Out of Twenty: Jessica Levine, Author of The Geometry of Love, Answers Nine Questions

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. 

Jessica Levine, Author - The Geometry of Love

Photo Credit: Nan Phelps

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.

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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.

What’s next?

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.

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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.”

Public Notes to Myself: A Mid April Reading List

Sometimes I need a written reminder for what it is I have committed to reading for the month, and this is one of those times. How is April getting away so quickly? It is the middle of April already, people! I have book club books to read and Bloggers Recommend Picks to pick. I have to get on it! Let’s take a peek at what I’ve got.

Frog Music, The Fever & AmericanahSo this month I have three book club picks in the works.

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue –  I am late to the game with Donoghue, having missed the much acclaimed Room and her follow up of historically based short stories, Astray. Frog Music is promising to be a rich historical novel via 1876, the smallpox epidemic and an unsolved murder. All things that tickle my reading fancy. I’ll be starting on this (hopefully tonight!) to discuss the first few sections with my Twitter Book Club, The Hashtags, on Friday.

The Fever by Megan Abbot – If my Twitter book club is called The Hashtags, then my regular IRL book club should be called The Publicists, since its members comprise my favorite people scattered at Bloomsbury, Little Brown, Viking, Random House and Riverhead. This month we are reading Megan Abbott’s The Fever, and I have started it and I love it. I have no idea what the hell is going on, but I am totally intrigued. This is my third Abbott and she never fails to bring an almost uncomfortably realistic depth to the inner, troubled, lives of teen-aged girls.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - As if I didn’t have enough book clubs of my own, I am guesting at a friend’s book club this month. She has been trying to get me to join, and I have been resisting because, you know, all the things and all the books. However, this month they are reading Americanah, and I adored Half of A Yellow Sun. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to read and discuss it with a group. I also suspect that I will have hard time resisting going back, especially if they keep selecting books that are right up my alley.

A Life Apart and When the Cypress Whispers

My mother has had a lot more time to read this year, so we have been trying to read a book together each month. Way back when, at the beginning of the year, we started with Walter Walker’s Crime of Privilege, but neither of us could really get into. It was strangely light on details despite being a really long book. We went on to Defending Jacob, which we both really enjoyed, me more so than my mom –  she didn’t like the ending. Our favorite joint read has been Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath.

Two books that we are reading together are:

A Life Apart by L.Y. Marlow - I am looking forward reading Marlow’s latest novel about a navy man whose life is saved during the attacks on Pearl Harbor by a black sailor, who dies in his attempt. He develops a relationship with the sailor’s sister when he travels to visit her, in his own hometown of Boston, pay his respects. My mother has already read it and she thinks that is just fabulous. I read the first chapter and I can attest that it is captivating and has and immediacy that make you want to sink into the story. She made lots of notes during her reading, so I am really looking forward to see where the discussion goes.

When The Cypress Whispers by Yvette Manessis Corporon – Corporon’s novel falls into the “woman returns home to find herself” category. It’s a much used plot device, so while I usually enjoy these types of books, I tend to read them with great care in the choosing. I gravitate toward ones that have an element of surprise for me. In this novel, the heroine does her soul searching while on a rare trip home to visit relative in Greece. That heightened the appeal for me. I also love reading beautiful books – the cover and the luxury of deckle-edge pages is very enticing.

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Happy Spring! And. A book list.

And hopefully to a better spring. With more posting. I did a double take to realized that I have posted a whopping 2x in the last three months. Time does fly when you are having fun. So what have I been up to? Busy job, busy life. I have made headway with quite a few books, though you couldn’t tell that AT ALL from around here. I took a look at the list of books I have read so far and thought I would share it here. 

What I’ve Read

Fog of Dead Souls  by Jill Kelly
The subject matter on this one is disturbing, but I loved that the characters were firmly in their 6os, and still vibrant and complex human beings, with the accompanying expertise in their careers, consideration for their sex lives, and a long list of completed goals and lingering aspirations. Though this is a essentially a whodunnit, the bulk of the narrative examines how Ellie deals with the crimes committed against her, and subsequent attempts to put her life together.

The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah Crombie

I just discovered Deborah Crombie with No Mark Upon Her, and I adore her smart detectives and equally smart writing style. If time allowed, I would read all of her books in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series. If you can start at the beginning, I would highly recommend doing just that.

Defending Jacob  by William Landay
I read this one with my mother and I can tell why book clubs have been so taken with this one. We debated throughout the book the culpability of parents in raising their children, when sullen teenage behavior should be taken as an indication of something more sinister, and what actions are appropriate to take in protecting your child from society or vice versa . Landay packs in the twists. If you can truly guess the end, you are a better person than I am.

Choice of Straws by E.R. Braithwaite

This was first published in the 60s, and was recently re-published by Open Road Media. What stands out most to me is the oddity of this haunting story. A twin loses his brother while they are in the midst of brutal attacks against black citizens in London, and then he starts to consider feelings for the sister of an unwitting victim. This was an emotionally charged read, and while I’m not sure I felt it was entirely plausible, it gave me a lot to think about.

Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard

I started reading this on the train for a visit to DC and I was enchanted. Let’s see, magic, dragon, and intense alliances and politics, side by side with a romance that by rights should fail. Loved every minute of it.

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Labor Day by Joyce Maynard – Movie/Book Club

Stack of books

Readers react with mixed emotion when they hear that a book they’ve read is being made into a movie, especially a favorite one. I confess that I’m no different. I try to judge by the attached director, approve or seethe over the casting choices, and find either affirmation or more trepidation upon viewing the first trailers and stills from the movie.  When I heard that a movie was being made of Labor Day, Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel about the unlikely romance between an escaped convict and the housewife he takes hostage (along with her son), I was intrigued because I remembered enjoying it when it was initially published.

My book club was fortunate enough to receive copies of the paperback movie tie-in version of the novel and passes for a screening of the film, which we plan to attend next month. I was really taken with Labor Day when I first read it back in 2009. The premise of the novel stretches credulity a bit in terms of whether a romance like this could have occurred, but the love story is a sumptuous one, and I loved these characters. They were rich and real and I loved seeing the way they developed in the aftermath of a weekend that proved a critical turning point in all their lives. I was really excited to hear what my book club would have to say about, and I am especially looking forward to the discussion after we have all seen the movie.

So far, the feedback upon reading the book has been mixed – with a slight majority enjoying the book. I’ve found that this is the sign of a great book club book. There has never been all that much discussion at my clubs over books that are universally adored. Usually with those books we say we loved it and then get on with the good work of drinking wine and eating great food.

Everyone was curious about the pie-making scene and thought it was a pivotal point in the book. So we are all waiting for that. One of the members had a hard time getting through the book but thought that the trailer makes the movies seem a lot more interesting  than the book.  Those of us who loved it were just as interested in the themes of trauma, empowerment and hope. One our member had this high praise for Labor Day: “This story is about coming ALIVE, re-birth; honesty; goodheartedness; going with the flow; following dreams.”

Labor Day opens in wide-release today. I’ll report back when we’ve seen the movie.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 BOOK CLUB   Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

Oh, and Happy New Year. -p