“Writing was the solution to every problem—financial, emotional, intellectual,” writer Ariel Levy says at the beginning of her new memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. That sentence is a concise description of Levy’s excitement upon starting work at New York magazine in the late ’90s, but it also works as an explanation for the book itself, which is a beautiful example of how the natural instinct of a writer—to try to analyze ones own life for clues and clarity—can work brilliantly, but sometimes more in service of their work than the person’s own happiness.
Despite the frustrations this dilemma has caused her, we are lucky to have the fruit of Levy’s labors. After working her way up from typing up other people’s articles at New York, she spent several more years there as a cultural writer, before becoming a staff writer at The New Yorker in 2008. For those who read New York during her time there, Levy embodied the best of their work, with trend pieces that were more than just fluff, instead acting as deft explorations and celebrations of the city’s constantly evolving culture (with heavy doses of gossip, humor, and gloss). These pieces resulted in her first book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, which remains an influential and succinct breakdown of how today’s ra-ra feminism was shaped by men during the ’90s and early 2000s before it was embraced by women. Her favored topics remain the same today—sexuality, culture, always women—and have resulted in her notable coverage of everyone from Dash Snow to Donatella Versace to Andrea Dworkin to Caster Semenya to Edith Windsor.
But it was Levy’s moving 2013 piece “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” about the miscarriage of her son when she was five months pregnant, in a foreign country and alone, that seemed to lift her into another stratosphere. That story morphed into The Rules Do Not Apply, which, like her first book, is quite short (a quick 200 pages), making her ability to touch on so many aspects of her life—the fluidity of sexuality; writing; complex family dynamics; infidelity; addiction; motherhood; fertility; loss—something to marvel at. To cull it down to something simple feels almost in opposition to Levy’s work, but primarily it tracks her professional life in tandem with her relationship with her now former partner Lucy (a pseudonym, one of several in the book), which ended soon after Levy’s miscarriage. The couple had grappled with infidelity on Levy’s part and alcoholism on Lucy’s, grief on both of theirs. And now, in the present day, Levy is with the doctor she met at the hospital in Mongolia, Dr. John Gasson (“the handsomest man in the world came through the door and said he was my doctor,” is how she describes him).
In reflecting on her own life, Levy’s tone is deeply honest, and at the same time manages to not be defensive or apologetic about her decisions; she’s not judgmental, but remains highly inquisitive. It’s a delicate balance, one rarely pulled off. The through line is her struggle to see things as accurately as possible, to translate her gift for interview and narrative into something personally productive. She describes her outlook on life around the time she got married to Lucy by saying:
Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism—a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us. Writers may be particularly susceptible to this outlook, because we are accustomed to the power of authorship. (Even if you write nonfiction, you still control how the story unfolds.) Life was complying with my story.
Here were shadows I saw out of the corner of my eye that looked like problems waiting to become real, but you never knew with shadows.
As most narratives require, soon comes the fall: Levy finds that the things she holds dear to her are not as sturdy as they seemed. Most significant, however, was learning how much you can miss when you think of writing and its process as your ultimate savior: “My job is to interpret, and to communicate my interpretation persuasively to other people,” she writes. “The idea that in life, unlike in writing, the drive to analyze and influence might be something worth relinquishing was to me a revelation.”
As you can tell, I loved Levy’s book, and have followed her work for years, which made interviewing her a slight struggle. I had to navigate around what personally resonated with me and what would mean a great deal to others. A few weeks ago I met with Levy at her apartment in New York. It was very warm out, and she suggested we sit on her stoop. Though an audio recording of this conversation would likely only be interesting to few (and would include a great deal of bus noise), I wish you could hear her voice. Levy is effusive, energetic, often emphasizing particular words with a passion that I’ve seen most often in people who love talking to other people about their lives. After we talked, she turned the tables on me, wanting to know about my past. That section is not included (and the rest of the interview has been lightly edited for brevity, length and clarity), as part of my attempt to do what Levy approached in writing a memoir: make sure the story is interesting to those who weren’t there to experience it. But if you take anything away from our conversation, I hope it’s that you should read The Rules Do Not Apply.
JEZEBEL: Is this the beginning of your [press tour]?
ARIEL LEVY: I’m in it.
So it’s a lot of talking about yourself. And that’s… okay?
