Anna Leventhal is the author of the story collection Sweet Affliction (Invisible Publishing 2014), winner of the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s First Book Prize. Excerpts from the following interview appeared in an article on All Lit Up, but the entire interview is presented here because Leventhal had so much to say it seemed a shame to publish only select bits. This interview was conducted via email between January 13th and 21st of this year.
Andrew Forbes: Your stories are funny and sad, and it seems to me that your skill with humour makes the sadness all the more effective. The laughs disarm the reader, convince them to let their guard down (I’m thinking, for example, of the dialogue in “Gravity,” how easy and natural and funny it is, and how it makes the poignancy of that last image nearly heartbreaking). Are you conscious of this as you write?
Anna Leventhal: Well, first of all, I don’t think of myself as a humourist—I’m not actively trying to be funny or cute when I’m writing (though everyone knows that people who try to be funny never are, so of course I would say this even if it weren’t true). I aim for accuracy more that funniness, and sometimes am not aware that something’s funny until I read it out loud to an audience and get a laugh. Sometimes things are just weird, and the more plainly you describe them, the funnier they are, because of the tension between the raw, bald, bizarre fact of something and the attempt to render it understandable. Tig Notaro’s legendary stand-up set right after she was diagnosed with cancer—that’s a perfect example. You can hear it in people’s laughter—that kind of semi-hysterical, half-forced scary-sounding laughter, they’re like should we be laughing at this? Is this funny? That she’s taken it to that special numinous place of what the actual fuck is going on here?
There was a sex scene in one of the stories in Sweet Affliction (which ultimately got cut) and way back when it was in an early draft someone in my writing group commented “Do you really want to make a joke here?” and I was like “Uhhh … that wasn’t supposed to be a joke. I was trying to accurately depict what sex is like sometimes.”
But it would be disingenuous of me to claim I don’t care about being funny, or I’m unaware of it, because anyone who knows me knows I’m a complete laugh-slut … I will literally do almost anything for a laugh, in my writing and in real life. I’ve managed to curb the impulse in my writing a bit, but in life it seems to be getting worse. Sometimes I hear myself talking and realize I’m basically playing someone’s zany aunt in a sitcom. It’s a strange and powerful compulsion, like a nervous tic or an allergic reaction … maybe it has to do with being an only child, craving attention … I don’t know … I’ll let my biographer sort that one out.
I think humour and sadness go hand in hand, not just because one makes the other more poignant but because each is a condition of the other’s existence. They’re two sides of the same coin. Comedy isn’t just a way of dealing with the world’s heavy issues or whatever, making them seem not so bad … it’s a by-product. The funniest people I know are also the saddest. And the angriest. If you’re hardworking or lucky or perverse enough, you can turn an extreme sensitivity to injustice and pain into a sense of humour.
By way of illustration: several years ago I was going through a particularly rough patch, and some friends had asked me and another friend to open for them at a comedy show at the Fringe Festival, doing some experimental theatre that we were doing at the time. So I woke up the morning of the show, and was just deeply, deeply depressed, and I was lying in bed thinking, well, I have to cancel the show. I’m supposed to get up on a stage and jump around and make people laugh, and I can’t even get out of bed. I’m a complete wreck of a person right now, how can I do comedy? And then a voice in my head—this doesn’t often happen to me but this time it did—this voice said, Use the pain, Leventhal. And I thought, oh yeah, right, of course. People aren’t funny because they’re happy, well-adjusted individuals. They’ve just managed to cram some of their existential dread and self-loathing into their work. I’m not going to say I went out and did the greatest performance of my life. It was an okay performance. But it was a real moment of understanding what comedy is, why it is.
Andrew Forbes: How does Montreal influence your stories? Is that sad, sweet humour particular to that city? I always feel when I’m there that there is a sort of resignation inherent in life in that city, of a sort not present in a place like Toronto. Your stories feel more Montreal than Toronto or Vancouver (beyond the obvious fact of setting). Do you feel like you write “Montreal stories”?
Anna Leventhal: I don’t think my stories are Montreal stories per se, but I think that Montreal maybe enables the type of personality or the type of behaviour I’m interested in more than some other places. Not necessarily, though. When we talk about Montrealers sometimes what we actually mean is a very particular group of people, mostly originally from other cities, of a certain age and disposition, that could be found in other places. Like, the people I write about have correlates in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin, or Evelyn Waugh’s London, or Grace Paley’s New York, or Denis Johnson’s wherever his stories are set. Cleveland or something. Montreal’s a big city with an extremely diverse population, so it would be presumptuous of me to say I’m writing Montreal stories when I’m really only dealing with a very small and specific subset of the population, which in itself is mainly made up of wilful exiles. I think Mavis Gallant writes Montreal stories. I would feel pretty fraudulent claiming that I do.
I actually think that if anything I have a Winnipeg sensibility (that’s where I grew up) and I use it to write about Montreal. Winnipeggers are very self-deprecating and very at home with misery, but also have a highly developed sense of irony and an appreciation for the absurd. The term “tragicomic” is very Winnipeg to me. My parents will defend Winnipeg’s honour to the hilt to snobby coastal-dwellers who shit on it and call it the Armpit of Canada or whatever, and then they’ll turn around and regale me with stories of terrible violence and tragedy. So I have a certain affinity for, or comfort with, things that are dark and grotesque and absurd, which I am pretty sure is my Winnipeg side, but I bring that to stories about Hasids and Moving Day and people who live in moldy lofts instead of moldy basements. Also—fun fact— some of the stories are explicitly set in Winnipeg, though I guess only someone from Winnipeg would know that. And some are set “noplace”—like I didn’t imagine the setting as either city, and in fact these stories have certain details that don’t fit with either location. But people tend to refer to it as a collection of Montreal stories, so I guess I know what won out, aesthetically at least.
