Interview: Paul Levinson

by Emon Hassan on January 18, 2008

Paul Levinson

About a year ago, Paul had graciously granted two of my other blogs with 3 things: 1) A short article on how he had come to pen ‘The Plot To Save Socrates’, 2) A preview of the book’s first chapter, and 3) Paul’s reading of the first chapter. I’d called it ‘Chapter One’ series and what a premiere! Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to continue the blogs, oh for various reasons I care not to talk about – again. While updating some of my old interviews with the Screenwriting teachers, I realized how much I’d enjoyed interviewing and learning from others in the process, first hand. Therefore, Paul is the first person I approached. I enjoyed that so much I am officially re-hooked.

Without further ado, Paul Levinson.

1. You have, as some would say, lived many lives? Growing up, what are some of the things you remember influencing you as a writer?

First and foremost, reading science fiction – the great Foundation series by Asimov, his End of Eternity, Heinlein’s The Door into Summer. For me, to read a great work of science fiction was also to want to write it. Outside of reading, I would say the dawn of the space age in the 1950s, the election of JFK in 1960, and watching television were great influences on me as a writer. And if we’re talking about my nonfiction, I was influenced by the Constitution and the study of our American history. It left me with a deep respect for the First Amendment and what it protects – which is, media and communication, free from governmental interference. At least, that is what the First Amendment is supposed to protect, when the government respects it.


2. If you had to pick 3 writers as mentors, each from a different medium, who would they be? And why?

Marshall McLuhan – the medium of scholarly nonfiction books, and I had the pleasure of working with him in person, near the end of his life in the late 1970s. He taught me how to think creatively about media – how to look at the big picture, and the crucial unnoticed connections. For example, how the faceless medium of radio made Adolf Hitler possible. And, on the other side of the spectrum, how television helped put JFK in the White House.
Isaac Asimov – far and away the best author of science fiction. His zest for writing still inspires me (I met him only briefly).

I. F. Stone – my most recent mentor – in particular, his book The Trial of Socrates. It was a spark plug for writing The Plot to Save Socrates – not the ideas in my novel, but just the passion Stone brought to this single historical-investigative nonfiction book.


3. Young writers often talk about struggling to find their voices. How did you find yours? What advice would you give new writers who are in search of a voice?

It was no struggle – I feel as if I’ve had my voice since the day I was born – I’ve certainly had it and used it ever since I could think. For me, the struggle has always been, and still is, how to get more people to at least listen to it. I’m on television, radio, have a dozen books and hundreds of articles and short stories published, have blogs and podcasts – and are read or listened to by thousands of people weekly – but I still have only scratched the surface.


4. What’s your writing routine like? How do you balance your writing life with your television and teaching life?

I write whenever I feel like it – which is every day, always. I let nothing stand in the way of my writing. If I get the urge when I’m teaching, I go to my office right after my class and write. If I feel like writing when I’m watching television, I stop the show, and write – or maybe I’ll wait until the end of the show. I detest schedules. I like giving in to my passion for writing. I do my best to keep obstacles out of the way of my writing.


5. How do you know if an idea you’ve been kicking around would be perfect for a book? What criteria do you measure that idea against?

I used to think a long time ago that ideas had certain intrinsic writing sizes – some make good articles or stories, other make good books or novels. I’ve come to believe – in the past decade or so – that any idea can work in any length format. So it’s my choice. In practice, since books usually get more attention than articles or stories, I put most of my print publication focus into writing books. But I also write at least 2-3 blog posts a day, 250-750 words, for and my MySpace blog.


6. Writer’s block: Do you face it? How do you overcome it?

Never had it, so don’t need to overcome it. But what I’m always fighting to overcome are impositions on my time that get in the way of my writing. I’m finishing my 2nd and final 3-year term as Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. Although I’ve gotten joy from the good I’ve been able to do for students and faculty from that position, I’ll be very glad to be a former Chair – more time to write!


7. Most writers are unaware of the business of writing. What advice would you give to young writers about the business aspect of writing?

Don’t talk about what you’re writing, write it. Finish what you start writing. Get your work to editors and publishers – don’t let courtesy get in your way. If someone turns your work down, move on to the next editor and don’t look back. Start at the top – the biggest publishers and publications – if you can, but any publication is better than no publication. Don’t take advice about your writing from anyone in the business of writing, unless that person is giving you a contract. (As per Erle Stanley Gardner’s advice to potential publishers: “If you have anything to say about my writing, put it on the back of the damn check!” He was the author of the Perry Mason novels.) In your contracts, don’t give up your copyright, and be tough in your negotiations. Publishers could not exist without your work as a writer – never forget that. Be open to criticism, but stick up for what you believe in. Don’t seek an agent until you have an editor interested in your work.


8. Recommend a new writer to us and tell us why we should read his/her work.

David S. Michaels & Daniel Brenton – authors of Red Moon, one of the best science fiction novels ever written.


9. What would you say are the 3 most important aspects of writing fiction? Esp. fiction where a lot of historical context is attached?

a. Write something that truly brings you joy to write – otherwise, you may never finish it.

b. Don’t be shy about putting yourself and people you know well into your characters – nothing reads as true as characters taken from the life you know best, your own.

c. Make sure you are accurate in all of your details – nothing snaps the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief more than coming upon a detail about a real place or person which is wrong.


10. How has ‘The Plot to Save Socrates’ changed you as a person? What has changed in your life while you were writing the book that has nothing to do with your writing?

It made me more confident as a writer – which is saying a lot, since I was very confident before. What most changed in my life as I was writing The Plot to Socrates is that my kids were close to becoming full-fledged adults, which they pretty much are now. My wife and I are even happier about them than we are about the novel.

Coming on 01-22-2008: Interview with Tom Grasty, author of Blood On the Tracks

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