You’ve heard of her speculative fiction about a young woman born into servitude who gets one chance at freedom, now let’s learn more about this expressive author.
Welcome back to another Date with a Debut Author! A series where we meet with new authors to learn about them, their book, and their writing process.
This week we got to meet with the incredibly talented Marissa Levien, author of The World Gives Way, to learn more about her inspirations and creative spirit.
Date with a Debut Author gets you up close and personal with new authors you should be watching out for each week. So, are you ready to get to know Marissa even more? Let’s go!
Conversations Over Coffee
Because we’re just getting to know Marissa.
Serena Knudson (SK): If you had the day off with no obligations, what would you be doing?
Marissa Levien (ML): If I have energy (and I’m in New York City): headphones in, walking, walking, visiting museums, walking, reading in a café, walking, reading with a glass of something stronger in a quiet bar in the Village. If I have no energy: Netflix and Chinese delivery.
SK: Not only have you published your first novel, but you are also an artist of some wonderful pieces of art that have been featured in publications. What or who has inspired your creative endeavors? What made you decide to become an author?
ML: I’ve always loved creating things. Ever since I was very young it was pretty clear that whatever I ended up doing with my life, it was going to be something artistic. It’s really the only thing I’m good at, is the artistic stuff. I live in awe of engineers and accountants for this very reason.
For most of my life, I’ve pursued a lot of creative fields at once: visual art, music, theater, writing. When I was in my late twenties, I started realizing that, while I didn’t have to lose any of these loves, I might want to start concentrating on one or two at a time if I hoped to make a career of it. So, from there I pursued visual art and writing a little harder. I worked in art galleries, bookstores, and took in as much of the world as I could. I’m a big believer in finding inspiration everywhere: travel, history, science, literature, art, people, etc. Being a well-rounded person, or trying to be, keeps me inspired.
SK: What is something you are passionate about?
ML: One of my big soapboxes comes from working in independent bookstores: I’m a huge believer in shopping local. The difference between living in a neighborhood or town that feels like an actual community and a strip mall wasteland is online retail. It also polarizes class systems—now, if you want to live in a charming area with plenty of charming small businesses, chances are you’ll need to be wealthy. And that isn’t how it should be.
There are plenty of people who live in rural locations who don’t have easy access to goods and services, and that’s a great use of online retail. It’s made life easier for lots of people. But for those of us who live in closer-knit towns or urban environments, it’s worth supporting your community to stroll down the street to your local baker or butcher. Or bookstore!
SK: In an interview with The Nerd Daily, you mentioned how you loved writing all the angry parts of your main character Myrra, partially because it was your own release as someone who avoids conflict. That being said, do you believe you and Myrra would get along if you met in real life?
ML: I think Myrra would be highly suspicious of me at first. I’m a former theater kid who’s overly friendly from the start, with a desperate need to be liked. She’d probably wonder what my angle was at first—honestly, she’d probably wonder if I was going to rob her. That’s her way. But I like to think I’d wear her down eventually. I’d pour her a glass of whiskey, we’d start bitching about the rich, and then we’d be friends.
SK: The World Gives Way is an apocalyptic science fiction novel. Then according to your interview with The Nerd Daily, you are now working on a haunted house story set on the Oregon Coast. What is your favorite genre to read? What so far has been your favorite genre to write?
ML: I’m not sure I can name a favorite genre to read—I like reading basically everything. I like smart, character-driven stories; you can fashion that in the form of experimental fiction, murder mystery, memoir, historical epic, fantasy, horror, sci-fi, you name it and I’m there.
So far, I’ve written a sci-fi story and a horror story, and again, I’m not sure I could pick a favorite in terms of writing. The World Gives Way was a blast to write because I got to spill out so much of my imagination onto the page. But writing a horror story has been really refreshing after all that world-building; I still get to use my imagination coming up with scares and a good eerie mood, but I get to tether it in the familiar, describe landscapes I know well. So, it’s different, but for me that’s preferable. I crave variety.
SK: You pair cocktails with books you have read on Instagram. I love the one a friend of yours created for The World Gives Way, it’s amazing. What gave you the idea to start making cocktail pairings?
ML: Oh man, that drink was incredible. My friend Kim Wuan is this incredibly talented actress (to see her do Shakespeare lifts my soul into the clouds), and then if that wasn’t enough, she’s one of the best chefs I’ve ever met. We had a party for my book launch, and she handed me this drink… I tried to capture it on video as best as I could, but it literally LOOKED like the sparkling abyss of space. And it tasted good to boot! I am forever in awe.
I used to be a bartender, and during quarantine I got back into making cocktails as a hobby to pass the time, similar to how some folks developed close personal friendships with their yeast starters. It’s been a lot of fun. I make a lot of infused syrups, froth things up with a lot of egg whites. It makes me feel fancy. And when you’ve been stuck in your house with no reason to put on interesting clothes or do your hair, you need fancy sometimes.
Let’s Get Intimate!
Don’t you want to know more about this talented author?
SK: You created a whole new world while writing The World Gives Way. Your characters live on a generation ship that is dying and now Myrra is fighting to live her best life while there is still time. How much research went into your world-building? How does your story differ from other science fiction apocalyptic stories?
ML: It’s funny because a lot of world-building went into this book, but I’m not always a fan of world-building for world-building’s sake; I always try and make sure that every detail serves the story or helps illuminate the characters in some way. That being said, it was a lot of fun putting everything together.
