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Writers on Writers: Helene Wecker feels Kara Levy's chronic pain

Helene Wecker explores how Kara Levy's familiarity with chronic illness informs her storytelling

"For over a decade, Levy has been using her familiarity with illness to power her writing, a series of no-holds-barred examinations of what it's like to be sick in a world where health is the norm."

 Bay Area-based author Helene Wecker recently published her first novel, The Golem and the Jinni. Photo: Sheldon Wecker

Recently, Levy has expanded her writing CV again, in both length and depth. Her newly finished novel, The Believers, is the story of Andy Klein, a former journalist with Crohn’s disease. A recent arrival in a quaint college town—courtesy of his wife, a newly minted professor—Andy spends his days on the couch, drinking Ensure and waiting for the surgery that will remove parts of his gastrointestinal system. Then, mostly by accident, he falls into the company of a cape-wearing, unicycle-riding medieval studies student and amateur “healer” named Francis of Assisi Collins. Lonely and a little desperate, the usually skeptical Andy soon agrees to accompany Francis on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land—at the end of which, Francis assures Andy, they’ll be granted a vision of how to cure Andy’s incurable Crohn’s.

Levy herself was a medieval studies major at Swarthmore College, and she fills this modern-day picaresque with details that reveal an intense intimacy with her subjects. She’s fascinated by reenactor culture and by the popularity of venues like Medieval Times and Renaissance fairs. And then, of course, there is the character with Crohn’s. Of Andy, she says, “There’s something appealing about writing a book that has someone with Crohn’s disease at its center. To ask, ‘Could someone with Crohn’s be the hero of the story?’ and to have the answer be yes.”

It’s not as though Levy doesn’t have a ready audience. As many as 700,000 Americans may have Crohn’s, and it’s just one of countless diseases that the fl esh is heir to. Add to that all the bystanders aff ected by serious illness—caregivers and doctors, family and friends and enemies—and the circle expands ever outward. You might view Levy's work as a sort of Lonely Planet guide to the Kingdom of Infirmity, a place we’ll all be visiting sooner or later.

Looked at in this way, the squeamishness of editors can seem absurd. But our culture has always been quick to sugarcoat the realities of sickness (pink ribbons, teddy bears) or else hide them away entirely. For all that Levy’s stories are universal, by telling them in her own searing, inimitable style, she’s revealed herself as a pioneer.

Helene Wecker’s first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was published in April by HarperCollins. A Chicago-area native, she now makes her home in Pleasanton.

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Originally published in the June 2013 issue of San Francisco 

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