Q&A with Daniel Levine

April 7, 2015   •   By Sabra Embury

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Daniel Levine and his novel Hyde was as a spectator at an event in Williamsburg called GLAMOUR + GORE. Levine was among the half dozen authors paying tribute to the evenings classic Gothic theme. The Wythe Hotel event was prefaced by a specially curated program of trailers that included Truffauts The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid, Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, and more.

The readings followed the showcase, keeping to the theme of glamour and gore. The authors who were featured that night had been selected for the dark protagonists in their novels, whether shape-shifting sociopath or straightforward vampire. But it was a passage from Levines debut novel Hyde that proved to be the most intriguing. With his generously peppered inflections, English monster accent and all, Levines reading captivated the room.

The novel Hyde borrows a lot of its inspiration from Robert Louis Stevensons Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But Levine explores a different side of the horror genre’s more notorious personages; he tells the story from the perspective of the monster. Hyde is much less horror than it is a well-ornamented detective story. Its a contemporary grayscale sketch of Victorian London, a poignantly panoramic landscape meditation in which Levine casts a brand new spin on the Gothic tale of dueling conscience and chemical transformation. The story is surprisingly much less ominous than one would think. Sure, its still a timeless tale of perversion and rage, but at the heart of it lies a restlessness, a quest to find serenity in love.

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. Currently he is a lecturer at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Originally from New Jersey, he now lives in Colorado. Our conversation took place over email.


SABRA EMBURY: When you wrote Hyde, the immersion the fusing of yourself so fully in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and to Edward Hyde in particular must’ve been pretty intense. Did you ever feel like you were being influenced by aspects of Stevenson’s life?

DANIEL LEVINE: I did, in fact. I read Claire Harman’s beautiful biography of Stevenson — Myself and the Other Fellow — when I lived in New Jersey and was beginning my research, when the idea was still nascent. Three years later I read it again in Colorado after I had completed the novel and was anxiously waiting for responses from the publishers. Reading the biography this second time had a strangely reassuring effect. I experienced these uncanny moments where I’d realize that some subtle aspect of Stevenson’s life had infiltrated my book beneath my deliberate intent. Then there was the map on my wall. I 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. As I approached the end of Stevenson’s biography the second time, it rushed back to me in a chilly tingle that the writer had lived his final few years and then died in Samoa. I truly 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 oddly moved and calmed by this “coincidence.” Though as Hyde repeatedly says, “there are no coincidences, not in this story.”

Walter Kirn said, in his applauding review of your novel in The New York Times, that Hyde is an “ingenious revision […] an elevated exercise in fan fiction that complicates and reorients the story by telling it from the perspective of the monster, exposing the tender heart inside the brute and emphasizing the pathos of his predicament.” Do you consider Hyde to be a work of fan fiction?

Yes, I suppose so. I’m a great admirer of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I read in high school. But I didn’t revisit the story until I’d already conceived of the idea for Hyde, 15 years later. I only became a fan of Stevenson after I began researching my novel and reading his other works — so it wasn’t my fanaticism for Stevenson that drove me to recreate his sinister world. It was the kernel of that original idea — the scientist becoming his dark double, the mirror self — which my mind had been chewing over all those years since high school. When I returned to the original story, however, with a more educated eye, that’s when I began to notice all the inconsistencies in the supposed good-bad dichotomy, all the hints that this wasn’t the full and true story.

The goal of Hyde was not just to borrow the concept, but to fill in the missing details of the case study Stevenson presented while sticking to his original structure as closely as possible. If fan fiction is the consumer’s desire to converse with culture, then Hyde definitely qualifies, for I wasn’t just trying to retell Stevenson’s story but to finish what he’d begun, to round out the intriguing conversation.

How well did people take this retelling, initially?

Many readers seem to enjoy the book and appreciate my attempt to be faithful to the original story, fans and teachers of Stevenson included. There’s the other kind of Stevenson fan, however. I’ve been told that my addition to the story was unnecessary, or that filling in the blank spots spoils the eerie effect. There’s validity to the second claim: Stevenson’s vagueness is indeed quite chilling. But these kinds of fans want the original work to be inviolate, to be read through a glass museum case, handled only by reverent professionals in white cotton gloves.

That brings to mind something Lev Grossman wrote in Time Magazine in 2011:

Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. [] The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.

Absolutely, art is interactive, it talks to us and we talk back. It’s meant to be reexamined and manipulated and deconstructed. We don’t read old Victorian novels as historical relics, but because they’re still alive, speaking to us and reflecting our current age. That’s why Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is still so beloved — it’s a terrifically spooky tale, yes, but more crucially it continues to apply to the human condition: our hypocritical taboos and fabricated morality, our righteousness and lurking criminality, our desire to fit in and longing to be free.

