Debut Author Snapshot: Daniel Levine

Posted by Goodreads on March 3, 2014
Are just a few of us truly wicked, or does darkness lurk in all of us? Few classics tackle this question with more pulse-pounding gusto than Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which a respected physician takes a potion that reveals his violent hidden self. The Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy has become shorthand for good juxtaposed with evil, but debut author Daniel Levine felt that there was much more to the story. His historical novel, Hyde, retells the suspenseful tale from the villain's point of view, imagining how the rougher half of the doctor may have been misunderstood or even manipulated. In Levine's gritty and chaotic Victorian London, good and evil are not so easily defined, and this moral ambiguity brings some psychological realism to Stevenson's gothic thriller. A creative writing teacher hailing from Colorado, Levine shares some of the visual inspiration for his mysterious, and perhaps heroic, Mr. Hyde.

Drawing of Mr. Hyde by Daniel Levine. Drawn in India ink with a steel-nibbed pen for Levine's mother on her birthday—Hyde one year and Jekyll the next.
Goodreads: What hooked you and inspired you to write your own novel about the tortured duo Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

Daniel Levine: I first read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in tenth-grade English. Our teacher divided the class into small groups and assigned portions of the novella for us to present to the other students. My two friends and I filmed a dramatic reenactment of our scenes, which included the killing of Carew and Hyde's subsequent "cover-up." I played Hyde, scowling and sneering at the camera, and bucking about in the agonizing throes of transformation. Even then I recognized that Hyde was something more than the apotheosis of pure evil, as Jekyll insists. There is a wretched humanity to him, an underdog quality that captured my interest and sympathy. Similarly there is a suspicious aspect to Jekyll's self-affirmed goodness and innocence. His actions are hardly those of a victim—he flirts with danger and exposure as if he wishes on some level to be caught. The idea for Hyde came to me 15 years later, in my sleep: I woke one morning, staring at my hand, and remembered suddenly the scene when Hyde awakes unexpectedly in Jekyll's bed, gazing at his own transformed hand. When I went back and reread Stevenson's novella (the same edition I'd used in high school), my original impressions were strongly confirmed. Hyde was not a mindless monster. He was a vehicle for Jekyll's deeply suppressed libidinal urges, an avatar through which Jekyll could behave as constrictive Victorian society—and his own exacting scruples—would never allow him to behave. The story isn't a parable of good and evil. It's a psychological case study of a man at war with his own animal instincts and a commentary on the masks all humans must wear in order to function in civilization and appear "normal." I am very aware of this split within myself, the battle between primal impulse and proper etiquette. I wanted to explore this schism and give the misunderstood and maligned Hyde the chance to tell his side of the story at last.

Drawing of Dr. Jekyll by Daniel Levine. Drawn in India ink with a steel-nibbed pen.
GR: Some study of multiple personality disorder started in Stevenson's time in the 1800s, but the condition wasn't officially defined until 1980, and it remains controversial even today! How did you go about diagnosing Dr. Jekyll?

DL: From the start of the project I had to decide what to do about the magic potion that Jekyll drinks, which reverts him into Hyde. I didn't want my retelling to be fantastical. Robert Louis Stevenson relied on a magic serum (which transforms tall, handsome Henry Jekyll into the dark, dwarfish Edward Hyde) partly because this element came to the author in a dream, which famously inspired the story. But the impossible potion also helped to dehumanize Hyde, making him a mythical grotesque, and thus simplifying the story's moral allegory. I wanted to reexamine the tale as a realistic "strange case" study, a possible psychological portrait. From this perspective it's obvious that Jekyll is suffering from what used to be called "dissociative identity disorder" and is now called "multiple personality disorder." The budding field of psychology was beginning to recognize the disorder in patients throughout the 19th century, and by the 1880s, it would have been an established (though far from fully understood) phenomenon. I believe, however, that human beings have probably been suffering from some form of dissociative identity disorder for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Human neuroses and subsequent disorders are embedded in our species' cognitive and societal development. All that's new is our recognition and classification of them.

