Thursday, October 29, 2009

Discovery Friday: David Leavitt and Subtropics

David Leavitt is the editor of Subtropics, a literary journal at the University of Florida and a member of The Writer's Center's Literary Journal Discount Program. If you are a Writer's Center member and don't know about this program, you can get 40% off a subscription to each journal listed at the link above. Click on it when you're done reading this interview.

Leavitt graduated from Yale University in 1983 with a BA in English. He is the author of the short story collections Family Dancing (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award), A Place I’ve Never Been, Arkansas, and The Marble Quilt, as well as the novels The Lost Language of Cranes, Equal Affections, While England Sleeps (Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize), The Page Turner, Martin Bauman, or A Sure Thing, and The Body of Jonah Boyd. In 2002, he published Florence, A Delicate Case as part of Bloomsbury’s series “The Writer and the City.” His Collected Stories was published in 2003 by Bloomsbury. The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Origins of the Computer appeared in 2005 and the novel The Indian Clerk (finalist for the PEN/Faulkner prize) appeared in 2007. The rest of his bio is at the bottom of this interview.

Subtropics is a new journal, only 8 issues old, but already it’s making a big splash on the literary journal scene. How did Subtropics come about?

Subtropics really came about as a result of a conversation I had with the then chair of the English department when I was hired back in 2000. Of course, those were financially easier days for everyone. At one point he said, “Now that you’re coming in here to teach, is there anything you’d really like to do, something you could do for the university?” And I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to start a literary magazine and we don’t have one.” So a couple years later, he approached me and said, “I think we should try to start one.” He had a plan involving what’s known around here as Gatorade money. The University of Florida owns the patent to Gatorade, and there’s a fund that at least partially draws on Gatorade that’s designed to support various research by faculty, and usually we’re talking about millions of dollars for big science labs. But it was the chair’s feelings, and the then Dean’s feelings, that we could put together a proposal for starting this magazine. So we did, and it worked. Since then, we’ve kept going. The goal—like with any literary magazine—is to reach some degree of self-sufficiency, which has been harder than we anticipated, in part due to economics and in part due to various internal matters within the university. But they’ve been consistent in their support, even times have been tough and there’s less discretionary money available. But the university really likes the magazine. From the point of view of an administrator, it’s a nice thing to give to a potential donor.

So that was how it started. I don’t need to tell you that it’s a pretty tough time to be editing and running a literary magazine. When I read about the death of Triquartely, that was very, very upsetting. We’re hoping to do a couple things: We’d love to get an endowment from a donor, and the other thing is that we’re involved in this big push to sell subscriptions electronically, directly, which is turning out to be much more of a hassle than it should. But I won’t waste your time with that. It’s pretty tedious. With any luck, we’ll have that service available by the end of the year.

What would you say is the Subtropics aesthetic? What kind of work are you looking for?

You know, we decided pretty early on that we didn’t want to have an aesthetic. We didn’t want to set up a standard—deliberately at least—of taste or style. We just wanted to publish work that we liked. And to try to be as open as we could be, and that’s sort of the philosophy of our MFA program, which our Web site kind of makes a big point. We don’t encourage any particular school of writing. We like diversity, and even perversity. And that’s because we have four wildly different fiction faculty. So we don’t really have an aesthetic, above and beyond the basic: quality, significance—in the sense that something really matters.

There are two things we do that are unique. One: We really like to publish long pieces, which I know many magazines don’t. We’re open to novellas, and we’ve published at least two that are 15,000 words or more. So we don’t shut out the long piece. Two: We’re very committed to translations. We’re doing this all-translation issue coming up, which we hope to be part of a bi-annual translation issue. Part of the reason for this is that Sidney Wade, our poetry editor, is a translator (and the secretary of ALTA), and she’s been pushing the translation of poetry pretty heavily, including printing poetry translations with the original on the facing page. We have a strong commitment to the principle of translation, and want to continue to encourage translations.

You’ve published a wide selection of established writers, but you’ve also published up-and-coming names. How do you strike the right balance between the established and the emerging?

