MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Paul Levinson today. Paul is a Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University. His stories and novels have been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Edgar, Prometheus, and Audie Awards. His novel THE SILK CODE won the Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel of 1999. He’s appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the History Channel, NPR, and numerous TV and radio programs. He was President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 1998 to 2001. His web page is here.
Since I love a good time travel story, I recently read THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES. What led you to this plotline?
PAUL LEVINSON: I never believed that story that came down to us through The Crito, in which Crito (they only had one name in those days) comes to Socrates the night before he’s supposed to drink his death sentence, the hemlock, and tells Socrates that there’s a ship waiting for him in Piraeus, the Athenian harbor, which Socrates can take to escape, and Socrates says, oh no, I may criticize the state, but I would never put myself above it, so I’ll stay here and drink the hemlock. That rang untrue to me, and in fact went against every bone in my body. If some jury sentenced me to death for my political opinions, and an old friend gave me an escape option, I’d be out of there in a New York minute. I mean, take me to Thebes, any place where I can continue my criticism of the state. So I never bought that story, never thought it gave the real reason that Socrates declined the boat to safety. I read some plausible alternative explanations, but, in the end, I came up with my own … which you’ll find at the end of THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES.
VENTRELLA: What background did you have to write about Socrates? Or was this just something you were always interested in?
LEVINSON: A combination: I was always interested in Socrates, and I also have some philosophic background. My first published book was IN PURSUIT OF TRUTH: ESSAYS ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF KARL POPPER, which was published in 1982 (I assembled and edited the anthology). I read I. F. Stone’s THE TRIAL OF SOCRATES when it was published in 1988, and found its explanation of why Socrates was so provocative at his trial intriguing and plausible. That nonfiction got me thinking about the plot that would eventually become THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES.
VENTRELLA: I note that the book has discussion questions in the back. Since I learned a lot, I am wondering if it has been required reading for courses?
LEVINSON: Those discussion questions were put in at that suggestion of Tor Books, which published that paperback. Frankly, I think it’s lame to put in discussion questions at the end of a novel which was certainly not intended as a textbook. On the other hand, it has been used as required reading in a few courses over the years, and I’m certainly very happy and grateful for that. I am especially glad, by the way, that I was able to able to write from the perspective of a female hero – Sierra Waters – it was fun writing from the point of view of a gender that’s not you, and I hope I got it mostly right.
VENTRELLA: What is it about time travel stories that we like?
LEVINSON: First, travel to the past and to the future are two different things, with different payoffs. Travel to the past has the irresistible appeal of changing something we don’t like in history – either in world history, or in our personal history. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to do that? Travel to the future shows us where we, those we love, and the world may be in the future – that’s important knowledge, too. But both are very likely impossible, which is what also makes these kinds of stories such appealing fiction.If I traveled to the past and changed something I didn’t like, how would I have knowledge of that in the first place? You’d need to say PL 1 from Reality 1 traveled to the past and changed it to Reality 2, with PL 2 and no knowledge of what was changed, but that’s ok because PL 1 did the time travel not PL 2. But that kind of new reality snapping into being with every drop of the time traveler’s hat is even more incredible than time travel. Meanwhile, if I traveled to tomorrow, and saw you were wearing a pair of jeans with a slight tear in the knee, that would mean you had no free will – that you will have no choice but to put on those jeans tomorrow, whatever else you may want to wear. And I think we do indeed have free will, that we can wear whatever we please. So that’s why time travel is likely impossible, but also why it’s so good to read or see on the screen.
VENTRELLA: You have two sequels – do you plan any more?
LEVINSON: I have no specific plans for a fourth novel in this saga, but you never know. When I wrote UNBURNING ALEXANDRIA, the sequel to THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES, I didn’t expect to write a sequel to that, but CHRONICA just came to me.
I do have a fourth Phil D’Amato novel about half-way finished, and a first chapter to a sequel of BORROWED TIDES. So, yeah, I like sequels, and we’ll likely see Sierra Waters again, somewhere down the line.
VENTRELLA: Or up the line, as the time travel case may be.
Some time travel stories involve closed universes, where what happens in the past does not change the present; you’ve gone the other way. Tell us about your decision-making process. Do you personally prefer one to the other?
LEVINSON: For some reason, I’ve always been partial to the kind of time travel story in which someone travels to the past to prevent some kind of bad event, then it turns out that the time traveler is the one who made that event happen, or contributed to it in some way. There’s a little of that in THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES, but there are also changes in the present as a result of the time travel, and that’s exciting to write, too. I think the key is to keep the reader off-balance, never quite knowing what to expect, but weaving a story that has enough connection to the reality we know to be plausible and therefore even more unsettling.
VENTRELLA: You’ve released your Phil D’Amato series with the comment that they are “they way the author always meant them to be.” How is that? What was it about the previous versions that you didn’t like?
LEVINSON: The late David Hartwell was my editor at Tor for all three Phil D’Amato novels, BORROWED TIDES, and THE PLOT TO SAVE SOCRATES (not the sequels). David along with Stan Schmidt were the best editors I ever had the luck and pleasure to work with. But I didn’t agree with every one of David’s edits or the changes in my initial manuscript he suggested. Sometimes we discussed this, and I got my way. Other times, I went along with the suggestions. In some of these cases, I found I was happy or at least ok with these changes when I prepared the three novels for Kindle re-issue. In other cases, I realized that I preferred my original wording, or plot point, after all. That’s what I meant by “author’s cut” or publishing the novels “the way the author always meant them to be”. Ultimately, there are no huge differences in the original Tor and the newer Kindle versions – but I do like the Kindles a little more.
