Todd Levinson, 27, lives in the lower Haight district of San Francisco, and is publishing his debut short story in Ink Pot No.#7. He works in a book store. His work is fresh, quirky and in short, hard for this interviewer to resist.
Steven Hansen: Itís Friday night in San Francisco. Do you have any plans after you finish answering my stupid questions? Have you ever been to the Grant and Green in North Beach?
Todd Levinson: Never been there but I've heard itís cool. So far my plans have been to get some writing done tonight, but we'll see. I donít think this interview is stupid by the way--it's pretty cool for me.
SH: Yeah. You better withhold judgment on that one until weíre through. But Iíll try and do good by you. What are you working on tonight then, specifically?
TL: Another short story--it's about a guy who discovers a giant praying mantis and his desire to consumate with it.
SH: That sounds like it might be hard to pull off. But no harder than creating the weird ass but totally believable world that you did in your story The Eye coming up in Ink Pot.. Where do you get your ideas?
TL: I don't know. I try to let my imagination run freely. The mantis thing was kind of inspired by a story I read in Playboy years ago about a creature that provided the ultimate sexual experience but the down side was you died shortly after.
SH: You work in a book store. It wouldn't happen to be City Lights, would it? Anyhow. I assume you've read a lot of books. What and who are your favorite books and authors and why?
TL: No, I work in Stacey's, it's been in the city for eighty years or so. I've been really inspired by Ray Bradbury, his stories and an instructional book he wrote on writing. I like the way he creates strange worlds but makes them emotionally real. One of my favorites by him is a story called The Rocket. Strange, imaginative situations, but it feels real somehow. I like Paul Auster a lot also, his writing is really crisp and musical and a lot of his stories seem to inhabit a world of everyday events that somehow have a strangeness to them.
SH: Yeah. Bradbury is great. Auster, I don't know. When you first started writing stories, did you find that they were derivative of those authors you read most? And how and when did you know you had found your own voice?
TL: Well, I guess it's a matter of opinion if I have found my true voice. A lot of stories are about the same thing anyway, you just have to try to come up with a fresh way of looking at it.
When I wrote Amber, which, if you think about the plot is kind of a hack piece, I felt like I had at least managed to tell an old story with a unique voice: A guy obsessed with fantasy rather than reality and the consequences of that kind of behavior.
SH: Well. According to some Greek guy, there are only 7 master plots a writer can work with. So. Yeah. It's all about telling the same thing from a fresh perspective. Which I think you do great in Amber. And, yes, it is the hackiest (is that a word?) story of the three that I have read of yours. It's like some old pulp piece for the computer age. Tell me. Amber is all about the sordid world of x-rated computer dating. How much research did you force yourself to do to be able to capture that 'reality.'
TL: The research was very difficult. I had to immerse myself in that perverted, terrible world. It was a sacrifice I made for the sake of writing.
SH: You are a true and dedicated artist.
Which leads me to my next question: So many young writers seem to me to be obsessed with publishing, even before they've honed their skills. You, on the other hand, seem to me to have done the opposite. It's a little unbelievable to me that your only publishing credits come from some pseudo-sports journalism you wrote for your college paper. Whatís with you? Why haven't you been hellbent to publish like the rest of your peers?
TL: I figured I'd worry about getting published when I had something decent to offer. I've just been trying for the last two years or so to get a body of work together that I felt was publishable. It's taken me all that time to get a few polished stories together and a bunch of first drafts. I was just trying to concentrate on the work. Writing isn't about getting published, it's about writing.
SH: Word up. You say you've been writing hard for two years to build up a body of work. But you've known you've wanted to write for a long time, haven't you? And have been writing somewhat seriously for much longer than that two years, too, right? What first ignited that spark?
TL: I've always liked writing, but I never thought seriously about trying to be a "writer" until recently. Kerouac was a big inspiration, when he wrote in Desolation Angels, "write without thinking," I read that when I was about 16 or so and writing poetry in journals and that kind of stuff. I tried to make that my method.
I remember reading The Outsiders when I was 12 and just getting super sucked into it and the ending blew my mind. It basically ends where it started, it was circular, for some reason that was really eye opening to me. I remember trying to write a detective story when I was nine to impress my dad who was reading Raymond Chandler. I remember a line like "he fell like a dead elephant."
SH: I heard you use that 'write without thinking' line on a message board at Zoetrope.com (an online writer's workshop) and then claim you used this method to write the story Cherry Pie in one hour!
My bullshit detector went off immediately. Maybe you just meant 'first draft.' How many rewrites do you usually go through before a storyís finished. And is a story every really 'finished,' in your opinion?
TL: It's a good question. In all honesty, I wrote Cherry Pie in about an hour and just posted it, with very few edits. I revised it since then, cleaned it up a little. But a thing like Cherry Pie, I feel like more editing won't improve the story. I've probably read over The Eye at least twenty times, polishing and editing, trying to make it clear without saying too much. I think you probably can go on revising a story infinitely but at some point it's not going to get any better.
SH: One hour . . . no freaking way . . . OK. I'm jealous. But I'd rather just not believe you. So. What do you eat and drink while you write? All this talk of pie has made me hungry.
TL: Chocolate covered insects and cat shit. They're supposed to get the juices flowing.
SH: I was thinking more like coffee and peanuts or beer or something. Regardless, once your juices are flowing, how long do you usually last? At the computer, I mean. Or do you write longhand?
TL: I did a lot of work longhand and having to transcribe it has been a pain, especially reading my poor handwriting. But sometimes you don't want to be sitting at a computer screen trying to write something, and it feels better working in a notebook. Wasn't Harry Potter all written in longhand?
I've been trying to stick to what Stephen King recommends in his writing book, which is a thousand words a day. I think it's a good goal.
SH: Long hand. eh? I would have bet money a young writer who'd grown up in the computer age would have left pen and notebook far behind. But then, having read your stories, I'd have bet my house you were published. What kind of strange form of life are you? And where do you go from here?
TL: I'm a form a life which is very hairy. From here, I just have to keep working, once I get about 10-13 short stories done I will start working on a longer piece.
SH: And? ... Maybe publishing a piece or two? ... Please? Wasn't Jerry Garcia pretty hairy?
TL: Oh yeah - the idea of getting those short stories together is so I can be sending them out into the world and collecting rejection slips while I'm working on something longer.
Yeah, I think Jerry Garcia was quite hairy, he had the crazy beard and all and I think his hands were hairy, too. I have hairy palms, ha ha.