When it came to research for this world, I pulled from a lot of creative influences—I liked the aesthetics of movies like The Fall and Melancholia, the imagination of books like Cosmicomics and Invisible Cities. The decay mixed with truly beautiful character work that you see in books like Station Eleven, The Memory Police, and Age of Miracles. I researched a lot of real-world places—Petra, Istanbul, Monte Carlo, Nepal, and Seoul, to name a few. The idea of this world was to mash up as much of our planet as possible, and to mix it together into a new cultural stew, as I imagine society would be if you took people from all over the planet and put them together into an enclosed environment the size of Switzerland.
SK: Some authors have people in their life that inspire their characters. Did anyone inspire Myrra, Tobias, Charlotte, or any other characters?
ML I’m sure that there were plenty of real-life inspirations for characters, but I muddle it up so much; a single mannerism here, a turn of phrase there, that I can’t pinpoint any one-to-one source for each character. I think generally it works better that way, at least socially. I imagine some friend or relative would be mildly insulted if I told them that they were, say, the inspiration for Marcus Carlyle. There’s a lot of myself in all the characters, that much is certain.
I will say that I occasionally give my friends cameos. I have an old friend named Hahn, and when we were just out of college, we used to talk about opening a bar (something everyone talks about at some point, I’m convinced), what it would be like, why our bar would be the best bar, et cetera. So, in the book early on, I gave a shout out to Hahn and his bar, just as a quick side note, a person Myrra thinks about once or twice before going on the run. That kind of stuff is fun.
SK: What were you doing when you found out The World Gives Way was being published? How did you celebrate?
ML: I learned that The World Gives Way was going to be published at the very start of quarantine. My husband and I were staying with my parents—we did kind of a “bubble” thing with them. I remember we popped a bottle of champagne. We couldn’t go anywhere to celebrate, obviously, but it was really nice to be with my family when all of that went down.
SK: You caught yourself slipping from writing before you joined an MFA program, which led to you publishing your first book! I believe a lot of writers struggle with losing touch with their writing at one point or another, what advice would you have for other writers whether they are looking to be published or just trying to get words on the screen?
ML: Honestly, when it comes to being blocked, of having difficulty making time to write, is to not beat yourself up about it. I think we all have these ideas of what a writing regimen should be… the thing I always think of is Stephen King, and how he wakes up and writes for a certain number of hours every morning. That’s a fantastic goal, but it’s not feasible for everyone, because life can get in the way. If you have kids, if you have a demanding job, if life is throwing you a series of crises, you won’t necessarily be able to commit to a rigorous writing schedule. I try and write every day. Sometimes I don’t—sometimes there are too many other life things to be done. Sometimes I do, but all I get out is a paragraph. Sometimes it’s ten or twenty pages. So the best I can offer is, push to make time for writing, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t produce as much as you want to. It won’t make you more productive. Just forge ahead, and keep your mind open.
SK: What do you want readers to take away from The World Gives Way?
ML: I really wanted to write a story about characters connecting; something that readers could relate to in a very human way. I can’t say whether or not I’ve achieved that, but I hope I have. So, empathy. If people can take away one thing from the book, I hope it’s empathy.
Fun and Games
Now that we’re well-acquainted with Marissa, here are some fun questions and what she had to say about them.
SK: What has been your favorite book and cocktail pairing so far?
ML: Kim’s cocktail for The World Gives Way was pretty memorable, but of the ones I’ve put together, I really enjoyed doing Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book references a cocktail called a “Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster” the taste of which Douglas Adams describes as getting smacked in the face by a gold brick wrapped in a lemon peel (I’ve paraphrased that, but I think that’s right). The closest I could think of to that sensation was a gingerback, where you shoot whiskey then shoot a concentrated lemon ginger concoction right afterward. After I made the ginger-lemon concentrate I got together with a fellow writer friend, Marian Mitchell Donahue, and we got video of us doing the shots, making horribly contorted pucker faces.
I actually used to make a whiskey-free version of that for my students during midterms… if you take away the booze it’s basically just an immunity boost shot.
SK: If you could know the absolute truth to one question, what would it be?
ML: What is the recipe for making Green Chartreuse? (This stuff only gets made by a special order of monks in the Alps and only two monks at a time ever know the full recipe. I also just recently learned that apparently those two monks take the same car to work every day! What happens if that car crashes?! I think about this a lot.)
SK: If you could go back in time and do something differently, what would you change?
ML: I would go back and tell my teenage self to kiss all the boys I was pining over. Don’t fall in love with them or anything but kiss more people in general.
SK: If you could choose an author, dead or alive, to take a writing workshop with, who would you choose?
ML: Italo Calvino. I’d love to pick apart his brain. I’d ply him for stories of Oulipo.
SK: If you could write a spin-off about a side character from The World Gives Way who would you write about?
ML: I think it would be fun to write about Rachel; how she manipulated her way into shifting the power dynamic between her and her owner, and the freedoms and limitations she experienced in doing so. She’s like Myrra in a lot of ways, in that she’s a very angry character, but she channels her anger very differently. That could be a fun life to explore.
Marissa Levien’s The World Gives Way takes place on an interstellar generation ship where Myrra has belonged to the highest bidder on her contract since she was five. Born into servitude, she has worked for butchers, laundries, and now the all-powerful and secretive Carlyles with fifty years to go before she is free.
But when the Carlyles end up dead, Myrra ends up gaining her freedom far earlier than expected. Except she is on the run with the Carlyles’ orphaned daughter and a secret that the family died to escape. Now Myrra must accept the truth about her world and embrace what she has left before it’s too late.
Marissa Levien is an author and artist originally from Washington State. Now she lives in New York with her husband and two cats. She earned her MFA in 2019 from Stony Brook University When she is not writing or creating another beautiful piece of art, you may catch her latest cocktail and novel pairing on Instagram.