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f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 6 A L I V E E A S T B A Y 21 Kenny Levin: Shift? Maybe so. Probably more like a burp. It is non-fiction through and through, whereas Crazy Razor and The Many Deaths of Comrade Binh are fiction. Or at least they have thin veneers of fiction layered on top of cores of fact and reality. There is no veneer on Salami. AM: You take your readers for a ride on an emotional roller coaster. I laughed and cried. What compelled you to write a book like this? KL: If my writing can produce tears and giggles, I’m satisfied with my work. What first compelled me was what I thought would be a good book for very little effort on my part. I had my brother’s diary from his time as an army doctor in Vietnam. I thought that all I’d have to do is transcribe it, add a bit of narrative between entries and, voila, an instant book. That was one of my dumber moves. It was so boring. Then I found the diary of a North Vietnamese doctor who set up a clinic not far from where my brother was stationed. I turned the book into a comparison of the two diaries. Still boring. So then I added a bit of the two doctors’ history, and it was a little bit better but still lousy. It was at this stage where one of the early draft readers, a clinical psychologist, suggested I focus and expand on the family dynamics that I had brought in as part of my brother’s history and add more about the politics of the time. That transformed the book. By the time I finished, catharsis and telling a tale of family were the compelling factors. The easy book with little effort on my part was long dead. AM: How did you come up with that title? KL: Before I started writing Crazy Razor in 2009, I read a “how-towrite a-book” piece put out by some writers’ workshop. The first direction was to pick a title before you start writing. That is possibly the worst advice you can give anyone who wants to write. When I start to write—and I’m not alone in this—I have only the vaguest of ideas where my writing’s going to go. How could I name a book before I know what the book is about? Salami and the White Horse went through two complete revisions and then 13 drafts. It went from a transcription of a doctor that just happened to be my brother’s war diary, to a comparison of two doctors’ war diaries, to a book of family dynamics and political history, until finally it became a combination of all of that. The focus of this unfocused book is three men: my brother, my father, and me. My dad was a salami fiend. He could live on salami supplemented with chocolate and be quite happy. My brother was the crown prince of the family; brilliant, charming, good looking. And what did a crown prince travel on? Certainly not an Oldsmobile. Prince Charmings sit astride a white stallion. Hence the title. I was worried about the editors’ take on my choice of title and they did change it. But just a bit. I submitted Salami and aWhite Horse. They changed it to Salami and the White Horse. Imagine if I published the book in a scratch-n-sniff format, like one of those children’s books. Garlic and horse manure. AM: Yes, except I imagine the manure of a prince’s white horse doesn’t have much smell. What about your shift from the fiction of the novel and short stories to non-fiction? KL: That was an eye-opener. Because I want all my writing to be realistic and credible, I spend more time researching and fact-checking than actually writing. With the first two books, if there were gaps in my research or I had written myself into a corner, all I had to do was create filler for the gaps orwrite a door to open to get me out of the corner. But with non-fiction—at least by my own self-imposed rules—I did not have the option of creating filler or doors. So, the salami book has a gap or two; such as why did a Vietnamese general vote to censure himself? I could not find the answer to that. Finding myself in an awkward corner that I couldn’t write myself out of was just something I had to live with, embarrassing or not. I’ve heard that the difference between fiction and non-fiction writers is that non-fiction writers keep the names and dates the same but change everything else for the sake of their writing. I won’t play that game. If you’re writing non-fiction, write the facts and let the gaps and cracks show. I won’t describe impossible dreams as facts. AM: Salami is an intimately revealing book. Was it hard for you? KL: Yes. But it probably saved me several thousands in psychotherapy. As I did my research, especially my family’s history and looking at family dynamics, I realized I was turning a hero into a jerk, respect into disrespect, and strength into fragility. With the help of my sisters and nephew, I was digging through family history, turning over long forgotten rocks as buried memories and emotions squiggled into the light. Midway through the book I started referring to my eldest son by my brother’s name and vice versa. Freud would have a good time with that one. In the words of one of my sisters, “This is like pulling off scabs.” AM: Why didn’t you just stop? KL: I did. Several times. Obviously, I restarted one more time than I stopped or this would be one boring interview. When I decided to try writing several years ago, I realized I was sticking my rear end and ego out the window and asking everyone to take a shot. If I didn’t want to take that risk, I’d better not write. When you ignore both the safety of your ass and your ego, you can keep on writing. AM: Both you and your brother went into the military and to war. In Salami and the White Horse you describe being raised in a crucible


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