I have always loved Saul Bellow’s description of Philip Roth’s first book: “Goodbye, Columbus,” Bellow wrote, “is a first book, but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently.”
I had that description in mind as I finished Annie Liontas’s masterful debut novel, Let Me Explain You. I’ll make no claims in print about her nails, hair and teeth (okay fine: she has awesome hair). I will say LMEY is a first book but it is assured and structurally ambitious. In telling the story of diner owner Stavros Stavros Mavrakis and his three daughters, it adds to the cultural conversation about the experience of Greek immigrants in the US more than any book since Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex.
In the novel’s opening pages, we discover that Stavros believes he’ll die in ten days. Over the course of three-hundred-fifty pages Liontas expertly works within the constraints of that conceit, allowing us to meet Stravos’s daughters, learn that he disappears halfway through the book, discover the sweep of his life from Greece to the States, all while managing the suspense inherent our wanting to know if Stravos will return, and live.
I spoke with Liontas about the novel, our common experiences at the Syracuse MFA program, and voices voices voices in our heads over email this summer.
The Rumpus: As much as I loved so many aspects of this expansive first novel, I think what grabbed me from the first—from the title, even—is how adept you are at crafting and living inside of a voice. And not just one voice: multiple voices. I’ve always felt a little skeptical of that “find your voice” advice for writers, and I remember feeling really freed in my early twenties when I read an interview with one of my favorite writers who said something like, Your job isn’t to find your voice, but to find a voice, for each character, each book. How did you think about the development of voice for each character here?
Annie Liontas: For a long time, I conceived of voice as this wild, untamed, mythical beast that you wrestled onto the page. I still think it is that, on some level—something you channel rather than create. But voice is also artifice, entirely constructed. When it’s real, when it works, it comes, I believe, from empathy and from truly inhabiting another existence, if not person. As a young writer, I didn’t know any of this; it’s only something I’ve developed through practice. What I knew instinctively back then was that I could “do” voice—that maybe it was all I could do—and so I stayed away from writing programs for a long time. I had heard that everyone ends up coming out sounding the same (not true!) and was afraid I’d lose the one thing I had been given.
With Let Me Explain You, I thought about throwing my voice—a kind of living ventriloquism that gets me out of me and into each of my characters. I discovered fairly quickly that Stavros has a big voice (though his humor came far later). He was so big, in fact, that most early readers suggested I write the entire novel in his voice alone. But I knew this had to be his daughters’ story as much as his, and so I kept butting my head against the father. He was taking up all the space, all the oxygen, and the daughters kept coming out flat. I wrote a good hundred or so pages before I could hear the nuances in their voices, how they interpret and spit out the world. I needed their voices to be a counterweight to his. And, as with most of the characters I create, it was in the way they talk that I was able to get to the core of who they are.
Stavroula uses truncated speech, is direct, is using words as tools, is utilitarian in her language and communication. Litza is the poet. She is the wounded philosopher. She speaks in winding sentences, and then she punctuates with swears for emphasis, to make sure you’re really paying attention. Stavros’s language, of course, is as big as he is. He talks at all times in hyperbole that he expects you to swallow as doctrine.
Rumpus: Those voices each come off as so distinct, and controlled. I love the idea of Stavros potentially “taking up the space,” which feels inherent to his character, but then butting the daughters in. I have a sense that the tension that inherent desire creates is the source of a lot of narrative energy in the book. I read somewhere that David Mamet says the subtext of all his characters is something like “I want, I want, I want” running under everything they say. The idea of each of these characters wanting to be heard feels true, and deep. I also couldn’t help but think about Lear in the conceit here; the abdication of fatherly/earthly duties, the three daughters, that last scene (no spoilers here!). Was Lear a big influence? I’ve heard you mention Eugenides as an influence, too. What are the big influences here?
Liontas: I absolutely hear my characters saying “I want, I want, I want,” and even, “I need, I need, I need.” Once the stakes are raised—impending death!—those calls get louder. King Lear, in that regard, may seem like an obvious influence, but it actually wasn’t. I didn’t make that connection until Christine Schutt, my thesis advisor, named it. I imagine the play must have been speaking to me from somewhere in my subconscious, though.
Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex was a significant influence, of course; an anchor, really. I love the scope of that novel, how it dares to take its time and explain the roots of things, how it conjures a place in the world I’m familiar with personally but not so much in literature (not modern Greece, anyway, outside of Margarita Karapanou). Middlesex gave me permission to go back to the old country and the past.
Then there are influences here that are maybe less obvious—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, particularly The Death of Artemio Cruz, which helped me map the larger-than-life persona of Stavros Stavros Mavrakis. I should also mention Rabih Alameddine‘s The Hakawati, which is a novel about storytellers as much as it is a book about a son returning to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed. One of the first lines of the book, in fact, is “Let me tell you a story.”
