“When had I ever dreamed a scheme? When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act? When had I ever, like Jim Hawkins, broke from my friends, raced for the beach, stolen a boat, killed a man, or eliminated an obstacle that stood in the way of my getting a hunk of gold?”
With those words, the unnamed 25-year-old protagonist of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! decides to change course. Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s timeless tale, she’s determined to shake off the shackles of her suburban life — though not by leaving the suburbs. Instead, she pursues the Core Values of BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING while navigating her day job at The Pet Library and an assortment of friends and family confused by her single-minded passion for a classic of boy’s adventure fiction.
Of course, there are bound to be a few hiccups along the path of any grand adventure. In the narrator’s case, these include embezzlement, an extremely annoying parrot, moving back in with her parents, encounters with poison, and even a stabbing. No matter: she keeps her head up throughout Levine’s laugh-out-loud satire.
Filled with love for a coming-of-age novel that’s less about lessons learned than lessons–boldly!–refused, I asked Levine to talk about her acclaimed debut. Grab your nearest bottle of rum and read on for her thoughts on the Core Values of Little Women, how book reception seems to differ for male and female authors, and the American desire for self-reinvention.
The narrator wants so badly to learn capital-L Lessons from Treasure Island. Her take-aways are questionable and her execution of the Core Values is decidedly slapdash—embezzling, negligent parrot-parenting, etc. But I think a lot of bookworms can relate to the feeling of wanting the books we love to tell us how to live. Is that too much pressure to put on a paperback? And are there books that have inspired a Treasure Island level of devotion in you?
No book has inspired that level of devotion in me. I can’t imagine committing to a single book with such fervor. But I’m well aware of my tendency to hope that something—not necessarily a book, but an object, or a practice—will have the power to change my life. And I’m interested in the American obsession with re-inventing selfhood. Remodel your living room, redo your wardrobe, make a new you! Why do we always think it’s possible, even desirable, to start over?
The Core Values the narrator decides to live her life by are boldness, resolution, independence, and horn-blowing. Does that last one mean tooting your own horn (something at which the narrator excels) or taking up the euphonium?
Yes, blowing your own horn means saying what you do well. But let’s not rule out euphonium lessons for any of the ladies. I understand the solo euphonium repertoire has expanded dramatically in recent years. It’s no longer necessary to be an ensemble player.
Several of the Treasure Island!!! reviews I read (all of which were very admiring!) praised the book for putting such an unsympathetic character at the center. But I kind of loved her. She’s selfish and oblivious and misguided, sure, and she hurts the people who care about her. But I also found her wild over-confidence and single-mindedness endearing, especially as the cracks in her armor start to show. Am I a patsy?
You are not a patsy. You are a spiritually evolved human being. Do you know the Buddhist parable of the poisoned tree? When we encounter a mean, selfish, off-kilter person, most of us want to get away as quickly as possible. Others, like yourself, they can witness the mess and not run away screaming. I commend you for approaching the dregs of humanity with compassion and amusement. I apologize if I sound as if I am speaking from a mountaintop.
Relatedly, your self-interview at The Nervous Breakdown brings up the specter of the autobiographical question. (“How much you have in common with your narrator?”) But nobody as un-self-aware as the narrator ever could have written her. Did it surprise you that people were asking that question?
Thanks. It did surprise me, though probably it shouldn’t have. People usually write first novels based on their own lives, and it would be ridiculous to expect people to do any homework on me. But I was taken aback by a number of people who failed to see the gap between me and the narrator. They seemed ill equipped to read the voice. I keep hearing their morally indignant sputters: “She thinks she’s being bold, but really she’s being self-centered!” Tell me something I don’t know, girlfriend. And then there was the interviewer who asked me point-blank if I had ever worked in a pet store.
I don’t think I see male writers fielding the autobiographical question as often. Do you think it’s a gendered one?
