“To Appease My Creative Heart,” an Interview with Leesa Cross-Smith
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Niki Johnson. Of the process, she said, “Interviewing Leesa Cross-Smith was a wonderful experience and I am grateful for her generous responses. I found myself enveloped in new emotions with each of her stories. She has remarkable charisma that truly translates in her writing.” In this interview, Leesa discusses the importance of writing feminist narratives, her devotion to her characters, and being inspired by simplicity.
Superstition Review: Some of your stories in this collection focus on the same characters such as “What the Fireworks Are For,” “Hold on, Hold on,” and” Cheap Beer & Sparklers,” while others stand on an island all their own. Could you discuss your process of organizing your stories into this collection?
Leesa Cross-Smith: I always knew I wanted some linked stories, I just didn't know how many. And I wasn't quite sure if the linked stories had to/needed to be right next to one another, so I just did what I wanted...intending to be flexible down the line about it, if/when an editor/small press was interested in publishing it. I had stories about rambling men or cowboy-ish men that I wanted to weave through the entire collection, as well as stories with wild, confident, outspoken women. And then there were the quieter ones, the shorter ones. My goal was to put together a collection that almost anyone could pick up and find at least something they could connect to or feel dreamy about. Something to draw them in, interest them...even if unexpectedly!
SR: Your first published piece of flash fiction, “Five Sketches of a Story about Death” appeared in matchbook February 2012. How did you arrive at the decision to retitle this piece to “Sketches of a Story about Death” and include it in Every Kiss a War?
LCS: That was my publisher/editor Michael Dwayne Smith's idea! He didn't like feeling like we had to keep it numbered and only paint five sketches. He wanted to free me up in a way and I liked his idea. So now, the reader isn't counting...to see if there are five...the reader is freed up, as well, and can just read it.
"Sketches of a Story about Death" is about a family and I wanted to include it in Every Kiss a War because the book is about love, connection and families kinda force that on us sometimes even when/if we don't ask for it or want it. Also most families start with a kiss orrr something like it.
SR: In your radio interview with Keep Louisville Literary, you mentioned that your work is very character-driven and in your writing process, you tend to fully develop a character first. This attests to your genius ability to create characters that are so true-to-life. How then, do you know your character is ready to receive a story? What would you say are your guidelines for character development?
LCS: Thanks so much for listening to that interview and for reading my work and for your kindness! I really do appreciate it more than you know! And thanks to Keep Louisville Literary and Rachel Short for having me.
I know it isn't very helpful to read an interview where an author claims to “just know” when a character is ready...but that is true for me. I really do just know. A large part of that is this element of obsession on my part...when I find a character I can't get out of my mind...I wonder how he would pump gas...I wonder what color socks she would wear...I wonder what they would be doing at one in the afternoon on a spring Sunday...then I'm like uh oh because the character has taken hold of the obsessive writer-y part of my brain and so to appease that and to appease my creative heart, I write about them.
My guidelines for character development are to remain interesting. The character needs to interest me and remain interesting to me. Not a lot happens in some of my stories. I'm not one of those writers writing about a bank heist or a complex crime. I love reading some of those! But it's not what I write. I want my characters to learn new things about themselves, the people around them, the world. I also want my characters to want things, ask questions and feel a little bit of everything (at the same time).
SR: While reading “Whiskey & Ribbons,” I became completely enthralled with your treatment of death, loss, love, grief, single parenthood, etc. An example is when you describe that the newborn “makes the happiest squealing baby sound that echoes off of everything in the kitchen. That echoes off of everything inside of me and shoots straight up to Heaven to Eamon’s waiting ears.” This is such a beautiful connection between love and loss. Could you describe your approach to portraying such emotion?
LCS: With “Whiskey & Ribbons” I allowed myself to write the main character's feelings in a sort of stream of consciousness style I don't always use. I tend to shy away from long, winding descriptions of what is going on my character's minds. I get bored with myself and like to write dialogue so I'm usually breaking up their thoughts with dialogue. But with W&R, the main character Evangeline is a recently widowed mother of a new baby...so I knew she'd be in her head a lot more, and the things that she was either too sad or too scared or too shy to say aloud, I went inside of her head to get those things...and stayed there.
And although her experience isn't something that has happened personally to me, I can only imagine that having such joy and grief together at the same time would be so confusing. A baby making sweet heartbreaking baby sounds, sounds that his daddy will never hear because his daddy was killed before he was born. I feel like Evangeline would be taking inventory of all of these things whether she intended to or not. And although she doesn't say them aloud to anyone, I wanted the reader to be right there with her, listening...almost like she's leaning on the reader in those moments...using them as another branch to support her.
