Howard Levine
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
 

I am a retired teacher of special education and English as a second language, but before my first public school teaching position—at a high school in the Bronx, NY—I taught Transcendental Meditation, which I still practice regularly.  I live now in suburban Washington DC, where I hike, bike, and write. My wife and I volunteer at a soup kitchen and a senior citizens center. I have one previously published novel, Leaving This Life Behind.

INTERVIEW

SP: What does your typical writing day look like? How do you work in your writing and promoting?

Howard: Typically, I write for maybe an hour and a half five days a week.  That doesn’t include research—although I write fiction, it needs to be credible in terms of its settings and events, within the context of the story.  Promotion of my work in not something I enjoy, generally, but it is necessary.  Getting reviewed in newspapers and other periodicals is more difficult now than it was with my first novel, Leaving This Life Behind.  On the plus side, I’ve had considerable success with book signings at Barnes & Noble stores in my area  (suburban Washington DC).

 

SP: Tell me how and why you got into writing fiction? How long have you been doing it? And how do you go about creating a story? Elaborate here.

Howard: I started writing fiction because I wanted to express certain understandings I have about life—derived from practicing and teaching Transcendental Meditation—in a fictional context.  That initial motivation has morphed into a desire to produce engaging fiction, because I find the process of creating it to be very absorbing and satisfying.  I’ve been writing seriously for over forty years.  My novels generally coalesce around a central idea—in the case of Last Gasp, what if the US government staged a terrorist attack to further its own political aims?  I plan as much as I can initially, but usually the story shapes itself as I go along.  Sometimes that necessitates revising material already written.   Objective feedback is important.  It’s hard to see one’s own material clearly, especially after having gone over it repeatedly.

 

SP: Tell me about the protagonist and antagonist of your latest book. What are their goals in the story?

Howard: The protagonist of Last Gasp is Frank Tedeschi, a Vietnam Vet whose niece has died in the terrorist attack alluded to above.  Based on a chance encounter, he is one of the very few individuals who doubt the federal government’s explanation, which lays the blame for the attack at the feet of Islamic radicals. His goal in the story is to work with his bereaved, formerly estranged brother to prove the truth—an undertaking which involves risking their own lives.  The antagonist is Billy Patterson, a religious fanatic who is the point man in the government-sponsored attack.  His goal is to evade capture by the government, which wants to silence him.  He is unaware that he is also being hunted by the Tedeschi brothers.

 

SP: Which do you prefer, character driven stories or plot driven stories and why should readers care?  Which do you write?

Howard: I prefer stories that have enough of a plot line to keep me engaged, as opposed to those that are mainly “slice of life” novels that paint a broad picture rather than building toward a climax or resolution.  But it’s also true that the characters of any novel should be well-drawn and credible.  I try to write novels that meet those criteria.

 

SP: Tell me about your story point of view preferences, tense preferences, and any other thing of interest to you along these lines as we delve further into the mechanics of creating a story.

Howard: I’ve written novels both in first and third person.  First person can sometimes allow for a more intimate portrayal of a character.  Narration can alternate between two or more characters in different chapters, or the same character can narrate throughout.  Third person—which seems to be the preference of many agents and editors nowadays—can allow for greater flexibility in depicting the characters and unfolding the story.  There is no narrator who must be present for the story to proceed, and the inner lives of all of the characters can be depicted more readily.  Hopefully, the best way to approach point of view in a given novel will become apparent at the outset, or shortly thereafter.  Regarding the tense of a story, I think most novels are either told in present or past tense, although I’ve seen a number of novels that switch back and forth.  Part of the fascination of writing is trying different approaches over time.   I believe that what works and what doesn’t with a particular story eventually becomes apparent—often with the help of objective feedback, which, again, I think is extremely important.

 

SP: What are your all-time favorite books – top three? Why? Don’t skimp here. Explore it with us? Tell us what genre they are. Who is your favorite author, if different from your favorite book?

Howard: The first book is An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones.  It’s the best novel I’ve read recently.  My favorite section involved the letters sent by the unjustly jailed protagonist to his wife.  The second selection is The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, which is one of my all-time favorites.  One of its themes is the fallacy of thinking that you can foist your religious beliefs on others.  Both novels can be considered family dramas, although each contains elements of other genres as well.  The third book would be Nutshell, by Ian McEwan.  It’s a brilliantly constructed thriller, worth rereading.

 

SP: What do you find is the most difficult thing about writing fiction? The easiest thing? Elaborate.

Howard: The most difficult thing about writing fiction, for me, is outlining the plot beyond the central idea and initial chapter.   Plot details, and character back stories, do seem to present themselves as I go along.  And sometimes, I feel like I’m in a groove in which the writing flows effortlessly, and there’s a feeling of certainty about the quality of the material.

