Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Q&A with Deborah Levison




Deborah Levison is the author of the new novel A Nest of Snakes. She also has written the book The Crate. She has worked in public relations and as a freelance writer, and she lives in Connecticut.


Q: What inspired you to write A Nest of Snakes, and how did you create your character Brendan?


A: A few years ago, there was a spate of lawsuits in Connecticut, where middle-aged men came forward to allege abuse at the elite private schools they’d attended as boys.


I read through several complaints and I was just horrified. I couldn’t believe what had happened to these children, how vulnerable they were, how they’d been preyed upon, and how many adults were complicit.


The leadership turned a blind eye. Literally everyone at the schools knew what was happening and no one intervened. No one reported the abuse, and no one protected the victims.


And of course, the abuse wasn’t limited to New England by any means; it happened everywhere, from Horace Mann in New York City, to Exeter in New Hampshire, to Upper Canada College in Toronto, to Dublin, Johannesburg, Sydney.


And it hasn’t stopped. Earlier this summer the Crown Prince and Princess of Denmark pulled their 16-year-old son Prince Christian out of his prestigious boarding school amid allegations of rampant abuse.


And in November of this year, Prince William and Kate pulled Prince George and Princess Charlotte out of a private school where a teacher pled guilty to distributing indecent images of children.


I thought this was such an important story to tell. And a part of me is hopeful that the book might actually be a catalyst for someone to tell their story. Maybe it can help someone who has been abused and feels alone.

My main character, Brendan, experienced something terrible as a child. I didn’t have to look any farther than my own parents, who survived the Holocaust, and their wide circle of Hungarian friends, for examples of people who survived childhood trauma.


But while the experiences of my parents and their friends—in concentration camps, ghettoes, as hidden children, on death marches, or even as “patients” of Dr. Mengele—certainly scarred them forever, the vast majority went on to build families and live fulfilling lives.


Brendan, on the other hand, is broken. Even at the age of 47, he shows clear signs of PTSD: chronic depression, nightmares, agoraphobia. He can’t stand to be touched. He’s estranged from his wife and son. And eventually the reader learns that on top of the abuse he experienced, Brendan is crippled by guilt.


He was such an interesting character to write, especially as I majored in psychology, which made the research part fun. I feel very protective of Brendan, and I want him to triumph.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The New York Daily News ran a very glaring headline that called one of the real-life schools “A Nest of Pedophiles.” That headline stuck with me. Then, a few years later, an aide to Trump referred to the White House as “a nest of vipers.”


To me this was such powerful imagery, so I extrapolated the title A Nest of Snakes, and my publisher kept it. And, of course, Freud called snakes phallic symbols. In the book I talk about how historically, monsters in all kinds of legends have had serpentine qualities.  


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: In A Nest of Snakes, I actually started with the twist, which I think many thriller writers do. I knew the twist, and the end; I knew the beginning; I had all the backstory; and then I had to figure out the plot in the middle, which for me is the hardest part.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: The importance of speaking up against injustice; the need to tell our stories, both to preserve them and to educate others; and the importance of shining a light on social issues like bullying, physical and sexual abuse of children, and the machismo culture that still permeates our society.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m a few chapters into a new thriller and I’m excited to see where the plot goes. Unlike my first two books, this one seems to be surprising me with its direction. I have a very dark ending I’m hoping to keep!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Deborah Levison.

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