I, to best of my ability, try not to think of a writer’s reputation when I decide to publish something. Obviously, you can’t ignore the fact that you’re reading a story by someone really famous. But I often wish that there was some way I could publish a list of all the famous writers I’ve had to turn down. I mean, it’s very important not just to publish a story because you like the writer. You may not like that individual story. You may not think it works. Often, what happens is that you get sort of their shopping lists, because their really good stuff is sent to The New Yorker and whatever’s left over they send to journals like us. So we don’t really try to strike the balance. We just publish what we like. The only exception was the first issue. We really did want to load up the first issue with big names, just to get us on the map.

But there wasn’t a single piece in that issue that I didn’t believe in. Interestingly, a story in that issue that got the most attention was by Eileen Pollack, who was probably the least well known writer in that issue. Her story got a lot of good mileage (Best American Short Stories). So we’re trying to read story by story and not writer by writer, to the extent that I can. Although with this translation issue we’ve got a story by J. M. G. Le Clezio, a Nobel Laureate. I can’t really get that out of my mind.

Moving on to your own work, you published your first and second stories in The New Yorker while still an undergraduate. Your first collection of stories, Family Dancing, followed not long after you graduated. I want to flip this question on its head a bit: Can you talk about some of the difficulties of starting your career with early success?

Yeah, but first of all I want to say the advantages far outweigh the difficulties. I’m not one of these people who complain, Oh, it was so awful!

I was really lucky, and I still consider myself fortunate to have established myself as early as I did. But there were some negatives to it. One: When you publish a first book that’s really successful, everyone’s out to get you with your second book. Which is why I’ve noticed now that a lot of younger writers wait a long time before they publish a second book. They wait until that impulse to publish a second has passed, which is really a smart move on their part. I was really not mature enough to handle the degree of attention I was getting. I think I was making the mistake a lot of young people make when they get a lot of attention, which was to be really pompous. Because suddenly I was being treated as if I had authority, and I didn’t. I wasn’t mature enough to know how to handle that. I recall certain episodes that make me wince, episodes where I acted like a real brat.

I think, though, what sort of saved me was that I was very, very distrustful of the whole idea of early success. I had been warned by teachers of mine to be very wary. I knew about the likelihood that one could be sort of a one-hit wonder or flash in the pan. This was the period of the so-called literary bratpack: Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz, all of whom I was associated with. I didn’t really know them—I’d met them once—and I was such a different personality. I was not a partier. I was not a New York club person. I’d lived in New York, but I was pretty reclusive. I didn’t trust that sort of limelight, so I stayed out of it. And that was good. But the problem was—you just can’t win—that I started getting a reputation for being a snob. That was really why I left New York and decided to get out of that whole world. I really have not gone back.

The other problem is if you start publishing when you’re really young you end up publishing things that you’re later embarrassed about.

Do you feel that now?

Some of the things I’m a little embarrassed about, not too many. But there are some stories—not so much the fiction—but the nonfiction I wrote at the time. And I’ll tell you a funny story. When I was about 24, the late Anatole Broyard of The New York Times Book Review, asked me to review this novel by Ethan Canin. I didn’t like it terribly. Emperor of the Air, it was called. And I wrote sort of a mixed review. Much to my horror, when the review was published, Broyard had—without telling me—edited the opening paragraph and added the line “He is just twenty-seven, yet he has already published his first book.” Well, I was 24. So people came after me, saying, “who are you to say he’s just 27? You’re not even that old!” And it was just done by the editor, so that was the sort of thing that would happen. That one wasn’t even my fault.

Well now, years later, you were a finalist for the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for the novel The Indian Clerk, among such luminaries as Jean Echenoz, Mohsin Hamid, and Junot Diaz. Can you tell us what that experience was like?

