Michele Levy Interview

Michele Levy Interview

I came to read Anna's Dance: A Balkan Odyssey and was moved with the intensity of the story, in both the beautiful landscapes and foods of the Balkans, the time period of the late 60's and the interior landscape of Anna, and the journey she takes to herself. Read on for her writing journey, with just as many twists and turns.

The luscious food and dishes Anna encounters, ground the story in an extremely sensuous world. This scene depicts the where and how, Anna first learned about Balkan dancing, with one of her great-aunts in an over-stuffed Bronx flat, a few years before.

"Black-haired Armenian youths and octogenarians, all with the same strong-featured, handsome faces, had roamed among antiques and oriental rugs. A huge brass samovar in the center of a dark buffet, the air was thick with the scents of herbed roast lamb, garlicky yoghurt dips, and cognacs made from berries, cloves, and cardamom. When a whiny clarinet, high-pitched and sinuous, started playing, drums pulsing beneath its line, many rose, linked fingers, and began to dance."   

Merci, Michele, for being  willing to answer, reflect and contribute your story about writing your novel!!

Michele F. Levy. Author of "Anna's Dance: A Balkan Odyssey" (Click the Website Link to Order Your Copy.)  

"The power of fiction is immense and of vital importance, especially now. I feel as if we are all in Plato’s cave. We need to find a way out, so that we can see what the world actually looks like."

When did you start writing and what motivated you?

I began writing fiction and poetry while a grad student at UNC. Doris Betts became a mentor when, as supervisor of the classes taught by TAs, she offered to read and comment on my work. She also suggested I audit a class with Daphne Athas, which I did. That was exciting. The assignments and class discussions let me tap into somewhere my PhD course work did not take me. But I gave up that pursuit when I began work on my thesis (and became a first-time mother), and then again when I secured an Assistant Professorship, both of which required rigorous research and academic writing, a whole different skill set.

Often the journey from being a writer to being a published novelist is a story in and of itself. Tell us about yours.

I wrote academic essays and chapters for years, publishing in scholarly journals and books, but never completely dismissed the idea of writing fiction and poetry. One day I was talking with a Greek math professor at my university who had danced with me at the local Greek festival and with whom I had shared stories of my trip there in 1968. She asked if I had thought about writing up a few. Somehow that planted a seed. A few months later, at a literary conference in Chicago, where fierce snow and wind off the lake that night kept me from venturing out with a group to a jazz venue, I wondered if I could capture a stored memory from one particular experience on that trip. I worked on the text for several hours, then saved it and revisited it when I came home. It seemed to me that I could smell and visualize the scene from the pages I had written. That made me wonder about the trip itself. So began an idea that remained latent for quite a while.

In 1998, I went to Crete with my husband for a physics conference. Even a record-setting heat wave could not prevent us from renting a car and going off to see the sights with another scientist. Along the way an interesting incident occurred. When that scientist won the Nobel Prize later that year, a German press put together a commemorative volume and we, along with others, were invited to contribute. I wrote a short piece about what had happened on Crete that day, which appears in the published volume. But it seemed to beckon a story— about a physics conference, Crete, Jews in the US and Crete, the Nazi occupation of Greece, and their eradication of Greek Jews. This was published in a small journal.

In the meantime, I had begun to scribble about my Balkan trip. Two journals published chapters from an early draft—though, interestingly, a Serb-American who has read both said that original haunted him more than the chapter in the published novel. As I told him, the earlier chapter was all in the protagonist’s head, filled with ruminations on genocide and the tragic side of Serbian history. But in the actual novel, that chapter had more to do than simply revisit the monument and revisit that history. It had to move forward the relationship between Anna and another central character. So the focus shifted somewhat from the Serbs.

Many drafts came later, based on my own itinerary and experience. But eventually I realized that Anna’s experience was no longer mine. She had grown separate from me; what would happen to her was not within my experience. I wondered where she went and what she did after leaving her hotel in Sofia, Bulgaria. I knew what I had done, of course. But….

On one of my daily walks, I began to see that she and Max had left my control, and suddenly I saw the mountains of Bulgaria, a new character, and an entirely new dimension to the novel.

Through several drafts, the text was a series of snapshots, non-linear in time and space. But one potential press felt that made the reader work too hard. Several presses found it beautiful but feared they could not market it. Then came years of unsuccessful agent-hunting. One wrote back to tell me I should have set it during the Bosnian crisis—it was too far back. I’m not sure if my queries ever reached actual agents or were dismissed by twenty-somethings for whom the time was ancient history, unlikely to yield market success.

But as a new member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, I recently discovered Black Rose Writing, a small independent press in Texas. Having nothing to lose, I queried them, they wrote back, and the rest is history.

Dubrovnik, the walled city of Game of Thrones and its harbor

 

Who are the writers who first inspired you to write and who are the writers you read now? What's changed?

The writers who always inspired me were Dostoevsky, D. H. Lawrence, Conrad, Hardy, Flaubert, Camus, Garcia-Lorca, Solzhenitsyn, with a side of John Le Carre, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Mishima. All investigated what I took to be the central issues of human existence, but with marvelous prose and nuance—even those who wrote “genre” fiction. I stand by them today, and find it hard to read the current bestsellers, so many of which seem to have a short shelf-life.

