Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writers Talking: GREGORY LEVEY in conversation with RACHEL SHUKERT

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Writers Talking: GREGORY LEVEY in conversation with RACHEL SHUKERT

Gregory Levey, author of How to Make Peace in the Middle East in Six Months or Less Without Leaving your Apartment (Simon and Schuster, 2010), talks to Rachel Shukert about her new memoir, Everything Is Going to Be Great (HarperCollins, 2010).

They will continue their conversation about humour, writing and being young memoirists in the age of Facebook and Youtube at Negroni Panini on College St. on Thursday, Oct. 14 at 8:00 p.m. See our Events Page for details.

Gregory Levey:

Your hilarious new book, Everything Is Going to Be Great, is about your misadventures during an accidental trip through Europe that you took about ten years ago. How did you go about reconstructing the memories into a book that reads a lot like a novel?

Rachel Shukert:

First of all, it was more like seven or eight years ago. Please don't encourage people to mentally add years to my age. But to answer your question — I'm glad that you thought it reads like a novel, because that absolutely was my goal. I wanted it to be like a novel that happened to be true, that had a narrative and characters that people could be invested in, instead of a lot of little sketches and things. It can be really tempting, I think, to sketch out a bunch of lovely little mood pieces, but in this case I sort of felt that it wouldn't add up to much, and wasn't the best way of capturing the truth of this experience.

I found the trick was to sort of sift through this temptation, to revisit all these little bits and pieces of memories, and really tease out what the driving force of this experience was. I asked myself if someone asked me describe what happened during this time in just a few sentences, what would I say? But it wasn't really that difficult — I already felt like this was a period in my life that had that kind of narrative thrust built into it. It had a very clear beginning, middle and end; it had a character arc. I remember often feeling during that time like I was a character in a novel — I would sort of narrate things to myself as they were happening. So that impulse was already sort of built into my memory in a pretty accessible way. It was just a question of selecting stories to tell that served the greater story. I probably could have written at least another half of a book just using the B-sides, so to speak.

GL:

In my own books, I try to be as accurate as possible, but I know that I've inevitably made errors or omissions. How much do you trust your memories of the events you describe?

RS:

Well, I actually have some purposeful inaccuracies incorporated into the book, for the sake of readability. I mean, there's nothing in there that didn't happen, but in a couple of places I've compressed the timeline a little bit to keep the story moving — you know, the way you might use a cut in a movie — or played up the cause and effect factor of certain events. And I've changed almost all of the characters names (unless they gave me their express permission, or in one case insisted, that I use their real ones) and changed some identifying characteristics here and there — mostly silly things, like hair color.

But apart from these editorial decisions, which are very conscious, I don't really doubt the accuracy of my memory. It's a family trait (or curse). We all have these sort of psychopathic powers of recall. My aunt, in particular, is astonishing — like she can tell you who didn't come to whose birthday party 50 years ago and why — it can be terrifying. I've actually been pleasantly surprised to find my memory degrading a little bit just in the past couple of years. Until I turned about 27, I can remember everything perfectly, but now things are a little fuzzy here and there. Which is actually such a relief. But to some extent, all memory is subjective. You're not an omniscient narrator as a memoirist; you mostly remember the things that concerned you. All you've got to go on is your own perception of a given event. Someone else might remember it totally differently, but you're both right.

GL:

Did you have a specific audience in mind for the book?

RS:

I had this fond and totally unrealistic aspiration that my book would replace Oh, The Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss as the go-to gift for the college graduate in your life that you don't want to spend any real money on.

GL:

You write about real people and turn them into characters in your books. This is something I do in my books too, so I know it brings up all kinds of traps. How do you deal with the ethical issues that this entails?

RS:

Like I said earlier, I really do try to change enough minor identifying details that they aren't immediately recognizable to people who don't already know who they are. But that's tricky. I mean, if you change enough stuff either the story doesn't make sense or you're writing fiction. Mostly, I have sort of an unscientific equation (although I've thought about trying to turn it into an actual formula) that however bad I make them look, I have to make myself look a certain number of degrees worse. If a character says something stupid, I have to say something stupider. If a character is cruel or selfish, I have to be even crueler and more selfish. It's sort of like a preemptive penance for making fun of people, I guess.

And I also really try to stick to only writing about things that concern me and my experience of a character. I'm not in the business of writing exposés of people. If I happen to know that someone, say, cheated on a partner or was dishonest in business or has some kind of family secret that causes them a lot of shame, that's not going to find its way in my book. I don't have the right to air anyone's dirty laundry but my own.