Rumpus: I want to pick up on your having worked on this novel as your MFA thesis. MFAs are forever under scrutiny, but here we are, two humans for whom it was a true gift. You and I both got MFAs at Syracuse at different times, where we each got to work with some of the most generous, incisive prose writers on the planet—George Saunders, Mary Karr, Arthur Flowers, Mary Gaitskill, Amy Hempel, Dana Spiotta, Mary Caponegro, Christine Schutt, Rivka Galchen, oh my! And I think your book must be the fastest graduation-to-publishing-a-novel ever from that program—it was what, like, thirteen hours from graduation to a deal with Scribner? We both went there after writing for years, and working jobs for years, and ready to finish a big thing. I wonder if you could talk a little about your experience at Syracuse, getting to an MFA program while already working on a big thing, how we can say in print here that Arthur Flowers is an other-level genius—any and all of these things.
Liontas: MFAs often get dismissed as factories or production centers, which is a bit surprising, because Syracuse was nothing like that. That fear I had of losing my voice was completely exploded: in fact, Syracuse allowed me to more distinctly find my voice. For someone like me—first-generation to college, a bit of a foreigner, someone who didn’t grow up with an inheritance of literary culture—the lyceum of Syracuse was absolutely necessary. It gave me the foundation I needed to develop my craft, as both a reader and writer. Other disciplines have the opportunity for intense practice: architecture, dance, the visual arts. Writers should, too, even if ours is (deceptively) a more accessible medium.
I worked on Let Me Explain You almost in its entirely at Syracuse. It might have taken me ten years to write it otherwise—or, perhaps more accurately, I may have never gotten it out. I took something valuable away from every class and every professor, from Dana Spiotta’s suggestion of scaling back on the line-level, to George Saunders’s guidance on generous comedy, to Arthur Flowers’s brilliant insight on the novel and the paces it puts you through. Rivka Galchen, though never my workshop instructor, helped me reframe the book during revision. Christine Schutt read a short story of mine and told me to “cannibalize it,” something that was admittedly tough to hear, but I respected her honesty and it allowed me to trust her when she gave her blessing for the novel. I never had Mary Karr as a professor, but I’ve connected with her as an alum, which is a testament to the generosity and sincerity of the faculty at Syracuse.
I’m grateful that I returned to school at twenty-nine. I think the distance helped me appreciate what I had, helped me hustle during all three years of my fellowship. That failed novel in the drawer, leftovers of my twenties, gave me the humility and flexibility to be very open to criticism and the reader’s response. Workshop taught me that people, for the most part, want good work to live. The writing community at Syracuse fits me perfectly—scrappy but serious, every participant her own person. These talented writers remain my closest of friends, and we joke (and lament) about what it’s like now to be back among civilians.
Rumpus: “Scrappy but serious!” Let’s make t-shirts that say it and wear them till they’re yellow at the armpits. With all that in mind: LMEY strikes me as an elegantly, intelligently structured book. The countdown of the ten days Stavros believes he has to live lends symmetry, and a dramatic burst to every page. And yet you do a beautiful job of pushing back against it, too—in the last third we get these long, bracingly rendered chapters of our characters’ back stories, and you bring us back to Greece, back in time, deeper emotionally by the page. How much planning did you do? What’s your sense of the tension between sentence-writing and these bigger structural concerns in the novel?
Liontas: Thank you for saying so! Structure is really important to me—it’s a way I solve narrative problems—but in the beginning I had no idea how to build Let Me Explain You. For instance, in the first draft, Stavros didn’t even disappear until Part III! You can imagine how much rewriting I had to do to get him gone by page 100 or so.
The ten-day countdown was the first big breakthrough in terms of structure. It required me to maintain momentum, to nick another day off of Stavros’s life and keep tension building, even as I was exploring other stories and the formative childhood experiences of the characters. Part II, as you say, really does resist the countdown: it stops the clock. Something I learned from George—something I imagine stayed with you, too, since I watched you do it in Poxl—is the idea that if you win the reader’s allegiance, she’ll follow you off the map. At the end of Part I, Stavros has gone missing, the sisters are estranged, everything is suspended in the air just waiting to drop. So I knew I had room to play, and to introduce a perspective that was deeply needed, that of Stavros’ younger self. Without it, I think you’ll agree, his hardness is inexplicable. Yet it might surprise you to learn that I wrote Part II first, before I understood how any of this fit together.
I think it’s a great thing, especially in a novel, to introduce a structural constraint. It keeps the writer honest, to have to think about tension and readerly investment. Inevitably, we all resist against whatever bars are put around us, even if we’re the ones who put them there in the first place. And then some really interesting things take root.
Rumpus: The process of writing a novel is such a mysterious thing, and I always feel like it’s an education to hear how it’s gone for other people. What’s next? Have you begun work on the next thing? And, if it’s not to weird to ask, what do you think your goals are for the next year, five years, ten years, lifetime? Answer or don’t answer any of that.
Liontas: At the moment I’m playing with some short fiction—some of them surreal and politicized. I’m keeping it kind of close to the chest until I can figure out what shape it (“it”) will take, but the stories are allowing me to take risks the novel didn’t have room for (in terms of structure and even style). I think my strength as a writer is range, probably because I get claustrophobic in my own voice, so I want to explore a little bit before I commit to another big project. But I have a few things brewing!
I’m not sure what the next decade or so will bring—I just hope I get to keep working, teaching, eating good food. I think about Marquez—about how his only lament about death was that he couldn’t write about it. I’d like to keep writing right up to the very last day.