Hey, everybody! After a looong hiatus, during which Baby McNees made her way safely into the world, the author interviews are back! And I have so many wonderful authors and books to tell you about. Today I am very glad to welcome Lois Leveen to the blog. Lois’s debut novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a fascinating look at a woman you’ve never heard of who changed the course of history. Mary Bowser was born into slavery and freed as a young woman, when she moved north for an education. Risking her own safety and freedom, Mary then returned to Virginia and posed as a slave in order to spy for the Union and push forward the cause of abolition. It’s a remarkable tale and a lovely debut. Welcome, Lois!
What is your favorite quality in a person?
Humor. It sounds a little shallow when I say it like that, as though cracking jokes is more important than being kind or brave or any of those virtuous characteristics. It’s not! But what gets me through every day is the ability to laugh. To laugh at myself. To laugh at things that are obviously hilarious. To laugh at things that might otherwise seem daunting. We laugh when we’re happy, sometimes happy despite crummy circumstances. So I celebrate people who have the wonderful quality of seeing the humor in a given situation.
What is your least favorite?
Meanness. I cannot abide people who deliberately indulge in petty cruelties. Or in great big cruelties, for that matter.
What is your greatest fear?
Stultification—I need to feel challenged, to know I’m stretching in some way, whether it’s artistically or intellectually or emotionally or physically. Of course, I like a certain amount of routine in my life, and I’m not an adrenalin junkie who loves huge risks, but I need things to push me beyond the familiar and easy, fairly often.
Who is your greatest love?
I have been in a wonderful relationship with a charming Newfoundlander (a guy, not a dog) since I was twenty-one years old. But, as he knows, the true love of my life is/was Bruce the Cat (a feline who originally belonged to the guy who’s not a dog, but quickly became “our” cat). Bruce taught me about unconditional love in a way that my parents never did. He made me the sort of person who could be in this wonderful relationship. He made me sit in the chair revising just a little longer every day, because I couldn’t bring myself to get up when he was napping in my lap. Alas, cats’ lifespans are shorter than ours, and Bruce is gone now. I will be forever grateful for the fourteen years during which I had the pleasure to wait on him hand and foot, or paw and paw.
What is your idea of a perfect day?
Up early with an inspired few hours of writing, then brunch with my honey, then—because in my perfect day it is sunny—a long bike ride or hike, then dinner cooked at home from our farm share, then some wacky evening activity with friends, like a square dance or an 80s sing-a-long or an obscure film festival. I like to do a lot.
What place do you love?
What a cruel question! There are many places I love; I’ve lived in half a dozen cities, and I’m a sucker both for familiar haunts, and for exploring new places. But to choose just one: I’m a dedicated bicycle commuter (believe me, my younger self would not have anticipated that, so I encourage you to try it sometime and see if you, too, will fall for biking), and when I am coming home from downtown, I cross a very beautiful bridge over the Willamette River. When you bike across at night, you see the moon and the lights of the city reflected in the water, along with boats on the river and trains crossing other bridges. Whenever I make that crossing with someone, I usually say out loud what a beautiful place Portland, Oregon is, and how lucky I am to live here. (Note: I do not sing Portland’s praises quite so loudly when I am looking for great eggplant parmesan or a kasha knish).
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
The practical answer is a teacher. Probably not in the conventional way, but I’ve always worked in or around education. I still teach in various venues, even though it is in some ways a distraction from writing. I get a huge charge from guiding people to push their own thinking. I believe in education the way some folks believe in religion: I think it can save people.
The over-the-top answer: an art buyer. Wherever I travel, I visit galleries and museums. A lot of them. My secret dream is to find some rich patrons who want me to go around the world buying things for their collections. What fun that would be.
Which person, living or dead, do you most admire?
Is it corny to say Mary Bowser? I wrote this novel because I wanted to imagine what would lead her to make the choices she made, and what those choices might have cost her, personally. She really is my hero. And on days when it seemed hard to keep writing and editing, I thought, I have no right to complain—she did the hard work.
What are the words you live by?
The words to the theme song from The Dick Van Dyke Show. When I get the blues, or the green meanies, or any color of out of sorts, I just sing that song—you really want the tune as well as the words—and it turns me right-way round again.