Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Richard Levine

Posted on: August 19, 2015

RichardLevineRichard Levine grew up on Long Island. He practiced Diagnostic Radiology for many years before his retirement. He and his wife have two daughters. While watching the movie Bridge to Terabithia with his youngest daughter, Levine felt inspired to write his own novel for young people. I’ll post my review of Two Kids tomorrow. Save the date: August 20!

Levine’s journey to publication was not a short one. His first draft was way too brief, a fact brought home to him when one of his daughters read it in an hour. His novel then ballooned to 400 pages, way too long for a middle-school book. Motivated by the belief that his novel was close, he revised it multiple times. When Levine felt he had finally gotten his novel right, he self-published and received some positive reviews. Finally, just a year ago, Firedrake Books made suggestions for improvement and agreed to traditionally publish Levine’s book.

Many of his Levine’s own personal experiences have found their way into Two Kids. For example, the hours he spent exploring the woods and pond of fields surrounding my grandma’s house as a kid inspired the secluded and expansive Overhill property. Also, just like the young people in his novel, he has been on party boats. “On the boat was my mom’s second husband, who was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s at the time, and provided the inspiration for the old man in the book who goes overboard.” Additional incidents are also described in my interview with Levine.

PERSONAL BACKGROUND

ALLISON: What is a special family moment from childhood?

RICHARD: More than a moment, it was a cross-country road trip my family took when I was eight. We took the southern route out west through the Texas panhandle, Arizona, and Nevada, and the northern route back home through South Dakota and Michigan. I made a scrapbook of postcards I collected throughout the trip, all labeled in my 8-year-old, sloppy, loopy-lettered script. It seems that at the time I was quite fond of the word famous–for there are postcards from the famous painted desert, the famous Grand Canyon, the famous Golden Gate Bridge, the famous Old Faithful geyser, the famous Corn Palace, the famous Mount Rushmore . . . well, okay, you get the picture. Many years later now, hopefully, I’ve added a few additional adjectives to my vocabulary.

ALLISON: How about a friendship moment from adolescence?

RICHARD: I can’t think of one particular dramatic “friendship moment” from my teenage years, but periodically, and at times when I might least expect it, some memories from those years float up into consciousness–a friend, who with me was crushing heavily on Katharine Ross from The Graduate, who would teasingly taunt me by opening his notebook to a full page head shot of her whenever I would walk by his seat in class; trips into the city with friends to see the NY Knicks play at the old Madison Square Garden, where we would sit way up high in $2 seats (imagine!) that we were able to get with our G.O. cards; a Saturday daytime adventure exploring Manhattan with two friends (one male, one female), feeling like we were characters in a novel or movie; an unexpected kiss on the cheek from a girl who for some reason had taken an interest in me (a memory that undoubtedly inspired the cheek kiss in “The Kissin’ Cousin” section of Two Kids).

ALLISON: What interested you most in school?

RICHARD: A bit of a stumper of a question. Certainly, I was always interested in doing well in school, but probably not so much because I had overarching enthusiasm for any particular school subject(s). More likely, that interest would have stemmed originally from wanting to please my parents and teachers. I did find, however, that one thing led to another, i.e., wanting to do well academically led to the development of competence in school subjects, which, in turn, led to, if not outright enthusiasm, at least a measured degree of interest, in them. That said, in junior high school (we didn’t have middle school in those days), I was more interested in sports, both as a player and as a fan, than in academic subjects. Later on in high school, I became an avid reader, mostly of novels, mostly American novels. I remember very much enjoying a one semester course I took entitled The American Novel of Social Protest, in which we read books such as Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Norris’s The Octopus, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, among others; I believe there were eight novels of that sort, some of them quite long, and in thinking back on it, it seems like it was quite a bit of reading for just one half-year course!

ALLISON: What is your most embarrassing moment from adolescence?

