The Best Paris Stories series continues with writer Bob Levy. He has been writing short fiction and literary memoirs since 1990. His work has appeared in many literary journals as well as The Chicago Tribune (2001 Nelson Algren Award Winner) and San Francisco Bay Guardian. He has been twice nominated for the annual Pushcart Fiction Prize and received the 1998 Langston Hughes Award from the University of Kansas. Bob spends the majority of the year in Paris where he teaches Creative Writing, the rest in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It is an honor for me to interview Bob. We met at the writing workshop I led in the upstairs library of Shakespeare and Company. I had started the class to meet other writers and felt very lucky when Bob signed up. He is not only an award-winning writer, but also an excellent editor. He helped and encouraged the beginning writers in the workshop. Much of his advice has stayed with me. While revising my chapters, I always think about what he said. I am already looking forward to taking his class at WICE this fall.
Why do you think Paris fascinated and inspires?
Every reader has his / her own image of Paris. Accurate or otherwise, this image frees the writer to spend more time on character, on plot, on dialogue and theme. The reader has already placed the stories’ conflicts, their beginnings and endings, in a world of cafe tables. A saxophone heard through an apartment’s open window. A young couple embracing on a Metro platform …. More than this, the word ‘Paris’ connotes change; the possibility, the realization, ‘The young man comes to Paris …’ The Paris story already has a ‘leg up’ on the believability of that change, when indeed the change actually does take place.
Can you tell us about your story?
‘Sunday with God’ is a true story. The story concerns an art gallery which, strangely, seemed never open, and from which – and for reasons that went beyond aesthetics – I desired to buy a work. But on a particular July Sunday during which I did a ‘good deed’, low and behold, and as though God had interfered, the gallery was ‘Ouvert’. Everything, including my wife’s reaction to the purchased piece of art is absolutely – and some might say, ‘sadly’ – true.
What books are on your nightstand?
Salinger’s ‘Catcher in the Rye’
Philip Roth’s ‘American Pastoral’
Ian McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’ and ‘Comfort of Strangers’
Julian Barnes’ ‘Sense of an Ending’
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Writing-wise, be specific. As specific as possible. Avoid generalities; ‘happy’, ‘bright’, ‘generous’. There must be an image, a phrase, that does the job ‘better’.
What advice would you give a writer interested in trying the short story?
My best advice is … DO IT. Do it because the process will take you through writing’s most important components without having to spend a lot of time doing it. You will learn about beginnings, endings (earned and otherwise), and how to make your ‘middles’ interesting. Of course you will learn to be concise. You will decide what really ‘counts’ and what is simply garnish. In fact, if it were up to me, all writers of the ‘long form’ would be ‘forced’ (not really) to work in the short form, to develop those skills. I would tell the writer, decide on word-length before you start; find a published short story you like, count its words, and then YOU do it. And the shorter you make it, the harder, the more effectively, you will work.
There are those who say, Those who can’t teach. True or otherwise, that seems to be where I’m at currently. The desire to write (whether fiction or otherwise) seems to have diminished. But the desire to pass along to others what I’ve learned, what I’ve acquired over the years, that desire … it burns.