Rewriting The Rules: Marriage, Maternity, And Memoir With Ariel Levy
New Yorker staff writer Ariel Levy reveals her most intimate experiences using thoughtful prose and candid self-reflection in her new memoir 'The Rules Do Not Apply.' Hear our conversation with the author and enthusiastic narrator newbie.By Nikki VailMay 12, 2017 10:10 AM
After years of honing her craft in everything from polemics to biography, journalist Ariel Levy has found her niche as a storyteller. Whether chronicling the life of lesbian activist Edith Windsor or revealing discrimination in sports with intersex Olympic runner Caster Semenya, she has dedicated the last two decades to shining a light on exceptional women living unconventional lives, accomplishing remarkable things. We sat down with Ms. Levy to discuss her most recent exceptional subject: herself.
Ariel Levy: I guess I was just thinking about how the rules that my mother — and certainly her mother — had to follow were not of any concern to me. I was raised to believe that I could be the protagonist in my own life, that I didn’t have to be a mother or a wife if I didn’t want to, and that I should follow my dream, that I wanted to be a writer so that’s what I should do. I felt like that was an unbelievably lavish gift from the women’s movement to my generation, that we could be born and grow up thinking that we were full people who could do whatever we wanted.
The rules of “you’ve got to get married,” “you’ve got to find a husband.” God knows [for] my grandmother, it was a matter of survival for her. If she didn’t have a husband she wouldn’t have been able to eat food. I thought about those rules a lot, but I also thought more generally about how much has shifted in our culture in my lifetime and how somebody like Edith Windsor, who I wrote about, who is the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and effectively legalized same sex marriage in this country.
She had to be able to look at the rules and say, “No, this isn’t fair. I don’t like that my spouse of many decades has died and that I have to pay taxes on that money. And if my spouse had been a man I wouldn’t have to. Those are the rules? They’re not fair. I’m going to change them. They shouldn’t apply to me and I’m going to make it so they don’t apply to anyone.” That’s bravery; that’s heroism. I think that there’s a way in which that mindset brings you hugely important progress in the ongoing quest for social justice.
NV: The Rules Do Not Apply tells the story of a relationship beginning and ending. How do you view marriage now?
AL: I think the main thing is that the first time I got married, I was 30. I’m 42 now. I think my level of obsession with adventure and novelty and excitement and newness and sexual opportunism is very different as a 42-year-old than it was as a 30-year-old.
I can’t really relate to the head I was in, where I was like, “I owe it to myself to have every experience on God’s Earth. If I don’t, it’s a crime against nature.” I no longer feel that way.
NV: Your book also tells a story of loss as a mother. How did you cope with your grief?
AL: After I got back from Mongolia, where I’d seen my son live and die for 10 minutes in my hands and that was it for him, I was so sad I could barely breathe. There was a long time where I sort of existed in a tunnel of grief. That was my entire experience of reality because the problem with losing a baby is that, for me and for many women I’ve spoken to, what happens is a switch flips in your heart and you experience maternal love, so then you feel like a mother. In my body, a switch had flipped there, too, and I was making milk for a baby who didn’t exist.
In [my] body and in the deepest part of myself I felt like a mother, but I had no child. That was invisible to the rest of the world. That is like a little identity crisis that a lot of women go through when they lose a baby. To get through that I had to focus on, okay, what haven’t I lost? What do I still have that I can cling to? If that identity isn’t there for me in the way that it feels like it should be, what identity do I still have? What I still had was, I’m a writer. That’s what I’ve been working for two decades, that’s what I’m going to cling to.
NV: Was writing this memoir part of your healing process?
AL: I don’t know. I have nothing to compare it to. I’ll never know what it would have been like to go through that experience and not write about it, so I don’t have a basis for comparison. I don’t know if what got me from the point where I was living in grief, to the point where grief is just something that lives in me and it’s not something I walk around wading through. I don’t know if that happened because of time or because I wrote about it or because of my particular set of friends and family who took such good care of me. I only have my own experience of grief so I don’t know what would be different if any element of it was different.
NV: How does it feel to present such personal stories to the public?
AL: Horrible, absolutely horrible (laughs). Also, you have to realize that when you’re writing the book, it’s just you and your computer; it doesn’t require too much courage to sit there next to your cat and write what’s really personal. It then becomes a little bit of a different experience when you have to go and talk about it.
It’s not all horrible. What’s good about it is the opportunity to connect with people on a pretty deep level. I did this reading at a bookstore in the San Francisco Bay area last week, and this woman raised her hand and said, “You know, I have four children who are alive, I lost three babies. I’m 77 years old and I still miss every single one of them.” That was intense and that was cool to be able to connect with someone — on something that deep — whom I just met.
I like the idea of trying to tell story after story after story about exceptional women because there’s always room for more.
NV: How did you find your voice as a writer, from New York magazine to The New Yorker?
AL: I didn’t know what was my natural mode as a storyteller, so I tried doing polemics and I tried doing, I don’t know, sort of argument-driven essays and celebrity profiles. I just did whatever I could do to get in a magazine, and it was fun. I was there 12 years and my editor and mentor John Homans worked with me for that entire time, and little by little, I figured out: What am I good at? I’m good at storytelling. I don’t want to make an argument straight ahead, I want to insinuate ideas through telling a story. That’s what feels natural to me. That’s where I feel like I’m going to do my best work.
By the time I got to The New Yorker, I had a fairly good sense of what would be the most fun for me. Whatever’s the most fun for me is also what’s going to be the most fun for the reader. That’s how things are going to work best. I tried to choose stories that are going to be a pleasure for me to write and, obviously, [if] I’m going to be fascinated by the people at the center of them. Many of the stories I’ve done for The New Yorker have been about exceptional women living unconventional lives, accomplishing remarkable things.
I don’t get tired of that, I think that’s fun. I think it fills a gap. I think there’s not nearly enough of that. I think as little girls we all had to read The Odyssey or The Hobbit and try to identify with the male protagonist. There are so many fewer Pippi Longstockings than there are Bilbo Baggins, so I like the idea of trying to tell story after story after story about exceptional women because there’s always room for more.
NV: This was your first time narrating an audiobook, what was the experience like?
AL: If it were up to me I would start doing audio recordings of other people’s books. I love doing audiobooks. I love listening to them. I love recording them with my voice. There’s no part of the audiobooks thing that I do not have a crush on.
NV: How did you prepare yourself for narration?
AL: I think what I did to prepare, without knowing I was preparing, is I listened to audiobooks a lot, so I got a sense from that. Same way I learned to write, actually: You read enough and then you get a feeling in your head of how the rhythm of writing should be. You listen to audiobooks and you have in your head, okay, this is how, as a listener, I don’t get bored. This is how I stay engaged. So then when I’m trying to do it myself, I’ll try to provide that.
NV: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten as a writer?
AL: Best writing advice I ever got was, “Don’t give up. You can be a writer if you work really hard and don’t stop writing.”