Interview with Daniel Levine

DANIEL LEVINE studied English Literature and Creative Writing at Brown University and received his MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Florida. He has taught composition and creative writing at high schools and universities, including the University of Florida, Montclair State University, and Metropolitan State College of Denver. Originally from New Jersey, he now lives in Colorado.

TSM: Have you been surprised by the critical acclaim for Hyde?

 
 
DL : I’m extremely pleased that people seem to be enjoying the book. That was really my objective in writing Hyde: to produce a fun and gripping read, a relentless story told by an intriguing voice. To judge by the early reviews, it seems that I’ve been successful in that aim, and I’m very happy about that. I suppose if I’m going to be immodestly honest, though, I’m not hugely surprised. It’s a likeably gimmicky concept, telling Hyde’s side of the story. This is becoming a popular genre, recasting classic novels from an unconsidered perspective, and Edward Hyde is just a perfect literary candidate. Someone was bound to do it at some point, as I saw it. In fact, throughout the writing of Hyde, my biggest, hairiest fear was that I’d suddenly find out that some other renowned writer was tackling the very same idea. That was my nightmare. But whether it was a marketable and attractive concept, I had little doubt. Everyone knows of Hyde—just the single word on the page is instantly recognizable and provocative. I simply wanted to do justice to the idea, to the potential of this fiendishly wonderful character.

TSM: Have you always been a fan of Stevenson?

DL: I didn’t truly come to appreciate Stevenson until I started researching Hyde. I had read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in high school, and the story clearly pressed its imprint into my fifteen-year-old mind. But other than Kidnapped and a few short stories, I didn’t read much of Stevenson in the years leading up to Hyde. Even when researching my novel, I certainly didn’t read everything of Stevenson; there are still many works of his I haven’t opened. But I have read a good deal of his personal essays and travelogues, and I read Claire Harman’s fabulous biography, Myself and the Other Fellow, which truly brought the man to life for me. He was an incredibly sympathetic person, and I feel that we shared an affinity of nature—a passionate spirit, a distaste for overly traditional society, a yearning for achievement and recognition, a certain tendency toward self-indulgence, and a restless wanderlust. Stevenson was exceedingly prolific (my impression is that he wrote a few clunkers along with his masterpieces), and more than the great body of his work, I came to love the easy flow of his sentences, his light, elegant style. It’s been said that he was the least-Victorian Victorian, that his early death sealed him into the Victorian age and thus that’s how he is categorized. But he was quite modern in his voice and grace, and every line he writes—even, or especially, in his letters—is infused with his charming, self-aware, slightly rascally soul. I have a deep affection for him that goes beyond his authorship.

In fact, I’ll admit to having entertained the whimsical notion that Stevenson was somehow guiding me through the composition of Hyde. For instance—I read Claire Harman’s biography twice: once in New Jersey at the very beginning of my research when the idea was extremely nascent, and once, three years later, in Colorado after I had finished the novel and was waiting for responses from the publishers. Reading the biography this second time was strangely reassuring. I would have these uncanny déjà vu moments where I’d realize that I had used in my book, or been influenced by, some subtle aspect of Stevenson’s life, without having consciously realized I was doing so. Then there was the map on my wall. I love maps and had bought a number of old National Geographic maps from a map store in Boulder, choosing them more for aesthetic value than their specific location. One was a large yellow and white survey map of the Samoan islands; I hung it on the wall alongside the desk where I sat every day writing Hyde because it fit the space well. When I got toward the end of Stevenson’s biography, it rushed back to me in a chilly tingle that the writer had lived his final few years, and then died, in Samoa. I really hadn’t remembered this. I would have said he’d died in Tahiti. I hadn’t consciously bought the Samoan map for its connection to Stevenson. But there it was, to my left, on level with my head: the place where Stevenson had built his family estate and fallen in love with the people and land, where he had finally found the kind of life befitting one of his hearty, adventurous characters. I felt queerly and tenderly moved by this “coincidence.”

TSM: What are some of the other authors who inspired you?