Multiple personality disorder often spawns from early trauma and childhood abuse. Jekyll makes a few intriguing references to his father in Stevenson's story: to "the days of my childhood, when I had walked with my father's hand," and to the letters and portrait of his father that Hyde destroyed in the awful final days of confinement. From these suggestive hints my vision of Jekyll's dark childhood grew: a drafty old stone castle in Scotland, an alcoholic, grieving, demented father. This was the birthplace of Hyde, the personality into which young Jekyll could crawl and hide.

GR: How did you prepare yourself to write about 1880s London? What kind of historical details did you particularly want to capture?

The white edition of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the same one Levine had read in high school, which he personally re-jacketed; the red edition sat on Levine's desk for company. The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon is a reproduction of the 1885 serial about London's sex trade that is featured in Hyde.
DL: I've heard it generally said that most of the research a writer does for a historical novel doesn't make it into the final draft. But I suppose it's all there, submerged, in the subtext. I read a gigantic history of Scotland because I wanted to write of Jekyll's upbringing there, but his childhood appears only in snatches in the finished book. More immediately relevant was A.N. Wilson's compendious The Victorians and Judith Flanders's meticulous Inside the Victorian Home. I read biographies of Victorian writers and personages, most notably a beautiful portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by Claire Harman, Myself and the Other Fellow. Twice I read The Knife Man by Wendy Moore, a fabulous biography of the father of modern surgery and the former owner of Jekyll's house (in my version), John Hunter. I read a good deal of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Oscar Wilde. I audited several Victorian poetry and fiction courses at Montclair State University, where I was teaching. I watched BBC productions of Dickens, Trollope, and Galsworthy, paying close attention to wardrobe and décor. I referred frequently to the wonderful online Dictionary of Victorian London for details with districts and slang. At the New York Public Library I photocopied pages from an 1886 London street map and connected them into a long Thames-winding spread of the city that I reproduced on foamboard and mounted on my wall. The streets are tiny as capillaries, and I spent many hours poring over their tiny printed names as I traced Hyde's meandering adventures. I also lived in London for six months in 2000 on a semester abroad and relied upon my vivid memories.

At first I thought I had to get all the details "right." But gradually I learned that historical accuracy is less important than verisimilitude, the feeling of rightness. It was the sensual quality of London I wanted to capture, the smell, the lighting, the color of the sky, the passing faces, the grimy brickwork, the marble grandeur. These are the details Hyde would notice, the texture of things, not the architectural period in which a building was built. But I also wanted to capture the general mind-set of the milieu, the way people thought and talked, the colorful mix of high and low language. It was important that the dialogue sound convincing. It's tricky as an American imitating British English; you can easily overdo it or employ "cockney" slang that sounds false or hokey. Hyde in particular has access to some of Jekyll's education and vocabulary, yet he enjoys playing with lower-class expressions. His mode of speaking took a long time to develop and hone.

GR: What do you think Stevenson would say after reading your novel?

DL: Hyde is a departure from Stevenson's original, but it's also an homage to him and his work. I wanted to be honest and loyal to his version in the sense that I wanted to continue the conversation he started 130 years ago. A number of factors constrained Stevenson's composition of Jekyll and Hyde, most strongly his Victorian readership, which had a taste for sensationalism but not necessarily real-life horror. There is a reason the author could only allude to Edward Hyde's "evil" activities: because the specific explication would have offended and not been tolerated. Stevenson later wrote to a friend in a letter: "how beautiful it would be not to have to mind the critics...I should probably amuse myself with works that would make your hair curl, if you had any left." I hope Stevenson might see in Hyde a hair-curling work such as he might have written in a more accepting age such as ours. We are lucky to live in a time and a place where books about truly nightmarish topics can be appreciated as serious literature, and I hope that Stevenson might marvel at our relative freedom and inquisitiveness.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

