The ColophonWriters and Writing

“A form that is especially well suited to obsessive characters”: Elise Levine on the novella, true crime, and her new book, Say This

“Part of the act of working on the piece is discovering what the form is.” (Photo: Britt Olsen-Ecker)

If there is one imaginative prose form less popular with readers than the short story, it is the novella. Clocking in at that awkward length of somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 words, the novella occupies a kind of liminal space between the short story and the longer form of the novel. In his afterword to Different Seasons, Stephen King (who is responsible for the word-count borderlines above) refers to the novella as “an anarchy-ridden literary banana republic.”

Of course, dedicated prose stylists – think Kafka in The Metamorphosis or Nathanael West in Day of the Locust – adore the anarchic possibilities of this in-between form. To that group could be added Canadian-born, Baltimore-based writer Elise Levine, whose latest work, Say This, comprises two linked novellas. “I just keep going for the unpopular,” Levine says ruefully.

For this author, however, the form of a book is inextricable from its subject; the two novellas in the new volume – “Eva Hurries Home” and “Son One” – could not exist in any other mode. “To me, the form and the story are so enmeshed,” she says. “The form is always totally in service to the story, which is ultimately to me about character.”

In this case, it was Eva who came first. The character, a Baltimore resident, harbours a dark past, which involves sexual interference by an older cousin, a man currently imprisoned for murder. Now in her forties and at least borderline alcoholic, Eva travels to Washington, DC, to talk to a journalist about her past relationship with the killer; her story unfolds in short, elliptical sections that showcase Levine’s linguistic pyrotechnics and psychological insight. The second novella is a collage-like portrait of the murderer’s victim, told from the shifting perspectives of various family members attending the killer’s trial.

While Levine knew that “Eva Hurries Home” would exist as a novella on its own, the idea for the companion piece originated as a short story, but the author was unable to make it work on its own until she realized that its proper place was as a companion piece to Eva’s story.

“I’ve always loved novellas,” Levine says. “They have the concision, the compression, and the energy that comes from that compression, that the short story has, and yet there’s room for greater character development.”

Where the characters in Say This are concerned, Levine also found the form congenial to their natures, in particular those aspects of their characters that keep them focused on moments of pain or anguish in their lives. “The novella seems like a form that is especially well suited to obsessive characters, characters who are under intense pressure,” she says. “To the point almost of erasure: their identity is about to be erased. That’s how imperilled they are.”

For Levine, the fragmentary approach employed in Eva’s section is in keeping with the character’s psychological state and the almost dangerously ambiguous relationship she has with her past experience. Very much like the author’s approach in the 2016 novel Blue Field, the elisions and lacunae in “Eva Hurries Home” say as much about the character as what is included on the page. This applies equally to the author’s use of white space to accentuate those aspects of Eva’s narrative that remain unspoken. “I thought of the white space as a sort of counter-text,” Levine says. “It heightens the sense of fragment, of what’s left out, of what’s broken as she’s trying to locate a sense of what she is and what her story might be.”

Levine’s style, in whatever form she is writing, has always required a lot of trust in her readers, who must work extra hard to navigate the author’s frequently interior approaches to narrative and to reckon with characters who occlude as much of their natures as they disclose. “It’s always a question for every writer: how much you’re going to pressure your reader, how much you’re going to tell them, how much you’re going to telegraph, how much you’re not,” she says. “But at the same time, while I’m writing I feel like it’s my job to honour what it is this character or these characters or this story needs and to bring that out as best I can.”

Honouring the story again comes down to the formal constraints employed in any given work. With “Eva Hurries Home,” Levine plays with tropes from true crime and noir, writing in a more or less chronological manner with a defined end point. “Son One,” by contrast, is a polyvocal piece in the mode of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, with the added constraint of an abecedarian presentation, sections using sentences and paragraphs that begin in an “a, b, c” sequence, then reverse themselves (“z, y, x”) in the story’s second part.

Perhaps counterintuitively, rather than finding such constraints stifling, Levine says that they freed her to write more quickly than she normally would. That said, Levine also acknowledges that any piece of writing – not just one as formally inventive as “Son One” – involves working with a kind of structural or self-imposed constraint. “As soon as you start, there is a kind of constraint. You might have a sense of the length, or it’s going to be scene heavy, or whatever you’re thinking,” she says. “Part of the act of working on the piece is discovering what the form is and what those ultimate constraints are going to be.”

The other aspects of the paired novellas that Levine was conscious of writing into – or, more precisely, writing against – were the elements of crime stories, particularly the so-called dead girl trope, which the author disclaims any affinity for. In both novellas, Levine was also conscious of not wanting to put the killer at the centre. In the first instance, we know “whodunit” on the opening page and it is Eva’s story that is foregrounded; in the second, the victim’s family is given pride of place, while the murderer is rendered effectively silent. “I wanted to examine alternatives to framing narratives about sexual exploitation and violent crime,” Levine says.

This also extends to Eva’s sexuality, which is presented explicitly on the page. While the character is clearly the victim of sexual exploitation on the part of her older cousin – something a muckraking celebrity journalist of the Piers Morgan stripe (one of the most loathsome characters to appear in any work of fiction in quite some time) wants to capitalize on – she is nevertheless presented with agency and a knowledge of her own sexual pleasure. Levine admits that some of the sexually charged depictions in the novella worried her as she was writing them, though she persisted because to not do so would essentially betray her character. “I thought that I needed to be brave and write into that territory,” she says. “If I wasn’t doing that it would be further disembodying Eva rather than embodying her experiences.”

What is profound in all of this is Levine’s adventurousness, both as a storyteller and a technical writer. Since her debut with 1995’s short story collection Driving Men Mad, she has proved willing and eager to buck against the staid tradition of realism that continues to dominate North American fiction. This places her work in an expanding category of writers who seek to push the envelope of fiction in vibrant and interesting directions that are not precisely experimental but definitely signal a break with the tradition of the Victorian “well made” novel. “Maybe social media is helping with that, or the internet in general. It’s much easier to find all of these amazing, interesting books outside of what used to be a more rigid mainstream mindset,” she says. “I actually feel we’re in a really hopeful period.”

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