An Interview with Peter Levine, by Celia Johnson
March 10, 2014
Years ago we published a story called “Havasu” by Peter Levine. I distinctly remember accepting it because it was one of those rare cases when the entire editorial team roots for a piece. “Havasu” is a comical tale about a visit to a masseuse. The protagonist, Cody, is led astray by his own assumptions about Tom Mahoney, who, it seems, can do no wrong. The Appearance of a Hero, Levine’s debut book, is a collection of stories about Tom Mahoney. These tales are as much about a man who soars most tragically into myth, as they are about his influence on the people around him. Levine spoke to me candidly about being a writer, from his creative process to the business of getting published.
Writer Jean McGarry described your protagonist Tom Mahoney as “a Twenty-First Century Gatsby,” which seems apt given Mahoney’s mythic status and tragic life. Was Gatsby an inspiration? And was there otherwise an encounter or a personal relationship that precipitated the book?
I hadn’t thought of Gatsby, though the parallel makes sense in a lot of ways. One difference, however, is that the character of Tom doesn’t really work to create his own mystique the way Gatsby did. Others do that for him.
In that sense, I did draw on some personal relationships and experiences; what I observed to be the romanticizing of certain friends’ glory day exploits. It’s a lot like the way storytelling works—something funny becomes, years later, hilarious. A great party becomes an epic party, and so on. That phenomenon surrounds Tom.
Tom’s life is sketched by friends, family, girlfriends, acquaintances, and even people he’s never met. Were there any particular challenges in negotiating the reality of Tom versus these impressions of Tom?
The real challenge for me was pinning down the firm details of Tom’s life. The chronology of his life materialized quite late in the process. The manuscript I sent out for representation consisted of about ten stories about Tom, but they weren’t ordered chronologically, as they are now. I was more exploring the myth and idea of this character, which was liberating because I wasn’t beholden to any constraints. I could put Tom in a variety of situations without worrying about logistics. I gave him different jobs and put him in different cities.
But in the end, it wasn’t tight enough and didn’t quite make sense. I worked with notes my agent gave me over a period of months to make his history clearer, which meant losing some stories, and creating new ones. That helped to firm up the details of his life and to allow new connections to be drawn from story to story.
As for how the impressions worked vis-à-vis his “reality,” since much of the book explored the myth-making surrounding Tom, I always felt comfortable that readers would get the conceit that some stories were imagined while others were meant to be taken as real.
Your prose is sharp and concise, and so I wonder about your revision process. Do you revise obsessively? And in that revision process, do you cut more than you add?
I think I’ve gotten a little more uptight about revising than I used to, which is probably a good thing, since I used to be really lazy. For these stories, I think the spare prose evolved more out of the voice I was going for rather than my own efforts at revision. Many of the stories are elegiac, and others are told in a very conversational manner, and so I felt crisp, straightforward, even sometimes stark prose was the way to go.
I will say that when I do revise, it is almost always to cut away rather than to add. In fact, going through the stories now, I find myself wanting to cut, but of course, it’s too late!
Would you describe your workplace?
My workplace has changed as a result of a baby. When I wrote the book, I had what could be called a regular office. As you can see, a glider now sits where my desk used to.
So, most of the writing I do now is either at the kitchen table or at the Washington Hilton…here.
They have free wifi, but the trade-off is loud lobby music and boisterous conferees.
Many of your stories in the book have appeared in other publications, including Slice. Did you intend to compile a short story collection from the outset?
Over the years, I’d assembled various collections in various forms, so, yes. I would put together the best stories I had at the time and send to a contest or try an agent. Nothing hit.
These stories came more organically (and perhaps more successfully) in that I was just intrigued by the idea of this one guy, and kept writing about him for a few years. By 2010, I realized that I had something I was happy with, a manuscript whose stories felt strong and cohesive. Like you said, I’d placed several of them, and that helped to bolster my confidence a bit.
At that point, though I’d gotten really discouraged about the prospects of getting anyone interested in a collection without a novel to go along with it, I figured I had nothing to lose, and went out with it.
Are there any particular highs and lows that stand out in your journey from magazines to books?
Of course. Some of the highs are the obvious ones: getting the call that I’d gotten an offer for the book, seeing the cover for the first time, seeing the book on shelves.
Prior to that, it was always (and still is) a wonderful feeling to place a story, and it was a particular buzz when I’d manage to place a story in a journal I’d been trying for years to break into but had no success (on a few occasions, editors retired and new ones came in who were more favorable to my stuff).
As for the lows, do I need to mention the countless rejections along the way, or the uncertainty of not knowing if I would ever publish a book? Perhaps another low is producing writing that you know is false, but which you feel pressured to grind out (i.e. the chorus that says to “just write a novel,” as if it’s that easy).
What’s next? More of Tom, or onto a completely new story?
Both. I’ve continued to write stories about Tom and how his death impacts those around him. One was published last summer in The Missouri Review and one is going to be published this spring in The Southern Review. But I’m working on other stuff, too—both stories and longer pieces, though we’ll see how long these things end up being.
Author photo by Karine Aigner.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She is also a writer, most recently of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.
Peter Levine is the author of The Appearance of a Hero: The Tom Mahoney Stories. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. He’s held fellowships at Yaddo and The Virginia Center for Creative Arts. He lives in Washington, DC and teaches at The George Washington University.