As a writer for New York Magazine and the New Yorker, Ariel Levy mastered putting herself in foreign surroundings—from a nightclub for overweight women in Queens to the Mongolian steppe—and then writing about what it meant to be a woman in those places. In her new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy applies her “professional explorer” skills to a much more familiar landscape: herself. Levy reports on her own infidelity, the collapse of her marriage, and “the wildest trip of all”—motherhood—with the same curious, piercing eye that she applies to all her subjects. Many of her past subjects appear in the memoir, but this time, she tells the story behind those stories, revealing her process of becoming through the stories she has told.
That she writes about her own loss of control with such control, such matter-of-factness—that is, the tension between the content and her tone—creates an unsettling effect that underscores the project of the book: to unmask the illusion of control. “Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of their own agency by feminism—a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us,” Levy writes. But while she can control how her story is told, she cannot control what happens. There are some things that happen in life for no reason, that do not comply with our stories, that refuse to adhere to the rules.
In our interview, we spoke about this illusion of control (which writers are particularly prone to), a writer’s responsibility to put the reader’s interests above her subjects (and herself), and language’s inability to communicate the experience of grief. All the while, Levy was cleaning up cat vomit from the floor of her apartment.
The Rumpus: When I heard you were expanding an essay you wrote for the New Yorker in 2013 called “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” into a book, I was thrilled because that essay is one of my all-time favorite personal essays. It makes me cry every time (especially after my college boyfriend moved to Mongolia and we broke up).
Ariel Levy: How weird. Why did he do that?
Rumpus: God knows.
Levy: Yeah, God knows.
Rumpus: Anyway, I was curious about your process for expanding that essay into a memoir?
Levy: When I finished the essay, I felt like, I’m not done. There’s more I want to say about this, and also what came before and what came after. I knew that that piece was a pivot point because it had been a pivot point in my life. But I had to figure out what fit, what actually pertains to this bigger thing I want to say about surrendering the illusion of control. I sort of thought of that as a coming-of-age process, and I thought of this as a coming-of-age story.
Rumpus: As a person who is also obsessed with control and making plans, I related to the part where you and your spouse sat down with a piece of butcher paper to make a capital P Plan, and I wondered whether this impulse for control was a part of your writing process as well.
Levy: As I say in the book, that impulse to plan a structure and to think, “Okay, what story where, in what order, makes for the best narrative?”—that’s authorial power and those impulses are good on the page, those are what help you make a coherent and compelling narrative. And I also think making plans is a lot of fun. But you just don’t have that power in life. I don’t mean to suggest there’s anything wrong with sitting down with a piece of butcher paper and a pen; that’s a good time. It’s just, you may find that it’s folly. You just don’t know.
Rumpus: When I first read “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” it surprised me because of how personal it was compared to your other work, including your first book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, which is deeply reported. And in the new book, you write: “there is nothing I love more than traveling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it.” The writing process for this book seems like it would’ve been the opposite. Can you talk about the experience of writing something so much more personal? And perhaps how your reporting background factored into that experience?
Levy: I thought that it might be effective to approach something really painful and personal with the same kind of reportorial style and approach that I had been learning to use in journalism for twenty years. Also, whether it was going to work well or not, it’s the only way I know how to write. So, I was like, “I hope it works well because I can’t do any other kind of writing, so that’s what I’m going to do.” In terms of the experience of writing it, it was a lot more fun than writing Female Chauvinist Pigs, which I hated writing. Because, I didn’t know before I started, but I found out along the way, that I was not put on this earth to write polemics. That’s just not an authentic style for me. I just have no business pretending to be an expert about anything. It’s just not how I roll. I want to be a storyteller. I don’t want to be making an argument or a case. This was pleasurable; I don’t know if I would use the word “fun,” but I enjoyed writing it.
Rumpus: Writing seems to be a way of emerging from painful experiences for you. You write, “To this day I feel comforted and relieved of loneliness, no matter how foreign my surroundings, if I have a pad and a pen.” Did writing this book offer you comfort and relief from loneliness?
