American morality is very random, and is largely for show

With humor and tenderness, Iain Levison masters in the staging of outcasts. There is a Levison tone, a voice that finds echos in the latest news, which makes it easy to get attached to those injured people to whom life is often giving a hard time.

Is there really a town called Westlake, or is it a way to pay a tribute to the recently departed writer?

Unfortunately, I never even gave the matter any thought. When choosing random names, I am far more likely to choose the names of Playboy Playmates than literary greats. Westlake was supposed to be a rich town with a fancy-sounding name. In English, Westlake is very English, which is what I was going for.

Three men, a woman, dogs, shitty jobs, a stick-up … Does the story unfold and develop in the telling, or do you need to have a straight story to tell, to start writing?

I just have to have the characters to start, and the characters are mostly drawn from real people. I know people who are like these guys… in fact, I used to fit in with them pretty well. I never thought of them as criminals, although they are certainly not upstanding citizens. They live life according to rules which aren’t necessarily society’s rules, but the general consensus is that society doesn’t really give a crap about them, so why should they live by it’s rules? It’s sound logic, to me. If you want excellent citizens, make the society excellent.

When I worked in an ambulance in Philadelphia, my partner used to deal
cocaine out of the ambulance. He was always making stops to drop off drugs and pick up money. In between, he was a great paramedic. He saved a lot of people’s lives. People are neither perfect nor evil, and I like to portray them as such. So I just start with the people, and build the story around them.

Be honest, do you have fits of laughter in the process of writing your novels?

Not really. I’m more concerned with getting my point across. I’m aware of it if I’ve found a funny way of expressing something, but the real reason people find something funny is because they can relate to it. If you’re being exploited, you’ll find it funny the first time someone points it out. Often times, at jobs, I would make a comment, and I noticed that my coworkers would find it funny, but I didn’t really think of it as such. I’m sarcastic, and I have a good eye for injustice and exploitation, but I’m certainly not a comedian. I’m just glad other people think a lot of what I write is funny.

A man who has an affair with his friend’s wife … This is not correct, morally speaking. How do you manage to get such stories published in the United States?

American morality is very random, and is largely for show. It is morality theater. A few years ago, during our annual sporting event called the Super Bowl (the most watched program on television) Janet Jackson exposed a breast for about a quarter of a second. Everyone pretended to be shocked and outraged. Meanwhile, we were killing about ten thousand Iraqi civilians a month.

I think outrage like this is a substitute for actual morality. The most conservative states in America (Kentucky and Alabama) have the highest divorce rates. Those are the places where you will hear the most hypocritical blather about the sanctity of marriage.

Besides, most TV and film is about people having affairs (Desperate Housewives, etc.) It’s all over the place. So the random morality that America practices really only condemns this type of behavior whenever it feels like it. There’s no consistency. The rest of the time, it’s titillating and salacious.

You may not be aware that your novel does not stand in the line of the French President’s campaign motto “if you want to earn more, work more”, a tagline that is in everybody’s mind in France at the moment. How is it possible for a person to stop believing that he is in some way “indebted”, that he is expected to stand a workload that turns out to be everyday more insufferable ?

In America, they shove that crap down our throats, too. It’s how the rich say, “All the problems are your fault, not ours.”

This is the first generation in US history that is going to earn less than the previous generation, and it isn’t because we are working less. In fact, we are working far more. Meanwhile, rich people in the US have stopped paying taxes, stopped investing in the country, taken their earnings and jobs overseas and shifted all their money to tax havens in places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. Then they tell us to work more. Haha! That’s funny.

I have to assume they are making a joke, because a sane person couldn’t possibly be serious.

In France, novels are classified into literary genres : detective novels, hardboiled crime fiction, romance novels. I for my part coined a new class of fiction : bitter novels. Yet no author, to the best of my knowledge, claims to belong to this category. Just as it is the case for every dish, you need the following to make a novel : something salty, something sweet, something sour, something bitter. Do you agree ?

Absolutely. Ultimately novels are about people, and they have to represent human experience. I think bitterness emerges from a feeling of helplessness. The antithesis of being bitter is not being cheerful, it’s being self-reliant. So I like characters who start off being bitter, and then gradually learn self-reliance, by whatever means available to them. In the case of my books, usually crime.

What does writing as a process represent to you ?

In a way, it’s very therapeutic. I can say all the things I think when I’m writing a book. I can point all the petty injustices people have to tolerate, all the feelings you have to suppress just to get by day to day. Writing is speaking out. It’s great. It’s like having a free therapist. Whenever I have written something that I think has expressed a certain emotion really well, I fell lighter, like a weight has been lifted off me.