Please welcome Daniel Levine to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Hyde was published on March 18th by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
TQ: Welcome to the Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Daniel: In elementary school I didn’t like to write straight research or book reports, as assigned. I always embellished and added metafictional narratives. In my fifth grade “How I See My Life in 25 Years” essay I envisioned myself as a horror writer, divorced from my wife who wanted me to be a lawyer instead. I was lucky to grow up in a house filled with books; my parents are great readers and read to me and my brother over the years—Greek mythology, a children’s Odyssey, Madeline L’Engel, Roald Dahl. Once I could read to myself I was voracious. I loved storytelling, the genuine suspense of not knowing what would happen next, the sleights of hand. I loved too the special, rich, stylized voice a storyteller takes on, a unique kind of language. The storyteller must be a kind of outsider, looking in on the drama, observing with sharpened senses, distinct from the rest of humanity by virtue of his/her narrative power—the fact that the story is filtering through him/her. I think I’ve always felt like an outsider in this sense: that I was observing with keen interest the action around me, and responding to it with colorful emotional analysis. The events of my life, compared with others, haven’t been especially dramatic or difficult, but I do lead a lush inner life, romantic, brooding, and grand. It’s the urge to birth this inner life, to see the imagination made flesh, which drives writers to write, I imagine. It was my natural impulse. I’ve never wanted to do anything else.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Daniel: I’ve become more of a plotter over the course of writing Hyde. When I started putting words down I didn’t know where I was headed, exactly. My previous experience had taught me that I could, to some extent, feel my way forward by instinct. And since I was planning to follow the structure of Stevenson’s plot, which I had already mapped out, I figured I could connect the gaps when I came to them. In this case I was wrong. The project was much too complex; I needed to know where I was going before I got there. I took a cue from Nabokov and plotted Hyde out on ruled index notecards, a stack of them. The process forced me to think my way through the movements, to realize what the book was truly about, beyond the concept.
I rewrote Hyde many times since creating the notecards, and almost all the meaty details changed. But that essential plot held through all the drafts like a spinal column. I don’t know if I’ll continue to do it this way with future books, but I’ve come to realize the necessary (for me) of seeing the whole trajectory in advance.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Daniel: Getting down to it at the start of the day. I’m a morning writer, and I get up as early as I reasonably can to give myself a few consecutive hours of clear-mindedness. Once I start engaging with the world—people in particular—the clear waters begin to get muddied. Sometimes I’m starting to write when dawn is still lightening the sky, and it’s cold, and my bed is warm, and the idea of staring at a computer screen trying to assemble words into an original and sensible order seems rather insane. Reading over the past day’s work helps to reconnect me to the fictional world. But eventually I reach the end of what I’ve written—and like the edge of the universe there is only blank space beyond—and that can be exceedingly daunting, if not a little terrifying. This is the hardest part. Overcoming the initial inertia, getting the boulder rolling. Once I’m back in the scene and words are appearing on the screen it gets easier. Then there are just the challenges of writing cleanly and authentically and compellingly, of making sure that every sentence is leading me precisely where I want to go (or where I do not know I want to go), of feeling for the rhythm of paragraphs, of bringing imaginary creatures to life.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Daniel: I imagine most would-be writers go through phases of admiration for the various greats. When I was younger and just starting to write, I admired ornate stylists such as William Styron and Nabokov. My love for Nabokov led me eventually to John Banville, who seduced me at once with his in-the-moment narration and stunning language. When I find a new writer I like I tend to read several of his/her works in a row, and I did so with Patrick McGrath, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee, Joyce Carol Oates, Andrea Barrett, and Robert Graves. As for short story writers, I love Kafka, Gogol, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Barry Hannah, Denis Johnson, Jim Shepard, Dan Chaon. Roald Dahl is in a special category, a writer I’ve adored from childhood to the present: such a wicked imagination, a clever fancy, a grip-you-by-the-balls grasp of suspense, and an easy, effortless style. He does not seem to be trying. That’s the mark of any master in any field, and something to aspire to (without actually trying to aspire, of course.)
TQ: Describe Hyde in 140 characters or less.
Daniel: A retelling of the original story from the “monster’s” POV, Hyde gives voice to a misunderstood soul trapped in his creator’s nightmare.
TQ: Tell us something about Hyde that is not in the book description.
Daniel: In many ways Hyde is a love story. Not a successful, healthy, or happy love story, but both Jekyll and Hyde yearn for recognition and acceptance in a lover’s eyes, an honesty and safety that can never be achieved. For Jekyll it’s unachievable because he cannot allow himself to be open and vulnerable, his armor is too impenetrable and his self-loathing too undermining. But Jekyll drives Hyde to seek this relief in the arms of a young prostitute who serves as a proxy for the woman Jekyll cannot have. Hyde’s affair is doomed by Jekyll’s inability and unwillingness to be happy and loved, by the instability of their composite, crumbling psychology.
TQ: What attracted you to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and to Edward Hyde in particular?
Daniel: I first read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 10th grade English. Our teacher divided the class into small groups and assigned portions of the novella for us to present to the other students. My two friends and I filmed a dramatic reenactment of our scenes, which included the killing of Carew and Hyde’s subsequent “cover-up.” I played Hyde, scowling and sneering at the camera, and bucking about in the agonizing throes of transformation. Even then I recognized that Hyde was something more than the apotheosis of pure evil, as Jekyll insists. There is a wretched humanity to him, an underdog quality which captured my interest and sympathy. Similarly there is a suspicious aspect to Jekyll’s self-affirmed goodness and innocence. His actions are hardly those of a victim—he flirts with danger and exposure as if he wishes on some level to be caught.
