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E.J. Levy: When Your First Draft is Your Best Draft

Author E.J. Levy discusses her journey with drafting and redrafting her historical fiction novel, The Cape Doctor, and why her first draft was her best draft.

E.J. Levy’s work has been featured in The Best American Essays, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, and The Paris Review, and has received a Pushcart Prize. Her story collection, Love, In Theory, won the Flannery O'Connor Award and Great Lakes Colleges Association's New Writers Award and has been praised by Cheryl Strayed (“brilliant”), Robert Olen Butler, and others. Her anthology, Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction by New American Writers, won the Lambda Literary Award. 

She holds a degree in history from Yale and an MFA from Ohio State University and currently teaches in the MFA Program at Colorado State University. The Cape Doctor, Levy’s first novel, will publish in the U.S. and Canada in June 2021; foreign rights for the book have sold in France, Italy, and Spain. Visit EJLevy.com for more information.

EJ Levy

E.J. Levy

In this post, Levy discusses her journey with drafting and redrafting her historical fiction novel, The Cape Doctor, why her first draft was her best draft, and much more!

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Name: E.J. Levy
Literary agent: Maria Massie
Book title: The Cape Doctor
Publisher: Little Brown (Mondadori in Italy & Spain; Payot/Rivages in France)
Release date: June 15, 2021
Genre: Literary Fiction/Historical Fiction
Elevator pitch for the book: The Cape Doctor is inspired by the remarkable life of Dr. James Miranda Barry—born Margaret Anne Bulkley circa 1795 in Cork, Ireland—one of the most eminent physicians of the nineteenth century, who revolutionized medicine in the English colonies, performed the first successful Caesarian in Africa, rose to the rank of Inspector General, and was caught in an international scandal after being accused of having an affair with the married governor of Cape Town in 1824, only to be discovered after death in 1865 to have been “a perfect female” and to have carried a child. Levy’s deeply researched, enthralling debut novel shines a radiant light on the fascinating Dr. Barry and brings this captivating historical figure vividly to life.
Previous titles by the author: Love, In Theory: Ten Stories (Flannery O’Connor Award winner)

The Cape Doctor by EJ Levy

The Cape Doctor by EJ Levy

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What prompted you to write this book?

I first heard of Dr. James Miranda Barry on a flight to Cape Town in October 2011. A single line in a guidebook captivated my attention—it was about a brilliant nineteenth-century army surgeon, a dandy and duelist, who was caught in a sodomy scandal with Cape Town’s aristocratic governor in 1824, only to have been found after death to have been “a perfect female.”

As I toured Cape Town, I wondered what James Barry had thought of those places—a prison, a hospital, a garden, the mountains. Barry’s voice seemed to be in my head, as I walked: the doctor absorbed by botany, a collector and student of local plants for medicinal purposes; Barry at Tunhuys (the Government House), at the Castle, where soldiers were quartered, at Simon’s Bay. It felt less like imagining than listening.

I read everything I could about Dr. Barry and his circle—Cape Town’s governor, Lord Somerset; General Miranda (a Venezuelan revolutionary and Barry’s mentor); Simón Bolívar, and others. As I read, I was delighted to find that my imaginings were often accurate, uncannily.

I felt Barry spoke to me. Barry’s story speaks to many people, including other writers: both Charles Dickens and Mark Twain wrote about him. Barry’s life speaks to the transformative power of education. As an eloquent advocate for medical care as a basic human right, and as a person who complicates our ideas of sex and gender, Dr. Barry speaks urgently to our time.

(Why I Write Jewish Historical Fiction)

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

It took me six years to write The Cape Doctor. The initial composing was remarkably easy—as if a voice were whispering in my ear.

But after following my protagonist into the story, I realized I didn’t know that world well enough for the reader to live there with me. So, I began to research the early 1800s and that’s where things got complicated: I visited archives (including a medical library in Philadelphia, where I could hold nineteenth-century medical instruments in my hand); I read secondary sources (such as biographies of major and minor characters), and general texts about the time (from descriptions of musical performances at Cape Town dances in the early 1800s to a contemporaneous description of the London house in which Barry’s uncle lived to the availability of bananas in Ireland in 1812).

