.

Benjamin Percy (Rail): Walter White, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano might be the most famous male protagonists of the last decade. They’re monsters in many ways. Liars, adulterers, crooks, murderers. We fear them, but—strangely—we love them too, we wish for them to get away with their duplicitous scheming. Right now—in this era of men behaving badly—strikes me as the perfect time to release a book like Hyde. Tell me about diving in to this id-driven psyche.

Daniel Levine: I’m glad you bring up those television shows. I love The Sopranos and Mad Men, and have learned a lot about story craft from watching them. And it’s interesting how you say we’re in an era of “men behaving badly,” even though I think men and women have probably always exhibited more or less the same behaviors over time. Adultery and murder are nothing new. What is new is our culture’s increasing fascination with and sympathy for these miscreants, these loveable villains. Our understanding of impulsive, misanthropic behavior is deepening, and people are beginning to realize that we all share the id-driven instincts that often urge us to be “bad.” Bad, however, is a relative, cultural term; it refers to actions which go against the grain of the group. The story of Jekyll and Hyde has been appropriated as a metaphor for “good” and “evil,” but in my eyes the story is more about primal impulses butting up against constrictive social norms. It’s the primal animal—hundreds of thousands of years old—chaffing inside the shell of modern civility.

Creating the character of Hyde was about tapping into these animal urges, which I’m very much aware of in myself. Gluttony, Wrath, and Lust are only considered “sins” by restrictive Western religion; in truth, the excessive desire for food, violence, and sex are extremely basic tugs of survival—instincts which have kept human beings alive for hundreds of thousands of years. Now suddenly we’re a “civilized” society, and the rules say you have to stifle your urges, mask them behind moderation and complicated mores. This is Jekyll’s world, his forte, managing the mannered façade. Just as I can recognize in myself various “unappetizing” hungers—for violence with hostile strangers, for sex sans preliminaries with appealing women on the street—I am also pretty attuned to the sly laws of social etiquette. I understand the art of tailoring your veneer, crafting the impression you make upon others and making the effort invisible. So writing the characters of Jekyll and Hyde was about paying attention to the higher and the lower animal inside myself. Don Draper exhibits this struggle with wonderful pathos. He was very influential in my creation of Jekyll’s character. Don must be so controlled, so stiff and cold, because his inner animal is so uncompromising and ravenous. And at the same time, he is so disgusted with the hypocrisy of polite society. I feel this disgust often, an aversion for the artificial way we humans live.

Rail: Haruki Murakami and Susan Orlean and many others have written about the interplay of exercise and creativity. You’re something of a fanatic. Back in the day, we spent plenty of time running on the track or grunting and sweating in the weight room together, but you’re also an advanced martial arts student. I’m curious about the way your athletic discipline has informed your writing life.

Levine: Daily vigorous exercise is pretty crucial to my creativity. On a practical level, I need to balance out the head-heaviness of writing, which is such an abstract, intellectual, other-worldly, and ultimately sedentary activity. I need the yang: being in my body, grounded to the earth, developing and relying upon ingrained muscular responses. An element of danger is good. Feeling physically threatened teaches you calm and clear-sightedness in the face of stress, which also helps in the writing process. It keeps me sharp, immediately attuned to the present. This is why I like skiing and especially martial arts, in which a lapse in focus can result in serious injury. You train your attention like a muscle, which again is useful when writing for hours in a row. Studying martial arts has taught me a great deal about humility, patience, respect for ability, human nature, and discipline, the last most of all. Studying martial arts and writing can’t be done sporadically; I think they have to be practiced daily, when you want to and when you don’t want to. There’s a time and place for rest, but essentially I write and practice every day. I never regret having spent a few hours crafting sentences or getting thrown to the mat. Both exhilarate me. It helps to know this in advance, on the days when it seems hard. I’ll be happy I did it, afterward. Then it’s just one moment at a time.

Rail: You surprised me on my 30th birthday with a sky-diving trip (I should say that the ascent in the sputtery rickety carpet-bottomed single-engine might have been more terrifying than the jump itself). You’re an adventurer—bombing down ski runs and traveling widely, sometimes seeking out trouble instead of avoiding it. I guess you could say it’s the equivalent—I think we’re both familiar with this feeling and believe it necessary—of letting Hyde out now and then. 

Levine: I remember something funny you once said. We were visiting our college friends in Manhattan, and two of them were talking about the dress shirts they wear to work, going on about the collars and pockets and patterns. Finally you groaned, “Jesus, you guys need to go out in the woods and kill something.”

