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Chicago Author Spotlight: Adam Levin

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 20, 2010 7:20PM

Rachel Sumpter and Jacob Magraw Mickelson were the artists for the cover of The Instructions. There will soon be five differently colored covers.
We already listed Adam Levin’s debut novel The Instructions as one of our must-reads for the fall. Since Levin is reading at a couple different venues tomorrow night, we wanted to get some more information about the book and how he went about writing it. Here’s what we already know: The Instructions, published by McSweeney’s, is a book everyone is getting super excited about. The story follows four days in the life of the violent yet brilliantly intelligent 10-year-old Gurion Maccabee, who believes he is the messiah and that he is on a mission to start a righteous revolution.

Sure, the book’s 1,000+ pages long. But most people who have read it said they either didn’t notice the length because the got so into it or that powering through, even during the times they wanted to quit, was worthwhile. And it’s probably not going to take you nine years to read - which is how long it took Levin to write The Instructions. Also, you probably won’t be required to read a huge chunk of The Instructions while standing. The author wasn’t so lucky. Two years worth of the book were written while standing due to a busted back. Anyways, there isn’t really any excuse not to read it. After you read our Q-and-A with Levin, we hope you will be even more inclined to pick up The Instructions soon. Here’s what the author told us about his book and work.

Adam Levin reads tomorrow, October 21 at Quimby’s at 7 p.m. and 826CHI at 8:30 p.m.

Chicagoist: A lot of published authors say that finishing the book is only half of the battle. What have you learned/are you learning about promoting your book as the release date approaches?

Adam Levin: Half of what battle? Am I battling? Are we battling?.... Writing fiction is HARD, definitely the hardest thing I do. Promoting the book is...what? It's talking to some people. Reading stuff out loud. Answering nine or ten questions from the Chicagoist. Occasionally it's a little dull, and I don't like planes any more than the next guy, but it's never been harder than, say, forty-three pushups, and usually it isn't dull. I get sent to different cities where I see different friends I wouldn't otherwise get to see. I get to meet new people who love to read books--my favorite kind of people--and learn new things. In San Franscisco last week, I was taught to order a burrito "dorado" (or maybe "dorrado") which means the tortilla is double cooked--made CRUNCHY--which really, let me tell you, improves a burrito.

C: Where did the idea [for The Instructions] come from?

AL: Nowhere really, unless maybe from the sentence "I towel-snapped the ass of the Janitor," which used to be the first line of the book.* Or from having spent my childhood suspecting I was the messiah. Or from having dated a red-haired painter, or from having ceased to date her. Or from having enjoyed fistfights as a boy, or books, or from needing something to do while smoking at my desk.
*the first sentence is now “Benji Nakamook thought we should waterboard each other, me and him and Vincie Portite.”)

C: Did you have a particular target audience in mind when you were writing this?

AL: My sisters. People who love to read fiction.

C: How do you feel about being compared to David Foster Wallace?

AL: Hugely flattered and equally uncomfortable. He wrote some of my all-time favorite fiction.

C: You teach at Columbia College, right? How long have you been there and what do you teach?

AL: I've taught at Columbia for five or six years, but mostly I teach at the School of the Art Institute, now--Fiction Workshops and First Year Seminars with titles like "Violence and Comedy" and "Many Exemplary Short Fictions."

C: What’s one thing about writing that’s really impossible to teach?

AL: How to sit well. I get these killer students, these talented, hardworking, every-teacher's-dream-type students, and I go, "Write perfect sentences over and over until you arrive at a story," and they do it. I tell them, "Never be boring," and they cease to ever be boring. But then I'll say, "Hey, my back hurts really badly and it's probably gonna hurt for the rest of my life because during the first ten-or-so years that I devoted to writing fiction, I sat all hunched over the keyboard for hours on end every day, so please don't sit like that, okay? Make yourself sit up straight when you work or, at the very least, get up and stretch every twenty minutes," and they give me this look like, "Stretch? What are a stretch?"

C: Who inspires your writing and/or who do you read?

AL: Adam Novy, George Saunders, Leslie Lockett, Stanley Elkin, Christian TeBordo, Rebecca Curtis, Jerzy Kosinski, David Foster Wallace, Salvador Plascencia, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, JD Salinger, and Katherine Dunn, a number of whom are Chicagoans.