Friday, April 14, 2017

A wildly dysfunctional family. Anti-Semitism. Climate change. David Samuel Levinson talks about his wickedly funny new novel that turns a murder mystery on its head, TELL ME HOW THIS ENDS WELL

 "A wickedly funny, intelligent examination of the dynamics of a uniquely strange family, and David Samuel Levinson guides these characters through a plot that intensifies in such unexpected ways. Against a backdrop that feels both terrifying and yet utterly plausible, Levinson again and again finds ways to make the struggles of this clan explode with a kind of humor that most writers could not dream of pulling off. A daring, memorable novel."
KEVIN WILSON, author of The Family Fang

I first met David Samuel Levinson at a book party and we became fast friends. We share a tangled past, a wry sense of humor, and he's just fun to be around. He's also the author of the novel, Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, and the short story collection, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will (Great titles, right?) and his spectacular latest, Tell Me How This Ends Well, about a wildly destructive family. He's been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received fellowships from Yaddo, Ledig House, the Sewanee Writers' Conference and more.

And I'm totally jazzed to host him here. Thanks, thanks, thanks, David.

Whenever critics talk about you, they always use the word ambitious. Is being ambitious in your work something you deliberately do? Are you always challenging yourself, or is it just the nature of the writing beast—that the story you want to write starts presenting this challenge to you? 

I’m always striving for originality. Maybe that’s what they mean by ambition? I know, I know. Nothing’s original anymore, but that’s not to say we can’t continue to push the boundaries of what’s been done and make the material fresh(er) for the reader. Tell Me How This Ends Well takes a murder plot and turns it on its head in a humorous and disastrous way. I wanted to write a funny book about an unfunny subject: that was the gauntlet I threw down for myself. I’m kind of obsessed with criminality and what might force someone to take another human life. In this case, the three Jacobson siblings, each of whom has his or her own reason for wanting to do away with their father, though in the end they band together out of love for their dying mother—their father, it seems, is hastening her death. The book presented a number of challenges right off the bat, specifically when and where to set it. But once I determined those, it kind of wrote itself. Even before I sat down to write it, there were themes already at play, themes I’d been thinking about for years—the theme of anti-Semitism, of drought, of emotional terror, and political terrorism. I had to braid these disparate strands carefully into a narrative and that narrative eventually became Tell Me How This Ends Well.    

What was haunting you that made you need—as well as want—to write this novel? And why did you decide to set it in the near future.

I was obsessed with two things at the time—the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and at home and the drought in California, Texas, and elsewhere. Hatred and climate change, if you will. The novel doesn’t answer where the world’s oldest hatred comes from because that’s a fool’s errand and it certainly doesn’t tackle the issue of climate change, but what it does do—I hope, at least—is show the relationship between the two. What I mean is, I wanted to write a book in which two of the most important and necessary natural resources in the world were threatened with extinction: in this case, the Jewish people on the one hand and water on the other. I set the novel in the near future, in 2022, because it just seemed more apt than to set it in the here and now, although it’s eerie to see certain events in the novel play themselves out in real time.   

As someone who never can title a novel decently, I deeply admired your title. How’d you decide on it? And were there other titles?

Thanks! Titles are everything! During my first conversation with my editor, which ran about an hour, she did most of the talking, praising the novel for this and that. Then in the last five minutes she brought up the title, which at the time was Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost. In case you don’t know, ENSWBL is the message that pops up when Wii crashes. I loved the title. It fit the book perfectly. But she didn’t like it and thought it was too hard for a reader to remember. She suggested we call the book Tell Me How This Ends Well, which happens to be the title of a play within the novel itself. I said sure. And thus Tell Me How This Ends was born. 

 Can you talk about the significance of setting the novel during Passover?

Passover is one of the more significant and festive of the Jewish holidays. It marks the Israelites emancipation from slavery in Egypt. I set the novel during Passover because I liked the parallels between the modern and the ancient—the Jacobson siblings’ desire to be free of their horrible father just as the Israelites’ wanted to be free of pharaoh. The Passover story is also a dark one, full of plagues and sacrifices and the Angel of Death. I liked how that story runs in the background, a current that carries the entire narrative to its only logical end.    

I have to admit I loved the black comedy of the novel. It’s dark and yet ferociously funny. How difficult was it to manage this balancing act?

Honestly, it was pretty easy. Again, I wanted to make the reader laugh in the face of horror. It’s not an easy book. I get that. I’m not sure you’d take it to the beach with you. But I am pretty sure it speaks to any and every reader out there who’s ever been bullied and terrorized by a family member. Emotional abuse is rarely talked about within the family structure—most of the time, it’s an open secret about which everyone makes an uneasy peace. But what if your family member really is a psychopath or a malignant narcissist? What if you’ve suffered untold humiliation and psychological torture at his or her hands? The Jacobson children, it must be stated, are not acting out of greed or selfishness. They’re acting out of desperation and selflessness and revenge. They’re not like the Menendez brothers in that they don’t plot to kill their father for the inheritance. It’s for something far greater and turns each into someone else by the end of the book. That’s the power of humor—to transform a terrifically unpleasant situation into something manageable. Jewish people have a specific way of dealing with tragedy, which comes out in our humor. I couldn’t see writing Tell Me How This Ends Well without showcasing my own comedic nature. I love to be funny. I love to make people laugh. I also love to call attention to the hardships that life presents us with at times, like the impending death of a beloved mother. Levity is an antidote against the terrors of the world. And in the world of the Jacobson family terror abounds.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I dare say it but I’m obsessed with my next book! It’s an insane story about writers and Nazis and Staten Island and Jews and a missing Van Gogh. It takes place in New York City in 2005. The main character, Julius Ullman Spitsberg is a waiter at a popular Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village called Pho Kim Long. When his ex-wife goes missing, he goes to look for her at the home of a famous and reclusive writer who lives on Staten Island. Mayhem and murder ensue! It’s called I Am Gone Forever…

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