After I completed a first draft, I did spend 18 months on a revision that utterly failed! I feared that the chronological narrative was too 19th-century, old-fashioned, so I attempted a more complex structure that opened with Dr. Barry sailing for England to aid Lord Somerset in 1829, telling their tale in retrospect aboard ship. It’s a good idea, but it didn’t work. In the end, I returned to the original structure; the book takes a form befitting its own time period.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

Many, but the main lesson that I’ve learned is that your book has its own birthday, as my friend Cheryl Strayed has said; trust that. You don’t need to worry overmuch about when your book will be published (before you’re 30 or 40 or 50 or 60). Write the best book that you can and then trust that its path will unfold.

My book was ready to go out in late summer 2018, after six years of writing and revision, and I was frustrated when it didn’t go out to editors immediately. There were many reasons for the delay: I was slow in getting some material to my wonderful agent, then holidays came and some shifts in publishing occurred. But at the time, I was dismayed.

Then, in late January 2019, three months after my agent had intended to begin submitting the novel, she took it out to a single editor, the editor I’d most hoped to work with, and it sold in a day!

Looking back, I realize that the three-month delay was a great gift: It gave me time to focus attention on my mother, who in those same months fell ill, was hospitalized, and after six weeks, died. I was able to devote myself to her care and to spend weeks with her that I’d have missed if I’d been focused on book submissions and contracts. It gave me time to attend to what matters most. And the book sale, when it came in the midst of mourning, was a balm; it felt like a gift from my mother. So trust that your book has its own birthday.

(5 Considerations for Writing About Historical Figures in Fiction)

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

There were many surprises. First and foremost was that the first draft ended up being the best draft; I spent a year and a half or more trying to make the book smarter structurally, more complex, but ultimately the story knew its form.

I was surprised to find that many things that I intuited about Dr. Barry as I toured Cape Town proved to be true of him, once I began reading about that life.

I’m surprised by the serendipity of Margaret’s life before she became James to enter medical school in 1809. It’s astounding that an impoverished girl from Cork would find herself at the center of a remarkable circle of progressive thinkers, even revolutionary thinkers, who believed in women’s education, in abolition, in liberty and justice, who shaped history, who were at the forefront of ideas that still inform us today—the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda, the influential philosopher Jeremy Bentham, a circle that encompassed Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, though Barry did not meet these last. It’s remarkable serendipity that brought Margaret into such a circle at just the moment when she most needed to transform her fortunes and that she possessed the genius to take full advantage of it.

The discovery (by biographers DuPreez and Dronfield) that Barry retained a trunk decorated with newspaper images of women’s clothes was a great surprise. They interpret this as confirmation that James longed to return to life as Margaret—I’m not sure that’s its meaning, but I was startled to read of it and found it poignant.

But mostly it’s the small details that move me: I’m touched to know that Barry named three successive pet poodles Psyche, a small stability in an unstable life; I’m interested that the doctor was a vegetarian who kept a pet goat for its milk; that he loved red boot heels; that he conceived of public health before it was a thing.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

Above all, I hope readers will get an utterly transporting story, a story from the past that I hope illuminates the present. I hope that my novel will bring deserved attention to the remarkable life of the remarkable Dr. James Miranda Barry and Margaret Anne Bulkley. I hope, too, that it may inspire readers to reconsider stereotypes about what a person can do if freed from expectations of their sex, gender, religion, class, and race. Barry received a medical degree in 1812, 37 years before Elizabeth Blackwell would in the US and 56 before Elizabeth Garrett Anderson would in the UK—a remarkable achievement.

I hope too that it may hold up a mirror to our own time with its epidemics, its unequal medical care, and battles for social justice. I hope it will encourage us to look at the injustices that we confront now and to look, as Barry did, for inventive solutions, to see healthcare as a collective matter, not simply a matter of treating an individual. I hope that it will encourage us to think about the pleasures and costs of ambition: honor, fame, knowledge, rank, wealth, love, family. We’d not be writing of Barry now if ambition hadn’t won out for the doctor.

E.J. Levy: When Your First Draft is Your Best Draft

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

“Keep the faith,” as my father liked to say. Don’t give up. There’s almost always a point in a book when you doubt your ability to finish it, or to finish it well, a moment when you wonder if you should just cut your losses and move on to something new. It’s natural to have such doubts—it’s a long labor to write a novel—but don’t give up. A friend once told me, “The dragons come out when you get close to the gold.” Doubts often arise when you’re nearing the conclusion, and when you’re getting too powerful parts of a project. Treat your doubts as a test and be inventive in defeating them. Write the book as best you can. Have your vision, as Lily Briscoe does at the end of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. That vision is the real treasure in writing a book. Then, when you’ve done your best, find the best advocates that you can for your work—as agent and editor—and release it. And start something new.

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