In 2004, I met E.J. Levy at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference where we were both scholars that year. Neither of us had published a book yet; many of our writing dreams were still ahead of us. We went on a really nice walk to Robert Frost’s house and talked about writing. Although I haven’t seen E.J. since then, we’ve kept in touch. I just finished reading her newly published story collection, Love, In Theory, which I loved, and I’m thrilled she’ll be one of the faculty at Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat.
I’m excited to share my interview with E.J.Levy with you today. One of the most amazing aspects of writing conferences and retreats, for me, have been the enduring connections I’ve formed with other writers. While in my regular, workaday life I don’t get that many opportunities to connect with other writers, at conferences I finally get to have the “water cooler” chats that are missing from my work days (I work at home and mid-day chats are usually with my cat).
Here’s the first chapter of E.J.’s memoir-in-progress, How to Cook an Elk. This first chapter, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” was included in the 2005 Best American Essays (ed: Susan Orlean).
Today, E.J. and I discussed fiction writing, memoir writing and life in general:
Nestor: Tell us about what you’re working on right now?
Levy: I’m working on two new projects, a food memoir and a novel. The memoir, How To Cook an Elk, grew out of a piece of mine that appeared in Best American Essays, titled “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” about my mother’s cooking, my parents’ marriage, and my coming out as a lesbian–it’s about discovering one’s tastes, embracing appetite, and the challenges we face when trying to blend disparate ingredients (in love and cooking). You might say the memoir is the story of coming of age through food: from the childhood experience of my mother’s French cooking, where I learned recipes for femininity and love, and how hard it can be to mix one’s life with another’s; to learning about desire while a student in a cooking school in Brazil; to mushroom hunting in New Mexico, seeking love and chanterelles in mountain forests; to the curious hungers that can arise in the wake of loss–in my case, how, after my father’s death in 2005, I fell for a man, after being with women for twenty years, and eventually decided to marry, after years of resisting domestication.
My fiance is a hunter, grandson of a real-life cowboy who was a cocinero on one of the last trail drives across the America west. He’s an amazing cook, who makes some of his cowboy grandfather’s recipes from the 19th-century, which strikes me as a nice metaphor for how we can be sustained by the past but not constrained by it, as I long feared.. It’s about figuring out what for me has proven to be the secret recipe for enduring love, a blend of ardor and independence, solitude and communion. And it has some great recipes…The novel is a historical fiction–my first stab at that–which revisits a character who intrigued Dickens and Twain both. I’m sort of obsessed with it.
Nestor: You write fiction as well as memoir, which makes me want to ask you lots of questions. Answer any of these you find relevant: What challenges does memoir present to you that fiction doesn’t? Does memoir provide any special thrills for you? Do you think of a story in one genre or the other or do you sort of test it out in both genres? What do you think of mixing memoir and fiction together?
Levy: I find memoir much harder to write than fiction, but in some ways more rewarding: fiction liberates me from the shackles of self, whereas memoir demands that I go deeply into that self to excavate the layers of meaning in my life. While memoir can be harder to write, when you make that journey into life, it often changes you deeply, for the better (in my experience), integrating the past into the present, giving you strength and clarity to forge your future more consciously. So I turn to often memoir or essay when I need to bear witness, or figure something out in my life: like, Why I was so slow to settle down? Why I kept leaving women I loved? Why my best friend in Brazil became a prostitute (a question that I explore in my memoir Amazons: A Love Story)? [Readers: Here’s a link to an interview between SantaFe RadioCafe host, Mary-Charlotte Domandi, and E.J about Amazons)
I think the best memoirists–yourself, Cheryl Strayed, the wonderful Maureen Stanton, to name a few–have a capacity to see their lives a little heroically, to recognize the heroism in our ordinary days. For me, memoir’s tough, because I don’t have that heroic sense of myself. I lack a certain sympathy for myself as character, I think, a sympathy that I automatically have for a fictional character. I know immediately whether the seed of story is going to grow into fiction or non-; they have different tones, almost distinct musical pitches for me. They feel very distinct as modes of experience and art, even as I think the nonfiction can integrate the imaginary to illuminate the actual–as Maxine Hong Kingston does in Woman Warrior, say, or Michael Ondaatje in Running in the Family. But in fiction, you don’t have to alert the reader when you depart from the facts, as I think you have to let the reader know in nonfiction when start making stuff up. When a writer simply makes stuff up in nonfiction and passes it off as fact–a scene, dialogue, a favorite book–I think they rob both themselves and the reader of the richness that comes of wrestling meaning out of the actual. It’s not a matter of purity but of rigor, which always leads to the best art. For example, a writer I know was writing about her grandmother’s death and remembered reading to her, but she didn’t recall what book she’d read, so she made one up, invented the title of her grandmother’s favorite book. Only later, reflecting, did she realize that her grandmother’s favorite book had actually been Out of Africa, a book that illuminated her grandmother’s character and past, a book that had been on the shelves, but was not the one she had read from. That realization opened up the whole piece, revealing layers of life and loss that the writer hadn’t recognized before. That’s why facts matter in nonfiction: they are the tea leaves that we read to understand our fates, our past, our futures, ourselves.
Nestor: What writers or individual books have influenced you?
Levy: Oh, too many to name (of course)! I return again and again to Joy Williams, James Baldwin, Nick Flynn, JoAnn Beard, David Foster Wallace, Kathryn Harrison, Particia Hampl, Vivian Gornick, David Sedaris, Virginia Woolf, Maxine Hong Kingston, Lorrie Moore, Carole Maso, John Cheever, Italo Calvino, Toni Morrison, Leslie Silko, Chekhov, Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare, Adrienne Rich, Alice Munro, Jane Austen, Hardy, always always Woolf….to name a few.
Nestor: What one piece of advice would you offer to emerging writers?
Levy: Trust in what you love; it will take you everywhere. (Also, show up. Your muse is waiting.)
Nestor: One of your teaching topics has to do with new possibilities for memoir. Do you have any opinions about where the memoir genre might be headed? Are there any writers you could point to and say “I think they might be leading us somewhere new and interesting”?
Levy: Great question. I think art mirrors as well as shapes its time, so it’s a little weird to see literary forms so unchanged since the nineteenth century, so unresponsive to our twenty-first-century lives–lives of social media and texting, tweets and iPhones, our richly visual culture. So, while I wouldn’t bet that tweet memoirs are the wave of the future, I admire the playful and engaged work of Ander Monson and Amy Leach, Lia Purpura and Alison Bechdel, to name a few. I think for me the question is less, Where is memoir heading?, than, What formal options do we need as artists to be able to recount our lives most fully, truly, richly? The aim is to have as many options at our disposal as we need to tell our truths.
Nestor: Thanks, EJ. Can’t wait to see you at Wild Mountain!
Readers: Learn more about EJ Levy on her website.