VENTRELLA: Tell us about the series!
LEVINSON: Phil D’Amato began his exploits in “The Chronology Protection Case”. Stan Schmidt, then editor of Analog Magazine, got back to me in 1995, almost a year after I had sent him the story, and said, I really like this, but why did you kill off such an interesting character? I thought it over, decided to save Phil’s life, and expanded the short story into a novelette, which was published in Analog a few months later. That novelette has been reprinted five times, was a Nebula Award finalist, has been used as a text in at least one science fiction class in the MidWest for a decade, and has been made into a high-budget radio play (nominated for the Edgar Award) and a low-budget short movie.
I published two other Phil D’Amato novelettes in Analog – “The Copyright Notice Case” and “The Mendelian Lamp Case”.
One day, in the late 1990s, I ran into David Hartwell at a con – it was Philcon, come to think of it – and he said, why don’t you write a Phil D’Amato novel and send it to me? I did, incorporating “The Mendelian Lamp Case” in the first part, and it became THE SILK CODE, which won the Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel of 1999. THE CONSCIOUSNESS PLAGUE and THE PIXEL EYE followed, and I’m currently writing a 4th novel in the series.
My daughter Molly, 12 at the time, read THE SILK CODE in manuscript form, and said, “Daddy, Phil is just like you!” She was very perceptive. Phil D’Amato is what I think I would have been had I gone in for forensic science. He does forensics for the NYPD, and has a penchant for getting involved in strange cases, in profound developments lurking just below the surface …
VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?
LEVINSON: I don’t like talking about what I’m currently writing, because, who knows, I could change my mind. But I did finish a 10,000-word brand new time travel story last month, with major historical characters I haven’t written about before (well, one, just a little). I’m currently mulling over what to do with this – expand it into a novel, send it out to a suitable magazine or web site, maybe publish it myself on Kindle.
Speaking of which, I did finish my “Loose Ends” series last year, with a fourth story entitled “Last Calls” (the first three were published in Analog, and “Loose Ends” was Hugo, Nebula, and Sturgeon nominated). All four are now on Kindle, if you’d like some more of my time travel. So are my three “Ian’s Ions and Eons” novelettes, also first published in Analog a few years ago.
VENTRELLA: How did you first become interested in writing?
LEVINSON: I became interested in writing – both fiction and nonfiction – in first grade, where I wrote both. For me, writing is just a little more difficult than speaking, which has always been pretty easy for me, which is one reason I became a professor. I can’t even imagine a day without writing, it’s so fundamental to me.
VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?
LEVINSON: I think people are indeed born storytellers, in terms of their imaginations, concoctions of plots, and need to tell those stories, and even with the ability to tell them in appealing and intriguing ways. That last part can be improved through practice and in some cases guidance, but, ultimately, either you have that capacity or not. And here’s a crucial point: don’t let anyone talk you out of your need to write, or even how to write, if you have a technique that works. There is no universally best or right method.
VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?
LEVINSON: I never outline, at least not on paper or screen. I sometimes think out a story partially in my head, but most of the time I just jump in and see where it goes. I take the same approach for nonfiction, and for speeches I give at scholarly conventions. I never write the speech beforehand – I just give the talk, and if someone wants to read the speech afterward, there’s always a transcript. Writing for me is a wild, untamed, dangerous ride, and I like to keep it that way.
VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?
LEVINSON: It means if I’m writing about a real city or town in this world, I need to have been there, spent some time there, in order to write about it convincingly. And it means that when I write about any character, good or evil, I need to plumb the depths of my own psyche, discover what I would do in that situation, in order to make the character convincing. With any luck, readers will find this compelling.
VENTRELLA: What criticism of your work do you disagree with the most?
LEVINSON: Truthfully? Most criticisms. But if I had to pick just one, it would be the observation that BORROWED TIDES is my “worst” novel. Of course, everyone has to have a worst novel. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t written it yet, and, with any luck, never will.
VENTRELLA: How did you get started? What was your first story or book published?
LEVINSON: My first publication was a piece of music criticism, “A Vote for McCartney,” in the Village Voice in 1971. I sent it to them as a letter to editor. They published it as an article, and sent me a check for $65. What more could I ask for?
VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?
LEVINSON: I have a very high opinion of it: You don’t have to suffer through an acquiring editor, who, if you’re a new writer, is more likely to turn you down than accept your story or novel. Regarding novels, you make a 70% royalty on Amazon rather than a paltry 10%. Traditional publishing still has some advantages – a professional copy-editor and getting books into bookstores would be the main ones – but self-publishing is becoming increasingly worthwhile for authors.
VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an un-agented author with a manuscript?
LEVINSON: Don’t waste too much time in pursuit of an agent. Send your manuscript out to a publisher directly, or publish it yourself.
VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever got?
LEVINSON: It came from an editor whom I had queried about a nonfiction book about Marshall McLuhan shortly after the media theorist had died in 1980. The editor told me no one cared anymore about McLuhan. My 1999 book, DIGITAL McLUHAN, is still in print, and my McLUHAN IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA (2015) is selling dozens of copies per month.
VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?
LEVINSON: Actually, from Marshall McLuhan. I asked him how to write a (nonfiction) book. He said think of each chapter as a separate paper. It’s worked like a charm for me.
VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer that you wish someone had given to you?
LEVINSON: Don’t ever stop writing. Write what you want to write. Don’t pay too much attention to criticisms. Don’t keep your writing to yourself – get it out into the world, in whatever ways you can.