This marks the beginning of a series of letters between the writers Claudia Dey and Stacey Levine, who are reading each others’ work for the first time. Claudia Dey (pictured here, the author of the first letter) is a playwright and novelist who lives in Toronto. She most recently published a sex manual adapted from her newspaper columns, titled How To Be a Bush Pilot. Stacey Levine is the author of two novels, two story collections, and a play; her most recent collection is titled The Girl with Brown Fur: Tales and Stories. She lives in Seattle.

April 19, 2012

Dear Stacey,

I like to picture you in your apartment in Seattle with at least one impractical collection. My son found a human tooth in the park last night and immediately put it in his jean pocket. This sentence from Frances Johnson is perfect and novel-sized in itself: “Frances had begun to discover the quiet adventure in knowing another human being, and with this came the desire to flee.” Yesterday, I spoke with a woman who had the letters, FTA, tattooed to her wrist. She explained that they were from a pin Patti Smith wore on her lapel in 1978, and FTA stands for Focus Thine Anarchy.

All right, I will.

I have a lot of questions for you, but will begin with this one: Recently, a writer, so laidback in his size thirteen boots, told me he does not nurse things, he just writes them down as they come and part way through thinks, Oh, I guess I am writing about these people in these circumstances now. Do you nurse things? Or do they tumble forth and, possessed of an intelligence separate from your own, assemble themselves in narrative form? Can you tell me about the influence of Gertrude Stein on your work? And I will chance, Lydia Davis and Jean Rhys? How would you describe the act of living when you are between books? Can you tell me about your bicycle helmet stage? Were you between books?

So, our letters are blind dates and I am hoping you might do the tablecloth trick at some point.

This is how I heard about the death of Rasputin: I was up north for three weeks shooting an indie horror movie in an uninhabited cottage community in northern Ontario. If you really track that sentence, it starts off glamorously and ends less so. The ice on the lake was two feet thick and when you walked through the snowdrifts, you would fall in up to your waist. There was a guy in the crew, the sound guy, who had the tic of clearing his throat after anyone else did. The Grip had a season’s pass to Marineland and the camera man made sunlight and moonlight using silver disks and Chinese lanterns; we called him God Crotch after a stunt with a flashlight. They were all twenty-four years old and Elizabeth Peyton would have painted them had she been there.

On the day I found out about Rasputin’s violent end, the light was suddenly perfect to shoot the scene we called “the nude scene.” When the director said, Do you want to do the nude scene? I said, Yes, though I was feeling very unwell; I had a terrific pain in my left ear. I prepared for the scene while the crew set up and in so doing realized, No, I do not want to do the nude scene. I told the director about my ear and he was very sympathetic. I returned to our small cabin to rest and thought: I cannot give you nudity, but I can give you pain. I told this to the director and he said, Do you want to do the crying scene?

I wear very ugly clothes in this movie. The flouncy mauve tops and ill-fitting pants of a woman who has never had sex or brunch. The production designer spoke a lot about “sad fabrics” (my character’s back-up band.) On this day, the Rasputin day, he handed me my wardrobe and said, “It’s your black turtleneck moment.” I put on my black turtleneck, someone handed me a telephone, the director called “Action” and I cried for a long time. When he said, Cut, I said, I have more pain if you want it. He said, Okay, we’ll do this handheld and you go wherever you want, we’ll follow you. I cried and walked around the cabin. Cut. I said, I still have a small amount of pain to give you. He said, Okay, we’ll set up for the “leg cramp scene” so I got into bed, we shot the leg cramp scene and that is when my eardrum burst.

I know you, like me, appreciate a decent ailment, so this is why I share this story about my ear (bonus: incidental appearance of the word, panic.) Here is the medical description of what happened: “Infection is the principal cause of tympanic membrane perforation (TMP) – TMP is medical jargon for burst eardrum. Acute infection of the middle ear causes increased pressure in the middle ear space. This leads to a tear or rupture of the eardrum that is usually preceded by severe pain.”

My pain stopped immediately. The set was cleared and I told the directors, I think my eardrum just burst. We all knew that after so much crying, we needed a good laugh. The directors and I sat on the bed under a blue light God Crotch had set up. They told me about Rasputin. Rasputin was very hard to kill.

I just spent a lot of time listening to The Carter Family, Judy Garland, Jimmie Rodgers and The Smiths. I wrote a mash-up of their lyrics and John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run for a friend recovering from an operation. This is the end of it:

The danger is past

You can pin and mount me like a butterfly

I’m anchored at last

I’m anchored in love divine

It twitched

At its steely moorings, and seemed to say: Live, like life, with me.

There is a light that never goes out

And somehow that really impressed me

I wrote it for my friend who always signs off with Love. What would Frances Johnson think about that?

Claudia