Yeah. It’s weird. I mean, it’s my fault. I’m not like, why is everybody asking me about me? I’m like, well, I did this. But it is weird. And I’ll tell you what else is weird: it’s weird talking to journalists, it’s weird not having a notepad. It’s so strange to talk to someone and not be like [mimes posing with a pen over a pad of paper].
To be on the other side.
Mmhm. But I’ll tell you something. It’s fun! Because it’s my peeps, it’s journalists. I like talking to journalists. I mean, it’s…
Yeah! It’s all I ever do. It’s just usually we’re socializing.
You can pretend we’re socializing.
I am pretending that. I’m pretending that even as we speak.
I want to start with Female Chauvinists Pigs, which I know you have said you don’t like, or think is too obvious.
I think it’s true, I just don’t give a shit anymore. That’s it. It’s not that it’s wrong—it’s right. I just don’t care.
So for me—you were very honest in your book, I feel like I need to come to this being very honest too—
That book was the first thing I read that made me feel like, this is what I want to do.
That makes my day. That’s so lovely.
I mean, it’s true. I read it in college—
Oh my god, are you that much younger?
No it’s fine. But what are you, like 25?
I’m 28 now. It came out in 2005...
If you say so, I don’t remember.
So it had been out for awhile when I read it. And I had read you—I grew up in New York, and I had read New York magazine my entire life. It was my dream publication.
So I went back and was looking at some of your clips and thought, oh man, I remember these pieces, just not that you had written them. And what I think is interesting about that book is how much I can see how your voice and your style has changed. You can see the trajectory. When you look at that book—and that book is very much a product of where you were at then and the pieces you were writing then—what do you think has changed in you and how you want to approach things?
That’s a good question. That book taught me that I didn’t want to be a polemicist. And only because—again, I’m not disavowing it, I think it’s true—I’ve learned that my natural mode as a writer is storytelling, not argument. I like to thread an idea through a story so that at the end—the best is when I get an email from a reader being like, “your piece made me think this.” And I’m like, yeah I know, ‘cause I told you that. But if you don’t realize I told you that, that’s great, that’s good. I want to insidiously instill my ideas in readers. You know what I mean?
Instead of hitting them over the head with it.
It’s purely just a matter of preference, it’s not like I don’t respect that kind of writing. Some people are brilliant at that kind of writing, plenty of people. It’s just not my jam, it’s not my natural mode. And you want to write in the mode that feels most authentic, that’s how you’re going to do your best work. And also it just feels icky to write in a mode that’s not your authentic mode, you feel like you’re fronting.
Do you think it was just age, that that was what you gravitated towards then?
Well no, I think it was a process of finding your voice. I think you don’t know what kind of writer you are necessarily until you learn it by trying, by writing a lot and figuring out—Okay, what kinds of stories am I best at telling? What needs to be in play for me to do my best work? And I think as you become more experienced, you get better at recognizing which stories you’re going to be able to do a good job at. And part of the reason I did this book was that I thought it was a story. If it was someone else’s story, I’d want to tell it. Because a lot of issues I care about come into play. And it just seemed kind of insane to be like, well no, it’s disqualified because it’s my story. Maybe it should be the opposite of disqualified because if it’s your story, you know all the stuff about it.
You know how when you’re reporting, you’re pretty much always putting together stuff from different sources, and you’re doing the best you can based on all this information you’re bringing in to put together an accurate account of what you think is up? It’s very exciting when you’re writing about your own life that you’re like, I know every single thing that happened, I was there, I know the truth, insofar as my own perspective is the truth. Obviously, my mom or my former spouse would have their own take on it. Insofar as what I know, you can try to tell the exact truth. And that’s exciting. That’s a sort of slightly thrilling project, I’ve found.
Reading Female Chauvinist Pigs is fun, and that’s how I felt about reading your work when I first was introduced to it, and then that’s also the way you write about doing that work in this book. When you read New York magazine, you could feel the fun that you describe about making it.
Oh, it was so much fun. New York was a really fun place then. We hadn’t had September 11th, and it really still seemed like everything might be okay. Like the environment, for example. It was a much lighter time. There’s a reason that they were like, let’s put Sex and the City on the air! And everyone was like, ahhhh! Cupcakes! Shoes! That was how it felt then, really. These are much darker days. And it’s not just for me; these are dark days.
