David Samuel Levinson
“I’m perfectly happy having anything I say announced to the world. I couldn’t care less about privacy.”
– The refreshingly candid subject of this interview, author David Samuel Levinson
What is your earliest memory?
I spent a lot of time on a wooden swing that we had in the backyard of our house in San Antonio underneath 2, huge trees.
I didn’t like being inside our house. It was very loud. The TV was always on.
I come from a middle class, conservative, conventional family who masqueraded as liberal Jews and who really aren’t. I don’t think we can ever really know our parents. It has released me from a lot of sorrows, because I have spent a lot of my time trying to figure out certain aspects of my parents, and I don’t ever think I will.
Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a writer.
When I was 8, I wrote my first little play called, The Toy Box. We’ve all seen this somewhere, but the toys came to life after the store closed. They put the play on for the PTA. I got to direct it. Writer and director at age 8.
I like characters in books over real people.
I prefer the company of make believe than reality. In my mind, everything makes sense.
What advice would you give your teenage self?
Run away. Run far, far away. Leave.
I always knew I wanted to live in New York, but breaking free was hard.
What role did Judaism play in your upbringing?
I love being Jewish.
It made us very exotic. Jews in Texas, in San Antonio. The city has grown by leaps and bounds, and there are probably more Jews there now. When I was growing up, there were 10,000 families or 10,000 Jews total. My mom worked at the JCC as Director of Membership.
My mom’s parents converted to Catholicism in Vienna in the ‘30s before coming over to New York.
One of my grandfather’s uncles told him that no Jew would ever be successful in America, so they should convert.
I just found out recently that my grandmother did not want to convert. They raised my aunts and my mom as Catholic, then my mother found out when she was 22.
My mom finds out she is Jewish, she meets my dad, then she converts and renounces her baptism. I don’t think you really had to do that. Once you’re Jewish, you’re Jewish, but someone gave her advice that she had to convert back, so she did.
I went to a Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, did not go to confirmation. I stopped because I don’t really believe in organized religion and my parents weren’t really religious.
Culturally, I’m far more Jewish than any of them, as far as ticking off boxes that are important to a Jewish identity. Being very vocal about civil rights, valuing education, being literate, being a person of the book.
Can you share a happy memory from your childhood?
Going to the beach with my family in the summer. Going to the movies on Christmas to see King Kong.
One time, I went home, it must have been when I was at Columbia, maybe for Thanksgiving. I remember sitting with my parents, just the 3 of us, and we laughed. There was not a lot of laughter when I was growing up, there was a lot of shouting. I remember thinking, “Why couldn’t it have been like this?”
What motivates and drives you?
Justice, fair play. I’m very socially conscious. I’m ruthless when it comes to figuring out the truth of things, and it also makes me paranoid.
Do you have a personal mantra?
Choose happiness. Today, I woke up saying it.
Talking about my family really riles me up, and it takes me a while to unwind. Having written this novel, I feel like all I do is live it now. I don’t want it to take over my fucking life.
If there’s a quip for our time, for me, at least, it would be, “Love does not conquer all, denial does.”
When do you feel like the best version of yourself?
When I’m writing.
I don’t feel anything. I think that’s part of why I love writing. I don’t exist, and that sounds nihilistic or sad, but the expulsion of the self when one is working on something that doesn’t even really belong to one, that’s how I feel.
When I was writing Tell Me How This Ends Well, I wrote it very quickly, and I knew I was writing a good book. I don’t care if it gets bad reviews, I know in my bones that it is a fucking great book.
I am my best self when I’m doing the work and everything else can go to hell.
I will publish another book whether I get a lot of money for it or not. Everyone’s like, “You have to be Zen about all this,” and I’m just not a Zen person. I never have been, I will never be, I’m just not. I’m Type A, very high strung, which is why I live in the country now, because, can you imagine me in the city at this point?
What do you admire most in others?
Forgiveness. I have a very, very hard time forgiving myself and others. I’ve dealt with my father for 30 years. Generally, compassion, forgiveness, and flexibility. Sometimes, I’m far too rigid.
What do you love about living in the country?
I’ve been coming up here visiting a friend of mine for a long time, 15 years. I love his house. It’s in the middle of nowhere, there are cows, it’s 25 acres, and it’s quiet and I wake up to bird song.
I like going into the city, but I can only spend a couple of hours there at a time now. It’s not that there are too many people, there are too many souls.
I’ve always been very attuned to other people’s pain and suffering. I feel it all the fucking time when I’m in the city.
Also, I find myself coveting shit when I get into New York that I normally don’t covet. I don’t want to live like that anymore.
What is your favorite place on earth?
My favorite place on the planet is my mind, because I can go anywhere.
Traveling today is such a nightmare. There are too many people doing too many things at once. When I was a kid, I would get on an airplane and sometimes there would be 4 other people on the plane. Everything has become overcrowded.
What is an issue or a cause that you care about?
It’s amazing how political I’ve gotten. This election has polarized and divided us. I can’t stand Twitter. I think all social media is a scourge, to be honest. But, I find myself on it now, all the fucking time.
I feel like the resistance needs everyone at this point.
I don’t understand why people hate. When I was a kid, I never understood it either. When people picked on me, I thought, “Do you really have nothing better to do with your time?” I have another novel I want to write about a geneticist who isolates the mean genes.
Favorite Jewish Holiday?
Passover. I love what it symbolizes, I love the 4 questions. It’s a very bawdy holiday. The singing! It’s a Jewish Thanksgiving, basically. I love the food, I love matzah, I love the whole thing, I just love it all.
Best Jewish food? Worst Jewish food?
Most favorite is probably matzah brei. I like to make it savory and then add strawberry jam to it. It’s delicious, it’s the best.
I can’t stand horseradish. I don’t like mustard.
Writers and books you recommend?
Robert Matheson, who wrote I Am Legend, which is a sci-fi, dystopian novel from the 1950s. I like the movie, so I wanted to go back and read it. The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells, another interesting take.
I’m a kind of an Agatha Christie freak. She’s consistently good. I love Donna Tartt, but I don’t think she is consistently good. I think Donna Tartt wrote a good book and then she’s gotten away with writing 2 mediocre books. I love The Secret History.
Photos by Ian Warren