It really wasn’t much of an experience. It was very exciting, I was glad to be nominated, but the nomination was really all there was. I got an e-mail telling me I was nominated. There wasn’t really much to it except for the honor, which I was grateful for. I thought I was in really good company. A lot of the books I had read and were really first-rate books, including the more obscure ones. I read the Jean Echenoz book, Ravel, which I loved. I’d already read Travis Holland’s The Archivist’s Story, which I also really admired.

The Pen/Faulkner nomination—the book was also a finalist for that prize—was much more of an experience, because they bring the finalists to DC, and that was a lot of fun. I invited a couple of my former students, and that was really fun to have them as my “dates.” We had a blast and everyone was really nice; it was such a different atmosphere than in New York. There wasn’t that sort of insiderish quality you get in New York. Most of the people there were not part of the publishing world.

In addition to your novels and your short story collections, you’ve also published a collection of wonderful novellas called Arkansas. Since the novella is such an undervalued and underappreciated art form today, I wanted to ask you: How would you define the novella? What—besides word count—makes a novella a novella?

That’s a really good question. It’s hard to answer. I would say: You know one when you see one. I think of the novellas I have loved the most, like Smiley’s “The Age of Grief.” Some of the long Alice Munro stories I love seem to be very much stories. Maybe it’s as much scale with the novella as it is length. It has more amplitude to it than a short story but less amplitude than a novel. There are certain tricky cases. Look at some books that have a novella length but standalone as a book, like Westcott’s The Pilgrim. Is that a novella or a novel? It’s a gray area. I think of a novella as the anchor of a book, but not something that could be published alone. Like “The Age of Grief.” She published that in a collection of stories. When she published her two other novellas, she published them as a pair.

I would say the most novella-ish thing we’ve published in Subtropics is Peter Wells’ story in issue 6, about a girl from New Zealand who after the war becomes a servant. It’s called “A Titled Lady Requires,” and it’s a novella no question. He’s better known as a filmmaker—a New Zealand filmmaker—than as a writer.

One of those novellas, “The Term Paper Artist,” is playfully close to autobiography in the way that Philip Roth often seems autobiographical. You seem to be having a lot of fun in that novella. Was writing it as comic an experience as it seems on the page?

It was fun. I wouldn’t say it was comic, because it grew out of a terrible situation. The origins of that novella developed from my being sued by Stephen Spender. What really started down the road was a comment that Spender when he was objecting to the pornographic scenes in my novel [While England Sleeps]. “Leavitt seems to think it’s all right to write these pornographic scenes about my life, but I’m sure he’d never write pornographic scenes about his own life.” And I thought, well, sure I would. I was thinking very much about the issue of privacy. The fact that fiction writers are often terrible hypocrites on this question. They regularly invade the privacy of people they know, because they use the material of what they know, but they become extremely angry when anyone writes about them. And there are numerous examples, and probably the most prominent is J.D. Salinger. But you can also go back and look at Gordon Lish’s lawsuit against Barry Hannah when Hannah wrote a novel that had a character based on Lish, which was pretty hypocritical if you ask me. So I wanted to turn that inside out by not only writing very explicitly about the things in my own life, but actually going beyond and attributing to myself behaviors that were really more outrageous than the things I’ve done. One of the smartest comments about it came from a reviewer in The NY Times. He said that when I dropped a hint that it was all fiction—he thought that was a cop out. In retrospect, I think he was right.

* If you'd like to read an interview with Subtropics poetry editor Sidney Wade with local blogger Serena over at Savvy Verse and Wit, click here.


With Mark Mitchell, David Leavitt is co-author of Italian Pleasures and In Maremma: Life and a House in Southern Tuscany, and co-editor of the anthologies The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories and Pages Passed from Hand to Hand. His work has appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harper’s, Esquire, Vogue, The Paris Review, DoubleTake, The Southwest Review, Tin House, Food & Wine and Travel and Leisure. He has also taught at Princeton University. Visit Amazon for a list of his books.

A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Institute of Catalan Letters in Barcelona Spain, David Leavitt was recently named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library.


Leslie said...

Great interview!

C.M. Mayo said...

Fascinating, thanks.

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