My favorite characters in literature are generally the wretched specimens who capture our attention with their misanthropic charm and need to be heard—Humbert Humbert, Patrick Bateman, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Freddie Montgomery from The Book of Evidence. I’m interested in misanthropy, for I feel traces of it in myself, when I’m confronted with humanity en masse; and I’m fascinated with the dark turns the human mind can take, how the mind justifies these dark impulses or indulgences to itself. Edward Hyde is the classic misanthrope, the dark psychological twist. He called out to me for exploration, and redemption, I suppose.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Hyde?
Daniel: For a year before I began writing, I just researched. I read widely if haphazardly: histories, biographies, period novels, contemporary novels about the period, novels which retold a familiar story, novels which had a similar voice or “feel” to what I wanted to capture. I watched movies that take place in Victorian London, BBC adapations of Dickens, Thackeray, and Galsworthy, paying careful attention to wardrobes and interior decorating and streetscapes. I also lived in London for six months in 2000 on a semester abroad, when I fell in love with the city, and I relied upon my vivid memories of the lanes, buildings, parks, fickle skies.
The idea of getting the atmosphere “right” is a tricky thing. Modern audiences didn’t actually live in the 1880s, so who is to say what is “right” and “wrong?” You can be inaccurate, of course, but then historical accuracy doesn’t always translate to the feeling of rightness, the sense of verisimilitude, which is paramount. At first I thought: I can’t start writing until I know enough. But you’ll never know “enough” about a vast and past reality. The world has to come from within you, not from the books you read. I had to create the texture of Victorian London inside my mind; I had to hear it and see it and smell it.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Daniel: Mrs. Deaker—Hyde’s housekeeper—came very naturally to me. This is partly because Stevenson describes her so wonderfully in the original (though he doesn’t give her a name): she is “ivory-faced and silvery-haired,” an “evil face smoothed by hypocrisy, but her manners were excellent.” I could picture her perfectly, her posture, her voice, her mockingly servile smile. Of course I knew there was more to her, I had to invent a past and a withered, yearning heart. She is a gothic grotesque, cobbled together from other literary characters and people I have met, and she evolved rather “easily” in my mind.
I would have to say that Hyde was the hardest, mainly because he’s the most important and dominating. His evolution took a long time, over many, many drafts—the quality of his voice: his ironic humor, his urgency, his relationship to the reader, his vocabulary and mode of expression. He has access to some of Jekyll’s education and memories, and can adopt his tone when he wants to, but he also likes playing with lower class words and intonations. When on the “inside” he can see through Jekyll’s eyes and experience reality through him, but everything is muted to some degree. He is desperate to tell his story but he also wants to relive his brief life, to revel in its sensuous details. The pacing of his narrative, the point at which it begins, required a great deal of discovery and refinement.
TQ: Give us one of your favorite lines from Hyde.
Daniel: Well, it’s a little racy, but you asked. I’ve always been proud of this line—one of the more elaborate in the book. It describes a special masturbation session:
“I had never done it like that before, drawing it out like torture, nearing the burning brink and then ebbing back, over and over, its sensitivity toward the end so exquisite that I held our rigid life at the lowermost stem, kept in excruciating limbo, like that paradox of halving and halving forever without ever reaching the mark—and when I crushed out the climax at last, the whole body bucked in rapture.”
TQ: What’s next?
Daniel: I have been toying with the idea for a novel about human origins, and the last of the Neanderthals. Homo neanderthalensis was an extremely successful human being which existed on the earth for over two hundred thousand years, and went extinct quite recently; the last Neanderthals are thought to have lived in a cave in southern Spain up to about 28,000 years ago. The popular conception of Neaderthals as stupid, brutish cavemen still persists, though in fact they were an intelligent, hardy, and extremely capable people who were around far longer than we Homo sapiens have been. I’d like to explore their lifestyle and their final days, winnowed to the edge of extinction. I want to imagine how they thought, and lived, and communicated. I see this novel composed of three parts: the first narrative belonging to this last tribe of Neanderthals, the second to a young archeologist digging up their remains in the twentieth century, and the third to a Neanderthal individual grown from reassembled DNA in the future.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 18, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 416 pages
What happens when a villain becomes a hero?
Mr. Hyde is trapped, locked in Dr. Jekyll’s surgical cabinet, counting the hours until his inevitable capture. As four days pass, he has the chance, finally, to tell his story—the story of his brief, marvelous life.
Summoned to life by strange potions, Hyde knows not when or how long he will have control of “the body.” When dormant, he watches Dr. Jekyll from a remove, conscious of this other, high-class life but without influence. As the experiment continues, their mutual existence is threatened, not only by the uncertainties of untested science, but also by a mysterious stalker. Hyde is being taunted—possibly framed. Girls have gone missing; someone has been killed. Who stands, watching, from the shadows? In the blur of this shared consciousness, can Hyde ever be confident these crimes were not committed by his hand?
“You may think you know Dr. Jekyll, but this Hyde is a different beast altogether."—Jon Clinch, author of Finn
"Prepare to be seduced by literary devilry! Go back to Victorian times to find a very postmodern whodunit. Visceral prose, atmosphere you could choke on, characters who seem to be at your very shoulder."—Ronald Frame, author of Havisham
"Hyde brings into the light the various horrors still hidden in the dark heart of Stevenson’s classic tale of monstrosity and addiction. Devious and ingenious, it is a blazing triumph of the gothic imagination."—Patrick McGrath, author of Asylum