Slayer Lit

Slayer Lit Interview

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Robert Joseph Levy Answers Questions About "Go Ask Malice"
Interview by Paxomen

Robert Joseph Levy

SlayerLit: Before writing your recent Faith-centric novel, "Go Ask Malice", had you ever read the 1971 book, "Go Ask Alice", and if so what kind of influence did it have on you?

Robert Joseph Levy: "Go Ask Alice" was a seminal childhood book for me, but ultimately in a secondhand fashion: it was my older sister Jessica's favorite book (I dedicated "Malice" to her). She, like so many before her (and since), believed the book to be an accurate and unexpurgated account of a young woman's descent into addiction and eventual, if ambiguous, drug-related death. Now, perhaps young adults are more savvy now than they were twenty years ago, but in my day when a book said "A Real Diary" on the cover, this was taken as the truth (naive, I know... Go Ask James Frey and Augusten Burroughs). Let's just say it got me thinking about the issue of authorship, and the nature of the unreliable narrator--and publisher--in general. For those who have read "Malice," consider the first three pages a playful nod in this direction!

I used the title concept as a jumping-off point to delve into the original Alice, the one who journeyed to Wonderland, and her reverberations through various sources, including the Jefferson Airplane song, "White Rabbit," from which the title "Go Ask Alice" is derived. Essentially, "Go Ask Alice" is a classic juvenile delinquent story about the consequences of someone straying from the path of what's right (read: societal norms and expectations) and how this is totally groovy and fun for a while, but ultimately, this becomes a grievous and even fatal mistake, a defect of character, wholly irredeemable. For someone like me, this raises a lot of questions, which brings me to Faith.

RJL: I think BUFFY is the best show that has ever aired on network television, and one of the things that makes it so compelling and such a rich source of supplementary fictions is that it is has a very complex take on what we consider morality. Choose to embrace the decent man-- but he's a vampire! Save your adopted kid sister-- but risk destroying the world! Skin the scoundrel who killed your lover-- but he's human! You know. Easy decisions.

But sometimes, and the craw gets stuck most when you're heavily invested, you find traditional paradigms of morality being reinforced, rather than subverted. Faith blows into town, a walking laundry list of bad girl attitude and sexuality, and it's almost as if all the worst stereotypes about her are soon confirmed: she'll sleep with your man, plot against you, even try to kill you, just because she's not a perky blonde in a trendy knit sweater with a bunch of goofy friends at her side.

Point being: Faith, like "Alice," goes through a great deal of punishment based on people's perceptions of her, rather than who she really is. I wanted "Malice" to be a corrective for that.

SL: Joss Whedon's fictional universe contains an abundant number of fascinating characters, what is it about the journey of Faith through the duration of the Buffyverse, that led you to focus on her?

RJL: I started watching BUFFY at the end of Season Two, when the "Becoming" episodes aired, and very much had a "I don't know what the hell's going on, but I'm never missing this show again" attitude. And I didn't. So I'd only really seen three or four episodes before Faith's first appearance in "Faith, Hope & Trick," and she was immediately my favorite character, in no small part because Eliza Dushku, bless her, breathed such life into Faith that she would never simply be the anti-Buffy that she may have originally intended to be. Just like every other Buffy viewer, I have my own inner dark side, and mine's from Boston, wears black leather pants and dances to bad techno music at The Bronze before she goes all bloodthirsty. Some other people's inner dark sides take that bloodthirsty thing literally, although everyone's inner dark side, apparently, seems to wear black leather pants...

Of course, Faith, despite my characterization of her above, landed up defying expectations and conventions, probably beginning as early as her appearance in hers and Buffy's shared dream in their hospital beds in "Graduation Day, Part Two" and continuing through most of the rest of her appearances on BUFFY and ANGEL. And this is the Faith that we deserved, one who wasn't fated to be evil and die because of her baggage.

But back to the anti-Buffy concept for a moment, because it's germane to the question: what would a Slayer be like without the support system of family and friends that Buffy has? Well, ironically, Buffy's the unique Slayer; she's told by the Council on a few occasions, from Giles to Kendra to Quentin, that she's the anomaly: Slayers aren't supposed to have all those relationships, those attachments. Faith, however, really is placed in contrast to Buffy and the other Slayers in that she's clearly been told all her life that she's completely worthless. So, to build up the strength for her mission as the (other) Chosen One, she needs to call upon a particular mettle that is heretofore unbeknownst to her, and to us. For the amount of self-doubt that Buffy expresses, you've still got to think Ms. Summers had it easy by comparison.