DL: In general, my favorite kinds of books are those with charismatic first-person narrators who are looking back into their past to trace the gnarled path of their present predicament. These were the novels I read and reread when writing Hyde, which falls into this category, and I’ve learned a great deal from their authors.

One of my favorite books—period—is John Banville’s The Book of Evidence. The narrator, Freddie Montgomery, is very much a Jekyll/Hyde; he evokes the comparison himself. He is smooth, urbane, and hypercultured, but inside him lives this angry, smelly, vengeful animal. The flow of his narration is hypnotic; you’re drawn into this sad, grisly little tale by the rich continuous insistence of the voice. It’s quite musical; Banville is brilliant with rhythm, hitting just the right succession of notes at the end of a paragraph or section break. I used to keep the book on my desk and refer to it like a writing manual—how would Banville do this? 

Patrick McGrath’s Spider was also very instructive. Like Hyde, the narrator is unstable, unreliable, paranoid, wretched, yet deeply appealing and vulnerable. The need to tell his story—the pitiful hope for narrative catharsis—is what keeps him going. And the story is terribly compelling, so much that you don’t see the truth, the depth of Spider’s delusion, until the very end.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrators are more quiet and meticulous in their delving into the past. The events they are recalling appear innocuous enough. But an ominous darkness always wells beneath these innocuous memories, an engulfing sadness that the narrators are suppressing about some terrible truth in their world that they don’t want to acknowledge. Remains of the Day might be my favorite of Ishiguro’s; it’s so lean and precise and yet gives the impression of meandering casualness. But there isn’t a book by Ishiguro that I don’t like or love, and that is rare for me, to enjoy everything an author writes.  

Nabokov has always been an influence, sometimes to my own detriment. I’m crazy about Lolita; old Humbert is the epitome of the charismatic, wretched character I’m talking about. So is Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire. But I also love Nabokov’s smaller, “lesser” works, like Despair, Laughter in the Dark, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. The latter I can read over and over; it might be Nabokov’s loveliest, most decent-hearted book.

I also greatly admire Kafka, Gogol, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Graves, Jim Shepard, Julian Barnes, J.M. Coetzee, Joyce Carol Oates, Andrea Barrett, Dan Chaon, and Roald Dahl, whom I’ve adored since I could read.

TSM: Why do you think Stevenson's novel still resonates with readers after all these years?

DL: I think Stevenson cut to the core of human nature in this story. It’s not about good and evil. It’s about the horror of self-awareness, the ability to look in the mirror and recognize “me.” We each live inside ourselves, encased in our bodies, victimized, it sometimes seems, by our own minds. What is the real “me”—the exterior that everyone sees, or the self that hides inside, harboring fantasies and impulses that are often misanthropic and potentially damaging? The way humans live, in huge groups with strict rules about propriety and civility and with reputations to uphold, creates this inward split from the outer self, for it creates the need to keep secrets, to conceal our true, unfiltered thoughts. Primal thoughts about sex and violence and suspicion of others—the thoughts of an animal. Human beings try to pretend we are something higher than animals. But we are the most dangerous animal that has ever lived on Earth, exceptionally cunning and malicious and self-destructive. The monsters we have invented in myth are externalizations of human ferocity—the vampires and werewolves, the vengeful gods. Mythology serves to explain the mystifying natural world, and monsters speak to our fascination with the dark half of our own powerful nature. We are in terrified awe of ourselves, our awful capacity for violence. This is what Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was really about: a man entranced by his own appalling essence. It’s universal and timeless and taps into a myth that must be as ancient as storytelling itself.      

TSM: What are you future projects?

DL: Currently, I’m interested in human origins. We take it for granted that Homo sapiens is the only hominid species extant today, but over the last few million years, there were many human species coexisting on the earth. In particular, I’ve become quite interested in the Neanderthals, a highly successful people who went extinct a little less than 30,000 years ago. What was life like for these humans? How did their perception of the world and themselves differ (quite drastically) from our own? Where did the essential similarities lie? I’d like to attempt to answer these questions in my next novel.

TSM: How much research did it take to get the atmosphere of Victorian London right?

