Professor, Poet, and Mystery Writer Donald Levin
An award-winning fiction writer and poet, Donald Levin is the author of Crimes of Love, the first Martin Preuss mystery; The House of Grins, a novel; and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year's Tangerine. He is professor of English and chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Marygrove College in Detroit and lives in Ferndale, Michigan.
Could you start out telling us a bit about your mystery novel and your main character?
Crimes of Love is about the search for a lost child. The book follows police detective Martin Preuss in his increasingly frantic efforts to find a seven-year-old girl with epilepsy who has disappeared from the streets of Ferndale, a quiet inner-ring suburb of Detroit. His search takes him deep into the interconnected lives of a mix of characters from across the metropolitan Detroit area, including a child molester, members of an ultra-religious church congregation, vengeful colleagues on the police force, an attractive young reporter, and the girl's parents who each harbor their own secrets about their daughter’s parentage and what has happened to her. All the characters, including Preuss, struggle to cope with the after-effects of missing children in their own lives.
I took great pains to make my main character realistic and recognizable and not a “superdetective”; determined and resourceful, he is nevertheless a flawed man trying his best to improve his world by helping people who find themselves in incredibly difficult circumstances. Preuss is a widower with two sons; the elder son, Jason, has disappeared after blaming Preuss for the automobile accident that killed Preuss’s wife several years before the book opens, and the younger son, Toby, is a 16-year-old with profound multiple handicaps who lives in a group home near where Preuss himself lives. Preuss spends as much time with Toby as he can, and loves the boy deeply and fiercely.
This is the first in a projected series featuring Martin Preuss, his colleagues in the Ferndale Police Department, and Toby.
So one of the main characters in Crimes of Love is a child with multiple handicaps. How do you see him functioning in the series?
Toby is very much the beating heart of the book. Toby keeps his lonely, isolated father connected and grounded, and constantly reminds him (and us) what’s really important. As the series unfolds, my plan is for Toby to take an increasingly important role in helping his father in not only solving the crimes he encounters, but also negotiating his way through his life as Preuss gradually becomes less reclusive.
Toby exists as a fully-formed character in the book, but he is a loving and I hope precisely drawn portrait of my own grandson Jamie, from how he looks and acts to how he sounds. Jamie died this past September after having been in a coma all last year. I wrote Crimes of Love well before Jamie died but I had always planned to build into the book some of the amazing lessons I learned from him in his twenty-five years. And now the book serves as one of the many ways for me and my family to remember that extraordinary young man. All this isn’t necessary to understand Toby in the book, but it helps to enlarge your understanding of where the character comes from.
Your novel, Crimes of Love, starts off with the disappearance of a young girl. Did you worry that using such a worrisome inciting incident might scare off readers?
Yes, I did worry about that. I was worried it might scare off readers who would be afraid the book was going to turn out to be too violent, or be about child abuse or involve any of the other forms of unpleasantness that a lot of books about lost children seem to rely on, and even revel in. Ultimately I thought it was necessary to start the way I did. I began to see that I could use the inciting incident as a way to create the sense of urgency that drives the story forward and to always keep the primary question in front of the reader: What happened to her? And in fact the main comment I’ve gotten from readers is that the events are so compelling it’s hard to put the book down. I take that as a great compliment.
I’m actually very concerned about how I portray violence, which is a tremendous social problem everywhere. I think those of us who work in a genre that is so associated with violence have a special duty to treat it responsibly.
You are a professor of English. Do you think this influences how you write? Do you edit as you go, or get out what Anne Lamott calls the "shitty first draft"?
Well, I came to my “professorhood” relatively late in life . . . I was in my late 40s by the time I decided I wanted to teach in college and returned to graduate school for the doctorate I knew I needed. Before that, for most of my life I’d been a hard-working professional writer with more than twenty-five years’ experience writing almost every kind of thing there is to write. My jobs ranged from speechwriter for the commissioner of the Department of Health in New York City to freelance industrial video scriptwriter on projects for clients like IBM and General Electric. All that influenced how I write a lot more than being a professor does. As a writer I developed very disciplined work habits that I draw upon every time I sit down to write something. When people say they’re stuck for inspiration I sort of snicker up my sleeve because I learned early on not to rely on the fluctuations of inspiration when I needed to write something; I learned how to staple my butt to the chair and get it done.