SL: Licensed novels often stay away from the details of established canon fearing that contradictions might occur. How did you feel about fleshing out so much of Faith's history?

RJL: Once I came up with the concept of the book--see below regarding the format and the extremely daunting voice issues--I instantly became paralyzed by the expectations. BUFFY fans are nothing if not discerning, and everyone has their own ideas of who Faith is (I certainly did). So I sat down to start the book and stared at the blank screen and promptly had a profound crisis of conscience regarding both Faith and my limitations as a writer, which turned out to be one and the same.

I had to decide not to make anyone happy writing "Malice." Not BUFFY fans, not my editor, not even myself. I'm not trying to sound grandiose about the process, believe me, it's just that there would be so many expectations if I myself had picked up this book-- "What? This doesn't sound like Faith! That never would have happened to her! I could have sworn that when she said that thing in episode seven of season three that it meant..." I mean, you could drive yourself crazy with the pressure of all those watchful eyes looking out from your own head. So I took a deep breath, and really tried to allow her to speak through me, beginning with those first few pages in which she's clearly screwing with the reader, on through the inevitable, extremely painful ending (or at least it was for me). And then there were decisions to be made.

Again, this goes back to the expectations of a character like Faith, and obviously her extremely difficult background needed to be fully explicated, but I never wanted her to be put in a box, even though past events in her life had a clear effect on the way she relates to others as we see her on BUFFY and ANGEL. Let's face it, she's had a screwed-up childhood, she's been around the block sexually, she's not an A student-- these were things that needed to be addressed in order to make the narration believable to anyone who knows the character. But I'll say it again, unless I haven't already: THAT'S NOT WHO SHE IS. That's not who anyone is, the sum total of the circumstances of one's life; that very concept is what became the central, though probably invisible, theme of "Malice," at least for me. That's what pulled me through.

SL: Do you see yourself writing future Buffyverse novels which put one character under the spotlight? If so what characters might hold interest, and what kind of stories might be told with those characters?

RJL: When I first thought of doing a Faith book, my mind went to, "Okay, this will be the lost pilot episode from the nonexistent 'Faith the Vampire Slayer' spinoff series!" Which "Malice" totally is not for too many reasons to enumerate, not the least of which is the fact that it's a prequel rather than a sequel to the television show. I would love to see a writer do their take on the "lost pilot episode" of "The Watcher" with Giles large and in charge, but I'm sad to say I'm probably not the man for that job (though I did live in London ten years ago and know my way about Hampstead Heath-- I've even had a pint with The Bloofer Lady). If we can't see that on television, I hope a novelist will try that someday, and they better be a Brit!

Honestly, I'd be personally hard pressed to put most other characters under this same intense spotlight, especially in first-person narrative; I don't think many of them could stand up to the scrutiny (it's a very cold light). That may sound harsh, but I don't think readers would be willing to take this same journey with any of the Scoobies-- our ideas about them are too fixed. Again, Giles is totally ripe, that could be brilliant in the right hands, just not sure I could pull it off. Maybe Angel, though. Sweet Angel. Sigh...

SL: The novel deals with adult themes and features moments of sex, nudity and explicit violence. Was this an issue with Pocket Books? Do you think that many Buffyverse books have been underestimating the intelligence and maturity of much of the Buffyverse fan base?

RJL: I have been reading various BUFFY-related message boards for years, and this is certainly an issue that both myself and Simon Spotlight--who, being a separate imprint of Simon & Schuster from Pocket Books and now owning all the licensing rights to the BUFFY books, unless I'm mistaken--have been fully aware of. Honestly, the farther we get away from BUFFY and ANGEL being off the air, the more leeway, in my observation, the authors of the tie-in novels get.

I received zero resistance from Simon Spotlight and Fox licensing on the controversial material in "Malice," so much so that there were a couple of things I wished I'd pushed further! Okay, just one, really-- if you own "Malice," turn to page three, take out your black pen, find the word "crap" and cross it out and write in the word "bullshit." Seriously, that's it. Everything else in "Malice"-- and if you check out my serialized novel at www.partitionstreet.com you'll see I'll write as dirty as they come-- was as I intended it, unfiltered. Again, I think the reticence is from a media tie-in perspective, and that fades the more time has passed since a show's gone off the air. And this is a Faith book, after all.