DL: I am planning to write a novel about human origins and the last of the Neanderthals. Homo neanderthalensis was an extremely successful human being, which existed on the earth for over 200,000 years and went extinct quite recently; the last Neanderthals are thought to have lived in a cave in southern Spain up to about 28,000 years ago. The popular conception of Neaderthals as stupid, brutish cavemen still persists, though in fact they were an intelligent, hardy, and extremely capable people who were around far longer than we Homo sapiens have been. I want to explore their lifestyle and their final days, winnowed to the edge of extinction. I want to imagine how they thought and lived and communicated. I see this novel composed of three parts: the first narrative belonging to this last tribe of Neanderthals, the second to a young archaeologist digging up their remains in the 20th century, and the third to a Neanderthal individual grown from reassembled DNA in the future.

Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Betty (new)

Betty There was so much hard work and preparation put into writing this book. The least I can do to prepare for reading it is to reread The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I am so happy that Mr. Levine has written this book and I am very excited with the prospect of reading it.

message 2: by Linda (new)

Linda Tayrien Do you think we should all re-read Jekyll and Hyde before reading this compelling novel? The Neanderthal series sounds like a great adventure too.

message 3: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Varadan This sounds like a fascinating read! I love anything to do with the Victorian Era. I also like the sound of the next book about Neanderthals.

message 4: by Ellen (new)

Ellen Marson Your alluringly brilliant interview entices me
to preorder HYDE on
immediately. This sounds like a must-read.

message 5: by Ruthanne (new)

Ruthanne Johnston What a great interview. You anticipated the very questions that I would have rare is that! I wii pre-order this book immediately and, in the meantime, read JEKYLL AND HYDE again. Thank you!

message 6: by Leslie (new)

Leslie I also agree about the interview capturing my attention. I'm going to see if the small book club I am in might like to read it. it seems an excellent book for discussion. I would recommend reading the original version first to be able to have more insight as to how you developed the "multiple personality disorder" aspect.

message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

Fascinating, articulate interview.I did reread Jekyll and Hyde and already preordered the hardcover for me from Amazon and found out we have to wait until March 18 to order the Kindle version as a gift. Intriguing px of the author. So exciting to look forward to a new generation of writers. I do believe the author hails from New Jersey and not Colorado originally...Gloria

message 8: by Hans (new)

Hans Bakker The idea behind the novel sounds intriguing. I was just reading Ronald Takaki (1990/[1979]) about the "iron cages" we inhabit, including what he calls the "demonic iron cage". The repression of our "self" is a part of the "Protestant Ethic" and the British stiff upper lip. In a way Jekyll is what Stevenson thinks a proper British physician should be, but Hyde is what a normal human being might be, except that he has become distorted and "disfigured" by "civilization". There is lots to ponder here.

message 9: by Mark (new)

Mark Wiederanders The story of RLS's writing Jekyll & Hyde, after waking from a dream is fascinating, too, not to mention his wife Fanny's reaction to the book (described on my blog Is great to see such a resurgence of interest in RLS: this fascinating novel, Nancy Horan's and mine, plus perhaps others very recently published or still to come!

Valerie Moschovis I, too, am going to read Hyde and keep checking to see if the Neanderthal book becomes a reality. It sounds really interesting.

message 11: by Linda (new)

Linda Tayrien And he draws too!! Love it.

message 12: by Toi (new)

Toi Thomas This has come at the perfect time. I just recently added The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde to my Kindle and when I've finished it, I can read this.

message 13: by Ruthanne (new)

Ruthanne Johnston And today is the day releases HYDE...and I just downloaded a sample. So far the reviews are very positive.

message 14: by Melonie (new)

Melonie Kydd Love discovering new authors and expanding my book repitoire

message 15: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Injoy Great interview. This adds one more to my extensive TBR list. Thank you.

message 16: by Ruthanne (new)

Ruthanne Johnston Carolyn wrote: "Great interview. This adds one more to my extensive TBR list. Thank you."

*sigh* Every time I complete one book on my TBR list...I add three more! I really need to live forever!

message 17: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Injoy As do I. Too many projects, too little time. I usually add five more. :)

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