Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lev Levinson

Ed here:

The survivors in writing are often more interesting to me than the stars who flame out and disappear.
William R. Cox the pulp writer died at ninety two at his typewriter. He'd never been a big star but he'd written pulps and paperback novels for sixty-some years. Ryerson Johnson graduated from the pulps into paperback originals and worked for almost fifty years. Margret Millar had never been a big seller but she finished two novels in the last four years of her life after beating lung cancer and being declared legally blind. Survivors.

Last year or so I became aware of a writer named Len Levinson. I'd seen his name on various blogs but not until I discovered Joe Kenny's truly unique and amazing blog Glorious Trash did I begin to learn about Len. Talk about a survivor. He's been working steadily since 1971 without getting either the promotion or recognition he deserves. Joe convinced Len to write about some of his books and in so doing Len has given us a finest record of the free lance fiction writer I've ever read. And not just because of the ups and downs of his writing career but also the ups and downs of his personal life. 

First I should provide context. I quit my PR job in 1971 to become a writer. I then wrote a novel which took about a year, and got rejected everywhere. I was running out of money and needed a part-time job that would permit me to continue writing.

So I became a cabdriver on the cruel streets of New York City back when cabdrivers were murdered fairly regularly. Some drove during the day because they couldn’t handle the dangers of the night. Others drove during the night because they couldn’t handle daytime traffic. I drove on the night shift for the Metropolitan Garage located in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, a ten minute walk from my apartment.

All sorts of people sat in the back seat of my taxicabs, from Wall Street brokers to prostitutes, movie stars, working people, cops, criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, even my former PR boss Lee Solters got into my cab one night, astonished to see me behind the wheel. While driving them around, I felt inspired to write a novel about a cabdriver who didn’t have all his marbles, and who in many (but not all) ways was me.

I drove on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays nights. My shifts began at 4pm and ended at 4am. When I wasn’t driving, I was home writing the novel that became Cabby. I had virtually no social life during this period and sank into a very strange, isolated frame of mind which became reflected in the novel.

When Joe Kenney asked me to write something about Cabby, I thought I should reread it, because I hadn’t read it for around 42 years, and still remembered it as The Great American Taxicab Novel.

Q. Tell us about your PR job.

I worked in advertising and PR for ten years after I graduated from college, Michigan State University, class of 1961.  First I wrote direct mail letters and brochures for Prentice-Hall, a publishing company in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.  Then I was pressbook editor for Paramount Pictures, which involved writing articles and feature stories based on information supplied by publicists assigned to movies being filmed.  Next I was pressbook editor for 20th Century-Fox, but soon was promoted to trade press contact, which involved writing daily press releases and dealing with reporters and editors who worked for publications like VARIETY, BOXOFFICE, MOTION PICTURE DAILY, FILM DAILY, and others that I don’t remember.  Finally I was a press agent with Solters and Sabinson, an agency that had many clients in the entertainment industry such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Flip Wilson, Bob Hope, Benny Goodman, the Playboy Organization, all the David Merrick Shows, numerous movie clients, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Holiday on Ice, Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, and others that I don’t remember.  I resigned my position at Solters and Sabinson to become a novelist.

Q.  Did you give any thought to having an agent before you quit your job? Did you have any publishing contacts?

I had no literary agent or literary contacts before I quit my job.  But I had a friend with a literary agent.  My friend was William Kotzwinkle, who had been published in the NEW YORKER and other magazines.  He introduced me to his agent, Elaine Markson, who became my agent.  Bill went on to write THE FAN MAN, which many consider the best novel about the Sixties, and then E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTIAL, said to be the best-selling novel internationally of the Eighties.

Q .Were there moments when you thought you’d made a mistake quitting your job?

Many times I thought I was crazy for quitting my job.  But I always hated jobs because they became boring and repetitious after the first three months.  Writing novels was my only chance to break free.  I had no alternatives.

Q.  Given the violence visited on so many cabbies, were you ever afraid?

I was the kind of cabbie who picked up everyone and drove them wherever they wanted.  So I often was in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and other high crime neighborhoods, which could be scary.  No one ever robbed me but occasionally people got out of the cab without paying, and I didn’t feel like chasing them through high crime neighborhoods.  When I was a cabbie, around two cabdrivers were murdered every month.  I drove on the night shift, the most dangerous time, and wrote during the day.

Q.  In your recent notes you dismiss CABBIE as a failure. That surprised me and I disagree. It’s a picaresque and finally detailed book about a certain rather dark occupation lived out in a time of social turmoil.  Stephen Crane did similar pieces of work in his sadly brief career.  Care to disagree?

Everyone’s taste is different.  I’m glad you liked CABBIE.  I don’t think I achieved my ambitions for the novel, but maybe I did.  Writing novels is not science or math.  It’s very nebulous with no absolute standards, and sometimes a writer cannot be objective about his own work.

Q. When CABBIE didn’t sell you say you turned to soft core, selling a book to Midwood and in so doing meeting Peter McCurtin. You say he taught you how to be a professional writer.  What did you learn from him?

Peter taught me the importance of narrative tension, or in other words, no slack sequences.  He also taught me the importance of writing believable characters based on life.  He was very encouraging, and since he’d written so many outstanding novels himself, he inspired confidence.  I believed he knew what he was talking about, and considered him a great man.  He’s gone now, and I miss him very much.
Inline image 1

1 comment:

Ron Scheer said...

Enjoyed this. Thx. Made me think of the TV series TAXI, and I also remember the after-dark New York of that perilous period. [There seems to be a chunk of the post missing at the end...]