Besides Robert Louis Stevensons obvious influence, were there any other specific authors/books that inspired Hyde?

Grendel by John Gardner and Jack Maggs by Peter Carey are wonderful examples of classic tale reinventions. Spider by Patrick McGrath features a ghoulishly tormented, self-deceiving narrator. The Book of Evidence by John Banville and Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and Lolita by Nabokov taught me about retrospective structure, buried information, and horrendous despair masked by urbane civility. Clare Harman’s biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, Myself and the Other Fellow, painted a tender, vivid picture of the writer, and many sly details of his life and character slipped into my story.

Speaking of painting vivid pictures, youre particularly well versed in capturing the eerie atmosphere of Victorian London:

That particular night in December of 1884, though, something was off. As I plodded back to Castle Street, a kind of restlessness still teemed beneath my skin. I wasnt unfamiliar with Jekylls occasional dissatisfaction, an itch my seedy adventures had failed to scratch. I could feel Jekylls urgings, but I couldnt always decipher what precisely he desired me to do. It was late, however, and my legs were dead from tromping around Soho, and my toes in Jekylls draughty boots were nubbins of ice. I was approaching Castle Street from a poky, poorly lit side lane, hands buried in Jekylls overcoat pockets, breathing steam through the chink in his upturned collar. The dark rooftops almost converged overhead, like the edges of a chasm, and the slot of sky in between was raw pink, like blood mixed into milk. I was gazing upward as I turned the corner onto Castle Street, and when I heard the quick slap of bare feet on stones I spun in surprise. A small hurtling body hit me in the belly with a yelp.

How did you become so familiar with Londons historical landscape? How challenging was it to maintain anachronistic consistencies in the style, whether verbal, philosophical, or even with simple ornamentation? Lets talk 1884 zeitgeist

I studied for a semester at University College London in 2000 and explored the city on foot every day. What’s wonderful about old cities — and London especially — is that history is still very visible; you can see the aged face through the veneer of modern makeup. The sensory details — the narrow lanes, the sooty bricks, the grand squares, the drizzle and surprising bursts of blue sky — stuck with me and formed the imaginative groundwork I built upon with research and inference. Another indispensible guide was the map of 1880s London which I printed from a street atlas in the New York Public Library map room and hung on my wall — five feet long, the winding snake of the Thames and all the delicate capillaries. I would trace Jekyll and Hyde’s movements through my narrative on this map, making sure I had the street names and directions correct.

The style, Hyde’s voice, was elusive. Research is helpful, but it can’t tell what it was really like to be alive in the past, how a Victorian mind truly worked. Besides, we don’t read historical fiction for absolute accuracy; we read to be immersed in an illusion of verisimilitude. That illusion is cast by the dream that lives in the writer’s mind, which must be painstakingly created, layer by layer. The richer that dream becomes, the more “real” the fictional world seems. Though even in the final stages, there are always going to be anachronisms. That’s what proofreaders are for, to tell you that champagne wasn’t called “bubbly” until the 1920s, or that 25 pounds is probably way too much to pay for a prostitute.

Was it difficult for you to find balance in your own life and mind, outside of crafting the attitude of such a dark character?

I think balance is one of the hardest things to find, period. And in many ways the most essential. It’s hard to be a human being, endowed with such acute self-awareness and ambitious yearnings, such a desire to distinguish oneself from the hordes. Impulse and propriety pull us in opposing directions, so do self-preservation and sense of community. We are born into imbalance and struggle to stand and walk and make sense of our mystifying existence. You have to seek out balance. Zen monks spend lifetimes in temples devoted to essentially the pursuit and maintenance of balance. Balance is happiness, I think, not exuberance but quiet sustained happiness.

Everyone is imbalanced in one aspect or other. Yet society is critical of overt imbalance — to call someone imbalanced is a term of concern. So everyone must pretend to be nicely balanced in public when privately they are not at all. We must hide our imbalance. That’s how men like Dr. Henry Jekyll are formed, how the schism between the inner and outer face is deepened. I’m very aware of my inner and outer face, the me I present to people and the me who watches that presentation, sometimes with a misanthropic smile. By paying attention to that imbalance, however, I learned about old Hyde.

Both Jekyll and Hyde are often perplexed when it comes to matters of love. For instance, Jekyll urges Hyde into bed with a young prostitute who serves as a proxy for a woman Jekyll can’t have, but then Hyde’s enraptured affair is doomed by his instability. Would you say Hyde is a love story?

