Peter Levine recently published “The Appearance of a Hero,” a collection of linked short stories revolving around the central character of Tom Mahoney. In an unusual move, none of the stories are told from Tom’s perspective, but only from the perspective of those surrounding him. It’s really a fantastic collection — alternating between tender and severe, filled with people that you know and that you want to know better. BookFox caught up with Levine across email and had this interview.
BookFox: The through-line character in this collection, Tom Mahoney, is a former athlete. Did famous characters who were former athletes (I’m thinking specifically of Updike’s Rabbit), affect the way Tom took shape?
Levine: No—there were no fictional models for Tom, though he did, in part, grow out of real guys I’ve known, and their being former athletes are part in parcel of this archetype.
I love in “For the Reception to Follow,” how you have Tom’s neighbor Ben speculate on the importance of sports in the future, how they will supplant the nation-state and replace religion. It’s a funny, tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but one that highlights Tom’s inability to assume the mantle of the athlete-hero. What’s your experience with sports, and how did that feed into the veneration of sports figures in these stories?
This is a funny question for me because I am one of the few men I know who has no interest in watching or following sports. There’s this line in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter where Frank Bascombe says something about how if you’re a man in America, you probably know all you need to be a sportswriter. It’s so true! In Chicago, where I’m from, it was the Cubs or the Sox, the Bulls, of course, and then later in college (I went to UW-Madison), sports—football in particular—was a major part of life.
One of the things I observed, sort of as an outsider, is the kind of reverence and infatuation men feel towards athletes. I’m not talking about the cultural worship of professional athletes, but the special case of the star high school athlete, or the collegiate athlete, which is what Tom Mahoney was.
What’s unique for this guy is that he has no competition among his peers. He’s the biggest celebrity in his world. When you’re older, you’ve got your famous athletes, but you’ve also got your internet tycoons, your movie stars, your Nobel Laureates, whatever. But there’s something about the adulation a young athlete receives, and in particular, the adulation he receives from his guy friends.
That’s part of what I was examining in the book with Tom and the men around him. Though his playing days are over, they continue to fawn over Tom, and they do so in a way that seems particular to men.
Why is Tom’s story always told from the perspective of other characters, and how do you think that changes our perspective of him?
This was somewhat unintentional, or at least, subconscious. It was something I realized only much later, when all the stories were strung together. But Tom is an elusive guy—a lot of the stories deal with people trying to get a read on him. By providing an entry-point through other characters, and never through Tom himself, it enhances that elusiveness and reflects the fact that his life never solidifies in the way he’d like for it to. It also allowed me to paint him in different ways—sometimes a failure, other times heroic, other times sort of swimming through his own life, and it seemed that a closer, more fixed treatment might not allow for that.
How was your process of finding an agent and a publisher?
The overall process—that is to say, the process from when I first sent a completed manuscript out into the world years ago—was pretty typical (though it felt uniquely bad to me): it involved a lot of rejection and took a lot longer than I’d expected or hoped.
With that said, for this book, the process was shorter and less painful. The agent part happened fairly quickly after I began to circulate the manuscript.
As far as finding a publisher, that took a bit longer—a couple months. Initially, it was very quiet, but then a few passes started coming in and a few notes of interest. My editor—George Witte at St. Martin’s Press—wrote to say that he had read the book and wanted to share it with his colleagues. That took some time. But shortly thereafter, he was able to make an offer, and we took it.
How would you define literary success? Literary failure?
That’s a hard question. I’ve always thought of writing success along the lines of the actor who’s able to get consistent work. I guess my first instinct would be to say that, for me, literary success would be having the work you send out published.
Literary failure: that’s tough. Giving up prematurely (and “premature” in the writing world seems to have a different definition)—that’s one form of failure. And then there’s the regular failure that comes with doing everything you can and just never getting lucky. Frankly, I think that’s one of the most haunting things writers have to contend with.
What’s your current project?
I’m working on a longer piece based on a group of Stanford scientists who did a project for the CIA in the ’70s involving remote viewing, which was basically the idea that someone can be on one side of the world but see something else happening anywhere else on the planet in real time. It’s weird, but I’m having fun with it, though I’m not sure, at 15,000 words, if it counts as a story or what. Anyhow, I’m just trying to go with it.