DL: For a year before I began writing, I just researched. I read widely if a little haphazardly: histories, biographies, period novels, contemporary novels about the period, novels that retold a familiar story, novels that 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 still-vivid memories of the lanes, buildings, parks, fickle skies.

The idea of getting the atmosphere “right” is tricky. After all, 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. 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. It took a long time to imagine and refine this world, to make it real for myself and then on the page.

 TSM: What advice do you have for beginning authors?

DL: I think you have to want this deeply, hungrily. The work has to be the top priority—above your day job, above sleep or sex or socializing. And you have to do it every day, or almost every day. In this way, it’s rather a Zen practice: the only way to do it is just to do it. You have to write and write and write. You have to be okay with deleting what you’ve written or starting over. And you have to be self-critical, holding yourself to the highest, most demanding standards. Yet at the same time you have to be generous with yourself and supportive; obviously you don’t get anywhere if you’re telling yourself that everything you do is garbage. You have to be your own biggest fan and supporter. You have to believe that you can do this incredibly private thing every day, this world-creating act that takes place inside you. No one knows what you go through and, honestly, no one truly cares—not remotely as much as you do. You have to care with every fiber of your being.

TSM: Which Jekyll and Hyde film was your favorite?

DL: It’s strange, but I actually didn’t watch any film versions of Jekyll and Hyde. I think I wanted to keep myself “pure,” in the sense of not being influenced by anyone else’s vision. And I also knew that almost all of the film versions portrayed Hyde as a troglodytic beast, all hair and make-up and crooked teeth. I didn’t want to see him like that, as some crass, lumbering, inarticulate monster.

However, in spite of myself I did rather enjoy the Jekyll and Hyde portrayal in the extremely mediocre The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. The depiction of Hyde in this movie is completely different from the original story; he is gigantic, for one thing, instead of being smaller than Jekyll. Yet what I liked was Hyde’s sensuality, his darkly poetic mode of expression. There seemed a truth in this, for Hyde is indeed the sensual, romantic expression of Jekyll’s uptight, scientific personality. 

I also tried watching the BBC series Jekyll—mainly to make sure that its premise didn’t overlap with mine. I got about halfway through the first episode, until the first transformation into Hyde. The depiction here was puckish, rascally, like a violent clown, and I didn’t care for it. I saw immediately that there was no conflict with my own project, and so I turned it off.  

X Q: Have you been surprised by the critical acclaim for Hyde?

A: I’m extremely pleased that people seem to be enjoying the book. That was really my objective in writing Hyde: to produce a fun and gripping read, a relentless story told by an intriguing voice. To judge by the early reviews, it seems that I’ve been successful in that aim, and I’m very happy about that. I suppose if I’m going to be immodestly honest, though, I’m not hugely surprised. It’s a likeably gimmicky concept, telling Hyde’s side of the story. This is becoming a popular genre, recasting classic novels from an unconsidered perspective, and Edward Hyde is just a perfect literary candidate. Someone was bound to do it at some point, as I saw it. In fact, throughout the writing of Hyde, my biggest, hairiest fear was that I’d suddenly find out that some other renowned writer was tackling the very same idea. That was my nightmare. But whether it was a marketable and attractive concept, I had little doubt. Everyone knows of Hyde—just the single word on the page is instantly recognizable and provocative. I simply wanted to do justice to the idea, to the potential of this fiendishly wonderful character.

Have you always been a fan of Stevenson?



I didn’t truly come to appreciate Stevenson until I started researching Hyde. I had read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in high school, and the story clearly pressed its imprint into my fifteen-year-old mind. But other than Kidnapped and a few short stories, I didn’t read much of Stevenson in the years leading up to Hyde. Even when researching my novel, I certainly didn’t read everything of Stevenson; there are still many works of his I haven’t opened. But I have read a good deal of his personal essays and travelogues, and I read Claire Harman’s fabulous biography, Myself and the Other Fellow, which truly brought the man to life for me. He was an incredibly sympathetic person, and I feel that we shared an affinity of nature—a passionate spirit, a distaste for overly traditional society, a yearning for achievement and recognition, a certain tendency toward self-indulgence, and a restless wanderlust. Stevenson was exceedingly prolific (my impression is that he wrote a few clunkers along with his masterpieces), and more than the great body of his work, I came to love the easy flow of his sentences, his light, elegant style. It’s been said that he was the least-Victorian Victorian, that his early death sealed him into the Victorian age and thus that’s how he is categorized. But he was quite modern in his voice and grace, and every line he writes—even, or especially, in his letters—is infused with his charming, self-aware, slightly rascally soul. I have a deep affection for him that goes beyond his authorship.

