On the heels of her memoir’s March release, the New Yorker staff writer discusses profiles in practice, ambition and guilt.
by Kaylen Ralph
illustration by Grace Molteni
Ariel Levy’s memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, offers the before and after of her 2013 longform essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” in which Levy writes about the experience of giving birth to her infant son four months premature while on assignment in Mongolia, only to watch him turn purple in her hands and die that day. Originally written for The New Yorker, where Levy has been on staff since 2008, she won a National Magazine Award for the essay in 2014.
Her latest book is jacketed in an orange so bright it rivals the hue of the fire that its contents lit across the literary world, and in my own belly, upon its release mid-March. It was as if Levy’s readers and fans could finally digest after inhaling in Mongolia’s prose so greedily more than four years ago. While the subject matter that results from documenting a decade’s worth of heartbreak — an affair (hers), alcoholism (her wife’s), the loss of a child (theirs) — could result in opportunity for literary rubbernecking, The Rules Do Not Apply doesn’t offer anything so cheap. Levy is too talented for that as she absorbs each blow from Mother Nature with a reverberant shock and perspective so self-aware that Levy ends up offering the reader a buoy to survive her personal storm. After a career characterized by countless profiles, it is a treat to see Levy turn her eye inward.
We discussed writerly ambition, what it’s like to process guilt, and how to navigate loss (hint — don’t buy it when they tell you that everything happens for a reason.)
Kaylen Ralph: I really, really loved your book.
Ariel Levy: So glad to hear that, thank you very much.
KR: Yeah, thank you for putting it out there in the world. It’s been very inspiring; the whole experience of reading it and getting into your brain a little bit has been very inspiring to me.
AL: (Laughs). You like it in my brain?
KR: I do! It’s a great place.
AL: Sometimes better than others in here, in my brain.
KR: I wanted to start off by asking you about one of my favorite lines in your whole book, “I have never been much good at making things up. I was good at seeing what was in front of my face and deciding what it meant, then writing about it so that others were swayed by my perception.” And I really love the line because of the sense of responsibility you imbue on the writing profession.
As a writer, particularly a rather prolific writer of profiles, what do you consider your primary responsibility to be as a writer when setting forth with the task of analyzing a person’s life so as to make it a story?
AL: Well, the main responsibility, above anything else when you’re doing that, or when you’re writing anything, is to make a story, to figure out how do you tell this as a narrative that has all the things a narrative needs, like conflict and drama and narrative arc and all those things. And there’s always a way to do that. There’s never been a case…well, if there’s a case then what it means is what you’re working on is not a real story, and you should abandon ship, because anything that’s a worthwhile story, there’s a way to do it. That’s the number one responsibility, is to turn it into an interesting narrative for the reader- because that’s who your primary responsibility is to, it’s to the reader. But then the second responsibility is to try and tell a story in such a way that it’s truthful and not just truthful like, technically accurate, but truthful in a deeper sense, in terms of the way you represent the person you’re profiling.
KR: Totally, and I feel like in reading [The Rules Do Not Apply], it seemed to me that a predominant theme in the book was fantasy in general, which I feel like is sort of a tried and true way to create a narrative arc, and you do such an amazing job of self-analyzing your own predilection for fantasy —
AL: You mean fantasy in terms of like, if you’re writing a profile about someone you figure out what their sort of dreams are, and you make that the arc?
KR: Yeah, and also like, I guess in The Rules Do Not Apply, you’re your own subject, in a way, which I wanted to ask you about. As far as someone who does write profiles, what was it like, or —
AL: You know, it’s funny you should ask, and it really is not different, in some ways, than writing a profile, right? So if I was profiling me, which I was, I would think to myself what I always think when I’m profiling someone, which is, “Ok, so what’s the stencil of conflict to this person’s life, what is this person conflicted about?” And I think pretty clearly with me, the conflict was the desire on the one hand for, I mean it’s pretty common, but it certainly was mine, the conflict between the incompatible desires for adventure, accomplishment, novelty, excitement on the one hand, and intimacy, domesticity, family on the other. That was my fundamental conflict, and then because this was a book and not an article, like, “What does it mean to be a woman? And other things. But so that’s what I always try and figure out, what’s the conflict?
KR: And I guess, what I meant by fantasy was the conflict between living your truth, so to say, and reacting to events in your life as they are happening, and maybe not as you had planned for them —
AL: But that is your truth. That’s the thing. I mean that’s what I learned, right? With certain things, there’s no your truth/the truth. It’s like, it’s one thing, and it’s the clearest when things are horrible. If you lose your baby, and your spouse is an alcoholic, whether that’s your truth or not, it’s the truth. It’s the truth.
KR: It’s what’s happening.
AL: Exactly, and you have to find a way to surrender and be like, “Yeah, I accept that. I accept that that’s the truth.” Anything else is crazy…And I think it’s very common, and part of the experience of grief, for awhile, one is like, “No, I don’t agree. I don’t agree to these terms. I reject your offer.”
