Notes from Treasure Island!!!

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Author Sara Levine read a few chapters from her novel Treasure Island!!! (a Rumpus Book Club selection) at WORD bookstore in Brooklyn and said wonderfully interesting things during the Q & A with the audience:

On male plots v. female plots:

– Generally, men’s books are about abandoning consciousness and setting off for adventures and solving physical problems; Levine wanted to write a book with a female protagonist who wants a physical adventure but can’t have one. Levine “refused to leave the feminine behind,” which I took to mean that she didn’t want to drop a female character into a traditional male plot because that would mean abandoning the real constraints women face–the obligations/tethers to life that preclude “going out into the world!”

– This reminded me of Sylvia Path writing in her journal at eighteen about her “consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors, and soldiers, barroom regulars–to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording . . . to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night”; but, she goes on to say (in a tone I can only read as “torpedo to the gut”), she can do none of this, because, “I am a girl, a female, always in danger of assault.” The adventures of men and women are different.

On Treasure Island!!!!’s narrator:

– Like Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive, the protagonist/narrator does not have a name. Levine thought a name like “Betsy” would imbue the narrator with too many prefab characteristics. As a stylistic device, the lack of a name refuses the reader a handle on her.

– There’s a moral center to the book the narrator does not inhabit (she is sometimes a monster).

– On the narrator being “unlikable,” Levine said, “No one asks this of male narrators, to be likable.” Also, she has many likable qualities, for example: wit and mental quickness, and we as readers are sympathetic to her yearning to be better.

– She’s not a “chick lit” girl with whom you’d want to go shop shopping or discuss waxing habits.

– “Certain people have outed her as a Jew.”

On the narrator’s Core Values “Boldness, Resolution, Independence, Horn Blowing”:

– If Levine had to pick her own four Core Values, she’d go with: “compassion, empathy, patience, kindness.” She never suggests these straight in the book; she prefers to come at it slant. Points to Sara Levine for referencing Emily Dickinson in conversation.

On her favorite book:

– Sara (we’re now on a first-name basis after the Dickinson triumph) calls herself a serial monogamist–she loves one book after another after another. (Don’t we all.)

On her writing style: 

– Slow. She believes in putting work in a drawer. (I have since created a folder on my desktop entitled “Writing Drawer.” I suggest you do the same–then we can be twinsies!)

– She discourages students from publishing too fast–most want to publish yesterday. (Don’t we all.)

– She likes short forms because she doesn’t like to take up a lot of space.

On her editing style: 

– Compares her writing to a wall with fissures.

– Her critical eye becomes less critical with time. (Another benefit of putting work in the drawer.)

On Robert Louis Stevenson: 

– Robert Louis Stevenson was 31 went he wrote Treasure Island; his parents still financially supported him. He had failed many times to write a book and worried he’d never make it as a writer. He was often wrong about things.

 

Note to potential readers: If you enjoy books where every sentence is a perfect sentence, I suggest you read Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, who thinks her book would be more Jewish if she threw a question mark in the title.


Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. She teaches humor writing at The New School and Catapult. Follow her on Twitter, and visit elissabassist.com for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →