I am thrilled to have Debbie Levy by the blog today as a stop on her blog tour for Imperfect Spiral! I have an interview with Debbie for all y’all, and it is one of my FAVORITE interviews ever. She has some fascinating things to share :)
Debbie Levy is an author of fiction, poetry, and non fiction. Before starting her writing career, she was a newspaper editor with American Lawyer Media and Legal Times; before that, she was a lawyer with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (now called WilmerHale). She has a bachelor’s degree in government and foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, and a law degree and master’s degree in world politics from the University of Michigan. She lives in Maryland with her husband. Visit her on the web at http://debbielevybooks.com.
What was your research process like for Imperfect Spiral?
I started with the idea for a teenage character, Danielle, and then for five-year-old Humphrey. Not too much research there, unless musing over my own adolescence, over the adolescences of other teenagers I’ve known or observed, and over the enthralling cuteness of my own two boys when they were five counts.
Then, the research came in stages. First, when I realized that Humphrey was going to be the victim of an accident, I began reading about accidents in which children and others have been struck by cars. I started in my own community, which endured such a tragedy several years ago, but I also went farther afield. I read about the aftermath in these communities—the anguish, for sure, but also the search for ways to make sure such accidents didn’t happen again, reflecting the human need to take a stand against tragedies that, in many cases, are simply random and unavoidable. I re-read the novel The Sweet Hereafter, by Russell Banks, which begins with a fatal school bus accident and goes on to explore a community’s response and search for someone to blame.
Second, when it occurred to me that the driver of the car that struck Humphrey was an undocumented immigrant—that drove the next stage of research. Immigration law was part of my practice when I was working as a lawyer, but what I knew of the law was out of date. My background made it relatively painless to get up to speed on the state of the law, but when it came to researching undocumented immigration—both from the perspective of the immigrants and from the perspective of the communities in which they live—I wasn’t researching law so much as social interactions, and that took reading and listening to a wide range of viewpoints. And I re-read another novel that I loved, The Tortilla Curtain, by T. C. Boyle.
How does your past career as a lawyer contribute to your writing?
I think the skills I developed in law school (Michigan) and at the law firm where I practiced (Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering of Washington, D.C.) inform every book project I undertake.
Being a lawyer, particularly one from a demanding, even fussy, firm, helped me develop really picky, skeptical research practices. The work, and my legal education before the law firm, instilled in me the compulsion to dig and dig and dig to make sure I don’t draw conclusions before they’re warranted. That’s important in writing nonfiction, but it’s helpful in thinking about characters and plot in fiction, too. Also at the firm, the lawyers I most admired polished their prose so that it was spot-on, convincing, and just all-around the best stuff they could write. Not necessarily the most colorful, obviously, or the most entertaining or emotional—but the best for the context in which they wrote. That made a lasting impression on me. So I don’t try to write like a lawyer when I write books, but I do try to push myself to turn over every stone, to pay attention to every word.
Does your writing process change at all between fiction and nonfiction and your poetry?
My process for all three often begins in the same place—the little writing notebooks I keep—but then it diverges.
Poems usually begin with the notebook, a gel pen, and a comfortable chair. But they might also begin while driving or walking or grocery shopping—activities where I’m sort of on automatic pilot and the brain is free to play. Then it’s rewrite after rewrite.
Nonfiction begins with discovery of a story that is unfamiliar to me. Into the notebook it goes. I’ll poke around to make sure that the story isn’t something that the entire world except me already knows about. Then I’ll research obsessively. Then I’ll write something that is not an outline, but more like a map—a treasure map!—with guideposts indicating where I think the gold is. And then, the real writing begins.
Fiction: after the obligatory notebook notation. . . the process is kind of a mess.
Another thing, besides the little notebook, that tends to stay the same for all of my writing is that, try as I might to get drafts on the page quickly and without too much agony, I do stutter and stop even in early drafts in search of just the right word (do I mean “stutter and stop” or “hesitate and stop”?). Probably a waste of time, since there are plenty of opportunities (or “chances”? or “occasions”?) later to focus on (or “hone”? or “resolve”?) word choice, but it’s what I do, for better or worse.
What is one thing you want readers to get out of Imperfect Spiral?
If I must choose one thing, I would say: a few hours spent with characters they want to spend time with and don’t want to say goodbye to.
Ooo – I love this! So now, when you aren’t writing, what is one of your favorite things to do?
Aargh, again, I have to choose just one thing!
(I know: I’ll divide the answer up into seasons and maybe Erica won’t notice that I’m answering her four times.)
Summer: go kayaking.
Fall: go fishing.
Spring: go kayaking.
Thanks Debbie so much for stopping by. We’ll let it slide this time that your last answer was really 4 ;)
About IMPERFECT SPIRAL: Danielle Snyder’s summer job as a babysitter takes a tragic turn when Humphrey, the five-year-old boy she’s watching, runs in front of oncoming traffic to chase down his football. Immediately Danielle is caught up in the machinery of tragedy: police investigations, neighborhood squabbling, and, when the driver of the car that struck Humphrey turns out to be an undocumented alien, outsiders use the accident to further a politically charged immigration debate. Wanting only to mourn Humphrey, the sweet kid she had a surprisingly strong friendship with, Danielle tries to avoid the world around her. Through a new relationship with Justin, a boy she meets at the park, she begins to work through her grief, but as details of the accident emerge, much is not as it seems. It’s time for Danielle to face reality, but when the truth brings so much pain, can she find a way to do right by Humphrey’s memory and forgive herself for his death?