In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by handpicking which questions (and how many!) they want to answer. Jessica Levine is the author of The Geometry of Love, a fantastic novel about one woman’s search for her identity as an artist, the relationships with the men in her life, and how they fuel and inhibit her passions in different ways. Here is what Jessica had to say about reading, writing, and reversing the stereotypical gender roles of artistic muses.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
Thanks for inviting me to do this interview. I’m writing in Berkeley, California, where I live with my husband and two teenage daughters. In my life I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades, working as an English teacher, a translator (from Italian and French into English), and currently a hypnotherapist. However, “writer” has always been my core identity. My fiction is psychological in nature, the product of my fascination with human contradictoriness and unpredictability. The plots I create grow out of inner conflicts that propel my characters in new directions.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you through the writing process?
I’m a morning writer. I jumpstart my brain with a lot of black tea and some dark chocolate. I really believe that the intense pleasure provided by chocolate stimulates the creative part of the brain! I get physically restless when I write, so I take frequent breaks to stretch and move. I usually stop at lunch time. If I have ideas later in the day, I jot them down in a black Moleskine notebook. I don’t need to “force myself” to work because writing actually makes my brain feel good, as though the sentences were giving the inside of my head a massage.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
I recently discovered Jim Harrison and am reading his Brown Dog, which collects several novellas about a half-Indian character by that name. The first tale in the book offers brilliant lessons about paragraph-making and plotting. My tastes are broad, ranging from Anita Shreve to Michael Chabon. When I read fiction that’s very different from what I write, I’m motivated to push myself in new directions and experiment. When I read works that are similar, I feel validated in my current path of inquiry.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working on your own book(s)?
Sometimes I’m reading books connected to a writing project. Last year I read a lot of Italian history in preparation for a novel that will take place during the period of Italian independence and unification in the mid-nineteenth century. Sometimes I read books my daughters are reading for school. For example, I thoroughly enjoyed John Green’s Looking for Alaska and, more recently, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Excellent writing of all kinds inspires me.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
I remember first wanting to be a writer at the age of six. Probably I got the idea from my parents, who were both frustrated artists. They were also avid readers and always pulling classics off the shelves of our home library for me to read. E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and Thomas Hardy became reliable friends. I also had the enrichment of attending a French school in New York, which led to my discovering the masterworks of Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal, and Zola in the original. Much of what I read was beyond my level of maturity, but literature provided me with an escape during a difficult adolescence, transporting me to other times and places.
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
Usually I have a current project, a project that is firmly next in line, and a couple of book ideas that I’m playing with. The Geometry of Love features a protagonist named Julia and her two female cousins, and is the first of a planned trilogy of novels, one about each of these three women. I’m currently working on the manuscript of the second book in the series and taking mental notes for a story about the third cousin. If a project refuses to take shape, it usually metamorphoses into something else, so I rarely scrap a work, you might say I recycle it instead.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
I had a blast creating Michael, Julia’s object of desire in The Geometry of Love. I wanted to play with reversing a couple of stereotypes about men and women, the first being that women are usually muses for male artists, and the second that women are usually more emotional. In this dyad, Michael, a composer, functions as Julia’s muse because his emotional range is so broad. He can be very light-hearted but he also has a dark, depressive side. His capacity for deep feeling and his ability to express those feelings musically validate Julia’s own creative quest as a poet. In creating this character I gave birth to a psychological entity that could function as an inner muse for my own writing.
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?
I’m fortunate enough to have a very quiet and comfortable home office where I love to work. Outside my window is a maple tree and a patch of bamboo; in the distance, San Francisco and the reflective surface of the Bay. I have my favorite books on hand if I need inspiration, I have my journals and notebooks, my desk is set up ergonomically, there’s tea upstairs. If I take a break and go for a walk in the neighborhood, I sometimes see hawks flying overhead or deer. The conditions for writing are perfect¾at least when my kids are in school. I don’t get much done in the summer.
My novel about Julia’s cousin Anna, provisionally titled The Dream of Another Life, is another love story that switches back and forth between present time in northern California and past events in Rome, Italy. Working on it has been a wonderful ride, as it has allowed me to relive a splendid time I spent living and working in Rome in my early twenties. Writing, I travel back in time to a city I remember as sensual and warm with its ochre buildings and fountain-filled courtyards … and then I look up and out my window at the Golden Gate Bridge. Life is good.
About Jessica Levine: Jessica was born in New York City. She earned her M.A. at Teachers College, Columbia University, and her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. She has worked as a writing instructor and a teacher of English as a second language. Additionally, she has translated several books about architecture and design from French and Italian into English. Most recently, she became certified as a hypnotherapist in 2005 and now has a therapy practice in Albany, California.
Since publishing Delicate Pursuit: Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton in 2002, Jessica has been devoting herself to creative writing, publishing stories, essays, and poetry. The themes she addresses in her work include the evanescence of intimacy, the nature of inspiration, parenthood, the language of the body, and loss. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and cat, a.k.a. “the King.”