In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Michael Levy

by Apr 30, 2024

Apartments against a blue sky.

Your nonfiction piece, “Abscission,” details your grandmother’s life and your relationship with her as she aged. It asks the question what memories we will recall later in life. What prompted you to write this piece?

I’ve always been a bit preoccupied with memory and the passage of time—the nature of how fleeting a life and the moments that make it up really are. I’m also a pretty sentimental person; I think in my piece I say something to the effect of being “prone to wistfulness.” 

When the scenes that bookend the piece happened—of my grandmother meeting my nephew Nathan, who was her first great grandchild; and sitting outside with my grandfather in Straus Park—they just felt so rich, and such a great way into a possible story that would deal with those themes. I remember frantically pecking away in the Notes app on my iPhone to get details and ideas down.

I didn’t know where it would go from there, but I did know that I wanted to write something and wrestle with those ideas.

“Abscission” is told in pieces; we get glimpses of your grandmother during various parts of her life as it intersects with yours and your family. Memory can be a fickle thing, not only in old age, but even as we look back on fond or difficult memories of our own. How did you approach this idea of memory as fluid in “Abscission?”

That’s a great question. Part of what makes memory so interesting is that, though it is in theory a collection of fixed moments (or events or people or emotions, or what have you) from the past, they change over time; that is, as we have new experiences, gain new wisdom, it all shapes how we relate to our memories. How we perceived a memory ten years ago might be totally at odds with how we think of it today. So, in that sense, memory is always in flux. 

Add to that the fallibility of memory and the things that happen to us in old age and, well, it’s an endlessly interesting and complex topic. 

Part of how I approached that fluidity was with structure—I didn’t want things to be purely chronological—but also to just try to juxtapose memories of young Michael with adult Michael. And then of course, simply juxtaposing an old woman whose memory is disappearing with a baby whose memories are just forming—it felt like that spoke volumes on its own about the nature of memory.

What sort of family research did you do to write this piece, or did you draw from events and history you already knew?

A lot of the “research” was just being a grandson and son—spending time with my grandfather, chatting with my mother on walks. Very little of what is in the story did I seek out with a mindset of, I need to get this information so I can write this piece.  

Much of it I already knew. Then there were other bits that I thought I knew, but as I sat down to write, realized that I didn’t. So for example: My great grandparents and their children emigrated from Hungary to the U.S. in the 1930s. They were Jewish, as am I. I kind of always assumed their emigration was related to pogroms, rising anti-semitism, Hitler. But when I was discussing it with my mother, I learned they actually left because my great-grandfather Benjamin had accrued a serious amount of debt in Hungary, so essentially fled to America! My great-grandmother Rose, my great aunts and uncles, and my grandmother (then a toddler), joined him soon after. Learning that felt like a strange little variation on the classic Jewish refugee tale of woe—a bit endearing even? 

How long did it take you to craft “Abscission?” Did you find yourself leaving out pieces that you originally put in? If so, is this a theme one you’ll return to?

Years? That’s not entirely true, but neither is it entirely not true. In one of the previous questions you refer to the “glimpses” we get of my grandmother. I had always wanted to write something about my grandparents. Originally, I thought I would probably focus more on my grandfather, to be perfectly honest. I wrote a number of longer scenes and descriptions about my grandfather—about his obsessive book collecting, in particular—that just didn’t find a home in “Abscission.” Perhaps one day I’ll still write a companion piece, focusing more on him, as I’m quite fond of some of the stuff that I cut out.  

As an editor of several magazines (Summit Journal, American Alpine Journal, and Appalachia), how does your professional experience influence your personal writing?

Most of my other professional experience is in the quite niche world of rock-climbing and mountaineering journalism. It’s my greatest passion—practicing it and writing about it—but it can also feel limiting. Writing a personal essay like Abscission is an escape from that stuff, a chance to flex my creative writing muscles in a different way. That being said, writing about climbing and mountaineering is ultimately just a vehicle to tell affecting human stories—and so reading and writing non-climbing literature feels critical in terms of learning and finding new ways to approach those stories.

What books and authors are your favorites, or are ones that you keep returning to?

Tough question! I’ll give you one fiction and one non-fiction writer. 

I’m a huge fan of Wallace Stegner, whom I don’t think always gets his due. I think his final book, Crossing to Safety, is a real masterpiece. 

I’m also a big admirer of Chris Offutt, particularly his memoiristic works. His first memoir, The Same River Twice, I came across by chance in a used bookstore years ago, and was floored by how good it was. I’ve gifted it to a number of people over the years and gone on to read everything he has written.

What new projects are you working on now?

Editing and publishing Summit Journal is so time-consuming that I find it difficult to write much beyond my editor’s notes these days. But perhaps I’ll start tinkering with that possible essay about my grandfather soon…


Michael Levy is the editor of Summit, the oldest monthly rock-climbing magazine in America. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, and Sierra, among other publications. He lives in New York City. Read his website for more information.


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