Six years ago writer Stacey Levine was living in Seattle and temping to make ends meet. One afternoon she came home from her first day at a data-entry assignment to find a message from the temp agency on the answering machine.
"This woman was saying, 'Stacey, do not go back to Northern Life Insurance. Repeat: do not go back,'" Levine says. "That morning they had put me alone in this huge room and said, 'Here, do this,' but that was the only instruction I got. Apparently I really fucked up royally but didn't know it. I was so mad about being fired that I went to the computer and started to type all these angry, obsessive paragraphs about a confined and sterile work space. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was the beginningof Dra--."
The novel Dra--, published last year by Sun & Moon Press, is set in an amorphous corporate world and features a protagonist who stumbles through endless corridors in search of an elusive Manager. It took Levine four years to write the book. For most of that time she continued to support herself through temp work and odd jobs. "Most of the jobs I had were in the medical setting," she says. "In one temporary position, half my job consisted of transcription, and the rest of the time I'd have to carry thymus glands on ice."
Levine took notes on such macabre and quirky details, several of which ended up in the final version of her novel. "I worked in an operating room at a trauma center. They had me ordering blood right away, although I had no experience. That was a job-job, not a temp, but I didn't last long. I was scared I was going to cause the death of a child. Eventually I complained to the employment counselor of the hospital. She was in an electric wheelchair when I told her, and she zoomed right up next to me and said, 'This just isn't the job that brings out the qualities in you that most shine.' I wrote that down."
Prior to writing Dra-- , Levine had published a collection of short stories called My Horse, which won the 1994 PEN/West Award. Most of those stories were written while she was in graduate school at the University of Washington. Upon completing her master's degree in 1989, she decided to stay in Seattle. "In so many other places it's considered weird if you don't have a career, but in Seattle there's huge numbers of people who don't do the eight-hour-a-day work thing. There's a big art community. It's a very visible part of the city."
In 1995 Levine met Cris Mazza, a writer who teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, at a meeting of the American Book Association in Los Angeles. Levine applied to UIC's PhD program for writers and moved to Chicago in 1996. After a year of studying and teaching, she took a leave of absence to teach writing classes at Illinois State University in Normal, filling in for David Foster Wallace. This year, she's back teaching at UIC, but she's dropped out of the PhD program. "It's a lot of work for something I don't really want," she says.
Levine continues to write short stories while working on another novel. Her story "Uppsala" appears in Fetish, a new anthology of fiction about obsessions. And when the semester is over, she plans to quit teaching--at least for now--and resume part-time temping. "I like to be around people who are eccentric, and you get a lot more of that temping than you do teaching. Students are often really sheepish and quiet. In temp jobs, you meet this population of women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s, and they have their own world, their own state, their own syntactical commonality that's really funny and peculiar to me. For example, I had a boss who, when I opened her desk drawer to look for a file card or something, would always have a stick of butter in there. Every time I looked, there it was. You don't find that when you're teaching."
To celebrate the release of Fetish, Levine and local contributors Mazza and Beth Nugent, as well as editor John Yau, will read tonight at Unabridged Bookstore, 3251 N. Broadway (773-883-9119). The free event starts at 7:30. --Zoe Zolbrod
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J.B. Spector.