By David Perry
Author E.J. Levy has a stack of literary awards, a gig teaching in the MFA Program at Colorado State University and critics digging for superlatives to describe her work.
In a recent visit to campus, she shared insight from those experiences and encouraged students to develop their own authentic voices, based on their life experiences.
Levy, who is best known for writing the “Love, In theory” short story collection and has received the Flannery O’Connor Award, appeared as part of the Writers on Campus Series, sponsored by the English Department. During her visit, she met with Assoc. Prof. Maureen Stanton’s creative nonfiction class and then held a public reading of her work.
Stanton, who was a classmate of Levy’s in Ohio State’s MFA program, praised the author’s work for its “intelligence and beauty.”
Students were equally impressed.
Ashley Fortier, a senior English major, called Levy “a great role model. You know, I kind of took this for granted when I heard she was coming. But now, I can’t believe this person did what I am doing now at one point in her life. She’s amazing.”
“She was inspiring,” said Sean Caeden Darling, a senior philosophy major with a minor in creative writing. “She managed to eliminate about 80 to 90 percent of my existential dread.”
Later, in O’Leary Library, Levy read the closing short story from her “Love, In Theory” collection, laying bare with humor and a second-person narrative the mechanics of dramatic action. A master reader, she had Prof. Andre Dubus howling from his seat.
Levy’s current project is a nonfiction book about James Barry, a physician who was a pioneer of cesarean-section births as well as improving health care for wounded British soldiers. After the doctor’s death, it was revealed that despite living as a man, Barry was in fact a female.
Levy took time to field questions about her craft, the enduring power of art and the evolving definition of love.
Q. Why do you write as opposed to doing something else?
A. Civilizations come and go, but art lasts. We don't know who wrote “Gilgamesh” or painted the walls at Lascaux, but we are still moved by those works today, fed and inspired by them. I realized at some point that I didn't want to do what was easy, but to do what was meaningfully difficult. I realized that I'd rather fail at what matters to me — art — than succeed at what doesn't. Of course, I'm seriously hoping that I don't fail ... even as I love Eileen Myles' definition of poets as culture's "charismatic failures."
Q. You’ve won a Pushcart Prize, the Flannery O’Connor Award, a slew of kudos. But what other jobs have you held along the way to get to this place?
A. The writer and much-admired writing teacher John Gardner (who was, among other things, Raymond Carver's teacher) says one good source is better than 10 crummy jobs in terms of writing material. Meaning that writers don't need crummy jobs to gather material for their fiction or nonfiction; you can interview a source to get the inside scoop, drawing on the vitally important skills of journalists.
That said, I've held a bajillion crappy jobs: night clerk at a motel, prep cook in a women's club in Minneapolis, photo fox at the Taos balloon festival (at which I stood in a mall parking lot dressed as an animal and tried to woo kids into taking a balloon ride in order to promote a photo-processing company). I also had some great ones: I founded an LGBT newspaper in New Mexico, was an indie film magazine editor in New York and was outreach director for an environmental group in Taos.
You don't need an impressive day job; you just need to earn enough to pay your way and thus be free to tell your truth, unbeholden. Woolf was right: You need money and a room of your own to write. One of my favorite jobs ever was as a clerk in a historic queer bookstore in the West Village. Many of the "crummy" jobs I've held were actually great because they freed my thoughts to focus on what mattered: writing, reading, waking up to this brief and wondrous life.
Q. You write about professors and the world of ideas and intellect in “Love, In Theory.” What do you make of the anti-intellectual climate that currently hovers over the nation?
A. It's terribly dangerous in a democracy to confuse ignorance with authenticity, force and brutishness with power. This is a stress test for our beautiful democratic experiment; I hope we pass. The increase in support for serious newspapers and magazines and enthusiasm for participatory democracy gives me hope. Let us not grow weary.
Q. What is your definition of love, and did it change while writing “Love, In Theory”?
A. This is a better question than I have an answer for. I can't say what love is, except maybe an illumination, an elaboration, an ongoing conversation in which one recognizes the true luminous nature of things and feels deeply seen, recognized. Or maybe it's the mirror in which we recognize ourselves as what we really are: connected, flawed, holy, wounded, perfect before we ever do a thing. For me it feels like a kind of brokenhearted joy. Writing “Love, In Theory” did change me, or maybe it revealed to me what I couldn't reason my way to on my own or in therapy: The burden of love is worth it.