Interview: Donna Levin Champions Unlikely Friendships and the Power of Community in “The Talking Stick”

The novelist Donna Levin talks a lot about community

She wasn’t even a writer, really, until she found a community of writers. Before that, she was a dissatisfied, voluntarily jobless lawyer, dissatisfied not with the law, but with the legal community

“Finally,” she says, “I found a community of writers, and I love writers. The only community I’ve ever really felt a part of is the writing community. It’s the only community where I’ve ever felt that I belonged.”

But, also importantly, she found an unlikely community, that old standby of popular culture, which inspired her latest book and colors her worldview. 

The Importance of Unlikely Friendships

“There’s so much more to learn in an unlikely friendship from somebody else,” she says. “You know, I can spend time with other middle-class women my age, we can bond over Broadway musicals, if I’m lucky, but what am I going to learn about different ways of living, about different philosophies of life, about different values?”

This experience, of falling into an inadvertent, accidental, unlikely community of women has informed her latest novel, The Talking Stick, an under-the-radar marvel that, if there is any justice, will be one of the surprise breakout hits of 2024. 

Talking Stick tells the story of Hunter Fitzgerald, a recently separated and unemployed physical trainer, who, after a vicious tell-all by her best friend hits the bestseller list, finds herself unemployable. After Hunter receives a possibly magical gift (a “talking stick” with the power to retrieve long-buried memories) from a possibly magical stranger in a possibly magical realm just adjacent to a San Francisco flea market, she tries without success to start a support group for women seeking new beginnings, but instead brings together (possibly with the help of a dollop of magic) a community of unlikely friends. All of whom hide secrets from themselves, and who need the possibly magic talking stick. 

Rapturous Reviews

The pre-publication reviews have been rapturous; Karen Joy Fowler calls Talking Stick a “thoroughly engaging, completely entertaining novel by the great Donna Levin,” Lalita Tademy calls it an “unforgettable journey of self-discovery and friendship,” Kirkus says, “Levin writes with tenderness and humor [and] readers will enjoy the extra time they get to spend with these characters,” and a review in this publication calls the novel “a terrific book. Funny, warm, tender, warmhearted, beautifully written … Donna Levin’s best novel in a career filled with so many great books.” One hopes that with word of mouth and enough praise from authors who know her work, Levin’s latest can rise to the top of the pack, where it belongs. 

In a way, the new book is a tribute to the various communities of women who have kept Levin afloat during a long career that has seen its share of giddy highs, but also a few discouraging lows. 

Giddy Highs and Discouraging Lows

A newly minted lawyer in the 1980s, Levin treated her new degree and license as though it didn’t exist; she was a somewhat spectacularly wealthy real estate heiress, she didn’t especially need the income, and she didn’t feel that she fit in with the law community. Then, at a writers’ conference, she quickly found an agent, who, in 1986, sold her half-written novel to the legendary editor Liza Dawson, at Arbor House. 

The result, Extraordinary Means, is a darkly humorous and poignant book that explores the inner dreams of a modern-day American family through the eyes of a 24-year-old who, while in a coma, embarks on an unexpected journey of self-discovery. 

The book received good reviews and sold well, and Hollywood film studios optioned it twice. Simon & Schuster published her next book, California Street, which sold once again to the movies. A mystery club also picked up the book, which increased her influence and boosted her sales. The Los Angeles Times called her a “novelist to keep high on your reading list.” 

She met a man, the attorney Michael Bernick, whom she eventually married, and who she describes as another unlikely friendship. 

“One thing that attracted me to Michael forty years ago very much,” she says, “was that he’s very not materialistic. He was living in this studio apartment with one glass and a cockroach named Greg. He was a Harvard-educated lawyer, and he was working at a nonprofit for $10,000 a year. I admired that so much, and it has made me less materialistic over the years.”

In an instant, though, she had no choice but to become less materialistic — much less. Her fortune — we won’t quantify it here, except to say that you would be impressed — suddenly evaporated, the casualty of a couple of bad deals that eviscerated her family wealth. Movie versions of her early novels never materialized, and the options expired. Her first child, to whom she is deeply devoted, was diagnosed with autism. The magic that had propelled her writing career early on seemed to be gone. 

She wouldn’t publish another novel for the next twenty-six long years. 