In fact, I’ll admit to having entertained the whimsical notion that Stevenson was somehow guiding me through the composition of Hyde. For instance—I read Claire Harman’s biography twice: once in New Jersey at the very beginning of my research when the idea was extremely nascent, and once, three years later, in Colorado after I had finished the novel and was waiting for responses from the publishers. Reading the biography this second time was strangely reassuring. I would have these uncanny déjà vu moments where I’d realize that I had used in my book, or been influenced by, some subtle aspect of Stevenson’s life, without having consciously realized I was doing so. Then there was the map on my wall. I love maps and had bought a number of old National Geographic maps from a map store in Boulder, choosing them more for aesthetic value than their specific location. One was a large yellow and white survey map of the Samoan islands; I hung it on the wall alongside the desk where I sat every day writing Hyde because it fit the space well. When I got toward the end of Stevenson’s biography, it rushed back to me in a chilly tingle that the writer had lived his final few years, and then died, in Samoa. I really hadn’t remembered this. I would have said he’d died in Tahiti. I hadn’t consciously bought the Samoan map for its connection to Stevenson. But there it was, to my left, on level with my head: the place where Stevenson had built his family estate and fallen in love with the people and land, where he had finally found the kind of life befitting one of his hearty, adventurous characters. I felt queerly and tenderly moved by this “coincidence.”

What are some of the other authors who inspired you?

In general, my favorite kinds of books are those with charismatic first-person narrators who are looking back into their past to trace the gnarled path of their present predicament. These were the novels I read and reread when writing Hyde, which falls into this category, and I’ve learned a great deal from their authors.

One of my favorite books—period—is John Banville’s The Book of Evidence. The narrator, Freddie Montgomery, is very much a Jekyll/Hyde; he evokes the comparison himself. He is smooth, urbane, and hypercultured, but inside him lives this angry, smelly, vengeful animal. The flow of his narration is hypnotic; you’re drawn into this sad, grisly little tale by the rich continuous insistence of the voice. It’s quite musical; Banville is brilliant with rhythm, hitting just the right succession of notes at the end of a paragraph or section break. I used to keep the book on my desk and refer to it like a writing manual—how would Banville do this?

Patrick McGrath’s Spider was also very instructive. Like Hyde, the narrator is unstable, unreliable, paranoid, wretched, yet deeply appealing and vulnerable. The need to tell his story—the pitiful hope for narrative catharsis—is what keeps him going. And the story is terribly compelling, so much that you don’t see the truth, the depth of Spider’s delusion, until the very end.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrators are more quiet and meticulous in their delving into the past. The events they are recalling appear innocuous enough. But an ominous darkness always wells beneath these innocuous memories, an engulfing sadness that the narrators are suppressing about some terrible truth in their world that they don’t want to acknowledge. Remains of the Day might be my favorite of Ishiguro’s; it’s so lean and precise and yet gives the impression of meandering casualness. But there isn’t a book by Ishiguro that I don’t like or love, and that is rare for me, to enjoy everything an author writes.  

Nabokov has always been an influence, sometimes to my own detriment. I’m crazy about Lolita; old Humbert is the epitome of the charismatic, wretched character I’m talking about. So is Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire. But I also love Nabokov’s smaller, “lesser” works, like Despair, Laughter in the Dark, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. The latter I can read over and over; it might be Nabokov’s loveliest, most decent-hearted book.

I also greatly admire Kafka, Gogol, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Graves, Jim Shepard, Julian Barnes, J.M. Coetzee, Joyce Carol Oates, Andrea Barrett, Dan Chaon, and Roald Dahl, whom I’ve adored since I could read.

