Welcome to SCRAWL SPACE, Greg’s blog. Here he waxes eloquent on all things relating to writing and the writing life. In other words, it’s where he loves to waste his time and that of his readers. He’s very happy you’ve stopped by. You, too, Dad.
One of the coolest things about being an author (along with the vintage tweed blazers and the delusions of grandeur) is that occasionally people in the book world want to interview you. Whenever somebody who not only knows how to read but actually enjoys it and has a job related to it shows an interest in you, it makes you feel as if all those days and nights you spent slaving over your story and pulling your hair out were almost worth it.
Below is a my recent interview with a very smart and very cool book blogger named Meghan, who goes by the handle of 'The Gal in the Blue Mask.' (This interview originally ran on her blog a week ago, and Meghan was kind enough to let me share it with you on mine.)
Hi, Greg. Welcome to The Gal. Let's start off easy with you telling us a little bit about yourself.
Ooh, a dangerous way to start – don't you know the risk you run by inviting a writer to talk about himself? That's how unwanted biographies are born. I'll be kind and spare the readers the info-dump. Besides, by answering the other questions you pose below, the readers will learn more than a little about myself. Some of it they might even find the slightest bit interesting. But I'm not promising that.
What are 5 things about you that most people don't know?
1. My novels. (I'm hoping that will change soon.) 2. I was well on my way toward becoming a Physician's Assistant in the mid 1990s until I decided I wanted to be a professional writer. (I can still hear my mother sobbing.) 3. I lost my sense of smell for three years following a concussion in 2004. 4. I can freestyle rap about virtually any topic I'm given. I'm not even that bad at it. 5. I lived in Spain for four years (2000-2004).
What is the first book you remember reading?
As a young boy I loved reading, so that's a hard one. I'll say the first book I really remember reading – over and over – was Curious George Goes to the Hospital, by Margaret Rey and H.A. Rey. I adored that sweet, trouble-making monkey. I no longer have the book in my possession, but I occasionally visit a copy at the bookstore or look at the cover on Amazon. Each time I do, I tear up. Next question please, before I start to cry.
What made you decide to begin writing?
As my mini-bio says on the back cover of my new novel, "Greg Levin was born with the innate inability to shut up, and thus became a writer to provide a (somewhat) healthy outlet for all his words." Sounds like I'm just being glib, but there is a fair amount of truth in that blurb. When I was very young, I was a chatterbox. Soon I learned to draw to express myself. However, as I got older and realized I sucked at drawing, I became a chatterbox again. Not long thereafter I realized most people get really annoyed by chatterboxes, so I turned to writing in order to not go completely insane. It almost worked.
Do you have any quirks or processes that you go through when you write?
Not really. As long as I drink the blood of a sparrow every morning and take a break every three hours to pray to my picture of Franz Kafka, the creative juices and words just keep flowing. I mean, if you want to get technical, I guess you could call those things quirky…
Do you have a special place you like to write?
I wouldn't call it special – my writing office/nook at home. I'm not the kind of person who can write at a café or in a cabin in the woods. I'm getting old, and thus my back and butt need the comfort of my awesomely ergonomic Aeron knock-off chair. I also need my special ergonomic keyboard that I use with my laptop, and I'd look pretty ridiculous lugging that thing with me to cafes. As long as my back, butt and wrists are comfortable, I can write for hours. Having my bed nearby for a nap is also nice. As is having my freezer nearby, which is always stocked with vodka to help me deal with the stress of storytelling crises.
Is there anything about writing you find most challenging?
Yes – sitting still for any significant length of time. I've always been full of energy and need to move around a lot. Taking walks every 30 minutes isn't exactly the recipe for being a prolific author. I should probably invest in one of those treadmill workstations that enables you to write as you walk, but I'd imagine that would lead to a hell of a lot of typos.
Another challenge I've worked hard to overcome is writing authentic, natural-sounding dialogue. I've always been a pretty good narrative writer, but writing strong dialogue doesn't come as easily to me. Real dialogue happens quickly, on the spot, but when writing dialogue, we writers tend to think too much about the perfect word or phrase, so there's a real risk of the conversation sounding too polished or sterile, or even too witty. I've learned to write dialogue much more spontaneously, to try to really capture the heart and the grit of the conversation between characters – and to make sure that the words being spoken by each character are truly reflective of that character's traits and personality. Worst thing is when every character sounds just like the author!
What do you think makes a good story?
There's certainly no magic formula. In general, I'd say you have to have a highly compelling protagonist and main characters. They don't all have to be likeable, but they do all have to be interesting. And you need your protagonist to be up against something big, to have a fight of some kind on his or her hands – something that forces them to overcome adversity and take bold action. And of course you need zombies. Lots of zombies. I'm concerned about how well my new novel is going to do because I forgot to incorporate even a single zombie.
What book(s) has/have most influenced you?