In terms of the content in relation to the supposedly Young Adult reading level, as Holly Black, author of "The Spiderwick Chronicles" and "Tithe," said when I was studying with her this summer, "There's only two things you can't do in YA: boring and bestiality." I think that says it all.

SL: This is the first Buffyverse novel to be written in the form of a diary. What were the advantages and disadvantages of using such a format?

RJL: The advantages and disadvantages are the same, essentially revolving around voice and format. Both touch upon a central issue with Faith's character, that, I would hazard, is unique to her among all the major Buffyverse characters, with the possible exception of Giles, and maybe Oz: she's mysterious. Angel, Spike, Dru, and Darla, the creatures of the night, always in the shadows, are revealed to us early and often in flashbacks, and we visually receive actual information about their pasts, including the pivotal moments in their undead lives: we see them all as they are sired, for example. But with the human characters, we're left to fill in the blanks, in almost a kind of received language fashion.

Don't get me wrong: one of my chief concerns about writing "Malice" was to retain a sense of mystery about Faith, as that's part of the character's power, but to do so without cheating the reader of essential questions and incidents that needed to be addressed. "Malice" answers a great deal of these, either specifically or obtusely (I'm amazed at some of the supposedly subtextual issues that fans have picked up on-- damn, they're good), but I never wanted to answer everything, because when that sort of strategy is undertaken, you tend to box the reader out of their own imagination. One quick example is that Faith, when she begins her diary, has been placed with a social worker because of what happened to her the previous summer; due to the format of the diary, I never felt the need to explicitly say what exactly happened, though I have my own understanding. Which brings me to your question regarding format.

The diary format is a tricky one. Aside from being a nod to "Go Ask Alice" and the more broadly epistolary "Dracula," which Faith is reading in English class early in the book, it really turned out to be a much more freeing device than a constraining one, as so many structural forms, ironically, turn out to be. First, the question of whether or not Faith would keep a diary is a humdinger in and of itself, and a fully legitimate one at that. But again, it goes back to preconceived notions of who she is. I think that some people have a class-related concept of whom might keep their thoughts as a written document. On the other hand, if you've ever kept a diary yourself, I don't believe you'd ever consider that someone else might not based on distinctions of background or personality.

I've actually had a secret habit that existed long before I proposed the format for "Malice" to my editor (I'm ready to come clean now): I've hunted down and bought a number of actual handwritten diaries online and from used bookstores (come to think of it, that's probably the seed for the entire concept behind the book). And let me tell you, they can be titillating and extremely boring in equal measure. But what I learned from reading them is that people exhibit entirely separate sides of themselves in their own secret spaces than they do in everyday life. And that's a constant tension in "Malice," so much so that the separate life in the pages of the diary turn out, in a way, to be someone else's altogether. So I really tried with the format to explore the dualities inherent to the form in a way that I felt would explicate Faith's character and motivations.

As for her voice, I'd never seen any BUFFY property go in a wholly first- person direction (though I may be wrong about that), and, with a background in playwriting, that's a natural instinct for me to a certain extent. I feel most comfortable writing when I'm speaking in other people's voices, and it's actually a perfect fit for the Whedonverse, since the characters are so rich and carefully delineated in terms of their own unique speech patterns and thought processes. Once I got going, it was an act somewhere between ventriloquism and spirit channeling, and I just had to let go and make it happen.

SL: Although you knew how your story ended, did the plotline go through many changes during the writing process? Is there anything you decided to drastically change, or any directions in the story almost taken?

RJL: Yes, yes, and yes. To refer directly back to the process of writing the story, it was a roller coaster ride, and it really needed to be; though it may sound corny, I really needed to let Faith wrest the story away from my preconceived notions of where it was going to go and just hold on for dear life. Faith is a creature of instinct, and this was the first project I've ever tackled where I gave myself over to that impulsiveness and literally did not know what was going to happen next. I'm very fortunate that everyone involved, from my editor (Patrick Price) to Fox licensing (Debbie Olshan), gave me the room to let the character live and breathe on the page. So, for me, it was a dream to write.

www.partitionstreet.com

I'd like to thank both Robert Joseph Levy for doing this interview, as well as Paxomen for conducting it! - Shiai