SR: In your interview with Kathy Fish, I was so excited to read that you are working on a novella which expands “Whiskey & Ribbons” and a novel surrounding Violet. How do you alternate between short story and these lengthier works?
LCS: I love Kathy and loved talking to her.
I used to go back and forth some but at the moment, I'm not alternating. I am writing only lengthier works. I finished my Violet novel and am working on expanding “Whiskey & Ribbons” from a novella to a novel at this point. I sometimes miss the shorter form, but I'll get back to it. I'm pretty economical about my energy, creative and otherwise and like to focus it as much as I can.
SR: One thing I like about your writing is your attention to pop culture. You’re not afraid to throw in a Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake reference. I notice this is especially true with music—R&B, 90’s classic rock and grunge. In what ways does music influence your writing?
LCS: No one should ever be afraid to throw in a Beyoncé or Justin Timberlake reference in my opinion! Forreal. I don't listen to a lot of music when I'm writing but I could tell you what kind of music all of my characters listen to and which ones don't listen to music at all. A lot of songwriters are my favorite writers, period. Like Neko Case and Fiona Apple. Those are two women I especially admire for their storytelling...the honesty and the mystery. Their lyrics are so rich and enthralling...layered and sexy. Those are the same things I want my writing/books to be. I also love the simplicity of country music. Songs about sitting on the front porch, dancing in the kitchen, drinking sweet tea and going for a drive when the lightning bugs come out.
SR: Every Kiss a War was a finalist for the Flannery O'Connor Short Fiction Award and the Iowa Short Fiction Award. As an emerging writer, how did it feel to earn this sort of recognition?
LCS: I'd say a part of me felt like my idea of having a book wasn't so weird...it was something that could actually happen. People had responded to some of my other stories separately but being a finalist for those awards...people I didn't know, reading my work and deciding that as a collection...what I was intending to do was working...it was encouraging and made me feel like I should keep trying. And this is where I could cue “Don't Stop Believin'” by Journey and sing “hold onto that feeling” because that's basically what I was doing, what I was trying to do. That's what I'm still trying to do.
SR: As the co-creator of the online literary magazine WhiskeyPaper, you are able to read many short story submissions. How has this influenced you as a writer? What do you learn from submissions of aspiring writers that might not be true for the works of more seasoned authors?
LCS: I don't know if reading WhiskeyPaper subs has influenced me as a writer outside of just being even more aware of the fact that editors have a tough job to do and it takes a lot of energy and time. I always make a point of thanking my editors very much because I appreciate them very much and a good editor is invaluable. A thoughtful reader/editor is invaluable. And so necessary.
I think both aspiring writers and seasoned authors want to continue getting better, stretching themselves, pushing themselves. I don't know if I've seen a big difference there besides persistence and tenacity. I also believe it's important to be willing to listen well and learn from other people.
SR: In your stories, I notice that you give a voice to free-spirited, decisive women. One of my favorite lines comes from “Back When Exile in Guyville Was the Only Album I Listened To.” The narrator introduced her promiscuous interest, and abruptly revealed, “I wanted to wear his coat.” To what degree are you consciously writing feminist pieces? Could you discuss any feminist authors who influenced you?
LCS: I am always consciously writing feminist pieces because I am a feminist. I may not write or look or think like what someone else would call a feminist but that doesn't change the fact that I am and I will not even entertain the policing of feminism when it comes to stuff like that. As long as God gives me the brain and fingers to write and type, I will write about independent women who know what they want, can function with or without a man, can fall in and out of love.
Erica Jong is one example of a feminist author who influenced me. I read Fear of Flying and was like Yes! I am forever interested in reading about honest, sexy women, brazenly feminine women, bawdy women and all of the stuff in between.
SR: Regarding short stories, you said in an interview with Synaesthesia, “I love how these little worlds can be packed with so much emotion and so many complex characters in such a small space.” I am interested in the idea that writing short stories allows you to do this multiple times over again. Could you discuss a story that has brought you to new discoveries as a writer?
LCS: “I Could See the Smallest Things” by Raymond Carver brought me to new discoveries. It is little story from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. He writes “But nobody was moving around. There were no scary shadows. Everything lay in moonlight, and I could see the smallest things.”
That story changed my writing world because I realized I could be even more specific than I was being, I could keep things small if I wanted to. The little details are my favorite things to write and it's almost like Carver was giving me permission to join him in writing about The Smallest Things. My Favorite Things.
