More than 20 years ago, Elise Levine's Driving Men Mad exploded onto the literary scene, endearing Levine to readers and critics alike. She returned with a highly acclaimed novel, Requests and Dedications, in 2005, and readers have been eagerly awaiting more since then.
This season they got their wish with Blue Field (Biblioasis), which tells the story of Marilyn and Rand, who take up cave diving to honour their late friend who died doing just that. The claustrophobic and intense atmosphere of the caves is wielded as a narrative tool by Levine, creating a tense, high stakes examination of loss, compulsion, love, and desire. Lisa Moore called the writing in Blue Field "diamond hard, diamond bright", while Caroline Adderson said of the novel "Blue Field is full immersion—an adventure story in a literary guise, one that holds your head under the current of its gorgeous prose until you gasp. Mysterious and terrifying, this book enthralled me."
We're pleased to speak to Elise today about Marilyn, the intense and enigmatic protagonist of Blue Field. Elise tells us about what drives Marilyn and what sort of person the character is, talks about her own connection to diving, and lets us know why fans of her short fiction should stay tuned.
Tell us about the main character in your new book.
Within days, Marilyn Wolfe loses her parents to cancer and a terrorist bombing. When she takes up underwater diving, the obsessive risk-taker in her emerges as she uncovers a realm of sublime rapture and awe — a reason to live. Returning each time to the surface, she believes herself freed from the past’s complex emotional legacies.
Until a close call diving inside a shipwreck causes her to quit. But when her best friend Jane dies while exploring an underwater cave with Marilyn’s husband Rand, she takes up diving again, to honour — and outdo — her late friend. Marilyn then drags Rand with her as she increasingly pushes herself far past her limits, endangering them both.
She’s driven and flawed, bound and propelled and ultimately unraveled by desire, loss, and guilt. She makes some bad choices that have terrible consequences. And she’s bad-assed, fearless at times despite being fearful. She headlong steps outside the neat confines of her life.
Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?
I think writing fiction is the process of uncovering your characters. As you dig deeper and lay bare their deeper urges and fears, they take on a surprising autonomy. If you’re true to them, that is. So yes, I believe the writer — or this writer, at least — is always in control. But the control lies in choosing to be of service as fully as possible to the needs of the characters, to who they might really be.
How do you choose names for your characters?
I initially choose the names for my characters by feel. But I might change the names to have them achieve a greater resonance. From the start, Marilyn made sense for the protagonist of Blue Field. The three syllables carried a sound-sense of a descending arabesque, something internal and fugue-like, labyrinthine, a state of suspension.
Her last name was equally important. Wolfe is a Jewish surname, which I chose to signal her background without needing to draw too much attention to it, since she’s very secular, experiencing her Jewishness in a mostly off-hand way. And yet her Jewishness informs her fragile sense of life, which she traces to her parents’ anxious brand of love and survivorship — byproducts of their European Jewish descent.
Wolfe also suggests ‘wolf’, implying Marilyn’s increasingly predatory behavior over the course of the novel. (I take ‘wolf’ in a fairy-tale way. Nothing against real wolves!)
What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?
I try to only use dialogue for significant moments that transpire between the characters and which reveal their true natures — even lies that reveal that they’re liars — and in which important decisions are made and from which there’s no going back. I revise the dialogue a lot, trying to uncover what the characters are most afraid to reveal, and what the stakes might be for them if they speak out.
Advice for myself, always, which I’m happy to pass along, if it’s helpful: use dialogue only when absolutely necessary, to avoid diluting its potential force.
Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?
Many years ago I briefly pursued technical diving, at the novice level. A few close calls and I realized I didn’t need to literally descend into the watery underworld — I could write about it instead.
I do feel that writing and technical diving are correlatives. Both require immense and obsessive commitment and training. Both involve exploring what’s hidden from view.
Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?
To me character is everything in fiction, the reason I read. I find the most memorable characters are those who stretch their sense of themselves across the contours of tidy labels, and whose reaching is the story.
The young girl in Christine Schutt’s novel Florida is at once remarkably obdurate and bright, very self-possessed. Another favorite is the young girl/young woman in Joy Williams’s mysterious, time-bending short story “The Excursion”, who intuits her shaky future and leaps to inhabit it. The narrator of Justin Torres’s novel We the Animals possesses a sensitive, observant mind that heartbreakingly tracks his transformation from member of a boy-pack to his estrangement from his family. I also love the protagonist of Junot Diaz’s story “No Face”, who elevates his daily donning of a mask to hide his severe facial disfigurement by imagining himself as a hero with superpowers; over the course of the story his fears are unmasked, and yet he remains resilient and active in the face of tremendous adversity. Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic presents first-person-plural narrators — Japanese ‘picture brides’ who came to the US in the early twentieth century — who are a marvel, embodying both the effect of an Ancient Greek chorus and individual voices that pop out of the orchestral texture. I also admire the rendering of the dual male protagonists in Evie Wyld’s novel After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, troubled by violent pasts and splintered human connections, and reaching out to the nonhuman worlds they encounter. The main character of Adania Shibli’s coming-of-age novella Touch, a young girl in a Palestinian village on the West Bank, explores her sense of self, family, school, and her local environments with a thrillingly blooming intelligence.
What are you working on now?
I’m a sliver away from finishing a new story collection, This Wicked Tongue, which I’ve been working on parallel to writing Blue Field. The collection ranges from flash fictions to a near-novella-length story. Because as much as I love the long tangle of a novel, I’m wild for the short forms. More fun than clown cars!
Elise Levine is the author of the story collection Driving Men Mad and the novel Requests and Dedications. Her work has also appeared in The Journey Prize Anthology and Best Canadian Stories. Originally from Toronto, ON, she now lives in Baltimore, MD.