KR: And especially after you did lose your son and Lucy had sort of really declined into the depths of her alcoholism and people would tell you, “Everything happens for a reason.” That turn of phrase that people use so often, I really admired how you sort of flipped that on its head, as well, both from a humor perspective, how you sort of riffed off that with your friends, but also in reality, yes, of course everything happens for a reason.
AL: Lots of reasons.
KR: Reasons we might not understand, but that doesn’t necessarily make us feel better in the moment, I suppose, or when we’re in the thick of it.
AL: Well it’s just like, whatever, you know? You go through something horrible, it’s like, it’s enough work to try and get through the day and accept that all this bad stuff has happened, it’s not time to figure out the reasons then. Also, that’s not what people mean, as you know. They don’t mean, “Oh, what are the reasons? What happened? How did this happen?” The book is, “What are the reasons? How did this happen?” What people mean when they say everything happens for a reason is they mean everything happens in a way that’s to your advantage in the end, and that’s nonsense.
KR: Exactly, and when you talk about the experience of profiling Nora Ephron, and in conversation with you, you talked about the number of female friends she’s had “who’ve managed to change their lives,” I sort of was thinking about that as almost the rejection of the idea that everything happens for a reason, and/or everything will turn out ok, because of the sense of ownership she—
AL: The everything for a reason crowd would use that. They’d say, “Ok Nora Ephron, Carl Bernstein left you when you were pregnant and that seemed bad, but it happened for a reason because then you could write Heartburn, which would be a huge bestseller, and that would get made into a movie and start your film career, and then you would be one of the most successful women directors in history.” So there’s always a way people can spin that, unless, unless they’re dealing with the realities of the world. Tell “everything happens for a reason” to someone in Syria right now, see how that goes over.
KR: There’s sort of a sense of privilege attached to the assumption that everything happens for a reason and those reasons will somehow offer you a happy ending.
AL: I just think it’s preposterous, it just doesn’t make the cut.
KR: So, for those who might not know, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” is a longform article you wrote for The New Yorker that you won a magazine writing award for, and it’s such a powerful piece of longform journalism, but I’m curious when it first occurred to you that your original story could become a book-length story, as well? Was that your idea?
AL: Well, after I wrote “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” I was like, “You know what, I’m not done.” Like, I have a lot more to say; there’s what happened before and what happened after, it’s its own story. And you were saying before, when I profile other people, I look for certain things that I think will make it a good story and that will make me interested in what I’m doing. And I was like, you know, if I heard this about someone else, if I heard my story and it was about someone other than me, I’d want to tell it, because I think it’s a good story, and it has a lot of the issues that I’ve been interested in writing about for 20 years, a lot of that comes into play. So, I decided I would do it.
KR: I feel like you’ve also written about a healthy handful of older female writers — Nora Ephron, Maureen Dowd — how in any way did those experiences prepare you to profile a writer, albeit yourself, in book-length form?
AL: Not them more than anyone else. I think writing profiles for 20 years set me up. It was like, first of all, after 20 years, I felt fairly comfortable with my style, you know what I mean? I think it takes a long time to figure out what your style is, what your voice is, how you want to sound, what kind of mode you do the best work in. Is it polemic? Well, I found out with Female Chauvinist Pigs that I don’t like writing polemic. Is it storytelling? Yeah, it turns out that’s what I like doing. And then the kinds of issues you think you can be interesting about, right? So after 20 years of learning that, I felt like I could handle my own story, like I could do it. So that’s really the answer…it’s not so much that writing about writers set me up for it, I think writing about people made it possible.
KR: I was listening to a podcast interview you did on the Longform podcast, and between Female Chauvinist Pigs and The Rules Do Not Apply, there’s been a ten year span where you’ve obviously really grown a lot as a writer yourself, but what I enjoyed about the conversation you had with Max [Linsky] on that interview was sort of reflecting on the intense anxiety and ambition you felt when you were starting out in your career, and I was just wondering, maybe hopefully and a little selfishly, the sort of anxiousness you felt then, has that been something that’s transformed into a less uncomfortable feeling now? What did that transformation look like?
AL: Oh yeah, it’s like, relaxing now. It’s not like I never get pumped up, but no, I definitely don’t walk around with the kind of burning sense of ambition and becoming, like I wrote about in the book, because I became. I wanted to become a writer and now it’d be difficult to argue that I’m not one. There’s too many things that suggest that I’m a writer for me to worry that I’m not one. So that’s different now. And also, the thing is, when you’re like 22 or whatever, it’s perfectly age appropriate that you’re like, “Ok, who am I going to be? What am I going to do?” and just try to figure that out. Once you’re in your forties, if you’re me, and you had one marriage fail, you’re about to embark on a second marriage, you’ve had a baby — stuff like that, it’s hard to be as career obsessed because it’s kind of set in by now that’s it’s not the only thing, that’s not the only thing that makes a life.