RICHARD: Another stumper, not that there weren’t a whole host of embarrassing moments, I’m sure; it’s just that there have been so many since adolescence, and I tend to remember those quite clearly–I suspect they have crowded out the earlier ones. Well, I do remember one, and I forget exactly why, but one of my ninth grade teachers asked that some paper she had handed out to all students in the class be signed by both parents. As my father had died the summer before, I had my mother sign the paper, but upon seeing that my paper had only one signature on it, the teacher confronted me in front of the whole class. I certainly had no expectation of being challenged in that way, and I didn’t know quite what to say; as I recall, I hurriedly ran through different possibilities–my father’s dead, my father died, my father passed away, my father’s no longer alive, my father’s not living anymore. I believe I chose the last option, and I’m not sure why I found the whole episode embarrassing– other than saying it as I did seemed an awful awkward way of putting it.

BOOK BACKGROUND

ALLISON: You practiced Diagnostic Radiology before retirement. What inspired you to write a book for young people?

RICHARD: An easier question, for I do remember exactly when and how I was inspired to write Two Kids. I had taken my younger daughter to see the movie Bridge to Terabithia. The story was unknown to me at the time, although I did know that both my daughters had read the novel as a middle school assignment. So it came as quite a shock to me when the young heroine dies, but the fact that she does in a widely read and accepted novel led me to understand that it would be okay to write about death of a loved one in realistic fiction for middle-schoolers. There were also two themes in the movie that appealed to me–the importance of friendship, and the value of shared imagination between friends–themes that are also present in Two Kids. The basic premise of the novel came to me that day but, as I was not retired at the time, I thought to myself–well, maybe you could write that novel in another life. Shortly afterwards, I did decide to retire (although not with the specific intention of writing a novel), and a few days into that retirement, I thought that I did now in fact have “another life,” and why not give that novel-writing thing a try?

ALLISON: How did you get into the mind of a pre-adolescent girl for telling D.C.’s story?

RICHARD: At the time I started writing Two Kids, my very own two kids (daughters) had relatively recently gone through pre-adolescence, and although that might not have given me any special insight into their thought processes at that age, at least I was aware of the language they used in conversation. But here’s the thing that I quickly learned about writing a novel–you, the writer, are completely in charge of the characters you create, that is, you make them think, do, and say whatever you want them to. Now, of course, if you’re writing a realistic novel, you want your characters to be believable, but within that framework, and since there are many different personalities that a pre-adolescent girl might have, I chose to make D.C. spunky, athletic, smart, and smart-alecky. Hopefully, she’s believable.

ALLISON: Initially, you self-published Two Kids. What was that experience like?

RICHARD: It was tough. I was a complete novice with respect to everything about writing and publishing a novel, so I contracted with IndieReader to help me with the process, with all the little details about which I had no idea. When the novel was in one of its initial rough forms, they also provided me with what I believe they called an editorial consult, which was very helpful.

ALLISON: Eventually, Two Kids was picked up by a small publishing company. How did that compare?

RICHARD: That certainly was easier, as all the little details were handled by the publisher, Firedrake Books. The talented, hard-working and ambitious president of this small publishing company, Nikki Bennett, herself a writer of middle grade and young adult books, was also very helpful in providing editorial assistance. She would make very sensible suggestions that, of course, being a reasonably defensive person, I would initially reject out of hand. Over time, however, my defensiveness would relent, I would see the logic and rationale of her suggestions, and accede to them. The biggest change that this resulted in was the omission from Two Kids of sections “voiced” by adults that had been included in the original.

ALLISON: What’s next?

RICHARD: I do have a not very well-formed idea for another middle grade novel, this one involving kids a little older than those in Two Kids. I have just recently started work on it and have the first ten pages written–although if experience is a guide, those pages are subject to dramatic revision. The story concerns a group of young high school kids who share a lunchroom table and call themselves The Defectives. With apologies to Herman Melville, the opening sentence is “Call me Bugboy.”

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Almost a year after I announced that it was time to take a step back from this blog, Allison's Book Bag is still here. I'm slowly working back up to weekly reviews again. Each week, there will be one under any of these categories: Advanced Reader Copies, animal books, religious books, or diversity books. Some will come in the form of single reviews and others in the form of round-ups. Just ahead, there will be reviews of:

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