Levy: Yeah, it did. What I was thinking of specifically when I wrote that was this book tour that I went on for Female Chauvinist Pigs, and I hated it. The only thing I hated more than writing that book was promoting it. I mean, seriously, I am not kidding. And the only thing worse than promoting it was promoting it in Australia. It is so fucking far, and then you get off the plane, and instead of being in India, you’re in like Philadelphia. It’s just so far and not even different. They make “no” “no-o-o”—three syllables to the word “no.” I don’t know why I am gratuitously bashing Australia, but I am. The point is, I was sitting in this park in the middle of Sydney, and I just felt so lonely and so far from home, and I just remember I happened to have my reporting pad with me, and I just started writing about these guys playing a checkers game, or whatever people play in a park, and I just started to feel better. That’s what I was thinking of when I wrote that, and how often I’ve done that since I was a little kid, just like had a pad out and taken some notes and then I feel a little better. And writing this book, I did like writing it. I did like the feeling of being like, here’s how I’m going to interact with my pain, with my grief, with my regret and with my ambivalence about my own culpability for whatever’s gone down in my life. Yes, I like the experience of engaging with it on the page, and I have no idea if it sped the healing process because I’ve only ever done it this way. I hope never again to lose a baby and a spouse, so without having that happen and not writing a book, I don’t really have a basis for comparison.
Rumpus: I think I just have Mary Karr’s and these other memoirists’ rules in my head. Karr says, wait seven years before you write about anything.
Levy: I get the concept. I think what’s most important—and this is a rule I frankly always follow on the page if I’m doing something for publication and not just taking notes in my notebook to make myself feel cozy in Australia—I always am aware that I have a job to do, and that my job is to serve the reader’s interests first. Above my own ego, above my sort of self, whatever self-definition I hold dear. Always. Or when I’m doing reported stuff, I have to hold the reader’s interest over the subject’s interest. So, no matter how much I like Edith Windsor when she calls me and says, “I don’t want you to start the story with me saying: ‘Fuck the Supreme Court.’” I’m like, “Edie, I’m sorry, but it’s not up for debate.” Because that serves the reader’s interest and the reader is my first allegiance always. Even when I’m doing this book. Well, that’s not entirely true. In this book, I showed the book to my former spouse before I turned it in. And I did say to her, “If there’s anything you can’t live with, tell me, and I’ll take it out.” I did feel that I owed her that, that I owed her more than the reader. But she, being the person that she is, said very generously, “I’m actually not going to censor you. This is your story. You do it how you have to do it.”
Rumpus: That reminds me of when you write: “You spend your entire life picking people apart. You use them and then rid yourself of them the way you want to rid yourself of your spouse.” It’s so difficult to write about other people, especially people whom you care deeply about, especially about sensitive subjects, such as infidelity and alcoholism. For me, this creates a temptation to fictionalize. But you write that you “have never been much good at making things up.” Did it ever occur to you to write this book as fiction as a way to dodge some of these issues?
Levy: As you’re saying that, I’m thinking it probably would have been a good idea. But it did not occur to me to do that. Because I’m not a novelist. I’m writing this story right now about the novelist Elizabeth Strout (or the fiction writer, rather because she does short stories, too), and she was telling me that the way she works is that a character will come to her. She’ll just picture some character and start writing that person’s story. Well, that’s a totally foreign experience to me. I don’t know what that’s like. I just am not a fiction writer, and I just felt like just to write this memoir and to be like, “It’s fiction, I swear,” it just seemed not right. I would love to not feel like, “Uh-oh, I hope it’s okay that I did this.” And I do worry about that. I’m not at all sure it’s okay. I don’t know. I think, on the one hand, I got her blessing. But on the other hand, it doesn’t mean this isn’t causing her pain, and I feel really bad about that.
Rumpus: It’s really complicated, but I think this effort to keep the reader’s interests in the forefront of your mind means that the way you present yourself is going to be as naked as you would present any of the other characters in the book. I wonder if that’s a way to reconcile the guilt.
Levy: It’s a way. But at the end of the day, one doesn’t want to cause other people pain. One doesn’t want to be the cause of suffering for other humans and one certainly doesn’t want to be the cause of suffering for other humans one loves. I’m in no way like, “Yeah, what? It’s fine.” No, I’m worried about it. I don’t know if it’s fine. I totally worry about it.
Rumpus: Reading your book and other recent ones about women who were initially ambivalent about motherhood but then ended up channeling their experience into their work—I’m thinking of Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill—
Levy: I have that right here on my coffee table. I haven’t read it. It’s next up. Am I going to like it?
Rumpus: Yes, you’re going to love it. But yes, her book, and this other book, Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso. They’re both books in which the narrators begin ambivalent about motherhood in a similar way to how you describe your experience. They give me this optimism that it’s possible to be an “art monster,” which is what Offill calls it, or in your case, a professional explorer, and to be a mother.
