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Talking To Ariel Levy About Love, Loss And Language

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Ariel Levy has an unsettling gift for bringing grief to life. In her wildly popular 2013 essay "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," the New Yorker staff writer gave readers a brief glimpse of the suffering she experienced after setting out on assignment in Mongolia—five months pregnant with a longed-for son—and miscarrying in an Ulan Baatur hotel room. In her new memoir The Rules Do Not Apply Levy turns a keen reporter’s eye on the entirety of her life story, capturing various incarnations of herself—restless young writer, dissatisfied wife, bereaved mother—with startling poignancy. Levy is currently in the midst of a book tour that's taken her around the country; in June, she’ll accompany comic author David Sedaris on tour for his upcoming book "Theft By Finding." On Sunday, May 14, Levy will join fellow nonfiction writer Maggie Nelson in conversation at the Skirball Cultural Center in L.A. We spoke to Levy last week about marriage, motherhood, Mary Gaitskill and the myth of "Prince Charming."LAist: It's a weird irony that you have to travel so much for your book tour, since the book itself is so much about finding and losing yourself through travel. Does the road feel like the right place for you right now?

Well, every time I do a reading, invariably I see a woman in the audience and I'm like "Oh boy, it just happened to her." And I'm always right—I haven't been wrong once. There's this look—I mean, I had it—you just look blown apart. And invariably, that woman comes up to me after and starts crying and says she just lost a baby. Oh God, this one woman at this event I did in California, she raised her hand and was like, "I have three children who are alive, I lost four babies, I'm seventy-seven and I miss every one of them." It's a really intense way to connect with other women, and that's pretty cool. That's a real privilege, you know?

Do you get the sense that these women haven't talked about this before?

Yeah, that's what they tell me, and that makes me feel good. When it's just about me and my story, it can feel like "Oh God, time for the 'me show' again," but when I'm talking to other women who have lost babies, and they're telling me, "I needed to read something about this, I needed people to talk about this and it doesn't get talked about that much"...There's not a canon about this shit, and that's exactly why I published the memoir. I wrote it for myself, because I had to, but I published it because I was like, "Wait a minute, why isn't this a subject for literature?"

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You're being interviewed at the Skirball by Maggie Nelson, whose novel "The Argonauts" poses a lot of questions about the "rules" pertaining to queerness, and motherhood, and birth. Did you feel like you were "breaking rules" when you came out, or when you married a woman, or when you planned to start a family with your wife?

Yeah, I did. Certainly, when I started going out with women, it was not nothing. It wasn't a giant thing—you know, I lived in New York, and I worked in the arts, and my parents were liberal, so it wasn't a big, big deal, but it wasn't nothing, either. I did think a lot about what it meant to have a queer family, and what it meant for my kid to have gay parents, so it was a big deal to me personally, but it wasn't a big deal in the world that I inhabit. I was very lucky in that way.

When you wrote [the 2014 New Yorker essay] "Thanksgiving in Mongolia" about the loss of your son, did you have a sense that there was more story to tell?

I don't know how to describe the experience of writing "Thanksgiving in Mongolia" other than to say it just came out of my fingers. I didn't think about what I was doing or why I was doing it. Usually, you do the best you can as a writer, and sometimes you're more or less happy with the result, but I'd never had the experience before of being like, "Yeah, that's it! That's what I meant to say, and I don't really care if anyone else thinks it's good." Among other reasons, [the essay] was really important to me because everyone I know who has kids—which is pretty much everyone I know—spends a lot of time staring at their kids. I mean, how could you resist? They're so beautiful, and they look like you! I feel like in writing that essay, in some way, I was doing that: I wanted to think about the person I had made, and I wanted to announce his existence to the world. It's hard to explain this, but I felt proud of my baby.