 

SP: Tell me about your travels. Where is an interesting place you’ve been? Do you travel to research your stories, or is research important to you for your stories?

Howard: As I write this I’m vacationing in New Zealand, which has to be one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on the planet.  Regarding research, it’s usually necessary to do some research in order to be able to write credibly about the places, time periods, events and characters in the novel.

 

SP: What kind of stories do you refuse to read?

Howard: Formulaic romances.

 

SP: Finally, the most important question – DC or Marvel? Or does that even matter to you? What is your favorite comic book character ever? If none, just make something up!

Howard: Superman is my favorite comic book character.  Now if he can just use his superpowers to reverse climate change, that would be wonderful.

 

Yes, that superpower would be nice. Very inciteful interview and to the point. Thanks for your time and effort. I'll overlook your love of DC and promote your work anyway. LOL

EXCERPT from Last Gasp

 

Chapter 4

            Bobby. Rob. Frank’s biological brother, pick the name, a lot of what they’d called each other over the years would’ve been unprintable, back in the day. Back when they had a relatively good relationship, big brother Frank not having been inclined toward bullying, getting his combat fix as a high school wrestler who took it to the mats, or so they joked, residents of Pelham Bay, Little Italy in Da Bronx. Back before Frank, bored with life in the neighborhood, capable but not especially interested in going to college, had enlisted in the army. He’d shipped out to Vietnam. 

Amazed to eventually find himself home again in one piece, if a mite skittish mentally, he’d dedicated himself to protesting the war, wearing his camouflage fatigues and long hair.  While Frank was still overseas, Rob had been admitted to the police academy. He became a rookie cop—piglet, in the vernacular of the counter culture—whose brother was demonstrating in the streets, and clashing with New York’s finest. The rift that developed between them only widened over time.

            As he drove down to meet Rob, jazz up loud, a hedge against drowsiness, Frank tried to distill all of that time, traverse in reverse, summon the brotherly affection that he dimly remembered feeling, back in the day. How was he going to console Rob? That was what it would amount to. Laureen was gone, he knew that in his guts, news reports aside. Maybe consoling Rob, somehow, might help him to console himself. As he moved left to pass a tank-like SUV--no easy feat, the guy was well above the speed limit—its taillights shimmered and blurred. Fortunately traffic was sparse on the Sprain Brook in the wee hours.                                                        

            Rob was prowling in front of his parked car on 233rd Street, above the Bronx River Parkway, jacket-less with short sleeves in the autumn chill. He waved one thick arm above his head. Frank couldn’t possibly miss him, even without the roof of his car flashing red. The way Rob squinted in the direction of Frank’s windshield, furrowing his forehead with its receding hairline, that square-shouldered torso, his stomp-walk, all of this was caught in the ultraviolet gleam of a streetlamp. Frank pulled to the curb behind Rob and jumped out.

            “You better park on Webster,” said Rob by way of greeting, already moving toward his own car. “Some of these assholes who work night shift at my precinct, it’s like quota time for parking tickets, proof that they weren’t cooping.”

 His voice was gruffly matter-of-fact, just another day, or very early morning. A couple of minutes later, Frank slid into the front seat next to him, offering a quick pat on the shoulder.  Rob pulled out before the passenger door was completely closed.

            “Long time no see,” said Frank, as the car sped up 233rd Street, toward the elevated subway station on White Plains Road.

            “Right.” As Rob ran the red light on White Plains, his horn honking and top light flashing, he swerved around a car that had braked for him, halfway into the intersection. The gas masks, two small masses of straps, wide plastic windows and protruding metal snouts, rattled on the back seat. “I don’t know how I’m gonna handle this, Frank,” he rasped. “If she’s…”

            “We don’t know anything for sure.” Frank shook his head, dismayed at the hollow sound of his own bullshit. He snuck a swipe at his eyes with the sleeve of his windbreaker. “And you’re a tough son of a bitch...with apologies to Mom. Remember? If you have to, you’ll handle it.” 

As they got closer to Co-op City, the sound of sirens came from every direction, non-stop, as if myriad car alarms had gotten stuck all at once. Fire engines, ambulances, the night was alive with red, white and blue flashing lights. Rob’s car with its one winking top light, dwarfed among the speeding emergency vehicles, was like the Little Engine that Could. Except that it couldn’t. As Frank had predicted, First Union Arena was sealed off, radius at least a mile. Rob parked on a side street off of Dyre Avenue and Thayer. He charged Frank with the responsibility of remembering the name, and they started walking past darkened private houses of rectangular brick, metal awnings, car ports, tiny front yards demarcated by chain link fences, my land. The streets, never featuring all that many pedestrians even in daylight, became more crowded as the brothers went on, their footsteps audible in the grim silence, as if the distraught parents were automatons, drawn by some otherworldly entity, a spaceship.