KR: Right, and that sense of anxiousness that you did feel when you were starting out, do you in retrospect and when you reflect now, was it more so the feeling of anxiety that you would never become the writer you wanted to be —
AL: To be honest with you, I always thought I would become the writer I wanted to be. I was anxious because I wasn’t yet, and I was like, how am I going to get there? It wasn’t so much, “This is never going to happen,” except at very low moments. I wasn’t that worried, except occasionally, I wasn’t that worried it wasn’t going to happen. I felt pretty…confident isn’t the right word because that makes it sound like I was all psyched. The anxiety wasn’t, “Oh my God, this isn’t going to work.” The anxiety was more, “Oh my god, how is this going to work? Because this has to happen. I have to be a writer. How am I going to make it happen?” That was my sense of anxiety.
From time to time, sure, if I was having a bad day or if I was working on something really dumb, early years at a magazine then we’d be working on some dumb thing, we’d have to call all these car services and florists and facialists and you’re trying to put together this “Sex of New York” page and you’re like, “This is going to make me a writer?” Like, stuff like that, there were times when I was like, “This is all I’ve ever do, is work at a magazine. I’m never going to be a writer I’m just going to work at some magazine and this is going to be dumb.” But those were crappy days, you know what I mean? Most of the time, I was like, “No, this is going to work out. I’m going to be a writer, but how?”
KR: Yeah, and I’m biased because I read your book as a 26 year old, so not super young, but on one side of the spectrum, and as a writer, and I sort of really identified with that anxiety as you described it, you know you’re doing things correctly, you’re accomplishing x, y and z, but when is it going to fall into this picture that I myself have also had in my head since I was six years old —
AL: You know, I think that is very much the experience of being in your twenties, like, when is it all going to come together? I think that is your twenties, “How’s this going to work? Who am I?”
KR: And I think that a lot of women, I know a lot of my friends who have devoured your book or are in the process, that’s something that’s really stuck with them, as far as my peers.
AL: That’s great, that makes me happy.
KR: Really, it’s been a really inspiring read for many younger women I know, but then I was also reading it thinking about, you’re able to reach so many different perhaps, what I guess would be considered a niche audience, if being a young woman in your twenties who wants to be a writer is a niche audience, but you’re also appealing to people who’ve had miscarriages, and women who have dealt with an alcoholic or addictive spouse, and I think that, sort of coming full circle, the ability for you to have even unintentionally lived your life in such as a way to as to eventually garner all of this subject matter to write a book length profile of yourself about is so powerful, and I guess my question would be, whether as any of this was happening to you, was it something you had to reflect on to see the story there, or as it was happening, because of your training as a writer, did you always know that this book would come to be?
AL: No, I definitely didn’t always know it would come to be. I mean, there were aspects of it along the way that I wrote about in my journal or whatever, or that thought, “Oh, maybe someday I’ll write something that has to do with this,” because, for example, the insanity, the temporary insanity that is having an affair, where you’re just like, I am ruining my life and I can’t stop, and it’s not fun, it’s horrible, but I can’t stop, which is a kind of addiction. That, I remember thinking as it was happening, that eventually I would have to write about this because it was insane, it was an altered state, and I mustn’t be the only person who has ever experienced this, which I’m certainly not. So anyways, that was an example of something that as it was happening, I was like, I think I’m going to have to write about this at some point.
KR: Yeah, and speaking of the way in which you write about your affair in general, what I found so powerful about that specific narrative was just how self-analytical you were in the moment, but also sort of kind to yourself in a way. Just thinking about the experience of being a woman in this day and age, there might be a sense of, some sort of pressure to be more critical of yourself, and I feel like you were not so much critical as really analytical so as to really provide a resource in a way for women who might be going through the same thing and might need to read a real reckoning with an affair, but also one that doesn’t…you weren’t punishing yourself over and over.
AL: To be clear, I felt horrible, and that was one real regret of my entire life, but I know what you’re saying. It’s not useful to just, with any of this shit, it’s not useful just to be like, ok what am I supposed to say? What’s my line supposed to be here so I sound good? It’s like, if you don’t get the specificity of the experiences, what’s the ever-loving point, right?
KR: Exactly, and I think it’s easy for women to self-flagellate over and over and at least when I read it, granted I’ve never gone through the experience of having an affair while married, but I felt a sort of resolution coming from the way that you were able to reflect on the experience, which I think could really translate to anything we do that gives us a sense of guilt, and guilt is such a powerful theme in your whole book, in many ways, but that was one area that really stood out to me as sort of a healthy, if even in the thick of it you weren’t feeling healthy or dealing with in the healthiest of ways, your retrospective gives it this sense of healthy closure which is what I think a lot of people seek in those moments.
AL: Yeah, I think it’s also…I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, she’s tormented, she doesn’t know what to do, whether to stay in her marriage or not, she’s just tormented. I think those moments that come inevitably in anyone’s life, where they’re just like, I don’t know what to do, like I cannot figure out the answer, those are hard times.
Kaylen Ralph is The Riveter’s cofounder, editorial development director and brand director. She works as a personal stylist for Anthropologie. Follow her on Instagram @kaylenralph for books, fashion and a lot of content blending those two subjects. You can also find her on Twitter at @kaylenralph.
Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.