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Writers on Writers: Helene Wecker feels Kara Levy's chronic pain

Helene Wecker explores how Kara Levy's familiarity with chronic illness informs her storytelling

"For over a decade, Levy has been using her familiarity with illness to power her writing, a series of no-holds-barred examinations of what it's like to be sick in a world where health is the norm."

 Bay Area-based author Helene Wecker recently published her first novel, The Golem and the Jinni. Photo: Sheldon Wecker

Kara Levy has a cold. She’s both amused and annoyed by this. “It states in my Crohn’s contract that I’m never to get a seasonal illness of any kind,” she jokes as we sit in her sun-filled apartment in the Mission, sucking on cough drops. “Crohn’s” is Crohn’s disease, a gastrointestinal disorder that Levy was diagnosed with at the age of nine. If you’re not familiar with the ailment, take your worst memory of food poisoning and then reimagine it as a lifestyle.

For over a decade, Levy has been using her familiarity with illness to power her writing, a series of no-holds-barred examinations of what it’s like to be sick in a world where health is the norm. In these tales, Levy puts aside the typical, often mawkish narrative of illness—the redemptive journey, the blessing in disguise—and creates another: illness as an awkward fact on the ground, a weight that can warp lives and relationships, straining them with the truth of what can’t be shared.

“I’m interested in where we draw the line between what it means to be sick and what it means to be well,” she tells me. “Who decides where that line is? What can we give each other that medicine sometimes can’t give us? And what are the choices that we make after our bodies make choices for us, ones that we wouldn’t necessarily choose?”

Levy has been a steady presence on the San Francisco writing scene since 2006, when she moved here for a Steinbeck fellowship at San José State University. Before that, she lived in New York City, where she earned her MFA at Columbia University. In recent years, she’s been quietly racking up accolades: Her stories have been published in magazines like the Alaska Quarterly Review, TriQuarterly, and the Mississippi Review; in 2008, she was a winner of Narrative’s 30 Below contest; and for the last four years, she’s been the San Francisco editor of the online literary journal Joyland.

Given Levy’s subject matter, it might come as a surprise how hilarious her writing is. Her humor—quirky and dyspeptic, a little Lorrie Moore, a little Sam Lipsyte—reveals itself in absurd situations and skewer-sharp observations. In her short story “Transplant,” a character’s freckles are described as “an avalanche of specks on the left side, blank white canvas on the right, as though one cheek had been shellacked with flypaper and left near an abandoned picnic.” In “Tyrannosaurus Rex,” a young woman with an unnamed malady interrupts Christmas dinner to accuse her brother of trying to steal her teeth, which she has been keeping in a plastic bag.

“When I first started writing, I thought that humor was separate from serious writing,” Levy says. “And the obvious implication was that the serious thing was more valuable.” Now, she uses humor to bridge the distance between the reader and the story. “If you think of anything that’s funny, it’ll have an inherent sadness in it, or anger. And to tell a story about illness without including humor doesn’t always do justice to the full experience. Because it really is funny sometimes, in the worst, most horrible way you can imagine.”

This isn’t to say that Levy only laughs at her subjects. Her stories are full of a critical love: You can imagine her shaking her head, an understanding but exasperated mother, as her characters steer themselves toward bad decisions and doomed affairs. And Levy can bite, too. In “Tony,” a quick and fablelike story, the protagonist builds a robot (the Tony of the title) to administer her injections after her fiancé goes AWOL. (It’s implied that he can’t handle her ill health.) In “Tyrannosaurus Rex,” the narrator—the aforementioned teeth-stealing brother—reports bitterly, “I will tell you something about the sick. They are ruthless.... Their weapon is the guilt we feel for being healthy. It makes them untouchable and limitless, like gods.”

And then there are the physical details, the truth of what happens behind the hospital curtain and the bathroom door. This isn’t comfortable material, and over the years it’s garnered Levy a certain amount of push-back. “Editors have said to me, ‘We really love this story, and we wish that it were about something other than illness.’ Or ‘We love your work, we love your voice—do you have anything that’s not about illness?’ There’s an idea that readers don’t want to encounter difficult things. But I don’t think it’s responsible of me to write about illness and make it look beautiful and nothing else. Illness is not Camille, fluttering away on her chaise lounge, delicately expiring in a wisp of smoke. It’s upchucking, blood and guts, and sweat. It’s the way you would absolutely not want to portray yourself, if you had a choice.”

Page Two: On Levy's first novel, "The Believers"