Ariel Levy had just returned from Scotland when we talked on the phone last week.
The trip, said The New Yorker staff writer, was for her latest article, which focuses on a woman who cannot experience pain because of a genetic disorder.
“What I’m writing about isn’t the pain — that you’ve read about,” said Levy, who will share her experiences in journalism during a presentation at Sweet Briar College on Oct. 9. “What I’m writing about is she’s never experienced rage, anxiety or grief, and yet, she has a very rich emotional life. ... So it’s this story about whether rage and persistent grief, all that stuff ... serves a function.”
With more than 20 years in the industry, Levy has made a living dissecting the human experience through stories.
She’s “a writer of immense courage and with immense gifts,” said Carrie Brown, director of Sweet Briar’s Center on Creativity, Design and the Arts. “And who’s had a fascinating career already even though she’s still very, very young.”
After graduating from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University in 1996, Levy took a job at CBS but quickly realized that path would more likely lead to a career in production than in writing, which had been her dream since childhood.
“Writing was just always what I wanted to do,” said Levy, who has also published two books and had work appear in Slate, Vogue and The Washington Post. “Journalism was just because it was the easiest thing to get into, honestly.”
After just a month at the network, she changed gears, landing an internship at New York Magazine. Her job, she said, was to take the articles reporters faxed in and type them into the computer.
Eventually, it was her stories landing on the page when the internship turned into a full-time position as a staff writer.
Much of Levy’s career has focused on writing about women — those who both fit into conventional (and often stereotypical) images well as those who upend them.
Subjects of her extensive profiles have included Cindy McCain, wife of late Sen. John McCain; Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya, whose public gender testing rocked the running world in 2009; and Edith Windsor, plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that led to the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act.
“I was always interested in, like, what it means to be a woman. What were the limitations and what were the kind of superpowers?” she said. “... I was hungry for those stories because I wanted to read them.”
These days, Levy splits her focus in multiple directions.
She still writes about three stories a year for The New Yorker, whose ranks she joined in 2008.
In addition to the story about Jo Cameron, the woman who cannot feel pain, Levy is in the early stages of an article about Renee Bach, the Bedford native accused of running an unlicensed medical facility in Uganda.
“The thing with The New Yorker, with good stories, the main thing is you always want something counter-intuitive,” she said.
Levy’s also a podcaster and even ghostwrote on Demi Moore’s new book “Inside Out,” a gig she said she landed because of her own highly personal memoir, “The Rules Don’t Apply.”
With blistering honesty, the New York Times bestseller details Levy’s first marriage, miscarriage — which she first publicized in a 2014 National Magazine Award-winning essay — and subsequent divorce.
Between passages chronicling her journalistic efforts, Levy leads the reader through her emotional journey toward accepting that we cannot control every aspect of our lives.
“That essay and the memoir is a really great example for anyone about how to write about the most difficult passages in your life in a way that is certainly compelling but is also dignified,” said Brown, who has published seven novels of her own.
Despite the rave reviews, including one from the San Francisco Book Review that called her book “the voice of a new generation of women,” Levy said she doesn’t want to write another personal memoir.
Writing a book of that nature requires a singular focus, she explained, and the subjects Levy gravitates to at the moment tend to revolve around communal ideas and themes.
“What you do when you’re a journalist is you reconstruct the truth of what people are telling you,” she said.
While Levy’s new interests have taken her career down a slightly different course than she imagined, the root of her stories is still the same.
“You learn what it’s like to be someone other than yourself,” she said. “And if a story is told really well, you feel that. Rightly or wrongly, you get a momentary sense that you’re inside another human being’s experience.”