I don’t know. I’ve been thinking more about gender in relation to book reception. It seems as though the public is always ready to receive a new brilliant boy. There was a book with an unpleasant male narrator that came out around the same time, written by a man, and instead of focusing on how the character was unlikable, readers focused on the book’s moral complexity. His book was “walking the line between morality and amorality” and “asking the hard questions.” My book was, by contrast, a seemingly unconscious provocation. People harped on how the narrator isn’t someone they’d want to hang out with. They wanted to slap her. It often sounded as if they’d forgotten a book is a literary artifact and wanted to slap me. That said, the other book I’m thinking of was lyrical and earnest. So maybe the issue is not so much about gender and reception as it is about genre. Comic fiction is typically undersold; it does ask “hard questions,” it’s just sometimes holding a rubber chicken while it asks them.
I love the way the book calls out the distance between longing for an adventure and actually living in an adventurous way. Do you think swashbuckling, larger-than-life adventures are out there for the people who want them, or do people need to recalibrate their expectations?
Larger-than-life adventures are out there for those who want them; god knows I don’t expect everyone to conform to my own danger-averse life. But I did want to suggest that you don’t have to leave home to be brave. There are plenty of perils available to the person who aims to live an ethical life within a geographically small territory. Also I was playing with the idea that in western literature, the adventurer is in flight from women. My heroine could have learned to sail a boat or booked a trip to the Caribbean, and it might have been entertaining to see her struggle. But it was much more frightening for her to stay home and learn some details about her mother’s sex life. She took a mental adventure, which for a narcissist, is adventure enough.
The narrator has such a distinctive voice—grandiose and breathless and hilarious. What were your inspirations as you were shaping her narrative style?
Robert Louis Stevenson, Nabokov, Bernhard, Woolf, James, and Jane Shapiro’s The Dangerous Husband. There’s a weird list. I’m pretty sure it’s incomplete, but it gives you an idea of my literary crushes.
After the narrator’s forced to give up Treasure Island she wonders, “Could a book like Little Women teach me what I needed to know?” She’s like a lapsed Catholic wondering about Judaism or Unitarianism. What do you think the Core Values for Little Women might be?
It’s been years since I read Little Women but I recall its fanatical attention to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. CHARITY; PIETY; MODESTY; PRUDENCE; SELF-SACRIFICE; FRUGALITY; GRATITUDE. In an earlier draft of Treasure Island!!! I had a nasty bit of work—the narrator speaking, of course—about Beth March being too good to live. Shy and mousy girls die in the corner, etc. But if I remember right, Alcott’s book chronicles the March girls’ struggle to live up to those Christian values with genuine sympathy. So let’s add INDIVIDUALITY to the list. Wasn’t Jo’s free spirit thoroughly endorsed? As well as Laurie’s pansy-like qualities?
Is the narrator having a quarter-life crisis that leads to her book obsession and unraveling, or was she always like this? Her sister Adrianna seems to see her the most clearly of her friends and family, so maybe she’s a good person to ask.
Adrianna was unavailable for this interview. She associates me with the narrator and won’t answer my calls. But I suspect the narrator was always like this.
As the book progresses, the narrator has to confront all these sides of her family members that she has no interest in seeing—her little sister’s love affair with an older family friend, her mom’s infidelity, her dad’s passivity. I think that’s a big part of growing up. Either your parents and siblings start revealing hidden pats of themselves to you, or something else happens that means you can’t bury your head in the sand any longer. Do you think she’s growing into a less self-centered perspective of the world by the novel’s end?
I love that you ask this question. I’ve been lucky enough to hear strangers argue about it—whether she truly changes at the end or whether it’s going to be more of the same. I’m not sure. She takes a “baby step” by the end; not only because she returns the library book, but because she gets in the driver’s seat. That said, it’s winter, the road is slippery, and she’s upset. If I’d chosen to write the next scene, I’m pretty sure there would be a car accident, and I don’t imagine her accepting the blame.