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The Chat with Elise Levine

Elise Levine 3 (1)

Elise Levine's haunting new work is Say This: Two Novellas (Biblioasis). The book contains a pair of twin novellas linked by one devastating crime. The Toronto Star calls Say This "a breathtaking, daring exploration of that constancy, of the lingering power of trauma, and the roots and branches of violence and despair.” Elise is our guest this week on The Chat.

Elise Levine is also the author of the recent story collection This Wicked Tongue, the novels Blue Field and Requests and Dedications, and the story collection Driving Men Mad. Her work has appeared in publications including Ploughshares, Blackbird, The Gettysburg Review, and has appeared four times in Best Canadian Stories. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and teaches in the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University.

Say This contains a pair of distinct yet companion novellas, each exploring the emotional aftermath of the same violent crime. I’m curious about which novella came first, and how you mapped out and arranged the work?


I wrote “Eva Hurries Home” first, and was maybe three-quarters of the way through a first draft—more than a year in—when I realized there would be a second, linked novella, based on a failed story I’d wanted to write for nearly ten years but could never get off the ground. The realization was a big surprise, and I felt both excited—as in, aha, of course!—and really scared at the suddenly larger scope of the project. But at that point, I was still digging far in with the first novella, wanting to complete it—a third-person close portrayal of a woman contacted by a celebrity journalist, who wants to speak with her about her cousin, who is in federal prison for having committed murder, and with whom she shared a complex sexual entanglement in her early teens. I knew where she would go, what she would do, and how the novella would end and it was a question of dialing deeper into her character.

While I was finishing up, I made lots of notes for “Son One,” the second novella, which is a multi-vocal narrative with four first-person narrators—the immediate family of the murder victim, in the aftermath of the crime. I had a sense of this novella’s form and narrative shape but also thought it should differ in certain significant ways—for example, the register, the emotional tone and degree of psychic intimacy with the reader, which the shift from third-person-close in the first novella to the first-person with multiple narrators in the second would help effect.

I also looked for a number of formal links between the two novellas—so that they weren’t tied only through the character of the perpetrator of the crime—and had another both thrilling and daunting eureka moment about one of these linking devices. I realized it made sense to develop what in the first novella is the main character’s obsessive use of list-making to help manage and quell the chaos of her emotions, by morphing this list-mania into an organizing principle—the abecedarian form—that governed the four narrators’ sections in the second novella. This is a form that progresses alphabetically; in my version of it, the first section of “Son One” contains sentences that only begin with the letter A. The second section contains sentences that only begin with the letter B—and so on. I did this to help enact the process by which the family members are trying to categorize and contain, to compass their emotions, to help salve their grief—and sometimes this works for them, and other times it doesn’t, which I wanted to show.

The abecedarian form has an interesting history, which itself helped amplify the emotional drama the characters undergo. It’s an approach to writing with roots in ancient Hebrew sacred writing—some of the psalms use it, for example. In their desperation to impose meaning on what was an essentially meaningless act, this very secular family searches urgently for a sense of completeness, for wholeness to counter and help repair their shattered, broken lives. In this way, their obsessive alphabetizing serves a similar function to some of those which prayer serves—helping to process, to find some way of comprehending the incomprehensible, to offer solace and a sense of the possibility of repair and healing.

Each piece is written in a highly fragmentary style, suggesting the fractured way we remember the past, particularly through traumatic events. What challenges and rewards did you encounter, structuring the works this way?

The fragmentary style is the chief formal device that links the two novellas, and foremost among the challenges of relying on fragments was to still be able to generate narrative momentum, a strong enough sense of a through-line or arc, for each novella—which would serve as a counterpoise to the formal enactment of fracture I was interested in portraying. Having this sense of forward movement, in each of the novellas present timelines, was crucial in evoking active characters who possess agency rather than simply being passive victims—it helped show the characters making decisions and actively struggling to come to terms with the aftermaths of sexual exploitation in Eva’s case and violent crime in the case of the family of the murder victim.

As you suggest, the rewards of using fragments for these novellas lay in the way they heightened the sense of lives broken, of emotions and psyches refracted—of people trying to compass the unfathomable of not only what happened but also of their own often conflicting, complex reactions as well.

... the rewards of using fragments for these novellas lay in the way they heightened the sense of lives broken, of emotions and psyches refracted ...

In so many ways, you undermine the common expectations of the true crime genre—the grisly details of the crime, lengthy confessionals, the solving of the crime—by arriving at the narrative from fresh and often uncanny angles. What aspects of true crime compel you as a writer/reader, and what did you hope to correct in this particular telling?

Thanks for this question! I’ll say first that I’m super interested in genre—crime and also horror, speculative fiction, Westerns even—though my interest is in works that borrow and interrogate the tropes or expectations of a particular genre. I guess this is part of a larger interest in how and why we tell stories and make narratives.
Given my personal background, I’m interested in how true crime—and I should mention that I’m actually very squeamish, and can’t stand the sight of blood—can be understood within the Old Testament context of the narrative of the expulsion from Eden, from an unbroken paradise, and the subsequent story of Cain and Abel, brothers in the fallen world whose enmity leads, in this version of human history, to our first murder. For me, the crime genre’s impulses are at heart redemptive, concerned with questions of the existence of moral evil set on fracturing human relations and balancing this against our ability to connect the dots through reason and solve a crime—or at least come to understand how and why it happened. So as I understand it, the genre reaches toward a vision of the restoration of justice and wholeness—as with the Biblical ideal of restoring and healing the broken world. As a secular, psychological vehicle, I think the genre particularly suits explorations of the self under threat of erasure, of fracture to the point of atomization.

