Monday, April 14, 2014

My First Time: Jessica Levine

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Jessica Levine.  Her debut novel, The Geometry of Love, is just out from She Writes Press.  Her stories, essays, poetry, and translations have appeared in many journals, including Green Hills Literary Lantern, North American Review, The Southern Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review.  She earned her Ph.D. in English at the University of California, Berkeley.  She is the author of Delicate Pursuit: Literary Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (Routledge, 2002) and has translated several books from French and Italian into English.  She lives in the Bay Area.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Short Story and the Mess It Wrought

When I went to Paris for my junior year, I was fortunate in that my mother had a close friend there who could host me while I looked for an apartment and settled in.  When Françoise Jouret embraced me at the Charles de Gaulle airport that September morning of 1975, I felt I had found a substitute mother.  She, her daughter Colette, and her second husband formed a household I would find fascinating.  Their lifestyle, with three meals a day served on pressed linens by their Cordon Bleu-trained Fifi, was aristocratic, their politics were liberal, and their dinner parties always included someone shocking to the establishment, giving everyone at the table a reliable frisson.  All this was rich material for a budding writer, and by the end of the year I had my first short story, which I submitted to a campus fiction contest upon my return to college.  When it won a prize, my mother excitedly sent it to Françoise, who showed it to her daughter.  I had written nothing to offend, and the Jouret women enjoyed my success and the gentle portrait I'd drawn of them.

Things took a different turn when I returned to France after graduation.  The more I got to know Françoise and her family, the more I wanted to satirize them.  Colette, in her bouffant skirts and Peter Pan collar blouses, lived the life of a cloistered princess, professing her desire to be an actress yet unwilling to get her hands dirty in the complicated world of the theater.  Her Mormon step-father, who always greeted me at the door saying, "Enter and be saved," was completely out of place, and I gathered Françoise had married him for practical not romantic reasons.  As for the ancient and deaf Fifi, her tireless service from dawn until nightfall reminded me of stories about life at Versailles.  The French caste system had survived 1968 intact.

My rewrite targeted Colette, who enjoyed teasing me by calling me "Trigorin," after the character in Chekhov's Seagull, a writer who ceaselessly takes notes on those around him.  The more she teased me, the more I took mental notes plotting revenge.  My rewrite twisted every fact available in the direction of satire, but I told myself I had no intention of showing this second version to the Jourets or anyone else.  Then one evening there was a knock on my door: Colette had dropped in to visit.  While I was making tea in one room, she rifled through my desk and found my manuscript.  I tried to grab it away from her but she wouldn't hand it over.  And I let her leave with it.

The consequences were disastrous.  Furious, Colette transmitted to me, through her mother, the message that she would never see me again.  Françoise asked to meet me at a café, where she told me off.  What I had done was unpardonable.  In the future, she would be there in an emergency, but there would be no more dinner invitations.  I was no longer welcome in their home.

I was devastated by the stupidity of my own actions and surprised, as I felt I hadn't done anything different from what my Paris-based heroes⎯Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Hemingway—had done in their autobiographical fiction.  What I hadn't seen was that my subjects were too close to my heart for me to have risked my relationship with them.  In the following years I became sensitized to this issue, which I have often seen other writers struggle with.  What will my mother think? is the frequent question.  My sister, husband, father?  As contemporary writing becomes ever more personal, the risk/reward equation of using autobiographical material merits deep attention.  Ultimately, I have found that the safest thing is to make sure I have at least two, if not three or four, tributaries to every character I create.  At the same time, I know there is no safeguard.  Fiction works like a Rorschach test: everyone you know will see him/herself reflected there, no matter how much alchemy you bring to the process of transmutation.  Ultimately writing is about taking risks and you have to be prepared to take the consequences.

Note: This piece has been written as a morality tale about the dangers of writing fiction.  The characters and events in it are fictitious, and any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

Author photo by Nan Phelps

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