A Lucky Accident

“I was very discouraged and depressed and at loose ends,” she says. “I did get off the horse for a few years.”

Ironically, what jolted her back onto the horse was a severe accident, “my wakeup call after years of not writing,” which forced her to face mortality for the first time in her life, and which left her unable to write for months. 

Ironically, once she couldn’t write, she wanted nothing more than to write. During those months of rehabilitation, she had the time to find a mission for her next book: to tell the world what it was like to be the mom of a son on the spectrum.

The Brooklyn publisher Chickadee Prince Books acquired her two novels featuring characters on the spectrum, and her renaissance began. Her new novels, There’s More Than One Way Home and He Could Be Another Bill Gates, hit the Amazon bestseller lists several times, again brought her praise across the media and filled an important gap in women’s fiction.

A New Controversy

For The Talking Stick, the third book since her creative rebirth, Levin has moved to Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, which has gained prominence for picking up books that other publishers won’t touch, and which turned Robert Kennedy Jr. into a bestselling author.

Donna Levin

“Skyhorse gets a negative rap for publishing good books other people are afraid to publish,” she says, anticipating the question. “No one should be ‘afraid’ to publish a good book by someone who has something interesting to say. Publishers are supposed to be fearless, not afraid. And these supposedly ‘controversial’ books are a tiny percentage of what they do. My imprint, Arcade, publishes Mo Yan, the first U.S. citizen of Chinese national origin to win the Nobel Prize, and published Octavio Paz, E. M. Cioran, Andreï Makine and Ismail Kadare. So if you want to criticize Skyhorse for publishing good books that not everyone may agree with – you know, that’s what publishers are supposed to do, and that’s an argument I’m very happy to have with you.”

Still, Skyhorse may not be as unlikely a choice as it seems at first glance. As the Oblivioni review notes, “Levin’s writing has always demonstrated a politically progressive mind, but nevertheless — while she is no right-wing social warrior — here she expresses deep impatience with a movement that rewards victimhood and exalts grievance, that would condemn a romance merely because it arises from an unequal power dynamic, or that would deny that objective truth exists. Levin, in this novel, believes in truth, not subjective context, and she exalts love, forgiveness, and moving on from trauma and out of victimhood. She even includes a few surprising digs at rehab. Yet it’s all done with such a light touch, in such a graceful novel, that you might not even see what she’s up to.”

Levin sighs. 

“You’re reminding me that I could piss off some people here,” she says. She shrugs. “If I piss off a reader, at least it was a reader. I still get my check.”

But why did she choose to depict, positively and romantically, a sexual relationship so unequal that many would today describe it as toxic and irredeemable?

“So two consenting adults aren’t allowed to fall in love unless the power dynamics are exactly equal?” she laughs. “Show me a relationship where the power dynamics are precisely equal. I wrote about two people in love. All you see is the current political moment. What you are doing is putting people into boxes and putting labels on them, you’re ignoring their humanness. When two consenting adults fall in love, they fall in love, and who does that hurt? The last time I checked, falling in love was still legal in this country.” 

And what about this new focus on social criticism?

“There is actually a lot of controversy about twelve-step programs, for example,” she says. “It’s a model that was created in the 1930s and has not been updated, so we’re talking about almost a hundred years. And most rehabilitation places won’t publish any kind of actual statistics. Most of their physicians aren’t trained in addiction treatment, and they’re huge businesses that are poorly regulated. Now, of course, it helps some people. But the idea that you say, ‘oh I’ve got a problem, I’m going to rehab,’ or ‘I’ve got a problem, I’m just going to go to these twelve-step meetings….’ ” 

Still, she says, she’s not interested in being a bomb-thrower, she just wants to express the idea that healing and self-improvement don’t come through permanent victimhood or revenge or paid intervention, but through community, preferably the “unlikely” kind, so beautifully portrayed in this new novel.

Which, as always, brings her back to the women in her writers’ group, who have supported her for years. 

“People have known each other a long time,” she says. “They’re incredibly supportive and not competitive. It’s been a source of great joy actually, and I can’t say that about a lot of things. It’s been a real source of pleasure and hope for the human race, almost. Before I met them, I just didn’t believe such women existed.”

It’s what she wants for all of us. 

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