GL:

One of the sponsors of your event here in Toronto tomorrow is uCorder, the Toronto-based maker of wearable video cameras that young people use to record and broadcast their lives. This isn't a coincidence. Your books are pretty exhibitionist and self-revealing. Would you have liked to have a uCorder on your voyage through Europe, or are you glad you didn't have one?

RS:

I hate watching myself on film. I don't mind being filmed, but when I watch it all I can ever think about is whether I look fat or not, which totally misses the point. But think it's interesting how the uCorder really sort of functions as an eye &mdash it's what you see, rather than what people see when they look it you. So maybe I would have liked to have one. I do wish that I could have recorded certain insane conversations with people that are impossible to reconstruct.

GL:

Your other sponsor is Kobo, the rapidly growing Toronto-based ebookstore and maker of ebook readers. What are you thoughts on the ebook revolution and the other changes in the publishing world? How do they affect you as a writer?

RS:

The way that creative content is delivered to people has been constantly changing since the moment we stopped painting on the walls of caves. The stuff that the ebook revolution is affecting is ephemeral, in the grand scheme of things. It's profit margins and business structure and things like that &mdash they're the things that authors don't really have any influence over anyway. None of them essentially change the fact that people will always want to write stories and other people will always want to read them. I mean, I have as much anxiety about my royalty statements as the next author, and obviously, you hope that in all the hysteria the parties involved aren't forgetting that there are people who actually write books and need to make money from them. But from a purely editorial point of view, there are a lot of things about ebooks that are incredibly exciting. Not only do they have the potential to bring in an untapped readership, but there are all kinds of cool things you can do with them creatively — interactivity, being able to add a multi-media dimension to books — that we haven't even begun to tap, and that's very exciting. I really think they have the potential to become their own discipline.

GL:

The adventure outlined in your book happened because a European customs officer forgot to stamp your passport, allowing you to stay as long as you wanted. We're glad to have you visiting Canada this week, but I wonder what would have happened if it had been a Canadian border guard who hadn't stamped your passport. Do you think you might have had a similar adventure here?

RS:

Honestly, probably not. Maybe in certain parts of Quebec. I don't think I could really have had it in the UK either. It's just too close to home. I think so much of that sense of adventure comes from being alienated from the mainstream culture, and the culture of a place is expressed primarily through language. I mean, Amsterdam, where I spent the most time, is still a pretty soft landing in that regard — practically everyone speaks pretty great English. But it's more subconscious than that — when you are somewhere else and you don't understand what people are saying around you, and you don't understand what's on TV, and you can't read the newspapers, and you don't understand the street signs, you really sort of cross over into this odd kind of purgatory. You're both totally invisible and totally conspicuous — you stick out like a sore thumb in this really inconsequential way, which is sort of the perfect combination for having some strange adventures. And you feel strange enough to yourself that you let yourself have them.

In Canada, or anywhere where English is the main language, I just would have been too capable. I wouldn't have had, say, that pained 45 minutes of trying to figure out how the phone booth works, which means this strange man starts yelling at you, which means you're rescued by someone else you invites you somewhere, etc, etc, which is when the interesting stuff happens.

GL:

In my books, I've sometimes been accused of trivializing grave situations by pointing out their humour, but I think you push this to an even further level. In one scene in your new book, for example, you are the victim of an attempted rape, but you seem to find this hilarious. Honestly, is there something wrong with you?

RS:

Oh, probably. I think I'm a little warped that way. In the particular case you're talking about, I really didn't feel that scared or violated — I was irritated more than anything else. For me to try to explore feelings that I didn't feel would have been dishonest to my experience. Someone else might have had exactly the same thing happen and reacted in a totally different way, which would be perfectly valid — and probably correct. But in general, I'm distrustful of people who don't see at least a little of the funny side of horrible misfortune. I'm a Jew, what do you want from me? That's how we do things.


Rachel Shukert is the author of the critically acclaimed memoirs Everything Is Going to Be Great and Have You No Shame? Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Salon, Slate, McSweeney's and The Daily Beast, and been featured on National Public Radio. She has also contributed to a number of print anthologies, including Best American Poetry and Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists. Rachel is a contributing editor at Tablet Magazine. She lives in New York City. Visit her website at www.rachelshukert.com.

For more information about Everything Is Going to Be Great please visit the HarperCollinsCanada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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