I’ve never hunted before, it wasn’t part of my upbringing, but I appreciated your comment. Living in cities in temperature-controlled boxes, wearing fancy clothing manufactured thousands of miles away, working abstract jobs which are designed to keep the engine of society running, human beings have utterly lost touch with the natural world. With the planet of which we are an integral part, not the self-appointed rulers. As we lose touch with the natural world we lose touch with ourselves as animals, creatures of the earth. We think we’re something higher, something superior to all other species. That superiority places a lot of pressure upon us to behave in very particular ways, to shun or be ashamed of behaviors which are “animalistic.” In the process, we’ve lost so much of our freedom, so much of the hot thrill of being alive. Certainly, jumping out of planes, skiing through the steep trees, traveling to exotic locales, these activities allow us to thrill at existence, to remember the element of danger which all other animals are subject to, the danger that makes safety so precious. But even sky-diving and skiing are extremely manufactured experiences—they are socially acceptable releases of primal energy. Truly “letting Hyde out” involves the transgression of boundaries, the risk of humiliation and censure. This is much harder to do.

Rail: Indeed. So, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian borrowed from Dracula. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked redefined Oz. Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife gave us fresh perspective on Moby Dick. Can you talk about the challenge of reinventing stories that have become part of our cultural mythology—and the drive to do so?

Levine: I think it probably takes some brass to tackle any of these great classics, to presume to retell them. As though they aren’t good enough on their own, which of course they are. There is risk and fear of leaning too heavily upon a story that already exists, that is already beloved. Fiction writers are supposed to create, to invent, not to borrow from their betters. Overcoming this concern is part of the challenge. There needs to be a good reason for recasting the classic tale. One of my reasons was the feeling that Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderful horror story had become too rigid and fixed in people’s minds. A metaphor for man’s duality, a symbol of good versus evil, a catch-phrase applied to mood swings—this is what “Jekyll and Hyde” has come to mean. But it’s so much more than that, and Stevenson meant it as more than that. He just had to simplify the story to make it palatable to a sensitive Victorian audience.

The story of Jekyll and Hyde—like any great enduring story—is rooted in human mythology, as you say. Myths are our oldest form of storytelling, predating written language. The tales speak to our fundamental fears, confusions, and longings. They speak to our thirst for knowledge of the complex world around us, and inside us. “Jekyll and Hyde” is in part a myth about human self-awareness, our recognition of an inner self nesting within the public self we present to our peers. It’s also a myth about the dangerous folly of man’s search for truth—the hubris of science. “Jekyll and Hyde” is a retelling of the Frankenstein story which is a retelling of the Prometheus myth—a cautionary tale about aspiring too high, into the realm of the gods. It’s the very nature of myth to be retold again and again. That’s how it forms, and grows, and becomes a part of the cultural subconscious, adapted to fit the particular time and place. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a parable of Victorian morality, but its roots go to the core of human civilization, and it applies equally well—if not more so—to our own times. Are 21st century humans dissociated from our inner selves? Do we play the part of God in deciding which creatures shall live and die, and how our planet’s resources shall be divvied up and spent? Are we in danger of overreaching ourselves and destroying everything we love?

Those other stories you mention—Dracula, Moby Dick, The Wizard of Oz—those are ancient myths, as well. You might say it’s the duty of storytellers, in terms of their societal role, to keep those myths alive and relevant. People need to be reminded where we come from, we need to keep our sense of wonder at this world and at ourselves fresh and constant. This is why the tales must be revived and retold, as explanations of our evolving nature, and as warnings of our destructive power.

Rail: These stories are also research projects, no? I’m always digging through archives, interviewing subjects, watching documentaries, visiting labs and offices and street corners and bends in the river, seeking out the anchoring details that will give my fiction credibility. I’m especially impressed by the research that informs Hyde. It’s more than historical or geographic authenticity—it’s the very voice and manner of the time. Talk about your research process.

Levine: For a year before I began writing, I just researched. I read widely if a little haphazardly: histories, biographies, period novels, contemporary novels about the period, novels which retold a familiar story, novels which had a similar voice or “feel” to what I wanted to capture. I watched movies that take place in Victorian London, B.B.C. adaptations of Dickens, Thackeray, and Galsworthy, paying careful attention to wardrobes and interior decorating and streetscapes. I also lived in London for six months in 2000 on a semester abroad, where I really fell in love with the city, and I relied upon my still vivid memories of the lanes, buildings, skies, parks, etc.

What you say about “authenticity” is interesting. I remember reading a John Banville interview in which he says about researching a period novel—I’m paraphrasing—that modern audiences didn’t live in the time you are writing about, so who are they to say whether it’s “right” or “wrong?” In other words, historical accuracy doesn’t always translate to the feeling of rightness, the sense of verisimilitude. The authentic world must come from within you, not from the books you read. I had to create the texture of Victorian London inside my mind; I had to hear it and see it and smell it. I also wanted to capture the general mindset of the milieu, the way people thought and talked, the colorful mix of high and low language. The voice and manner, as you say. It was important that the dialogue sound convincing. It’s tricky as an American imitating British English; you can easily overdo it, or employ “Cockney” slang that sound false or hokey. Hyde’s mode of speaking took a long time to develop and hone.