Why do you think Stevenson's novel still resonates with readers after all these years?

I think Stevenson cut to the core of human nature in this story. It’s not about good and evil. It’s about the horror of self-awareness, the ability to look in the mirror and recognize “me.” We each live inside ourselves, encased in our bodies, victimized, it sometimes seems, by our own minds. What is the real “me”—the exterior that everyone sees, or the self that hides inside, harboring fantasies and impulses that are often misanthropic and potentially damaging? The way humans live, in huge groups with strict rules about propriety and civility and with reputations to uphold, creates this inward split from the outer self, for it creates the need to keep secrets, to conceal our true, unfiltered thoughts. Primal thoughts about sex and violence and suspicion of others—the thoughts of an animal. Human beings try to pretend we are something higher than animals. But we are the most dangerous animal that has ever lived on Earth, exceptionally cunning and malicious and self-destructive. The monsters we have invented in myth are externalizations of human ferocity—the vampires and werewolves, the vengeful gods. Mythology serves to explain the mystifying natural world, and monsters speak to our fascination with the dark half of our own powerful nature. We are in terrified awe of ourselves, our awful capacity for violence. This is what Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was really about: a man entranced by his own appalling essence. It’s universal and timeless and taps into a myth that must be as ancient as storytelling itself.      

What are you future projects?

Currently, I’m interested in human origins. We take it for granted that Homo sapiens is the only hominid species extant today, but over the last few million years, there were many human species coexisting on the earth. In particular, I’ve become quite interested in the Neanderthals, a highly successful people who went extinct a little less than 30,000 years ago. What was life like for these humans? How did their perception of the world and themselves differ (quite drastically) from our own? Where did the essential similarities lie? I’d like to attempt to answer these questions in my next novel.

How much research did it take to get the atmosphere of Victorian London right?

For a year before I began writing, I just researched. I read widely if a little haphazardly: histories, biographies, period novels, contemporary novels about the period, novels that retold a familiar story, novels that 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 still-vivid memories of the lanes, buildings, parks, fickle skies.

The idea of getting the atmosphere “right” is tricky. After all, 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. 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. It took a long time to imagine and refine this world, to make it real for myself and then on the page.

What advice do you have for beginning authors?

I think you have to want this deeply, hungrily. The work has to be the top priority—above your day job, above sleep or sex or socializing. And you have to do it every day, or almost every day. In this way, it’s rather a Zen practice: the only way to do it is just to do it. You have to write and write and write. You have to be okay with deleting what you’ve written or starting over. And you have to be self-critical, holding yourself to the highest, most demanding standards. Yet at the same time you have to be generous with yourself and supportive; obviously you don’t get anywhere if you’re telling yourself that everything you do is garbage. You have to be your own biggest fan and supporter. You have to believe that you can do this incredibly private thing every day, this world-creating act that takes place inside you. No one knows what you go through and, honestly, no one truly cares—not remotely as much as you do. You have to care with every fiber of your being.

Which Jekyll and Hyde film was your favorite?

It’s strange, but I actually didn’t watch any film versions of Jekyll and Hyde. I think I wanted to keep myself “pure,” in the sense of not being influenced by anyone else’s vision. And I also knew that almost all of the film versions portrayed Hyde as a troglodytic beast, all hair and make-up and crooked teeth. I didn’t want to see him like that, as some crass, lumbering, inarticulate monster.

However, in spite of myself I did rather enjoy the Jekyll and Hyde portrayal in the extremely mediocre The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. The depiction of Hyde in this movie is completely different from the original story; he is gigantic, for one thing, instead of being smaller than Jekyll. Yet what I liked was Hyde’s sensuality, his darkly poetic mode of expression. There seemed a truth in this, for Hyde is indeed the sensual, romantic expression of Jekyll’s uptight, scientific personality.

I also tried watching the BBC series Jekyll—mainly to make sure that its premise didn’t overlap with mine. I got about halfway through the first episode, until the first transformation into Hyde. The depiction here was puckish, rascally, like a violent clown, and I didn’t care for it. I saw immediately that there was no conflict with my own project, and so I turned it off.

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