Last month the American Library of Paris hosted novelist Jessica Levine and her agent April Eberhardt. They had a spirited and honest discussion about the realities of today’s publishing climate and the relationship between writer and agent. I love hearing stories about how books make their way into the world; I appreciated both women’s candor immensely.
My interest was piqued about the book itself, too. The Geometry of Love centers on a love triangle: a poet with writer’s block is torn between a reliable boyfriend and a more passionate, but difficult old flame. How could I resist? I found Jessica after the event and asked if she’d be interested in visiting the blog.
Happily, she said yes! She also agreed to offer a free copy of her novel to one lucky winner. Giveaway details at the end of the post!
Jessica Levine earned a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of California at Berkeley and has translated several books about architecture and design from French and Italian into English. She also writes a wonderful blog called Paris Regained. In it, she weaves stories from the two years she spent in Paris as a young woman with her thoughts on returning now, decades later, with her husband and two daughters for a sabbatical year. I’m excited Jessica is now part of Paris’ literary community and that she’s here today to answer a few questions about her writing.
The Geometry of Love explores lots of rich territory: love, intimacy, the struggle between heart and mind, and the nature and origin of creative inspiration and production. What compels you to write about these subjects?
My mother once said to me, “Life is hard for women. The trick is to make the right marriage.” I think there’s much truth in that, but one could add, “or not marry at all.” Love has been a fascinating subject for centuries, but for women, since the 1960s, the pull toward love has been set against an increased drive for autonomy. I have seen countless women—my family, friends, therapy clients—unable to figure out just how committed they want to be in relationship. They want intimacy and security, but freedom, too.
As for the creative quest, I started writing at the age of 12 and published my first novel in my fifties so, as you can imagine, I’ve had some obstacles, internal as well as external, along the way. My mother was a graphic designer and painter who saw herself as a failed and frustrated artist. Her self-disparagement left its mark on me, especially as her creative block eventually contributed to her alcoholism.
Creativity requires qualities—self-confidence, courage, spontaneity—as well as conditions—time, financial ease, mentorship or positive role models—that are not always available. It took me many years to overcome the destructive inner critic modeled for me by my mother. I should add that I have forgiven her for that negative inheritance, as I came not only to understand it but also to use it as a subject for my writing.
Your first book, Delicate Pursuit, was a nonfiction study of how Henry James and Edith Wharton used discretion to grapple with controversial topics and the influence the French literary tradition had on their treatment of risqué material. I wonder how this background informed your own novel, which deals with issues including infidelity, eroticism and presents some pretty frank sex scenes.
Yes, James and Wharton have been hugely influential on me. The Geometry of Love is in some ways a rewrite of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. The novel I’m working on now is a response to James’s Portrait of a Lady. However, if James and Wharton were discreet in the presentation of sexual material, Geometry does, as you point out, have some very erotic scenes. This was not true of my first drafts, in which I felt some inhibition writing about sex. Then I realized that both the character and the story required it: Sexuality is important for my protagonist – a way not only of creating but also of measuring intimacy. Julia is seeking a relationship that will provide lasting fulfillment and sex for her is the proof of the pudding—the experience that enables her to know just how much she feels.
I’m fascinated that you are also a trained hypnotherapist. I would think your experience in dealing with the subconscious has some intriguing overlap with the imaginative work of fiction. How do you see these two things speaking to each other?
Both writing and therapy use language to mine and describe private emotions and experiences such as love, fear, pain, and loss. Both find refuge in safe spaces to explore the dark side of being human. For clients, that safe space is the therapist’s office. For writers it’s the blank page—at least until they’re published. Then they have to deal with readers’ reactions!
You have an interesting relationship to French and to Paris. You went to a French school in New York as a child, studied in Paris in college, and now have returned in mid-life with your family. How would you describe your feelings about Paris, and is living here affecting your writing?
I love Paris, though it’s not always the best place to write! I’m very sensitive to my visual environment and feel nourished by the artistic and architectural heritage of the city. Also, the respect that the French have for writers and artists supports me in my creative work. When Patrick Modiano won the Nobel prize, the city celebrated his achievement by hanging gigantic posters with his image in the streets. You would never see that in the United States, where there is a prevailing hostility to the arts, education, and intellectual enrichment. It’s very unfortunate.
You’re leading novel writing workshops at the American Library of Paris. What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
There are three points I stress repeatedly. The first: Whether one hopes for a literary or a mass audience, a good story is crucial, so I encourage my students to focus on story in the first draft, structuring their narratives around scenes. Every scene, even if it is one of psychological reflection, should play a role in the development of the plot.
The second is that fiction, just like non-fiction, provides an information feed. Beginning writers often don’t realize that they are not giving the reader enough information to understand the story, let alone visualize it.
Finally, readers enjoy variety. A good novel interweaves dialogue, action, description, background, fantasy, rumination. One good exercise after writing a first draft is simply to break the chapter into segments and count the number of pages in each mode. If you have twenty pages of straight description or dialogue, for example, you are likely to lose your reader.
Currently I’m working on a novel about a young American woman living in Rome. Much like Isabel Archer, she misreads the signs of the culture, falls into traps that are set for her, and struggles to do the right thing. To be in Paris writing about Rome feels very familiar to me. When I last lived here, in the late 1970s, I started studying Italian and most of my travels took me to Italy, and here I am repeating the pattern: I went to Rome in November and will travel to Genoa in April. Of course Italy has cast its spell on French writers and artists since Poussin, Madame de Staël, and Stendhal. I’m happy to imagine myself part of that tradition, if only for a moment.
And thank you for inviting me!
To enter to win a free copy of The Geometry of Love, please leave a comment by Wednesday, April 1, 3 pm EST.
UPDATE! Congratulations, Julie, for winning a free copy!