I was 12 when September 11th happened, and it was the first moment in life where I realized, oh, things are totally different than I thought they were. Which is sort of what The Rules Do Not Apply is about.
Totally. Although in some ways—on the one hand everything’s different than I thought, and then in other ways, when I look at it, it’s like…
It was always that way and I didn’t see it.
Yeah, or like… Now that I’m through the other end of the grief, I’m really happy with my life, and I’m really grateful for a lot of things that came out of that—like the humbling that losing most everything that mattered in a deep way, except for my friendships and my writing and my family. I think I have much less of the delusion of control now than I used to, and I’m grateful for that. I would trade whatever growth has come out of this for having my son be four, which is what he would be [gestures to how tall he would have been]. But I don’t get to pick.
So given that I don’t get to pick, I’m happy with the life that’s come my way. And I think my point was just, when you were saying, “oh I didn’t know this could happen,” yeah, I was pretty surprised by that whole turn of events. However, when I look at my life now, it kind of makes sense. You know, if you spend your twenties and thirties seeking adventure and wanting to write, you can’t be that shocked when you’re 42 and you’re like, I don’t have a traditional nuclear family, I don’t have kids, I’m splitting my time between New York and South Africa and doing stories. Well, you built that life. I mean, you tried to veer off into something else but that didn’t happen.
Like something in you obviously didn’t want the other thing.
Well, no, I desperately wanted the other thing and I spent years after that trying to have a child and couldn’t. And that’s the great sadness of my life. That’s the number one sadness of my life. But I also think it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to not get everything you want and have there be things in your life that you’re like, yeah I wish I had that. Not casually. Like I really wish I had that. That’s okay.
“Thanksgiving in Mongolia” came out in November 2013...
Pretty much a year to the day after [my miscarriage].
As you’re well aware, it was pretty wildly well-received. Were you surprised by the response at all?
It’s really weird, I’ve never had the experience before of having a piece that just came out of my fingers. That piece, it wasn’t a series of decisions the way it usually is, it was a one-off. It just came out of my fingers.
I’ve had maybe one of those in my life. It’s very rare.
It’s not a thing. It’s usually a pain in the ass and a whole annoying process. That was not like that, that just came out my fingers. So I knew it was something different, because my experience of writing it was different.
And then were you like, I want to write this as a book?
Yeah. Well, I realized I had more to say. And like I said to you, I realized, if this was anybody else’s story I’d want to tell it. So I’m going to tell it. And I also realized from that piece and from the response to that piece that very intense stuff happens to half the human population around pregnancy, birth, menstruation, menopause. The whole very intense reproductive life of the human female animal is not sufficiently covered in literature and art and comedy. I mean it’s starting to be, like Ali Wong [who Levy profiled in the fall], but I just felt, as a feminist, it’s important that that be a legitimate subject for everything. For art and writing and discussion. I think that it’s very heavy-duty stuff and obviously not all women are going to get pregnant or have birth or any of that. But something will happen in every woman’s life that is a big deal around this human female animal side of life to do with a woman’s body. And I thought that that was worthy of my energy. And I wanted to be one of the people who was going to…
Get that out there.
Yeah. I think it matters.
I definitely think it matters. That piece felt very real but none of it was surprising to me in the way that it felt like it was received by, maybe, men. It felt like some reception of it was like, whoa! This happens! And to me it was like, well, yeah.
I think though, before my experience, if someone told me, oh, I had a miscarriage, I would be like, uh huh. I didn’t know that I understood what pregnancy and any of that was about. I don’t think I really had a concept of what it was. I can’t speak for women in general, but for me, until I was in that sphere of life, I didn’t really get it.
I wonder too if so much of it is about how much we societally don’t emphasize talking about grief in general. So much of that piece and this book is about what it feels like to be in deep pain. And unless you’ve had that experience, I think a lot of people don’t want to go there. Which, I kind of don’t blame them.
Sure. No, it’s not fun. It’s worth it. Again, I’d trade it for my kid. But given that that’s not an option, there’s a lot to be gained from loss and suffering. There’s a lot to be gained from it if you kind of force yourself.
The piece really flowed out of you; was the book the same process?
