An Interview with Adam Levin
Adam Levin’s bold, bizarre first novel The Instructions explores a side of the bold, bizarre city of Chicago that many of us have never seen: a Jewish day school, through the eyes of an impossibly precocious ten-year-old who fuels a revolution and who might be the Messiah. Levin has been lauded in The New York Times and Salon as “the next David Foster Wallace,” and while comparisons to Infinite Jest are natural given Levin’s dark humor and this novel’s epic length, Levin is asking different kinds of questions and taking different kinds of risks in The Instructions, a biting, unpredictable piece of fiction that defies classification.
The story spans a mere four days inside Chicago’s Aptakisic Junior High, where Gurion Maccabee’s fierce, overripe intellect is forced to cope with the limitations of his school, his parents, and his religion, with a litany of rules that can only seem arbitrary and trite. The Instructions is his testament, a violent, erratic book of scripture that illustrates the consequences of trapping a truly great mind inside a socio-religious crucible.
To be sure, it's a long book, but only physically. Reading it is an immediate, visceral experience that subconsciously forces you to become a different kind of reader. You will forget the notion of page numbers, and then, all of sudden, realize that you’ve blazed through several hundred in one sitting. If the prospect of a 1,000-page novel still intimidates you, or strikes you as indulgent or pretentious, I’ll refer you to a passage from Roberto Bolano’s similarly sprawling 2666, where Professor Amalfitano laments the timidity of modern readers who only read short novels:
What a sad paradox, thought Amalfitano. Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown… they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
The Instructions is that kind of struggle. And Adam Levin, not just as a writer but also as a teacher at various MFA programs in Chicago, has cowed us and spurred us on.
When you first began writing The Instructions all those years ago, what kind of book were you hoping to write? And did that idea change over time?
I was hoping to write the kind of book that people could fall in love with. The kind of book that readers would be sad to see end and would want to re-read. And that idea did not change.
Much ado has been made over the length of The Instructions. Did you ever feel pressured (from within or without) to cut it down? What was your conviction to keep writing until it felt finished, page-count be damned?
I felt constant pressure to cut. I cut between 50% and 100% of what I write every day. But I never felt pressured to cut the book down to some arbitrary length. What kept me writing? I thought The Instructions could become a book that readers could fall in love with.
You recently told the Chicago Tribune that you were trying to "have a conversation with Jewish literature." The Village Voice deemed The Instructions a "Jewish epic," and Maud Newton saw it as "exactly what sort of catastrophe results when fervent religious conviction meets brute force." How do you feel the novel fits (or doesn't fit) into the Jewish tradition, and what makes it so accessible to us Gentiles who don't know a mensch from a shlemiel? Did I just ask a question?
That first question's a good question I don't want to answer. As for the second question, I will say that I wrote the book with an English-speaking audience in mind, not a specifically Jewish English-speaking audience.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Julian Birchman on all those nifty diagrams? And how about the iconic cover art by Rachel Sumpter and Jacob Magraw-Mickelson?
I handed in the manuscript with a bunch of ugly diagrams made in Microsoft Word, then Julian, whose eye is just plain better than mine, and who has higher-tech stuff than Microsoft Word, took those diagrams and made them better-looking. Curving words, flipping them upside down, stuff like that. Our conversations, mostly mediated by my editor, Eli Horowitz, mostly consisted of me saying, "Perfect! I approve," or, occasionally, "This one here's too cute. I think Julian should un-cute it a little. Gurion wouldn't do it this way."
As for the cover...WOW! Right? Rachel and Jacob are phenomenal artists and Eli's a genius who has never edited a book with an unattractive cover, so I had all the faith in the world that they'd make for The Instructions the cover it needed, and I just tried to stay out of the way as much as possible.
What's the first book you remember being passionate about?
Slaughterhouse-Five. I read and re-read it at least eleven times in sixth and seventh grade.
What writers made you want to write yourself?
Vonnegut, Salinger, David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Katherine Dunn… I think every author whose work I loved made me want to write.
What was your biggest misconception about being a writer?
That I could get rich doing it.
What's the best thing you can tell writers working on their first book?
Very, very few people care that you're working on your first book -- fewer than you think, even -- and that's actually a pretty great thing. Embrace it.
Explain briefly why people should read this book. What makes it worth lugging three pounds of pulp around? Other than the simple fact that it's awesome, of course.
The Instructions being awesome is the best reason there is to read it, though. So, no. I will not undermine your kind endorsement with any brief, lesser explanation of my own.
What can you tell us about your next book, Hot Pink? And what kind of project will you tackle after that? Another novel?
Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which were published over the last ten years in places like Tin House and McSweeney's Quarterly. They are not "interconnected," and so they aren't terribly easy to discuss as a group. There's a story about a legless girl who's in love with a girl who has both legs, a story about a doll that pukes, a story about some violent mimes, a story about a comedian with dementia, and then six or seven other stories about none of the above. They range from more conventional first-person narratives to less conventional second-person narratives, and the majority of them took between one and three years to write.
I don't know for sure what's coming after Hot Pink, but I'm thinking a very short novel.
Adam Morgan is a writer, editor, and reviewer in Chicago who blogs at Mount Helicon.