I have also added to my list a number of postcolonial writers, e.g. Achebe, Rushdie, Amminata Forna, Allende, Garcia-Marquez, Vargas-Llosa, and many recent European and Balkan writers.  So, too, America’s ethnic voices fascinate me, from indigenous writers like Erdrich, Silko, and Momaday to Nella Larson, Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Morrison and the many who have emerged more recently. But I have bypassed much mainstream American literature beyond the realists and naturalists, Dreiser, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and West. I’m trying to make up for that now, reading Wallace Stegner, Walker Percy, Willa Cather, and so many others.

How important is 'everyday life' to your work?

Everyday life is vital to my work. My characters are immersed in its complexities. They float along in real life, trying to survive.

The author, Michele Levy, enjoying the moment. 

Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

My work is probably most like modernism and realism— writing that strives to create and sustain a world like ours, which people like us attempt to navigate. As with many of those works, mine demand but reward patience and careful reading.

What aspect of writing and working as a writer is the most challenging?

I am used to the journey of writing— the endless drafting and editing— and I do believe in ‘the muse,’ that element at work in our subconscious that leads us to the next place or person. I remember waking up one morning during the process of writing the early draft of Anna and knowing that a new character had entered the text. I knew his name, what he looked like. What was he doing there? Where had he come from. Yet he proves vital to the text. Of course, a writer must stay open to the unknown.

For me, a far greater task is marketing, selling oneself and one’s product— something I have never had to learn or practice. My work has always stood by itself. Still, a book does not get read unless a reader knows it exists and that it might be a worthwhile read. Meanwhile, real life intervenes all too often, as it has for me. Covid and family traumas have interrupted whatever possible plans I might have made.

What genre is your fiction? Do you see yourself as changing genre or "branding" your work?

This genre issue is difficult. So, for example, Crime and Punishment is regarded as a classic work of Russian literature laden with heavy philosophical and religious overtones. Yet it is also a fabulous detective story. Anna is literary fiction, but also historical, a coming-of-age novel, a road story, a political thriller, and as some have suggested, a travelogue. To what genre does it belong? Literary historians debate the genre question for a living. I have no answer.

As for branding, I think I’m doing exactly the same thing with book two. It’s a ghost story-manqué, where the ghosts lie within, a psychological study, a look at Bosnian and Holocaust history, a chronicle of war, and a romance. Go figure.

The power of fiction is immense and of vital importance, especially now. I feel as if we are all in Plato’s cave. We need to find a way out, so that we can see what the world actually looks like.

Here is the Author's recipe inspired by her Novel. 

Uncle Nick’s Stuffed Grape Vine Leaves (Dolmades) and Avgolemono Sauce 

For the Dolmades, you will need:

1 jar grape vine leaves

1 lb lean ground beef or lamb

1 cup basmati rice

One onion, finely chopped

2 lemons

4 cups water or broth of your choice

¼ cup dried currants

2 tbps pine nuts (optional but good) *

Olive Oil

1 tbs cinnamon

1 tbs dill (I used fennel) 

½ tsp cumin

1 tsp allspice

Salt

Pepper

  • Rinse vine leaves, drain in colander (I used to lay mine out on paper towels to dry). Remove stems.
  • Soak rice in water for 10 – 20 minutes
  • Saute onion and pine nuts in olive oil
  • In mixing bowl, combine ground meat, onions and pine nuts, rice and spices/herbs. (I liked to mix with my fingers. Gooey but assures all well blended).
  • Prepare heavy cooking pot with lid by brushing bottom with olive oil and layering any broken grape leaves on the bottom, smooth side down, to prevent the dolmas from burning.
  • Stuff vine leaves as if they were cigars. Smooth side down, folding and wrapping them (don’t overstuff, as mixture will expand in cooking. Maybe no more than a heaping teaspoon.), layering into the pot seam side down, in neat rows that fill the circumference of the pot.
  • Place thin lemon slices over them.
  • Put an inverted plate on top to keep them anchored.
  • Boil the liquid (broth or water) and pour over the vine leaves up to, but not completely, covering the top layer.
  • Place lid on pot. Cook over medium heat for 30 minutes until liquid is mostly absorbed.
  • Remove plate from top. Pour in juice of two lemons and add liquid as necessary. Recover, cook on low heat for another 30 to 45 minutes, until fully cooked. (Pour off the liquid for use in the avgolemono sauce.)
  • Turn off heat. Let grape leaves sit for 20 – 30 minutes.
  • Transfer to a serving plate and drizzle with olive oil.

For Agvolemono Sauce:

2 eggs

1 ½ - 2 lemons, juiced

The broth (or water) from the pot

  • Beat eggs until frothy.
  • Slowly add in pot liquid.
  • Keep adding slowly and whisking constantly.
  • When all liquid added, pour into another pot on the stove. Heat on medium-low till sauce thickens, stirring occasionally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recipe Tags: 

Add new comment