The book was harder. But it was a lot easier than Female Chauvinist Pigs, I’ll tell you that. Because I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I know my voice. It’s still hard work to write a book or an article, whatever. But I know what I want to sound like. Or not what I want to sound like—I know what I sound like. Because people will say, what reader do you write for? And maybe some people are so talented that they can pick—“I want this book to sound like this, I want this book to sound like this.” I’m only ever just trying to do the best I can. I’m not doing this for this reader, that for that reader, I’m just trying to write on a sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, piece to piece level, the best I can.
Before writing it, did you have an idea of what you wanted to touch on and what you didn’t want to touch on? It’s pretty short and you really managed to cover a lot of ground.
I knew what I wanted in there and I knew what I wanted it to feel like.
The thing that was particularly remarkable to me was your tone about yourself and the choices that you’ve made. It’s hard to be both critical of yourself and not wallow in self-flagellation.
Because too much self-flagellation is really boring. Because what’s boring is beating yourself up. I think what I’m interested in reading about in other people’s work is the sort of effort to make meaning out of bad choices. The effort to learn something.
How much of making that meaning happened while writing and how much happened before and it was just about getting it out there?
I’m trying to remember. I think a lot of it had happened before and then a little more happened during.
When you’re kind of piecing it all together.
Yeah, and also, as I was writing the book, my life continued to happen. The story continued. And that throws its own light on things.
You can write an end, and now you’re talking about a book that has an end, but it really didn’t have an end.
Well I’m not dead, so I hope it keeps going for awhile. I mean, ideally I’d love for it to keep going for a few decades. As many as possible, frankly.
I don’t know how familiar you are with Mary Karr, but when I was reading this I thought a lot about memoir writing, and she has talked so much about what you do with the fact that you’re writing your own life but you’re writing other people. Was that something you struggled with?
Of course, of course. I’m still worried about it. For example, my former spouse, she read it before anybody, before I turned it in, before anything, and I was like, if there’s anything you can’t live with, I’ll take it out. Because she’s much more important to me than the book. And she characteristically, very generously, was like, you know what, I’m not going to censor you, it’s your story. Which is who she is, that’s characteristic. So technically, I’m off the hook. But morally and emotionally, I’m very concerned about how this is going to impact her and what it feels like for her and it seems deeply unfair that this is my take. Her take is in many places probably extremely different. So I’m very conflicted about that.
I wonder, do you think that feeling ever really goes away?
I don’t know. Ask me in 10 years. I hope it goes away. I hope it goes away, because it’s a sour-tummied feeling.
It seems like it would be that feeling like when you publish a piece that you’re not sure about and your stomach gets in knots.
A little sour. I mean it’s all intertwined with, the end of that relationship was so painful. It’s still really painful because we love each other so much. We went through a lot together, and we’ve tried really hard to reconstruct our relationship as a friendship. And it’s hard, it’s hard to do with someone you were married to for 10 years. But the alternative is not being in each other’s lives, which is unacceptable. So it’s all hard.
Early in the book you say your big fascination is, “What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances?” A lot of the overarching narratives we’re given about womanhood and sexual identity are that of… maybe not extreme suffering, but real confusion. You explore all those themes but I didn’t get a huge sense from the book that you were ever conflicted about loving women or loving men.
Not really. I think there was a minute in my twenties when I was like, I gotta figure out which I am. That for a minute bothered me a lot. And then I think at some point, I was like, no I don’t. And then I was happy again. But also, considering the parents I came from and the profession I’m in and the city where I live, it just wasn’t that big of a deal ever.
To me, it was like, this is great.
And it’s even less of a big deal now, my god.
It felt ahead of it’s time, in a way. It was so nothing.
Good. It probably wasn’t nothing, but it was close to nothing. Because it’s like I say in the book, when my dad was like, can you believe how cool I’m being about this? And I was like, of course, dude. Seriously? What? Okay yeah, I’m super impressed. It’s only completely in keeping with everything about you.
Another thing I found really spot-on was when you talk about alcoholism and what it is like to be around someone who suffers from addiction. There are probably more narratives from people who are addicts than people who are around them, which, considering how many people are addicts, seems imbalanced slightly? So many people know addicts.