"Writing a 2000-word essay is like a little love affair. Writing a book is like a marriage—you live with it, day in and day out, for years of your life."
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The essay was just the essay, and after I wrote it, I thought, "Oh, I'm not done. I have more I want to say." And it also sort of occurred to me because of the response to that essay, like, "Maybe some of the things that I have to say are going to be meaningful to other women in a way I can feel good about." Did writing the memoir also feel like "This is coming out of my fingers?"

No. I wish [Laughs] Writing a 2000-word essay is like a little love affair. Writing a book is like a marriage—you live with it, day in and day out, for years of your life.

That's a long marriage.

Yeah. I mean, I've had longer. [Laughs] It was a big project, and it was a lot more pleasurable than writing my first book [Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, published in 2005], because as it turns out, I was not put on this earth to write polemics. It's not what I want to do. I want to tell stories.

Do you feel like you were writing your way out of the experience of losing your son, or were you consciously thinking, "I want to bring people into it so that they understand what I'm going through?"

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Both, I think. That's a really good question, and I know what you mean. It's more like, if it were visual, it would be the infinity symbol: things coming in, and things going out. I did want to bring people into my experience, and I did want to write my way forward.

You paint such a vivid portrait of yourself in your early twenties, bubbling over with talent and impatience at New York magazine. What were you reading at that point in your life?

I was really into Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem. I loved, and still love, Grace Paley and Mary Gaitskill. I was just out of college when I started working at New York magazine, so I was still super-jazzed about American short stories; my friend Matt and I would always read short stories in the New Yorker and talk about them. I can't write fiction at all, and all I would try to do then was write short stories, which was just not a thing for me.

Have you and Maggie Nelson overlapped previously in the writing world?

We went to college at the same place [Wesleyan University in Connecticut] at more or less the same time, but we barely knew each other. She sent me a really loving, beautiful email about "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," which I then forgot about, because I can't remember a lot from that time period. So I wrote her about this event, saying, "I don't know if you read this essay I wrote, I've written a book, would you consider interviewing me in L.A.?" And she was like, "Yeah, I did read it, here's the email I sent you about it." [Laughs.]

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You mention returning from Mongolia and feeling like, for the first time, language wasn't enough to express the pain you felt, which is something [Nelson] talks about a good amount in her work. Is language the best way to express everything, or is it inherently limited? Was there a turning point when you felt like you were in control of language again?

The year after I got back from Mongolia, I was much more productive than usual. I wrote about Edie Windsor, I wrote about Diana Nyad, I wrote about the Steubenville rape. I wrote and wrote and wrote that year - first of all, my life sucked so hard that I was very much interested in distracting myself, and it was much more fun to work than it was to be me. But I also think it was about regaining language and writing as a way to feel like myself. In a very short time, I went from being a wife and a mother-to-be to not being either of those things. In Mongolia, I experienced maternal love, and then I got back and I felt like a mother, but of course, I had no kid, so it didn't seem true to anyone but me. I had to find a part of my identity that was intact, and the "writer" part was intact.

"The Rules Do Not Apply" pulls at so many threads of your identity as a mother, a writer, a daughter, a spouse, a lover, an ex-wife, a friend. Did you leave any stone unturned, deliberately or otherwise?

I didn't write in any real way about what happened with this person I met [Dr. John Gasson, the doctor who treated Levy in Mongolia and is now her partner] because I wasn't about to end this as a love story. Falling in love with someone who works in Mongolia, lives in South Africa and has two almost-grown children, when you live in New York and are desperate to start a family—that is not easy. I didn't want it to sound like, "And then Prince Charming came and saved me from my grief and my lesbianism." [Laughs] Because that's not what happened, in reality, so I didn't want to be misleading about it. It wasn't like [that relationship] saved me from anything—that was the beginning of a new story, it wasn't the end of this one.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

Ariel Levy will appear at the Skirball Cultural Center in conversation with Maggie Nelson on Sunday, May 14 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are free and can be reserved here. The Skirball is located at 2701 N. Sepulveda Boulevard in Bel Air.