The unnamed 25-year–old narrator of Sara Levine’s debut novel Treasure Island!!! isn’t your typical literary protagonist. A college graduate who has moved back home with her parents and works at a pet rental shop, the narrator develops a maniacal obsession with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Levine, chair of the MFA in Writing program at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, wasn’t always a fan of the 1883 adventure book that inspired her to pen a novel of the same name. “Before I wrote a word, I thought, well, maybe I’ll write an essay about not liking Treasure Island,” says Levine. “Then I read [it] and it was like, oh I love Treasure Island. I’m not going to bash it.”
The result reads more like a love letter to Stevenson, as told by a “nutso” voice, as Levine describes it. She traces the idea for the book back to 2000, when she was already teaching in the Nonfiction Writing program at the University of Iowa.
“Unlike at SAIC, things [at Iowa] are tracked, so if you are hired to do essay, you are expected to publish essay. And so I felt kind of hampered by that and wasn’t writing,” Levine recalls. She read Stevenson’s nonfiction essays for inspiration and eventually stumbled upon his most famous work of fiction, Treasure Island.
To reconcile her growing interest in fiction and her teaching job in nonfiction, Levine started teaching what she called “essayism,” a class that she took with her to SAIC and a genre–bending style that makes her work hard to categorize.
“I said I would try to fuse the speed of boy adventure books which were really alien to me, in a good way… [with] a much slower, dilatory essayistic voice, where you analyze, you go around your subject, you try to turn it,” says Levine, who teaches her students that the essay is like a Rubik’s cube that needs constant turning.
“Why don’t I just pretend like the essay is a girly thing, and that the narrative is a boy thing, and then see what happens?” Levine says. “Which is, I have to say, such a terrible way to start a novel! There was a moment when I thought, this is so wrong-headed, that is not where novels come from.”
Still, the 41–year–old author must have done something right; her novel was published in December by Alice Sebold’s Europa Editions imprint, and has since gained a following after reviews in the New York Times, LA Times, and O magazine.
GO: Levine reads from her new novel at the Book Cellar (4636 N. Lincoln, 773–293–2665) on Wednesday, January 18, at 7 p.m.