I think part of it is because, you know, it feels bad to talk about it. It feels [sighs], it feels like a betrayal of the person. At the same time, again, I do think it’s an experience that’s worth talking about because it turns out I had no idea that there were these particular things that are the way that, oh, yeah, that’s a way not only addicts are, but it’s a way spouses of addicts are and families of addicts are. I didn’t know that, my parents weren’t addicts. I’d never been to Al-Anon until I went to Al-Anon and was very resistant to it.
That scene to me was really relatable. Because you’re kind of describing, ugh, what, what, and then you’re like, ohhhh, what is this?
Yeah. Well the thing they say is, they say at the meetings, take what you want and leave the rest. And that is sort of like, okay, that helps me.
It’s a good life strategy.
Yeah. But it’s particularly a good Al-Anon strategy. Because some of it, particularly if you’re someone who’s obsessed with words, it can be very, ugh [gestures, hair-pulling]. I know it sounds a little dopey, but the idea that in life, unlike in writing, the urge to analyze and influence might be something worth relinquishing was a revelation.
That line in the book was something I’ve been thinking about prior to reading this, and reading it was like, yes. This is what I have been trying to grapple with.
Did you grow up with an addict?
Yeah, my dad was an alcoholic.
See I think about that a lot, what it’s like for a kid, as opposed to the spouse. It’s so much the same and so different.
I think for both of them you get into a confusing caretaker role. Your stereotypical set up gets kind of fucked up, because you’re like, wait, I’m not the child anymore, I’m not the spouse anymore, I’m something else but I wasn’t trained or set up for this.
It’s a real mindfuck. And that’s one of the reasons I think there’s not more writing by spouses of, children of—it’s like, what do you do in those roles? You try to caretake and you feel guilty.
There’s no good answer. Nothing’s the right answer. Nothing you do matters, which is a weird feeling.
Nothing’s the right answer. Well that’s the other thing, and that to me was something that I kind of got from Al-Anon that helped me grieve the baby and going onwards, the fact that I’m not able to have children. Which, like I said to you, there are some things where the story kept going. I didn’t know when I started this book that that was it, that I was never going to have a kid. I didn’t know that. And as that became apparent over the last few years, I really had to be like, oh, I guess I really need to mean what I’m saying in this book. I guess I really need to mean it, and mean this stuff that I kind of first got exposed to in Al-Anon, which is, this is not within my control. And that’s the only way to be happy. Or forget happy, just to exist in a peaceful way, is to be like, I can’t control this, so I’m not going to spend the rest of my life aching over this thing I can’t have. It hurts.
When your day-to-day job is benefited from these instincts, and then you go home at the end of the day, how do you turn those instincts off and not apply them to your person life?
Right. It’s hard. I think it’s a life’s work, is to realize you are in charge on the page, you are there to be the author and make the narrative and take away things that aren’t working.
And you are positively reinforced having those skills.
As well you should be! Those are important skills for a writer and you’re there to shape what’s on the page. That is not how life works. In life, the challenge is to surrender. You don’t want to roll around like a lump of goo on the sidewalk all the time, you want to make efforts to live the life you want to live. There’s this psychologist holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl [who wrote], “When we are no longer able to change a situation... we are challenged to change ourself.”
If your whole job is to look for narrative and question things, it’s difficult to go into a scenario where people are saying, your questioning won’t help you here.
Yeah, to me it really was like a revelation. Even though aspects of that, of thinking there’s something greater than you and you’re not in control, I mean that’s the basis of every religion. I’m not religious but I do think that. It’s not like all of a sudden I found god—I’m agnostic—but I definitely had to switch to, “I’m not in charge, there’s something bigger than me.” To live. And I don’t mean there’s something bigger like a big architect in the sky.
And you can imagine how many people are like, “oh, you met the person you’re in love with the day you lost your baby, if you hadn’t lost your baby you wouldn’t this, doesn’t that make you think everything happens for a reason?” I think everything happens for 400 reasons. I think I lost the baby because I was older than my body wanted to be to have children. I think I was older than my body wanted to be to have children because when I was younger I was focused on being a writer and at clutch time, when I was 35, what did I do? I had an affair. I was not mature enough to commit to being a parent right then. And it is a crummy design flaw of the human female animal that right when you’re mature enough, right when you’re like, I actually think I could be a good mom now, is when you’re body’s like, okay, that’s great—I’m out.
Right, like, I was ready 10 years ago or more.
