When I interviewed Dr. Lois Leveen two weeks ago, I found out that she considers herself an “accidental novelist.” Coming from a woman whose first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is already being sold in major bookstores, as well listed as a Target “Club Pick,” I found this an odd self-given title. However, Leveen explained that while she took creative writing classes in high school, attending Harvard University as an undergraduate often left her feeling “intimidated by other students,” particularly in the area of creative writing. Thus, she stuck to expository writing and to this day considers herself a strong writer of scholarly articles. It wasn’t until writing her English Ph.D. dissertation on the role domestic space plays in the social constructions of race and gender that she came across the historical figure Mary Bowser—a freed slave who became a Union spy by entering back into slavery in the Civil War—that she first considered writing a novel. Leveen sees her transformation into a fiction writer as a “sharp left turn,” for it involved incorporating scenes, dialogue, and action into her writing, rather than “just internal monologue.”
To Leveen the hardest aspect of fiction writing is the same that troubles writers of all disciplines: how to make “what’s in your head” interesting and compelling to “someone outside of your head.” Furthermore, Leveen was particularly concerned with developing and showing a historical appreciation for her main character, for it was important that she highlight both the fortune of freedom, as well as the struggle presented when slaves had to leave all they had ever known in order to gain it. Leveen jumps this hurdle by first depicting Mary in her slave life, thus building her into her community. Only then does Leveen “break [her] heart, the reader’s heart, and the character’s heart,” by illustrating how Mary’s freedom rips her away from her family.
As far as her process, Leveen writes every day, even when she is on vacation. In order to help discipline herself, Leveen turns off her internet when she writes, for she admits that “you can pretend you are researching when you’re just screwing around on the internet.” Furthermore, Leveen has certain rituals when writing. For example, she says that writing is easiest when she sits in a specific chair, has her cats on her lap, and keeps her trusty paperback thesaurus close by.
While Leveen admits the difficulties of fiction writing, she is also quick to name the ways she prefers it to scholarly writing. The biggest upside, she says, is “more readers.” But for Leveen, the purpose of fiction isn’t merely to entertain. By having the character Mary read Civil War-era books by other famous African American authors, for example, the novel teaches its readers about African American and women’s history. This, Leveen says, is “the power of fiction.”
When I asked Leveen about her past and why English is a discipline worth studying, she responded, “Words as persuasion are always going to be part of our lives.” Therefore, knowing how to be critical of words and use them well is a powerful skill to have. Furthermore, Leveen believes that “humanities is what makes us human,” for by emotionally and intellectually engaging with literature we are also engaging with others. Leveen also warned that later in life the majority of our literary explorations will be on our own, and college is a rare and wonderful opportunity to explore texts and poems with other people in an intellectual environment.
As for what students can expect to hear from Lois Leveen’s lecture this month, she said that aside from discussing and reading from her first novel, she also wants to stress that often the academic study of literature is rarified and cut off from the outside world, and she wishes to work with us to connect our studies with other individuals beyond our classmates. In addition, Leveen let it slip that she attended graduate school at UCLA with our very own Dr. Hiro and Dr. Larson and may perhaps reveal some little known facts about our professors at her upcoming talk!
When asked to suggest a book UP students might enjoy, Leveen instead recommended a specific genre to those interested in fiction writing: poetry. Leveen finds that many fiction works today lack rhythm and do not pay enough attention to “the sound of language.” Poetry, which focuses on these two things, can help fiction writers to get a sense of how to use language more lyrically.
To learn more about Lois Leveen and hear excerpts from her new novel please attend her lecture on Thursday, March 21st at 4:00 pm in Shiley 319, and/or her reading at 7:30 pm in BC 163.