Rail: Your forearm carries some spectacular ink: a sleeve tattoo of the streets of Victorian London. You’ve been changed by the novel of course—and are literally marked by the years you’ve spent living in this world and inhabiting your characters and pushing these sentences around.

Levine: The tattoo was indeed an important marking process, physically and psychologically. The sleeve is a blown-up portion of a tiny part of the map, covering Soho and Leicester Square where Hyde and Jekyll respectively live. The whole map is huge, seven feet across, this stitched-together compilation of pages from an 1886 London street atlas I copied from the New York Public Library. The map hung on my bedroom wall, and I spent many hours pressed up close, peering at the tiny lanes and street names, tracing the routes my characters took, making sure everything was geographically accurate. All this time I spent working on Hyde, I had no idea whether it was going to be published or not, whether all the effort would come to fruit or rot, so to speak. Of course, this is the terrifying thing about writing a first novel, the total uncertainty. Having the heart of the map permanently inked on my arm, then, was a kind of defiance of this uncertainty; it represented my conviction that Hyde would be a part of me for as long as I’m in this body. It’s incredibly intricate work and took several hours to complete. There is pain, of course, but the pain is essential, and feels rather good, in a way. It’s an outer manifestation of the inner anguish and ecstasy, and it hardened my connection to the project, my uncompromising attachment to it. It affirmed my lack of doubt, and goaded me to keep going.

Rail: You’ve always had a fondness for Dickens and Dostoevsky. Big, lush, intricate classic novels. I remember, as an undergrad, assuming the big book you were carrying around was assigned for a class, but so often it was for pleasure.

Levine: It’s funny you remember that, since these days I find it extremely difficult to finish gigantic books. My current taste tends toward slim, lean, masterfully controlled books, like those of Banville, Ishiguro, Greene, Nabokov, McGrath, Shirley Jackson, 200 - 250 pages. Ideally these are the kind of books I’d like to write. Huge epics are incredibly impressive, but sometimes I find them exhausting. And my reading attention span can be impatient. In the midst of a large book I’ll come across another book I really want to read and I’ll wander away. It’s embarrassing to admit, but for instance I’ve never truly completed Anna Karenina, though I’ve read the first half several times. The problem is I put it aside for several years, meaning to return, but when I do, I feel I have to start from the beginning to re-enter the world, and then the whole cycle begins again. Ah well. There are basically infinite books to read, given our very finite lifespan, and I’m trying to get over the ego/guilt-driven impulse that I “should” read and finish certain books. I just read what gives me pleasure, and these days it’s the smaller books that capture me and teach me what I want to learn.

Rail: When we were students at Brown, we both spent a lot of time in the theater, acting in shows. I feel like this is some of the best training I could have ever received as a writer.

Levine: I completely agree. It’s extremely helpful to appreciate and understand theater if you want to write fiction. Writing is a kind of acting, after all: you are adopting a voice which isn’t your own, and yet must become your own, if it’s to be convincing. You have to be that character you are writing. And then you also have to be the director, the set designer, the prop manager, etc. Understanding stage craft, blocking, and timing is crucial to writing a vivid scene.

As I said earlier, I’ve learned a lot from watching good cinema and television, as well. Mad Men in particular has been an excellent guide. There’s no “exposition” in cinema—unless characters or voice-over narrators are overly explaining things, which is bad writing—but otherwise everything has to be shown via action and dialogue. And because each Mad Men episode is so short—less than an hour with commercial breaks—each action, each word, is so carefully considered and taut. There is no excess. The characters always say just a little less than you’d like them to. The scenes are always a few seconds shorter than you expect. That’s how I aspire to write one day, and it’s how I attempt to set up scenes, especially those with dialogue. Sometimes I want a character to have a particular internal reaction to something someone says. I don’t want to narrate or explain that reaction. Instead, I try to imagine how an actor would portray that internal emotion, what gesture or facial expression he/she might make. Of course, you can get way too caught up in trying to describe a subtle hand gesture or a certain kind of frown. That’s the glory of film—it’s right there. You see it. I’d like my writing to be the same way.

Contributor

Benjamin Percy

BENJAMIN PERCY is the author of two novels, Red Moon (Grand Central/Hachette, May 2013) and The Wilding (Graywolf Press, 2010), as well as two books of short stories, Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf Press, 2007) and The Language of Elk (Grand Central/Hachette, 2012; Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2006). His fiction and nonfiction have been read on National Public Radio, performed at Symphony Space, and published by Esquire (where he is a contributing editor), GQ, Time, Men’s Journal, Outside, the Wall Street Journal, the Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Glimmer Train, and Tin House.

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