Not a book about Toronto
That being said, there is a sensibility here (in Montreal) that I like and try to absorb and put into my work. “Resignation” is not the word I’d choose. In fact I think people are less resigned here than in Toronto or Vancouver, though I suppose I wouldn’t really know, having spent only a bit of time in one and zero in the other. But where else do people hold protests and sit-ins when their favourite cinema is threatened with closure? Not Toronto. In Toronto they probably blog about it. I don’t know. The thing I admire about the Montrealers I know is their hustle. Not in a climb-the-corporate-ladder way, in a “make ends meet while-living-the-dream-and-working-three-days-a-week” way. Like a “Well, I’m totally broke, but I’m trading haircuts for groceries for the next three months so I can keep working on my experimental documentary and not have to get a day job” kind of way. It takes vision, and resilience, and a certain kind of wilful self-abnegation, and can also be very wearying, it’s true. So it’s maybe that combination of energy and fatigue, of appetite for the fight and weariness of the fight, that I’m attracted to.
Andrew Forbes: Can you name three writers whose work has influenced these stories?
Anna Leventhal: Well, it’s more than three, but those writers I mentioned above—Waugh, Paley, Johnson, Isherwood—were all influences for the kind of book I wanted to write, or the feeling I wanted to capture, if not the actual style or quality of writing itself. And James Joyce—it didn’t occur to me until later but Dubliners was a big influence on this collection. I recently realized I’ve essentially spent the last ten years trying to rewrite “The Dead.” Amy Hempel and Miriam Toews are stylistic influences, especially in terms of how they use humour (one story pretty overtly steals from Hempel, which no one has called me out on yet).
And, I think you probably want me to say Miranda July, so fine, I’ll take the bait. I read No One Belongs Here More Than You while I was working on some of these stories, and it did influence me, mostly in terms of making me realize it was okay to write the kind of stories I wanted to write. And also for giving me a model of how much quirky is too much. Like, she can pull it off, but I can’t, nor do I want to, really. She sort of set the quirk bar for me so I’m able to gauge how to stay under it.
Andrew Forbes: One of the things I’m confronting when editing my collection, also a debut, is the evolution of style and sensibility I’m encountering in the differences between old stories and new ones. Were the stories in Sweet Affliction written over a long period of time, or did they come together more quickly?
Anna Leventhal: The majority of the stories were written in a two-year period around 2009-2011, but there are older and newer ones than that. The oldest story in the collection was written in 2006, and the newest in 2012, after I had already sold the manuscript to Invisible. I swapped out two old stories for two brand-new ones during the editing process. The editors were surprisingly cool about it. The two that I pulled were real outliers, from a period when my writing was much zanier, when I thought that my job as a writer was to put Something New in every sentence and if I didn’t I was probably boring the reader. Thank god I got over that. The older ones that stayed in are at least more thematically and stylistically close to the newer ones, even if they feel like they were written by a different person — which, in a sense, they were. Yeah, it’s definitely weird to look at the older ones, and I never choose them to read from at events, but not because I think they’re terrible or don’t reflect things I care about anymore. They just don’t feel as urgent.
You will notice that I’m pointedly not saying which stories are which. I can talk about them by name if you want; I’m just curious as to what you might guess. I’m pretty sure (at least I hope) that my style has evolved, but I wonder if it’s obvious to an outside eye which stories were written by a callow attention-seeking twenty-six-year-old novice, and which were written by a cool confident wise crone of thirty-two.
When I was editing Ghost Pine: All Stories True, Jeff [Miller] and I talked about some of the older pieces, which were written when he was literally a teenager. And we decided not to polish them too hard, since it was important to maintain that rawness and urgency and awkwardness, because the book was not just about the stories themselves but about the evolution of Jeff’s writing style and gaze and persona. It’s kind of an anti-memoir, since it’s a coming-of-age story written not in reflection but in the moment. But in a book of short stories you want to cover your tracks more. You don’t want people to know how hard you had to work to get where you are.
Andrew Forbes: Can you tell me about your experience publishing with a Canadian indie press?
Anna Leventhal: I think Invisible was a really good fit for my book. I loved working with Megan Fildes, the designer, on the cover. We went through a really gratifying process of talking about what we wanted the book to look and feel like and how to best represent the stories and themes without being too on the nose. And Invisible’s generally just a bunch of sweethearts who love writing and making books. What more could you want?
Andrew Forbes: Does the fact that you named rats “Hall” and “Oates” in “Horseman, Pass By” reflect a dislike of their music? Of blue-eyed soul in general? Or was that homage? Or, you know, just names?
Anna Leventhal: Those rats were based on a pair of pet rats I knew in real life (RIP) who also had matched musical names. However, those rats were named in true homage, while the rats in this story I imagine being somewhat ironically named. Like, I have no strong personal feelings at all about Hall and Oates, but I imagine Alex, the person in the story who named them, probably thought it would be funny to name his rats after what he would consider to be cheesy dad-rock. When I was in my 20s there was a definite ironic-re-appropriation-of-pop-culture thing going on among people around me, which in my 30s has turned into just straight-up unabashed appreciation of pop culture. In my mind, the rats’ names reflect that first state of mind, where you’re like HA HA NEIL DIAMOND, rather than the later mindset when you’re like Oh, Neil Diamond is kind of good.