Sunday, September 28, 2008

One Writer's Process: Anna Levine

Anna Levine, whose highly acclaimed first novel, Running On Eggs, earned a place on the list of Best Books for the Teenage 2000 (NYPL), lives in Israel with “one foot in the present and one foot in the past.”

She can gaze out her window at ancient rooftops dotted with modern satellite TV dishes just as easily as she can drive her Subaru into the Old City of Jerusalem on streets barely wide enough for her car to pass a donkey.

“Writers are always being told ‘write what you know,’” says Levine, who moved to Israel from Canada when she was eighteen.

But after living in Israel for more than twenty years, she’s come to realize “there is so much about Israel that I still don’t know!”

So, rather than write about what she knows, she uses her writing “as a way to discover more, understand the past, cope with the present, and imagine the future.”

When Levine agreed to a Wordswimmer interview about her writing process, she noticed that the interview questions relied on swimming as a metaphor for writing and wrote back that she was thrilled.

“I love swimming!” she says.

“Growing up in Canada, every summer I’d go to the Hashomer Hatzair youth camp in Perth, Ontario near Otty Lake. That first dive into the water was always the best!”

Since those childhood summers in Canada, Levine says that she tries to swim wherever she travels in the world.

“If there’s a lake in the vicinity,” she says, “within moments I’m in it.”

It’s been a busy summer for Levine. Her new YA novel, Freefall (Greenwillow/Harper Collins) and her new picture book, Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig (KarBen), were both released.

Between talks about her newest books and wading into her current work-in-progress, Levine was kind enough to “take this metaphorical plunge” with Wordswimmer and spend a few minutes discussing her writing process.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Levine: The trick to taking the first plunge, when the water is freezing, is not to think too much – but just leap in. I don’t know if what I write on any given day will be something I’ll use, but if I don’t take the initial plunge, I’ll never know.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Levine: Writing is what keeps me afloat. Living in Israel is a daily challenge. I am bombarded with the news from the moment my radio alarm goes off in the morning to the late night news, from worrying about my soldier son to how the country is faring globally.

But to answer your question, when I’m working on a longer piece I use shorter works to decompress. Sometimes I need to get distance and the focus that’s needed for a picture book or a poem allows me to block out all other background noises so that when I return to my longer work it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Levine: Because most of my work is set in Israel, I just have to pick myself up off my seat and get out to be inspired! A few weeks ago I explored inside King Hezekiah’s Tunnel under the City of David. Crawling through the dark waterway, with only a pen-sized flashlight to guide me and the water steadily rising above my knees, was thrilling and, of course, inspiring (and will be the subject of my next picture book).

But, when I can’t pick myself up off my seat, I read poetry. Billy Collins has a few great poetry anthologies which I return to often and which inspire me.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Levine: I’m going to be honest and say the loneliness. I don’t mean the loneliness of writing. I love that part. But because I live in Israel and write in English, I don’t have a community of writers around me to share the ups and down. This month both of my books arrived, and though family, friends, Moshe at the post office, and Yossi at the café were thrilled for me, it would be so much fun to walk into a bookstore and see my books on the shelf and share the excitement with a community of other writers and readers.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Levine: That’s when living in the desert is the hardest! I have no lake or ocean nearby so when I need to work out a problem I go biking. I live in the Judean mountains and find that a ride up to Sataf really clears my head. The mix of being away from my desk, the strenuous physical activity and being surrounded by nature usually helps to free my mind to explore different directions and possibilities.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Levine: The initial plunge. I love the excitement of starting something new and the way it effects my whole body. It’s so much like diving into a new universe. When you finally lift your head to breathe and you’ve got water in your eyes and goose bumps all over – it’s thrilling

For more information about Anna Levine, visit her website:

To read about Freefall, visit:

And for additional interviews with Levine, check out:

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