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Marc Levy on the story behind Replay

Date: Jul 15 2014

Replay opens on the morning of July 9, 2012: New York Times investigative reporter Andrew Stilman is jogging along the Hudson River when he feels a sudden, sharp pain in his lower back. He collapses in a pool of blood. When he regains consciousness, it’s May 7, 2012—exactly two months earlier. Andrew has sixty days to find out who wants him dead and why.


I first started thinking about the premise of Replay after seeing a documentary about the New York Times. I was struck by one of the journalists they featured, who explained that the passion he felt for his job had saved him from alcoholism. His journalistic drive was so important to him that it made him overcome his addiction, which was preventing him from doing his job. I was touched by his candor and his dedication to his role as a journalist. That was the starting point for Replay, and for the main character, Andrew Stilman, a New York Times investigative journalist who drinks a lot and is constantly battling his demons.


So I began to put myself in Andrew Stilman’s shoes. His bad habits aside, this was also a way of making an old dream come true—at least for the time I was writing Replay. Being a journalist is a career that I have always respected and admired, and one that I dreamed of doing when I was a teenager. I believe strongly that when journalism is conducted ethically and free from censorship, it can serve as one of the bastions of democracy and freedom in a society. And generally speaking, the question of writing for me has always been about freedom: the freedom of ideas and the freedom of thought.


The idea of freedom added another dimension to the novel, which is partially set in Argentina in the 1970s, during the Dirty War. While I was researching the political situation at the time for Replay, I was also trying to understand how a country could topple so easily from democracy into dictatorship. At the time, Argentina was no worse off economically than France, for instance, yet the actions of a few people quickly plunged the country into one of the most terrible periods of its history. I spoke to many people who lived in Argentina at that time and they all told me the same thing: How could this happen to a nation as stable, modern, and educated as ours?How is it that a population could find itself plunged into horror from one day to the next? These questions in turn led me to ask myself: Why do some people become collaborators while others resist? How could an “ordinary” man, someone married with children, become a torturer?


As a result, I began to develop the plot of Replay around real facts. I wanted to find a way to talk about this period of Argentine history in a way that would address the fragility of democracy. By setting part of the story and Andrew’s investigation in Buenos Aires, I wanted to highlight that even in the most educated and seemingly peaceful society, democracy should never be taken for granted. When I visited Argentina before writing the novel, I was struck by how even among the most educated and politically-aware, people kept saying, “I never thought this could happen to us.”


I wanted to show that democracy and freedom can disappear in an instant, especially in the case of younger readers, for whom democracy seems like a given. Democratic rights have to be constantly exercised: living in a free society comes with certain privileges, but these privileges entail responsibilities. Of course the beauty of writing, especially writing fiction, is that I can address such a topic without moralizing. Whether related to the pursuit of democracy, or simply mishandling one’s love life or career, I can explore the consequences of my character’s decisions. I hate being told that something isn’t possible, and writing a novel is an excellent way to make the impossible real.


Coming back to Andrew Stilman, in all of my novels I enjoy putting my characters into situations in which they become fragile, even for a short moment, and in this way I explore their humanity. At one point or another, everyone faces the same challenges. In Replay, Andrew’s character is one to whom many can probably relate. He grew up in a small town, and he has to work hard to succeed in New York at one of the most prestigious journalism gigs in in the world. Andrew is driven to prove himself and to make it as a respected journalist. But once he’s achieved that goal, Andrew finds himself stuck: he’s not as satisfied with his life as he wants to be, and he turns to drinking.


Finally, Replay is a novel about second chances. Looking back on the past, who hasn’t asked themselves: “What if I could do it again? What would I do with a second chance?” It can mean just having a chance to listen to and look at things in a new way. Fiction is one of the last safe places to experiment with second chances. As Andrew relives the last sixty days of his life, he gets the opportunity to choose to do things differently because of what he knows.


Whether he actually does things differently is another question.

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