Yes, but a disastrous one. The tragedy is that Hyde, as I see him, is perfectly capable of loving his young friend Jeannie. He yearns to love in fact, like a child, and wants to be loved in return. It’s Jekyll who can’t love or be loved. Love makes you strong, but it also makes you weak, because to love you must be vulnerable, you must expose your inner self to the beloved. You must be willing to be seen as you actually are, not as you’d like to be, and you must accept the possibility of excruciating pain and identity crisis if the loved one stops loving you back. For Jekyll this risk and exposure is impossible. He’s spent his entire life constructing his inner and outer selves, mastering his emotions and image, and he can’t let anyone see beyond the facade to what’s truly inside. The threat of rejection is too dangerous. But even more it’s the idea of being loved that terrifies him. It would be like hot water poured into a chilled glass. The resulting crack might be spiritually good for him, but Jekyll isn’t interested in the spirit, and he doesn’t want what’s good for him. He wants the icy lonesome annihilation of the Arctic explorer, well past rescue, pushing into the ruinous unknown.

The Gothic genre (a.k.a. doppelgänger lit) is an indispensable draw as seen in long-running shows like True Blood, Vampire Diariesand more recent shows like Hemlock Grove. What are your thoughts regarding the current upswing of vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural characters?

What’s interesting to me is that vampires and werewolves and creatures of the night have always held humans in thrall. The mythology of every civilization and culture has conceived of bloodsucking, infectious monsters to personify and concentrate the fears of death and disease and darkness. We can easily imagine cavemen huddled round a fire 20,000 years ago conjuring similar demons. So our present fascination is certainly nothing new. Though there is a rather ridiculous amount of vampire books and movies and shows around. Part of this is just marketing, a tipping point — Twilight and True Blood were so hugely successful that everyone else wanted in on the fad. But the other part is that our collective imagination is being drawn in that direction, toward humanizing the monster, examining the psychological nature of the curse.

You see the same trend in human dramas as well, such as Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective — practically every show out there, in fact — which all feature reprehensible characters who win our eager hearts. We want to see the complexity of the beast, to be charmed into loving the beast.

Did this trend have a direct influence on your decision to write your novel? It seems like Hyde couldnt have come around at better time. Do you agree?

In that context, it is a good time for Hyde, yes. For too long Hyde has been mischaracterized as a pure villain, the ultimate bad guy. But there are no pure villains, we are beginning to realize. Because we are the monsters. The monsters are in us. Human beings are the most horrifying animal that’s ever lived, the most brilliant but also the most perversely destructive. But to our credit we seem to be increasingly interested in understanding our capacity for horror, and acknowledging the humanity in the “evildoers” we’ve been using as scapegoats until now.

What are your thoughts on protagonists who are indifferent to violence, like say Hannibal (or some Game of Thrones characters), being regarded as sex symbols?

Violence and sex are intimately linked. On a primal, biological level, violence is sex: the ability to kill competitors and prey keeps an individual alive long enough to mate. The ability to kill is a sexually selected trait. Almost every animal engages in some form of sparring as a display for potential mates. Sometimes males and females fight viciously before (and during) the carnal act, occasionally to the death. We claim to be civilized and beyond such brutishness now, but obviously we’re not. Every action movie enforces this point: the hero slays the bad guys and gets the girl. Adept swordplay has probably always been a potent aphrodisiac.

Do you think having an interest in the Gothic and supernatural is less subversive than it used to be?

I actually wonder whether an interest in the supernatural was ever truly subversive. In the Middle Ages, in the enlightened days of Puritanical New England, absolutely. But the Victorians, upper and lower classes, were quite openly interested in the supernatural. It wasn’t at all unfashionable for rich people to indulge in a séance or pay large sums for occult objects. It was titillating, and mitigated boredom, and allowed them to wonder at life’s mysteries.

It’s akin to the popularity of TV shows like Ghost Hunters or My Haunted House. Some watchers consider it just entertainment and others are convinced of the phenomenon’s veracity, but there’s nothing shameful or subversive in their interest. I don’t think the Victorians felt ashamed, either, sitting through a séance or a mesmerism demonstration. It was a kind of science, after all. Natural and supernatural, science and magic — the boundary line has always been hazy, for who or what machine could measure the divide?

Life is magical. We’ve grown rather arrogant now, however, and have lost some of that magic, and think we have all the answers, that we can say with certitude what is possible and impossible, what is science from otherwise. These are just words, our attempt to divide and categorize the universe.

Whats next for you?

I’m working on a novel about the extinction of the Neanderthals. It has three narrative strands, and the first focuses on a tribe of Neanderthals, and I’ve been thinking about how to present them. Did they speak, and how? What kinds of names would they have? What was the texture of their thought, their consciousness? What’s tricky but also quite liberating is that there is very little agreement in the paleoanthropological community as to these details. We have so little evidence, only the most endurable, certainly not the intangible aspects of daily life and brain activity. But this fuzziness of the facts gives me great freedom to invent, so long as I’m grounding my choices in careful research.

The second narrative takes place closer to our present. The third is in the future.


Sabra Embury writes for Brooklyn’s L Magazine.