Books·How I Wrote It

Why Elise Levine is fascinated by risk

The author discusses the creative process behind Blue Field, her latest novel and first book in almost 15 years.
Elise Levine is the author of the novel Blue Field. (Photo courtesy of Elise Levine)

It's been almost 15 years since Elise Levine released her last book, Requests and Dedications. But she's back with a profound and captivating look at risk, loss and grief with her novel Blue Field. Marilyn is a deep sea diver who keeps on taking bigger and bigger risks — but at what cost?

Below, Levine dives deep into the creative process behind Blue Field.

The motivation of risk

"I was fascinated by the spectacle of some people's desire for extreme experience. I was interested in their willingness to undertake risk and enter the rigours of pain, hardship, constraint and all the training necessary in order to pursue a sense of liberation. I thought there were obvious novelistic possibilities for tension, conflict and suspense. I was really interested in getting to the core of why someone would pursue these things. What grips someone and keeps them going on this pursuit?

"I used to do this kind of diving many years ago, at a very novice level. However, a lot of Marilyn's experiences are not my own. They have the shadow of an experience hanging over them, but I spent years working them into fiction. Sometimes when people read fiction they, ideally, think the protagonist is the author. But, in almost all cases, I am not Marilyn."

Form and theme

"I spent about 12 years writing Blue Field, but I would often put it down for a time. It was very useful for me to take those breaks because I would come back and see what I was trying to do or where the novel needed to go.

"I came to see that it was really a novel about grief and loss. Deepening or heightening is a metaphor in the book, and heightening that sense of loss was the through-line. The other aspect to that was uncovering the form, which is mostly brief chapters and sections. The novel needed to have a lot of white space. I wrote the sentences toward that form: chiselling them out along with the images. I realized that I could slip the bounds of the traditional realist novel and use fantastical, hallucinatory images in order to more deeply mine Marilyn's experience."

Finding power in the precise

"I was influenced as a teenager by writers like Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Angela Carter. They were writers whose lines could get really long and really internal, but their writing was always extremely precise. That model of writing is my platonic ideal.

"My characters are always pressured and intense and I'm trying to capture that through pressured language and form. Blue Field uses a lot of repetition to get at the protagonist, Marilyn's, obsessiveness. It's like taking a minimalist, small palette and trying to get a lot of power out of it.

"At one point I think this novel's manuscript was about 600 pages long. It just had all the research and exposition in it. It was crazy. A lot of the direct technical information was stripped out as I kept realizing it would just bore the reader. There was a lot of weighing of what the reader needed to know and what I could risk pulling out.

"I wanted to juxtapose that lyrical — and at times dilatory — syntax against this very blunt, stripped language. This enterprise that these characters are undertaking is extremely psychologically and physically difficult, but at the same time there is this sense of awe and liberation. I was trying to evoke that paradoxical experience the characters were undergoing."

Elise Levine's comments have been edited and condensed.

Correction: This article originally stated it had been more than 20 years since Elise Levine's last book. Her previous book, Requests and Dedications, was published in 2003.

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