Marissa Levien: On Pinning Down Your Novel's Middle

Debut author Marissa Levien discusses how she always knew what the beginning and the end of her science fiction novel The World Gives Way would be, but that the middle remained elusive.
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Marissa Levien is a writer and artist who hails from Washington State and now lives in N.Y. with a kindly journalist and their two cats. The World Gives Way is her first novel.

Marissa Levien

Marissa Levien

In this post, Levien discusses how she always knew what the beginning and the end of her science fiction novel The World Gives Way would be, but that the middle remained elusive, and much more!

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Name: Marissa Levien
Literary agent: Sarah Bedingfield, LGR Agency
Book title: The World Gives Way
Publisher: Hachette/Orbit Books
Release date: June 15, 2021
Genre: Sci-Fi/General Literature
Elevator pitch for the book: On a generation ship fifty years from its destination planet, indentured servant Myrra Dal learns a terrible secret: there is a crack in the ship’s hull, and everyone in their insulated world will die in a matter of weeks. Armed with this terrible knowledge, Myrra goes on the run, fighting to keep free of the agents who would imprison her and fighting to learn how to live in the time she has left.

The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien

The World Gives Way by Marissa Levien

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What prompted you to write this book?

I’ve had the idea for a few years, to write something from the perspective of a person who knew that the world was ending. I don’t know why I had apocalypses on the brain, but I’m sure the 2016 election had something to do with it. I was mostly concerned with what someone would do—how you would go about your day-to-day, with such catastrophic knowledge.

A lot of my story ideas also come from dreams. It’s generally not great to use dreams as plots, because there isn’t logic to anything that happens, but I find that I get a lot of smaller story beats that way. About six years ago, I had a dream where two people sat upside down on a starry night sky, only it wasn’t the sky, it was just a sheet of metal with holes punched into it and light projecting through. Like someone making a luminary out of a coffee can. It felt so beautiful, and I had to wait to put it into the right story. Without spoiling anything too much, it became one of my favorite moments of this book.

(Richard Matheson: Science Fiction Is Unlimited)

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

I wrote the book while enrolled in Stony Brook’s MFA program. It took roughly two years to write, and another year working with editors. I always knew how I wanted the story to start, and how it would end, but the middle went through a million changes. My initial idea—of a person knowing an apocalypse was coming and learning how to deal with that knowledge—was just that, a good idea, but not one that could create a sustainable, novel-length story. So I went through a lot of trial and error finding ways to keep the story moving. I added complications for Myrra, my main character: I made her have to go on the run, I gave her a foil, someone to chase after her.

If I’d gone with my initial idea, I’d have ended up with a short story set in a single apartment, with a single character ruminating on mortality. And there are authors out there talented enough to write that book and make it compelling. But I’m a story gal at heart, so I was bound to add more.

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

I’m fortunate in that all the surprises I’ve had along the way have been happy ones. Before I worked as a writer, I was a musical theater performer. Musical actors are some of the toughest survivors I know. I’ve waited early dawn hours in cattle call lines, been signed by agents only to be ignored and dropped and signed again, been insulted directly to my face in audition rooms just as often as I’ve been praised. Every actor I know has similar stories.

I thought it was going to be a similar road with writing. I thought if I got an agent, an editor, a publisher, I would have to fight to keep their attention. I assumed it would be a fight even to be seen in the first place. Instead, I met my agent at an arranged event through my MFA, and we clicked immediately. And when I had an interview with my editor at Orbit (the amazing Angeline Rodriguez), it was a similar feeling. Instead of fighting and competing, it’s been more a feeling that we’re all in this together, ushering this book into the world.

Also: I knew theoretically how important copy editors were before going through publishing, but now I’ve set up a shrine to them in my closet and worship them daily as my new god.

(When Cultures Collide: 3 Ways to Create Tension in Worldbuilding in a Novel)

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

The thing that surprised me the most was how much the novel filled up with other, bigger ideas the more I put the world of it together. I set out to write a story about a woman learning a great secret, that the world was ending, and that led me to wonder what kind of world could that be, what kind of woman could learn such a secret before so many others. I decided to write a character that existed on the bottom rung of society since it’s often servants that end up knowing the biggest societal secrets. Then indentured servitude came into play, and a designed world, a ship rather than our own planet, one with limited resources. Then I wanted to give her a backstory, her own psychological wounds. A longing for family. Before I knew it, my book about an apocalypse turned into a book all about class divides and learning to forgive your mother. Who knew?

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

More than anything, I wanted to write a book about people finding connection. Writing a book about an apocalypse, you’d think it would be all stark and terrifying, but more than anything the characters kept drawing me towards moments of great beauty in their surroundings, and they kept wanting to reach out to each other, to foster family. Our world has been put through the wringer in recent years. I think I wrote the book to feel a sense of connection and empathy in an especially harsh setting, so if it can do that for others, that would be my greatest hope.

Marissa Levien: On Pinning Down Your Novel's Middle

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

Being in a creative field is always a struggle, especially financially, especially when you first start out. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re flimsy, just because you imagine things for a living. It’s the best job there is, but it is still work, and you deserve to be taken seriously. And always thank your copy editors. Build them altars, and leave them goat sacrifices if need be. 

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