Jessica Lévai is the author of The Night Library of Sternendach, a vampire romance in Pushkin sonnets. She is a nerd, scholar, and polyglot whose life goals include collaborating on a graphic novel and someday meeting Stephen Colbert.
Who is Jessica Lévai–in a nutshell?
I’m a writer. I’m a storyteller. I’m a perfectionist. The best description I’ve gotten from anybody was by a campus minister when I was in college. He called me an intellectual and a contrarian. That was such a good description. I want it, you know, on a gravestone or on a coat of arms somewhere.
Thinking back to when you were a little girl, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
The first thing I wanted to be was a veterinarian. I wanted to take care of puppies and kitties and my mom told our vet and he said “when she’s 16, send her to me for a summer. I’ll cure her.” That wound up not happening because then I decided I wanted to be an Egyptologist.
Which is so cool.
Yeah. And I did that. I have a Ph.D. in Egyptology but you know, Egyptology and I broke up about five years ago. We just… we wanted different things.
I was on your website and I saw all these fantastic things that you’ve done, and I was like you could have been an archaeologist and a linguist. You could have been an anthropologist. You chose writing. How did you settle on writing? What was that moment when you said: you know what, this is what I’m gonna do with the rest of my life?
Well, I’m not gonna say for the rest of my life. There’s still time I could change my mind. I also want to say that I am very conscious of how lucky I am that I could make that decision to be a writer because I know there’s got to
be just the sheer averages, so many talented people who do not have that freedom. So, I am lucky. But it’s just as straightforward as I love writing. Even when I was in college, in grad school, and when teaching, I would write essays for fun because I had something to say. Back then I did some fiction writing but it was always on the side and then I thought, you know, as the adjunct teaching was not going anywhere–they weren’t paying me that much, so I talked it over with my husband. I told him I wanted to try seeing if I can do this “being a writer” thing and I haven’t quit yet and still going. So, that’s how I got there.
What’s The Night Library of Sternendach about?
It’s your classic story about a young woman who falls in love with a tall, graceful, bloodsucking fiend from beyond the grave. In some ways, it’s very much in keeping with the
traditions. It’s a period piece that takes place in the ’60s. It takes place in Europe. There’s a big castle and there are vampire hunters and conflict. The ending is… I don’t want to spoil anything but there were certain things about traditional vampire romance stories that bugged the hell out of me and I wanted to do something a little different. I’m very proud of the way I chose to end this story, among other things. I hope you like it when it comes.
The Night Library of Sternendach is Jessica Lévai’s first novella and was written (almost) entirely in Pushkin sonnets. Inspired and influenced by Eugene Onegin, Verdi operas, and Revolutionary Girl Utena, it is now available wherever you buy books!
The Night Library of Sternendach won the 2021 Lord Ruthven Award for Fiction.
What led you to write an entire novel in sonnet form?
Well, I tried writing this novel a couple of ways. I tried writing it as a screenplay. Somewhere in a pile or on my computer is the original version of this story and it’s very different. Then I tried to write it just in straight prose and got about 40 pages into it before I got so frustrated with myself that I stopped entirely. Then I read Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin which had me asking: where has this book been all my life?
I read the Falen translation for those keeping track at home.
It was just such a great book. So I thought, okay, I’m gonna give this a shot. I’m going to try writing two stanzas as if I were writing this story this way. I’m gonna try it and see what happens. It took me two whole days to write two stanzas which at the time I thought was a long time, but then I brought them to my writing group and I got such a good reaction. I thought: okay, maybe I’ll just keep going. I’ll write 100 stanzas and see if I get sick of it. I never did.
I don’t know, I just think it’s so impressive.
Well, this is my Dirty Little Secret. The other reason I did it was it’s easier. Well, in a way. My editor will tell you there’s plenty of room to edit, but there’s something about having a strict form that I work very well. I’m not saying this works for everyone. I had picked this form, it gave me very discrete challenges, and that made it a lot easier than just saying: here, get your computer and start writing at the beginning and right to the end. I’ve gotten a lot more charitable about my first drafts lately, but working with this format gave me certain constraints within which to work. I find that really helps me.
Why did you choose the Onegin stanza as opposed to the Shakespearean form?
There was the book as an inspiration. There are some aspects of Pushkin’s novel, Little Easter eggs, in my book. Onegin is a novel about a young girl who, very innocently, falls in love with this kind of distant Byronic hero. There’s a lot of letter writing and I was on a sad-Russian kick, at the time.
As far as The Night Library of Sternendach goes, did you really expect the positive response that it’s gotten?
I hoped. I don’t know if I dared expect it. It’s also weird because when you’re in the monkey house, you don’t notice the monkey house anymore. I’ve just been preoccupied with these poems for so long that I don’t notice how different they are. I’ve seen some reviews about how this style of poetry sucks. I don’t take stock of them because anyone saying that is basically saying they don’t like sonnets. What amazes me is that some adult men like the book because the subject matter skews toward very young women. One of my fans from my writing group–I don’t want to name him–but he’s definitely older than I am, and he really enjoyed it. So I’m like, I’ve written a vampire romance that unabashedly appeals to an older white guy.
What’s on the horizon for you now?
I’m querying a second book. So, fingers crossed on that one. I just finished the first draft of something that I think is going to be another novella again–in prose–I haven’t gone back to the verse. I wrote 750 words every day for about 6.5 weeks until I reached the end. Now it’s sitting, frozen in carbonite until I decide to look at it again and see what I can make of it. I’ve also been working on a lot of short stories. I have a short story coming out in November. It’s a short, creepy one. Otherwise, I’m just writing and submitting… doing the thing.
So, how would you react if you actually did get to meet Stephen Colbert in person?
Oh, that would be so much fun. I would definitely talk about musicals with him. He loves musicals. Oh yeah, I also have–and it’s like I planned this in my brain–I have this little
journal from when Lord of the Rings first came out. Well, I’m an Egyptologist so a lot of grad school was spent learning dead languages and I used that experience to teach myself Elvish because I’m 100% that nerdy. Anyway, I have this notebook in which I painstakingly copied all the things I wrote in these dead and made-up languages. I’d totally take that and show him how I was writing in Elvish and he’d be impressed and that would be so awesome.
Where can readers find you?
The best place to start is JessicaLevai.com.
On my website, you can find the list of my writings that are available to read online. I’ve also posted some of my superhero poetry on my blog.
More SF Author & Creator Interviews by Tonya R. Moore.