I was also keenly interested in exploring an alternative to the often gendered approach in crime fiction, which can traffic seemingly unthinkingly in dead girls/women as plot points. In the first novella, I foreground and interrogate the dead girl trope by having the main character Eva herself struggle with and then succeed in wrestling it to the floor. And I was very invested in working against the grain of the usual centering the murder and the murderer, through the means you mention. Instead, both novellas depict the aftermath of violence and sexual exploitation, centering the act of witness to emotional and psychological consequence.

The second novella contains a range of voices from family members of the man who was killed. Perhaps the fiercest voice for me is Lauryn, the sister and classics professor who, despite her deep humanism, cannot summon forgiveness for her brother’s killer. Her situation is representative of the complex moral terrain of both works, where no character emerges wholly redeemed. Why is such tricky moral territory attractive to you as a writer?

I’m glad to hear that Lauryn’s voice came through so much for you! I did think of her as the governing consciousness of the second novella—and partway through writing it, realized that she was in some ways another facet or side of Eva’s character in the first novella. But Lauryn lives more naturally and actively in the realm of the cerebral, with a larger historical and philosophical context for her personal experiences, than Eva does. For this reason, Lauryn helped enlarge the framework for both novellas, and allowed me more latitude to explore what it means to eyes wide open, consciously and thoughtfully confront within oneself some of the chief moral complexities that being human entails.
I absolutely believe that fiction dramatizes—renders multi-dimensional, plays out on the stage of—the moral arena. Complexity, and attempting to delineate this with the greatest clarity one can muster as a fiction writer, illuminates by bearing witness to what makes us human—rather than flattens with anodyne, pedantic pseudo-solutions to challenging experiences.

Imagine, if you will, that you could spend an afternoon with one of the characters from either novella. Whom would you choose, what would you discuss, and what might you learn from one another?

I wouldn’t mind having a drink with Eva, from the first novella, at her local bar in Baltimore, in the aftermath of her final scene on the page. I’d love to see how she’s doing once the recent emotional and psychic storm she’s experienced has mostly blown over—if it has. I’d ask if she’s going to quit her exploitive job—please! And if she’s up to writing her own account of herself and her cousin, as an FU to the celebrity journalist and an antidote to the kind of dishonest narrative he’s interested in concocting. Or is she so done with risk-taking for now? I’d let her know that whatever she decides is okay by me.


Excerpt from Say This

Eva is at work when she gets the email. It’s 2018, a cold spring. A famous journalist wants to know, can he talk to her? He lists his main credentials, but she mostly already knows who he is and the rest she quickly googles.

Twenty-five years ago, possibly around the time of Eva’s affair with her cousin, the journalist published a book on basketball as played by teens in a small town in North Carolina. The book became the basis for a movie and a TV series. Since then he has written about his designer-clothing obsession and how he hates fucking his second wife. He has written a respectful, thoughtfully inflected as-told-to with a transgender reality-TV star.

In the email the journalist is professional and polite. He’s in the research stage for a book he’s writing under contract. It’s about Eva’s cousin. Can she help?

Eva hits reply. She stares at the empty space where her standard demurral will go. She is no stranger to such requests, though they had dwindled to nothing as time wore on, as hopefuls checking family connections failed to turn up fruitful leads.

She rereads the journalist’s words. He lives in southern Washington State, not far from Astoria, Oregon, in the same coastal region her cousin once had. This is the reason, in part, for the journalist’s abiding interest. It haunted him all the while he was tied to other projects, unable to get the story out of his head. He has tracked her down through her cousin’s stepmother, who gave Eva’s name. It took the journalist a while to figure it out, but he’s pretty sure she’s the right person. Can she confirm?

Eva is late for her afternoon meeting. She closes her laptop and pushes from her desk. She stands. Her breath clicks in her throat.

The old woman is still alive. News to Eva. She never received a response to the several letters she wrote, and the last time she checked, she can’t remember how long ago, the phone number was unlisted.

Eva tucks her laptop under her arm. She straightens her shirt collar around her suit jacket and gathers her keys and ID on their lanyard.

She is halfway to the elevator bank when she realizes she pressed send on the blank.

Early evening. Washington, DC. Eva at forty-one. She sweeps through the downpour. Gutters choke and traffic stands still. Chins bob beneath black umbrellas. Her bare legs are chilled raw. She has trains to catch. She has terrible thoughts. Tears were shed at the afternoon meeting but not by her—not yet. The world at large also continues to exist—for now. No lunatic has yet pushed a button. Colossal fires and floods and migratory cataclysms rage elsewhere, but for now she and her world are safe.

Only the smell of damp bodies rises from the Dupont Metro entrance. Belowground she swipes her card at precisely the same moment as a stranger on her left and a stranger on her right. The turnstiles clatter open and Eva and her shadows charge through. The gates clank shut behind and, in a burst of self-consciousness or misplaced competitive spirit or an untethered fear, difficult sometimes to distinguish among them, Eva breaks ranks and bolts.

Another floor down, a worker on the opposite platform sponges a section of tiled wall where graffiti lunges in magenta. GIVE ME HEAD TILL I’M DEAD. Eva’s train roars in and she shoulders aboard.

Excerpted from Say This by Elise Levine. Copyright © Elise Levine, 2022. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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