The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Alejandro Heredia speaks with Elise Levine, author of Say This (Biblioasis, 2022) – Amazon, Bookshop.

headshot of Elise Levine

1. How was the form of the novella useful to you in the writing of this project?
I love the novella form. It offers room for greater character development than the short story, and yet contains much of the short story’s distillation—and the terse, spring-loaded energy that compression generates. These formal gifts work particularly well for highlighting the internal territory of the compulsions of the self under pressure, and for creating tension and suspense out of that. The two linked novellas in Say This explore characters resisting erasure from the long-term aftermath of sexual exploitation and violent crime, and the form granted me permission to keep digging deeper into the messy, contradictory terrain of the characters’ psychic wounds and strengths—also leaving me to feel freer in adopting other formal options, such as the fragment and the abecedarian, than I might otherwise have.

2. It seems to me that this book challenges some pretty standard tropes about the true crime genre. What did you hope to accomplish by challenging the genre?
While I didn’t set out to critique the genre as a whole, I did want to examine alternatives to framing narratives—and consequently how we think and feel—about sexual exploitation and violent crime.

I especially wanted to reframe the dead girl trope to which our culture seems so injuriously addicted—in particular the one that centers the dead or missing white and class-privileged female. In the book’s first novella, “Eva Hurries Home,” Eva’s cousin sexually exploits her as a young teen, emotionally manipulating her in part by alluding to having had a sister who died. In later years, he goes on to murder a man in a robbery gone wrong, and the now-adult Eva suspects that her cousin might have molested and murdered his sister. Eva obsesses over this possibility even as she recognizes it for the misogynist construct it is, until she eventually realizes the extent of his lies—including that he never had a sister. At the heart of the terrible irony adult Eva grapples with is that her memories of her cousin, and the knowledge of the actual murder, have left her feeling numb, dead to herself—that in important ways she herself was and continues to be a dead girl.

As a result, the mystery and suspense at the core of “Eva Hurries Home” resides in not who committed the murder, or why, but Eva herself: Why after all these years she feels complicit in her cousin’s crime—the question of What has she done? eclipses What was done to her?—and why she continues to need to feel connected to him, and who she is or might become if not dead to herself. And how she might resist further exploitation at the hands of a celebrity journalist—who aims to write a potential bestseller about the murder, centering Eva’s cousin as himself a victim of circumstances, and sensationally treating Eva’s past sexual relations with him. Eva’s self-interrogations, her charged silences and nascent struggles to begin to articulate her experience, animate the choices she makes over the course of the novella and lead her to consider the possibilities of a new future for herself.

The second novella, “Son One”—about the grief experienced by the family of Adrian, the man Eva’s cousin murders—also questions the shaping of narratives, especially those that detail violent crime. Each of the four members of the family who narrates “Son One” asserts the primacy of their individual, private grieving with its untidy contradictions and the self-examination such psychic chaos raises. As in “Eva Hurries Home,” the characters in “Son One” are not simply victims, flat narrative devices for the conveyance of gore. Instead they have agency over their now changed and still evolving lives. I did lean more heavily on the use of fragments in “Son One” and, coupled with the multiple perspectives of the four narrators, the effect is more diffuse than in “Eva Hurries Home”—another way of defusing and refusing the centering of the details of the violence, and the murderer, as the source of suspense.

“It strikes me that the unruly interior—what’s beneath the surface of the official—is where we’re most fully human, swimming against the authority of delimiting official versions that flatten the truth of lived life.

3. In narratives about crime, we always want to know why a person commits a terrible act. But I found that you refused to give us a why in Say This. Does that resonate? Is that something you did intentionally, and if so, why?
Adrian’s murderer remains a cipher, in order to refuse granting him status as the central character, a kind of hero, of the book. Instead, for each of the main characters in Say This, the reasons for the murderer’s crime—beyond those a person high on methamphetamine scrambling unthinkingly to score money for more drugs—remain profoundly unknowable. The deeper reasons for the act might stem from childhood poverty and neglect, but the full why of this one person having acted as they did remains unanswerable. As do some of the characters’ questions about the nature of justice and how to pursue it—feed a thirst for vengeance, or support efforts at rehabilitation?—which circle back around to the murderer but are filtered through the broader lens of considerations of ethics.

4. Do you have a favorite crime show, book, film, or story?
So many books to choose from! Including a handful of novellas—Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), and Emmanuel Carrère’s Class Trip (translated by Linda Coverdale)—that I admire in particular for how they turn the genre inside out with uncompromising, unapologetic portraits of characters pressured to the point of erasure by violent crime. I also really admire the mix of crime and the uncanny in Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool, a quietly disturbing collection of three lightly linked novellas; and in Brian Evenson’s mind-blowing and powerfully written excursion to the boundaries of selfhood in his novel Last Days, the first part of which was originally published as a novella called The Brotherhood of Mutilation.

5. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing Say This?
I wrote “Eva Hurries Home” first, and knew I needed a different register, a distinct tone and style, for “Son One.” But I worried that my idea of having four different narrators for “Son One,” and using the abecedary—beginning each of the narrators’ sections with a successive letter of the alphabet, a – z and then z – a—would feel insanely overcomplicated. As soon as I began writing “Son One” this approach felt surprisingly natural and straightforward, a groove I could settle into that was consonant with the characters’ attempts to impose some kind of order on their conflicting emotions, and which both linked and easily distinguished this novella from “Eva Hurries Home.”

book cover of Say This6. One of the characters, Lauryn, says, “Like men in a stupid fairytale, it’s the job of my missing to restore them.” How, if at all, do you think women are socialized to grieve differently than men? Was it different, writing about grief from the perspective of the men in this book than from the perspective of the women?
I’m not sure if women and men in general respond differently to grief, but they do in “Son One”—as part of a family trait of anger and aggression, of rash behavior, that tracks in both directions between father and sons. Adrian has left behind a history of aggression and rash acts, behaviors his family surmises might have led to his death. And anger is his father and brother’s default response to the murder—it’s the emotion they have the easiest access to, and which they use to orient themselves in the murder’s dizzying aftermath. It’s part of their journeys that they increasingly allow themselves to experience a wider emotional range.

7. As I was reading the second novella “Son One,” I was struck by the structure and varying points of view you employed. Was it difficult to keep track of so many characters? How did you come up with a sequence of fragments?
I was part way through writing “Eva Hurries Home” when the idea of using an abecedarian form—beginning each of the narrator’s sections with a successive letter of the alphabet—for “Son One” occurred to me. The idea arose as an outgrowth of Eva’s compulsive list making, through which she attempts to quell her confusions about her teenage relations with her cousin, and helped serve as a link between the two novellas. Alphabetizing the four narrator’s entries in “Son One” represented another kind of list making, as Adrian’s father, brother, sister, and stepmother tally up and attempt to impose a semblance of order on their whirling thoughts and feelings, yearning for meaning in the face of what appears meaningless, and seeking a way to compass the extent of their brokenness. Using this structure helped me track the characters and their individual journeys—which include different timelines, distinct present actions, for each character. Each timeline is linear though, with each character developing over time, and this also helped me organize the sequence of sections.

8. In the first novella “Eva Hurries Home,” there’s an exploration of the difference between public records, like newspapers, court case files, etc. vs. what is known “unofficially, privately.” Can you speak a little bit about that, about the difference between public information vs. private feeling/interiority, and what made you so curious about this dichotomy? 
I was interested in the gap between the official record and the private realm. It strikes me that the unruly interior—what’s beneath the surface of the official—is where we’re most fully human, swimming against the authority of delimiting official versions that flatten the truth of lived life. I wanted to locate the characters of Say This in these more contesting, ambiguous spaces where certitude falls away.

“We will always need new stories period—fresh narratives by which to identify the multiple and unique ways of living in an always-changing world.”

9. Can you talk a little about the use of fragments in this book, and how some of the formal/stylistic choices reflect some of the themes in the book about grief, loss, family, and crime?
I used fragments as a way of working against the truisms and conventional handlings of narratives surrounding violent crime. By their very nature, fragments embody what is missing; they convey a sense of absence, what remains unvoiced, including hard-to-name desires and the power imbalances that fuel abuse and thrive on the silences surrounding them. The fragments in the book highlight these silences and absences, reflecting how partial, how broken the characters’ understanding might be, and how difficult if not impossible it is for them to access an all-encompassing, consoling truth. The fragments ultimately point to the question of who gets to say, who gets to tell the story in the end, as the characters forensically turn the pieces of their experiences around in their minds and test what they might or might not launch into words and deeds.

10. Why do you think people need nuanced stories about grief?
Nuanced stories that name the specificities of grief serve to humanize the depths of profound loss, providing evolving maps for traversing our confrontations with mortality and for tracing paths of empathy and awareness. We will always need new stories period—fresh narratives by which to identify the multiple and unique ways of living in an always-changing world. Naming those ways, offering alternatives to past conventions, offers hope for effecting change.

Elise Levine is the author of the story collection This Wicked Tongue, the novels Blue Field and Requests and Dedications, and the story collection Driving Men Mad. Her work has also appeared in publications including PloughsharesBlackbirdThe Gettysburg Review, and Best Canadian Stories. She lives in Baltimore, MD, where she teaches in the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University.