Robert Levy, whose 2015 novel The Glittering World was a finalist for both the Shirley Jackson Award and the Lambda Literary Award, joined the Stonecoast faculty in 2018. His new work of horror, Anaïs Nin at the Grand Guignol, called “a lush erotic tale . . . of desire and death” by Livia Llewellyn, imagines Nin’s life in Paris between the wars. It was released by Lethe Books this October 2019. We caught up with him to discuss his novella and the writing life.
Anaïs Nin at the Grand Guignol is inspired by Anaïs Nin's life, writings, and diaries. What was it about Anaïs Nin that you found so compelling, or which aspects of her character are most important to the novel?
I discovered Nin's diaries at the age of sixteen, just as I was coming into my own as a budding young writer and a thinker in general. Her naked candor and willingness to live daringly (not to mention her highly charged material) coupled with her sense of self-invention and a stubborn refusal to mold herself to convention were all characteristics that I found irresistible. These very attributes make for a great fictional protagonist as well, which I hope is evident in my project.
This book is being published as a stand-alone novella, which is somewhat unusual. What made you commit to the form, and did it create any challenges?
It's the first time I've written at anything close to medium-length (35,000 words, to be specific) and I have to say I absolutely loved it. It's often said that the novella is the perfect form for horror—long enough to deliver more than a gut punch, and short enough not to strain credulity—so it's something I've always wanted to tackle in that genre. Not only that, but I quickly sensed that the very conceit—a lost diary of Nin's that was too shocking to see the light of day—would read as gimmicky in a shorter piece and overstay its welcome at the length of a full novel.
Did your study in forensic psychology influence the work?
To some extent, my training influences all my work, and it's certainly true of this project. One thing that has always fascinated me is the patient-therapist relationship, and there are sections of this book that chronicle sessions between Nin and her psychoanalyst René Allendy. Of course, in real life Allendy never placed Nin in an orgone accumulator where she subconsciously summoned a demon lover who would proceed to stalk her and those around her—that we know of, that is.
You read Anaïs Nin's original diaries at the Anaïs Nin archive at UCLA. What was that like? What surprised you?
It was an incredibly surreal and surprisingly moving experience. To hold the very journals that she wrote in, the pages a bit yellowed and flaking but still so very legible and immediate, was a tremendous honor. Few people know that Nin actually wrote in English, so I could really dive in to the material unimpeded (my knowledge of French has faded tremendously since high school). The most unexpected part was probably all the ephemera she stuck inside the diaries: theater tickets, photographs, letters from lovers, and much more. I'll never forget it.
Were there other unusual aspects to your research for the novel, for example, to find out more about the Grand Guignol, the time period, or Paula Maxa?
Mel Gordon's extensive scholarship on the Grand Guignol—including its grande dame Maxa, known as the Most Murdered Woman of All Time—was an absolute lifesaver. Before I began real work on the project, I attended a lecture of his at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. I took a great deal away from the talk, including the newest edition of his book on the legendary theater. I'm very glad I got a chance to meet him, since Gordon recently passed away (he is one of the novella's two dedicatees). Anaïs Nin at the Grand Guignol most likely wouldn't exist without him.
When and how did you first start to take yourself seriously as a writer? What enabled you to make this shift, and what marked the change?
My pretentious side wants to say I've always taken myself seriously as a writer, and my rascally side wants to say I never have, so I'm left to assume the actual answer is somewhere in the nebulous in-between. I did have a play produced Off-Broadway when I was eighteen—that was certainly the first time anyone else took me seriously.
Years ago, I was at a resort on vacation and I took a tennis lesson with the pro on staff. He told me that my form was too tight, and that he had recently gave a lesson to a young child who (while not actually being all that good) swung the racket in an uninhibited manner, his arm completely loose and free. "Play like that. Play with the abandon of a child," the pro said. There's something to be said for that in terms of writing: before my head was filled with lessons and rules and advice, I wrote with the abandon of a child. It's a freedom of motion I'm always attempting to retrieve.
How do you respond to the ongoing debate about whether creative writing can be taught? What do you feel you can offer students as a mentor that they would have difficulty learning by themselves?
Creative writing can absolutely be taught—the real trick is for writers to learn what to heed, and what to leave by the wayside if it doesn't serve the work. I'm of the belief that we as artists are really lifelong students, who are constantly learning, absorbing, adapting, and refining our output. By teaching writing, it's my aim to empower students to become their own lifelong teachers, to learn how best to navigate their own creative and professional paths in order to go the distance.
What do you enjoy most about mentoring MFA students and why?
I deeply admire anyone who has carved out space and time in their lives for serious pursuit of their artistic goals, so I have a great deal of respect for my students. It's this sense of respect that enables me to engage with them not only about the mechanics and processes of writing but also about their artistic lives. I love discussing the breakthroughs, the setbacks, the aspirations, the doubts, all the glorious messy parts of the writing life that ostensibly occur off the page but are nevertheless an integral part of the entire creative endeavor. Most of all, I love to read their writing—especially when they're pushing themselves outside their comfort zones.
What are you reading?
I can't believe I've become this person (I never used to be) but I'm probably reading five or six things at once. Who Killed My Father? by Édouard Louis; The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan, The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg; House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse; What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami; and in the coming days I'm going to put them all aside to read Curious Toys by Stonecoast's own Elizabeth Hand.
What project(s) will you be working on next?
I'm currently revising a novel I'm really excited about—I somewhat jokingly call it Misery from Annie Wilkes's point of view—and I'm working on a couple of short stories as well. I'm trying to be a little less monomaniacal about working on one particular project at a time, so when I get stuck on one I can bounce to another without tearing my hair out. Not too much hair, anyway.