20! That is mean. That is not nice, mother nature, that is a mean trick and it hurt my feelings. But it’s life. And it ain’t life for men. They can keep pumping them out.
The “everything happens for a reason” thing I find generally highly unhelpful.
It’s also like, tell that to a Syrian refugee. What a ridiculous, self-serving concept for a person who has enough to eat and a house and isn’t being bombed to espouse.
When you talk about meeting this amazing person out of this bad thing—the talking about “everything happens for a reason” and then using that as an example, when people do that, isn’t that just kind of like… it’s not that surprising to me that that happened. I mean it’s amazing, it’s great, but doesn’t grief often bring us to things that we never have experienced before? Doesn’t it allow us an ability to connect with people that we would not have connected with before?
Such a good point. And that’s the cool thing about grief, and that was the cool thing about the response to “Thanksgiving in Mongolia”: It was cool, it was a privilege, getting all these emails from women who’d had stillborns, who’d had children, actual human children die, who’d had miscarriages—all these things from women who wanted to connect on this super intense, super primal level and I was up for that. That felt like a real privilege. And frankly, often a real comfort. Because it’s very isolating, grief, no matter what is the cause of your grief. The world is going on like nothing’s happened, because of course, for everyone else in the world, nothing has happened.
Or your thing hasn’t happened. But it feels like nothing has happened to them.
And so getting lots of letters from lots of ladies being like, “something like that happened to me, it’s so painful”—I was like, thank you ladies! Thank you sisters. It was cool. That was cool. Because you have to realize, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” was only a year after the shit hit the fan. So I was still suffering. I don’t think I knew how much I was still grieving because it was so much better than the initial grief. I didn’t realize that another three years later, which is now, I would feel totally different.
I was listening to your Longform interview and you were talking about how working helped you through it and I was thinking about how you can have things that help you through it but literally the only thing that works is time. It’s such a bitch. It’s the only thing that works.
It’s the only thing that works.
So you just have to wait.
That, and I think, it’s not a given that bad things will happen to you and it’ll go away and you’ll feel better. You have to do some work at realizing, you have to get to the point where you stop saying, “why me” and you start thinking “why not me.” You have to stop seeing the world through soot-colored glasses. Which I definitely was for awhile. For a minute there I was like, I am fucked. I am actually fucked. This is it. I’m going down. Not “I’m dying,” but my narrative is switching gears into a dark, sad, shitty story and it’s gonna stay there. And you have to do some stuff, you have to make some choices to be like, no, I’m not going out like that, I’m gonna embrace what I have and find a way to be—and the way you do that is to be grateful.
It’s being like, okay, wait a minute, I haven’t actually lost everything. I still have a roof over my head, I still have my health, I still have these relationships with friends that in some cases I’d built over decades. And that’s so cool. Because when my marriage fell apart, I felt like such a failure as a human on the deepest level. I was like, I’m bad at love. Realizing that, I was like, well, I do have these other kinds of love relationships. I do have these intimacies with my friends that have been successes over 20 and 30 years. That helps. That made me feel better about myself and also made me feel like, I have something to be grateful for—these are a value, I’m grateful for them.
Just because they’re not exalted as the pinnacle of human experience does not devalue them in any way.
No. And you know, everybody doesn’t get everything. I don’t get kids; not everybody gets friends—I really dig my friends. These people were really really there for me, they really really were like family. And that’s cool, I’m grateful for that. And I’m grateful I fell in love again. It doesn’t change the sadness of my first marriage failing. But it’s a beautiful thing, a great thing.
A thing I thought was nice that kept popping up was your mom saying, “get on the plane, do the thing.” [“I called my mother the next morning from the airport, anxious. She said, ‘Get on the plane. You will be fine,’” Levy writes of her mother’s advice before one of her trips.]
It’s like what Nora [Ephron] said [who Levy profiled]. You can sit home and feel bad for yourself—briefly. And then you’ve gotta start writing the next thing.
Clearly you love both your parents very much, but it felt like there was a particular fascination with your mom in the book.
