On the DL | an interview with David Levithan

Gregg Shapiro

Young Adult novelist David Levithan’s new adult novel “A Lover’s Dictionary” (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2011) came to be in this way: Every year for the past 23 years, Levithan has written a Valentine’s Day story for his friends. Two years ago he realized that he hadn’t written a story yet and he only had two weeks to go.

“Luckily, my parents had been cleaning out their basement and one of the books that we found, a book I had probably gotten for graduation, was ‘The New York Times Book of Words You Need To Know,’” Levithan says. That book sat on his desk, next to his computer, while he was thinking about what to write for his friends for Valentine’s Day, and that’s when he got the idea to use random words as the basis for constructing “A Lover’s Dictionary.”

I spoke with Levithan shortly before the publication of the book.

Gregg Shapiro: Would it be fair to describe “A Lover’s Dictionary” as a next level book for your grownup Y/A (young adult) readership?

David Levithan: Definitely! It certainly is as far as subject matter. I’m a little bit past the post-teenager years, because the main characters are 20-somethings. Although I think a lot of the themes still apply. If it’s not my first book for grownups, it’s certainly my first book about grownups.

GS: There are references to words and language within the book, in the sections “awhile,” “banal” and “bane,” “cadence” and “elegy,” for example. Was it challenging to maintain the lexicon structure?

DL: Not really. I felt that from the beginning there had to be a reason [laughs] that the narrator was writing in dictionary form. The only reason he would do that would be if he was lexicon-inclined. I was very much in his mindset while I was writing it so it made sense to plan a lot of the words and have it be as much about struggling for language as it is about struggling in a relationship. I think the two go hand-in-hand. A lot of the times in relationships a big problem is miscommunication; either trying to find the right words or using the wrong words. Not quite being able to tell what something is because you can’t grasp the words for it. I approached the two, thinking that in the narrator’s mind, the problem of language and the problem of love are overlapping for him.

GS: I really like the way that in spite of the book being about words, the characters themselves are unsure of the meanings of words and the way they navigate language.

DL: Absolutely. Sometimes in relationships that’s how it plays out. You’re trying to find the perfect sentence for things; you’re trying to find the exact way to describe how you feel or what you think so that the other person will understand it. Some of the times you get there and some of the times you don’t [laughs]. The willingness to struggle and try, that’s what makes a relationship work. That’s what both characters are struggling with, especially the narrator. Trying to figure out whether that struggle is worth it and whether there will ever be a way to articulate you to the other person.

GS: the book also contains wonderful wordplay and poetic turns of phrase, for example in “fast” with the line “I am an adjective turning into a noun.”It made me think of your earlier book “The Realm of Possibilities,” a novel written in the form of poems. Do you also consider yourself a poet?

DL:  I think I’m a word person. Different forms let you focus on the words more. With “The Realm of Possibilities,” which was written in verse, I resisted thinking of myself as a poet because most of it’s blank verse and I thought of myself more as writing fiction with line breaks. Over time I realized that the reason that I went to that format for that book was because I really could focus on the words and the language. I do try to do that will all of my books, but I think some forms lend themselves to that better than others. I think “A Lover’s Dictionary,” because of the form and the short entries, every word had to count. Because it was a dictionary it made sense that every word had to count. While I was writing “A Lover’s Dictionary,” the importance of word choices and being very concise, which I’m not being with this answer [laughs], do remind me a lot of the composition of poetry.

GS: How much of David is in either or both of the characters?

DL: Hopefully it feels very autobiographical, even though it’s not. Certainly the main character’s love of words and seeing things in terms of words is something that I as a writer do all the time. But the voice of the character, even though I don’t feel that it’s me, I can relate to it. The storyline is as much based on observing other people as it things I’ve lived myself.

GS: In the midst of the sadness and heartbreak of the book, there is also humor.

DL: It had to be a part of their relationship. For the characters to be together for two and a half years, I think it would be unrealistic for a relationship to be all sadness and pain. There’d be no question about whether or not they should be together [laughs] and the book would be over. I think the complexity of it and the complexity of all relationships is that there are happy and sad moments, funny moment and moments of pain and suffering. In order to accurately portray this relationship and have this ambiguity of whether or not they should be together, I had to show both sides of it. The narrator is clinging to the relationship and you have to see what the positive fun moments are as well as the moments of conflict.

GS: Near the center of the book, “fallible” expresses something that probably goes through the minds of many couples, gay or straight, which is that when one partner cheats, it takes the pressure off of the other, that they weren’t the one to cheat.

DL: That’s interesting. My views mirror the characters’ in the idea that infidelity is not a black and white or open and shut issue in that it opens up a whole lot of complex emotions. And that was certainly one of them. Having to deal with a person being unfaithful, what that means and whether that is, in itself, enough to kill a relationship. In the book, hopefully the feeling of “good, the other person screwed up [laughs], now I’m not going to be the one to screw,” also leads to the other point of view, the notion of “I screwed up and maybe there’s a reason I did and maybe this is my out.” I wanted to dive into something that is often portrayed as a black and white and show that there are a multitude of emotions behind it. It’s the act of navigating that that determines the relationship, not the act itself.

GS: One of the recurring themes in the book relates to substance abuse.

DL: It’s something that the narrator and the lover have to deal with. I wanted there to be some very real conflicts for them. Relationships are more complicated than, “Do I like you?” or “Do I not like you?” There are things that you do, whether by choice or because they are inborn traits, that you have to grapple with, live with or try to change or try to get the other person to change. Having one of them be a seriously flawed drinker was part of that. I wanted to show it on both levels. Not have it be a story about them grappling with and coming to terms with it and getting through to the other side, but show it as a question of either living it or not living with it.

GS: Music also figures into the book. Considering that it also played a significant role in “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist,” do you ever wish that you were in a rock band and not a novelist?

DL: [Laughs] Rachel Cohn, with whom I co-wrote “Nick and Nora” and two other books, has joked that I am a deeply frustrated songwriter. That I write novels in order to put my lyrics into them. I don’t know that I’d actually want to be a performer, but I would love to be able write music. I think music informs my writing as much as any author does. When I’m asked about my literary influences, there’s Ann Tyler and Alice Hoffman and Nick Hornby, but there’s also New Order and Death Cab For Cutie. I’m as influenced as much by the bands I listen to as I am by the authors I read.

GS: Have you started working on your next project?

DL: Yes, I’m just putting the finishing touches on my next Y/A book which comes out in the fall. It’s called “Every You, Every Me,” and it’s a collaboration unlike others I’ve done before, with me and Jonathan Farmer, a photographer friend of mine. He basically gave me random photographs and I wrote a novel incorporating the photographs in it. It turned out really well and I’m happy with it. It’s about an incredibly screwed up kid, who you don’t quite know if he gets what reality is or isn’t, and him dealing with the disappearance of one of his best friends. After my foray into 20-something relationships [laughs] in New York City (in “A Lover’s Dictionary”), I’m now going to go back to high school, which is fine. The truth of the matter is that the line between being a teenager being in your 20s or 30s is not a quite as dark and strong as people pretend it is [laughs].