Being a professor does give me a different vocabulary for talking about writing, and it certainly allows me to pursue my own writing more than I was able to when I was working for other people or for businesses. Last semester, for example, my school, Marygrove College, gave me a sabbatical that I used to write the second Martin Preuss mystery. One of the reasons I wanted to switch to teaching, in fact, was because I wanted a job where I could write for myself instead of being the ghost writer for someone else. The other reason, of course, is that teaching is an enormously valuable and worthwhile occupation . . . a calling, really. Kind of like being a writer.
When I write I do edit as I go along to a certain extent, but I don’t tarry overlong at polishing. I try to produce as good a draft as I can knowing I will be completely rewriting it as many times as necessary. I rewrote Crimes of Love six
separate times to get to the current version. I can write as shitty a first draft as anyone, but more and more I’m realizing life is too short to do anything other than produce my best right out of the box so that's what I try for knowing that I'll be revising continually.
Besides fiction, you write poetry. Does each form serve a different outlet, and do you find it difficult to switch between the two?
For me fiction and poetry come from a similar place, but they serve different purposes and require different conditions to produce. In general, I’d say poetry influences my fiction more than the fiction influences the poetry. Poetry makes me more sensitive to language, to the rhythm of sentences, to the general architecture of form and the overall tonality of a work in a way that I think of as a piece’s key signature, all of which I can apply to fiction; fiction makes me pay more attention to the concision of a poem and the narrative line in my poetry.
I started out my creative writing career as a fiction writer, and was not, to put it mildly, terribly successful. At some point I found my voice as a poet and thought, “Man, I’m never going back to fiction!” But then my college asked me to write our accreditation report, a relatively stressful three-year-long project that brought my poetry writing to a halt but did remind me how much I had enjoyed the long form of a book-length work. So I went back to writing fiction and the result was Crimes of Love. I still write poetry when I can; at this point in my life it’s more a matter of which I have time for. When I was writing the second Preuss novel I started out each day thinking I would warm up with a poem and then turn to writing the novel, but quickly saw that I needed to focus on the fiction because writing poetry took too much time away from that. So I haven’t given up poetry, exactly, but it’s getting harder to find the quietude of mind I seem to need to produce a decent poem.
Some might wonder why a professor of English chose genre fiction, since it is sometimes (wrongly so) connected with "light" writing or "fluff". And there's a stereotype of the English Professor writing the literary Great American Novel. Why mysteries? And has your choice opened your students eyes to new types of writing?
I totally agree with you that considering genre fiction as somehow unserious or substandard is a terrible notion. (Some of it is substandard, it’s true, but not just because it’s genre fiction.) While there does exist in places a bias against genre fiction, more and more there’s a recognition that the boundaries between literary fiction and popular fiction are no longer stable. Nor are writers of crime fiction thought to be craven hacks cranking out their potboilers . . . Robert Parker had a Ph.D. in literature and taught at Northwestern, Kenneth Millar earned a Ph.D. in literature before he became Ross Macdonald, Ken Bruen has a Ph.D. in metaphysics, to take just three examples of masters in their crafts who have academic connections.
Not, of course, that I’m in their league . . . Since, as I’ve noted, I’ve spent more of my life outside academia than inside, I was mostly shaped as a writer before I became a professor. I may be completely mistaken but I don’t feel a great deal of the stereotype of the English professor applies to me (with the possible exception of a beard and a tendency toward a certain long-windedness of response that is becoming increasingly apparent in this interview).
I’ve always been drawn to the mystery form, ever since I was a little boy when I would write my own version of episodes from Dragnet. There’s an energy and vitality in forms of the mystery that I find more compelling than in more “literary” work, which tends more toward an interiority that is for me less interesting. (Sorry, I can’t keep myself from using those quotes around “literary.”) Mysteries are what I mostly read, and are the literary world I feel most comfortable in. Most good mysteries are novels of personality; most great mysteries are, as Henning Mankell, the Swedish author of the Kurt Wallander series, said, novels of society seen through the lens of crime. Both more than repay our attention.
For some reason most students I’ve talked with who want to be writers seem drawn more to fantasy and science fiction than to the mystery, though this may change now. That’ll be interesting to see.
What's next for you?
I’m looking ahead to the second and succeeding books in the Martin Preuss series. On my sabbatical I wrote the first draft of the second book, and now I’ve started work on revisions; I’m looking forward a summer 2013 release. I already have the ideas for the next books after that, so I’m hoping to be working with these characters for a good long while.
Thanks for a thoughtful, provocative interview!