Just like my former spouse, my mom was very generous and supportive about writing and always has been, and was like, you obviously should publish whatever you want. But she was like, I feel ashamed that people are going to know that I did this gross thing, that I made this terrible choice as a parent, with her having this 20-year affair with this guy who was in and out of the house who was a pretty bad guy. And it was bad judgment. It was definitely bad judgment and it definitely had a bad, destructive effect on our family and on me, but the thing is, my mom is a fantastic mother if you’re a grown-up. And I didn’t just want to tell the story of, oooh, here’s this dramatic upsetting thing she made happen in my childhood. I also wanted to be like, look at what else she does. She’s a great mom for me as an adult and through this experience she was 10 out of 10. And because part of what I was thinking about in the book was motherhood, right? And I think there’s this idea of a “good mother”; well, it’s a very different thing to be a good mother to a toddler than it is to be a good mother to a teenager than it is to be a good mother to a grown-up. Not everybody can do all those things. Some people are better at some bits. And some people are good at all. And some people are bad at all.
Both of your parents go through pretty scary struggles that I’m sure most people can relate to. But then at the same time you say before your miscarriage, nothing truly bad had ever happened to you. [“I had been so lucky. So little had truly gone wrong for me before that night on the bathroom floor,” Levy writes of her miscarriage.]
Well my parents lived, right? They each had cancer but they lived.
Is that end the distinction of true darkness?
There’s something about losing a baby, losing your kin that came from you that’s a different kind of pain. Ask your parents, or ask your friends who have kids. I think it’s a pretty universal truth: your parents love you in a way that you don’t love them.
I often think, I could spend my whole life and I will never love my mother as much as she loves me. And she’s one of my favorite people on earth.
And guess what that is: nature. The human species survives because mothers and fathers have a primal, irrational, passionate love for their children. Now you love your parents, but it’s a different kind of love, and I only know that because I felt it for like 10 minutes. And then I felt the pain of losing it for years. And I still feel it, it’s just different. Now it’s incorporated into my human project. It lives in me, I’m not living in it, if that makes sense.
That’s the best way I’ve heard anyone describe it in a long way.
Thanks, I’m a professional writer [smiles].
That is the distinction though, right—you are not consumed by it, it fits within you.
It’s just in there. I don’t think it ever goes away. I think on my deathbed I’ll still be like, I’m sad that that kid didn’t live. But I can live with it, it’s not unbearable, I can bear it. Whereas at first, I was like, I actually can’t bear it. This is unbearable.
The constant, I can’t not think about this.
I was just like, there’s no fucking way I can be expected to accept this. It’s not acceptable. And then eventually it’s like, well, you’re gonna have to. It’s like if we just sat here being like, Obama’s still president. No he’s not. He’s not. Just because this is unacceptable that there’s an orange monster who’s president, it’s still true.
So you end the book open-endedly.
I tried to.
What were you trying to do with it?
I was trying to say, I’m choosing surrender. That’s my choice. I’m choosing to accept that this is the hand I’ve been dealt and that I’m gonna find a way to be in it fully. To occupy the present, to not be like, if only this, if only that, if only this, if only that. Because it’s not a way to live. And I wanted it to end on being open to what was next. To get on the plane, you’ll be fine. To get on with it. What I didn’t want to do was pretend that it was all tied up and fine, and oh so it’s a happy ending, someday my prince will come. Because that’s not how it works. It’s not like you fall in love again and then everything’s solved. You’re still mourning you. I was still mourning the baby, my spouse, my marriage ending. All sorts of stuff. Mostly those two things. It’s also, by the way, not like that just fixed things. It’s not an easy thing to be like, I know what, let’s fall in love: I live in New York, you live in South Africa, you work in Mongolia, your kids are heading towards grown and you’re almost done with that part of your life and I’m desperate to have children. Getting that off the ground was not a simple, easy, fun solution. That was a hard rocky thing. Which fortunately worked out.
Because you wanted it to.
And because certain things happened. John’s kids grew up; they’re now are adults, so we can be here more than South Africa. A bunch of different things fell into place eventually.
My mom once said this when I was young and I was like, what are you talking about? But she said, sometimes timing is all that matters. I think if you’re someone like me and maybe someone like you, you want to believe that…
You’re in charge. That you can make your own plan. And that, you know, I think that’s growing up. That’s adulthood. It’s realizing that some choices are permanent and you don’t get to remake them and it’s not always in your control. The good news is, you still are very young, you still have a lot of control. You can still make a lot of choices. But, I’m here to tell you: make them carefully, because some of them can’t be unmade.
The Rules Do Not Apply is out tomorrow.