Levy: I don’t think writing is what kept me away from motherhood. I think I wasn’t ready. I think I wasn’t mature enough. I think it’s just a design flaw of the human female animal that the minute you’re like, “Okay, I’m finally there. I’m finally at the point where I’m mature enough that I think I could be good at taking care of someone besides myself” that’s the exact moment where your body goes, “I’m out. Good luck.” You know? Some people get luckier than others. I have friends who pulled it off, and I came very close to pulling it off, but I didn’t pull it off. And then that’s that, forever, and it’s not like you can go back and say like, “Okay, wait. Do-over.” It’s done.
Rumpus: I appreciate you pulling that apart—that it’s not writing’s fault.
Levy: Look at Janet Malcom and Joan Didion and Judith Thurman and Lauren Collins. A lot of my colleagues have kids, are moms, and do great work. So it’s not writing’s fault.
Rumpus: In fact, your book and the other books—you write of your experience with motherhood, “nothing has looked the same since”—they make me think that, if anything, motherhood can enhance one’s writing.
Levy: Well, here’s the thing. I wouldn’t know because I’ve never raised a kid. I only got to be a mother for ten minutes. I don’t know how it affects your writing if you’ve got a baby who you have to keep alive, who’s always there. And you don’t get to sleep. I think it’s all well and good to have been a mother for ten minutes and say, “Oh, it opened my eyes in these various ways.” My friends who have little kids—I’m not talking about my writer-friends, I’m talking about my friend-friends—they’re exhausted all the time. I mean, they’re about to fall over from exhaustion all the time. I haven’t experienced that. I’m not the right person to consult about the day-to-day about motherhood because I didn’t get to do it. I’d love to do it, but it just wasn’t what I got to do.
Rumpus: Right, but you could still lay claim to its changing your perception. Do you think that change of perception has made its way into the way you go about reporting and writing?
Levy: It must have, right? Because everything that makes you who you are as a human somehow goes into your writing. It must have, but I don’t really know how.
Rumpus: You ran into mothers who looked at your ten minutes of motherhood and didn’t know how to talk about it.
Levy: The best was when I would run into them, and they would just look at me and burst into tears. And I liked that very much. I have to be honest with you, I found that extremely validating. I was like “Okay, good. That is the right effect for me to be having on people right now. I want to make everyone I see burst into tears.” [Laughs] So, I’m not at all kidding when I say I loved it when that would happen, because then I could just cry, and we could just soak each other with emotion and that was the only authentic way for me to interact for a while.
Rumpus: That gets right at what I’m interested in. The language was not there to communicate this experience.
Levy: No, it’s too difficult. It’s too primal and epic. You’re suddenly in a Greek myth. I’m in a Greek myth; I’m a witch woman wailing at the moon. I don’t know what genre this is anymore. I’m used to being in this Jewish New York, Nora Ephron-y genre, and suddenly I’m in Ancient Motherfucking Greece. It was just bananas.
Rumpus: I admire the way you can speak about this with humor now.
Levy: Even at the time, like I said in the Mongolia piece, when I walked into that clinic and I when I realized I was covered in blood, sobbing and flirting—all of which is true, that happened. Even when you’re in the worst of your life, you’re still you, you’re still your same sensibility. You’re still there, somewhere.
Rumpus: That was so freaky to me. As writers, we spend our lives “putting the world into words,” but then you find yourself in a “solar system of loss” in which language is no longer sufficient to tell the truth.
Levy: There’s no writing your way out of grief. Yeah, I liked writing this book, but the only thing to do with grief is to suffer it through. I think, any kind of loss, at first, you live in grief and then eventually it lives in you, and you’re back in the regular world. I’m not in the solar system of suffering anymore. I’m back in the regular world, but I’ll always have a little empty bit in my heart for that baby. I don’t want that to ever go away. It wouldn’t be appropriate for that to go away. You just take it with you instead of living in a state of agony where you’re wailing at the moon. That’s just acceptance, which is of course one of the stages of grief. This is not a cautionary tale. This not, “Be careful or you could end up like me.” I love being me; my life is great. I have a lot to be grateful for. I’m not walking around being like woe is me.
Rumpus: I didn’t at all read it like that. I was convinced by the process you went through—you were so ambivalent about motherhood and then this dramatic switch happened—that if anything, it would be a decision that would be out of my control.
Levy: That’s exactly it.
Author photograph © David Klagsbrun.