Creating a "Sonic Universe":
An Interview with Assistant Professor Elise Levine
By Tyler Christensen
Along with prize-winning stories and poems in dozens of journals, Elise Levine has published a novel, Requests and Dedications (McClelland & Stewart, 2005), and a collection of short stories, Driving Men Mad (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). She has received fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, VCCA, UCross, Ragdale, and other residency programs throughout the U.S. and Canada. In addition, she has received awards from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Toronto Arts Council. She has taught workshops at Towson University, UMBC and, most recently, Allegheny College in Pennsylvania.
CA: Tell us about your journey, how you ended up here at, American University?
EL: I went from Toronto to Chicago where I spent eleven years. I did freelance editing and increasingly wrote full-time thanks to the Canada Council for the Arts supporting me. From there I sold my first novel, which bought me some writing time, but I increasingly felt that I wanted to teach. I became a part of these writer colonies and they were all teaching and I decided then that I wanted to teach as well. Even before that, those first few workshops for me were life-changing. During my first writing workshop we had a break and the writer took me down to the cafeteria and she sat me down and she said, “You’re a writer! Here’s a list of places that you need to send your work to. Start with the best.”
CA: What was your MFA experience like?
EL: I did my MFA rather late in the game, after having my first two novels already out. I tend to do things backward. I did my MFA at Vermont College, which is a low- residency program. I started while I was living in Chicago. It was a wild time. My husband finished his PhD in Chicago and got a one year in Ohio, I started my MFA, we rented out our place in Chicago, my mother passed away, we sort of had this insane period of all of these life-changing things happening at once and then we moved to Baltimore. My first workshop there was with David Jauss—he’s my golden ideal. He, for me was the model by which I began to approach teaching.
I finished the MFA and quickly started teaching Fiction and Poetry writing at Towson University in Baltimore. I also taught at University of Maryland Baltimore County. Last year I had a visiting professor position in Snowbelt, PA at Allegheny College. I applied for the position here at American, and here I am. And, I’m very happy.
CA: You’re currently working on a new novel, correct? How’s that going?
EL: Yes. I got quite a bit done this summer. I’m hoping to get back to it in October. It’s hard to get large chunks of time to write in the school year while teaching. I’m pretty far along with it—well into a second draft. And when I say it’s a draft, it means I’ve already gone over it. My drafts tend to be pretty polished. Ultimately, you need to have decent words on the page. Those words need to fall one after another. You need to be laying down one decent sentence after another. That hard work of revising never gets easier.
CA: Does music influence you as a writer? What are you listening to these days?
EL: I can’t write to music at all. My husband is a composer so I’ve always had a deep love for music. Singing is a metaphor for voice.
I listen to a ton of different things. I’ve just been listening to the string quartets of Xenakis. I love Baroque opera. I love really crazy, experimental music. I love Steve Reich. I also love trip hop—Massive Attack. PJ Harvey—Let England Shake, it breaks my heart it’s so beautiful. My husband’s students give him stuff to listen to so I just started listening to Sleigh Bells.
CA: Charles D’Ambrosio gave a lecture this last summer at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop where he talked about the writer’s responsibility to make music on the page.
EL: Prose writers create a sonic universe and I think we’re orchestrating image, motif, subtext… everything, and the sonic aspect is part of what we’re orchestrating. Sometimes prose writers forget that and leave it to the poets, but it’s as much our responsibility. The idea of the sound, the music on the page, goes back to that laying down of word after word, sentence after sentence.
CA: You’ve referenced Joy Williams’ essay, “Why I Write” that comes from her collection of stories, Ill Nature. She asks, “And how have I become so enmeshed with words, mere words, phantoms?” So tell us where all this begin for you?
EL: It was one of my earliest senses of myself. I don’t want to sound too mystical, but before I could even write, I can remember standing on the sidewalk to my house. I remember getting a hold of a notebook and having this physical urge to write and in my mind imagined I was spying on this house across the street creating and writing a story about it. It has always been one of the most integral aspects of myself.
I was the first one in my family to go to university, but my father had a real reverence for words. We didn’t have a lot of books in the house, but whenever a book was brought into the house it was treated as if it were an important object. My father just loved words, and when he learned a new word he would brandish it about and quite proudly. When I think of it, it has to do with some of my earliest memories of words and wanting to know what they meant and when I finally did, the power that seemed to hold for me. Then, it took me years. I felt like it took me forever to get that first book out. At whatever point you are in your life you get that first book out. So, I never feel like writing is easy for me, even though it has always driven me.