I'm going to cheat a little, if I may, and take a snippet from a blog post I wrote several months ago in which I touched on my favorite authors:
If my house ever caught on fire, after saving my wife and my daughter and my cat and my vodka, I would risk my live to save my books by Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka and Nabokov. I would risk second-degree burns to save my books by Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Chabon, Delillo, Bukowski and (Cormac) McCarthy. I would risk first-degree burns to save my books by Faulkner, Joyce, Roth, Sartre, Nietzswche and Seuss. And I would risk getting a little smoke on my clothes to save Woody Allen's short stories.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
Hours and days and months and sometimes years of sitting around letting the gears in my head grind around in an attempt to produce even a single spectacular spark. Such sparks don't occur very often, but when one does, all I can focus on is building a raging bonfire. Sometimes I think it'd be easier to write non-fiction since there are so many amazing true stories to tell about the people, places and events in this world. But I guess I like the grinding, the searching, the sense of pure invention.
Which of your characters do you think is the most like you?
There certainly is a lot of me in Eli Edelmann – the protagonist of The Exit Man. We both have a rather sardonic sense of humor and a fair amount of neurosis, though he is a lot cooler and calmer than I am. If you were to put me in Eli's place in some of the more dramatic and suspenseful scenes of the book, I'd very likely have a stroke, or at least suffer a major panic attack. Even after simply writing some of those scenes, I had to pop a Xanax.
What have you learned creating [The Exit Man]?
I learned that first-person narrative is probably my strong suit. I really enjoyed and felt I was in my element writing the book from Eli's point of view, rather than from that of an omniscient narrator. Given the unique premise of the book – a party supply storeowner who ends up leading a double life as a mercy killer – I think it’s fun and exciting for the reader to experience everything just as the character experiences it.
I also learned that you can find humor in even the darkest of places without forcing anything or being distasteful. In fact, humor is actually necessary to survive in those dark places.
What do you think your readers will take away from this book?
I think the book will entertain readers and elicit some laughter – it is a dark comic novel, after all – but I think it will also make readers think. The book is brimming with black humor and sardonic wordplay, but it never makes light of terminal illness or suicide. I'm hoping the story opens readers' eyes and sparks lively discussions about voluntary euthanasia – all while providing plenty of fun and intrigue. Think Dr. Kevorkian meets Dexter.
What makes your book different than others that fall under this genre?
That's just it, The Exit Man doesn't really fit neatly into any distinct genre. It has elements you'll find in suspense novels and thrillers, but I wouldn't say it's a straight suspense novel or a straight thriller – or even a hybrid of those two genres. I wish "dark comedy" or "dark dramedy" were recognized as genres, then I could slap a label on my book! Regardless of genre, what I feel makes my book different is its overarching topic – euthanasia and the right to die with dignity. The book brings a lot of humor, heart and wit to an extremely controversial topic. It's dark for sure, but I purposely poked plenty of holes in the box so that bright beams of light could shoot through.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Hopefully many more dark comic novels. Fiction writing is pretty much a full-time gig now. Thank goodness my wife has a REAL job.
I've started working on three or four novels since I finished The Exit Man, but I keep falling in and out of love with each. Haven't fully committed to any one story yet. I guess I'm just not ready for literary monogamy. It's not the books; it's me. Regardless of which one I choose, I'm sure the other stories and I can still be friends.
Where can we find you?
I'm a rather social fellow, so in addition to my author website (www.greglevin.com) you can find me on:
This poem is dedicated to all the authors who have decided to eschew the traditional publishing channels in order to create, publish and market a book on their own terms – and keep the lion’s share of the earnings. It’s also for all the authors who had no other choice but to self-publish because all the literary agents and publishing houses laughed in their manuscript’s face.
You work without an agent and you work without a ‘house’
Your book was edited by friends, your sister and your spouse
You chose the cover of the book; in fact, you helped design it
A couple dozen fans have even asked if you could sign it
The team in charge of marketing consists of you alone
Better you than someone who is just a corporate drone
A corporate drone will push your book for just a couple weeks
And once the sales begin to slow, it’s chucked upon a heap
When you go the indie route, great sales can come in waves
If you play the social game and tweet and blog and rave
Get in the news and good reviews and you just might take off, sir
But if it’s riches that you’re after, why become an author?
Signing with an agent or a house won’t make you great.
They are just the entities that like to guard the gate
But times they are a changin’, and in order to go far
No longer do you have to kiss the ass of any guard.
What you have to do is write – often and superbly
If you tell me otherwise, you’ll certainly perturb me
And you don’t want to do that, see, cause I’ll give you the hook
Remember I’m a writer, too – I’ll kill you in a book
Ode to the indie author – I celebrate your spirit
I celebrate your novel, too, although might not go near it
Your book may be unreadable, but I respect your pluck
But really, here’s to indie scribes whose books don’t even suck.