SR: “Bleed to Love Her” is such a unique story. I love the commune setting and the children's names—Avocado, Ocean, Camper, Bright. For me, your stories unbiasedly explore relationships from various walks of life. Could you explain what inspired these details for this story?
LCS: Thank you so much and thanks for reading! I love reading about hippies, hippie communes. I love hippie names. Our son's middle name is Ocean. It's just who we are. There are a couple of my hippie friends and we all have fruit/vegetable names. It was just something we did for fun. Mine is Avocado. And I love the words Camper and Bright. I like thinking outside of the box, name-wise. The sounds we call each other. And I knew that if I started the story with the names, the reader would immediately realize that it was a hippie story...that these people were set apart in some way. The names would do that work for me.
That story was originally a longer piece but in this version, a somewhat-single dad finds out from another woman in the commune that his daughter has started her period. I love reading/writing about menstrual cycles and I wanted the dad character to feel a disconnect, but I wanted the woman to also reassure him she had it taken care of...his daughter was “normal” and okay. The dad is in love with this woman at this point, so this is something that bonds him to her even more. I just thought it was a cozy little story where I could set a scene and let them have this moment and then, in essence, let the moment kinda drift out of the kitchen window like incense smoke.
SR: In some of your stories like “Wayfaring,” I notice you alternate between using and not using quotation marks for dialogue. What draws you to a particular style? Have you noticed more fluidity in the use of punctuation in contemporary work?
LCS: What happens is that I write dialogue in a traditional sense and it's set apart like always. Quotation marks, indentation...but there are times when someone says something and it doesn't need to be set apart in my opinion. For example I can write that someone asks someone a question and the person says Yeah. Well, in most cases I don't necessarily feel like the Yeah needs to have its own line, its own focus. But I want the reader to know the person responded so I just capitalize the first word of their response. I'm careful about only using it when it won't confuse the reader. Most importantly, I don't want the reader to be confused. But I feel like if I do it enough in the right spots, perhaps I can “teach” the reader how to read it in my stories and I trust they are smart enough to figure it out.
I've seen several books where the quotation marks are dropped completely. Perhaps for different reasons. I drop the Oxford comma most of the time when I can just to clean things up. But also, I love em dashes and any dashes, actually. I think all writers have their favorites and not-favorites when it comes to punctuation and I think that's where an excellent editor can make all of the difference.
SR: In a line from “Kitchen Music,” you beautifully write “And staying in love is like trying to catch light. To hold it in my hand…Maybe that’s our little assignment—to reach out for the reaching.” I love this idea. Could you expand on this notion of reaching? I feel like it’s a running theme in your stories.
LCS: Thank you for this! I believe and know that life is hard...extremely hard for some people, less for others. I believe in reaching and never giving up. It sounds trite to some people and that's okay. I am weak and I need faith to get by. Reaching is like faith for me. If I don't have something to believe in, reach for...then I don't have much. So even when the actual reaching seems too much, maybe even reaching out for the reaching could work too. Keeping the faith in faith itself. A crying out, an admitting that I don't have the answers or even any answers at all but this belief that there is a good, Holy God reaching back for me...us as these little creatures...is a running theme in all of my work and always will be because that's what keeps my heart beating. Science and faith. Doesn't freak me out to see those words together. I believe in both of them. They exist together in my world, always.
SR: In your story “Hem,” I was drawn to the progressive change that took place in Mitchell, with Merit as sort of a guiding light. Are these roles something you had in mind at the start of your story, or did they progress in time as well?
LCS: “A guiding light.” I love that. It's beautiful. Thank you for saying it! What I wanted to do was give Mitchell a friend. He really needed a friend in that story. He needed a friend way more than he needed a girlfriend. And I wanted to be careful not to make her a parody of a dream girl swooping in to save him from himself, but I wanted to be honest about how he'd clearly feel a romantic connection to her because she was being so kind to him and he wanted that from her. I didn't want her to turn him away with regards to that either, so I ended the story before it got to that point, leaving the reader to decide if something romantic would eventually happen with them. It's not super-important during the course of the story. What is important is that Merit reminds him of his worth, despite the rejection of his ex-girlfriend, despite how he may be feeling in the moment. I always knew that he would cry in front of her and let himself be vulnerable with her and that she would honor that. I wanted to write about a new friendship/relationship because I love writing about those tiny things that connect us to one another and the cozy moments that make such great memories.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
LCS: I usually write in my living room chair or in my bed—but the bed has to be made and I sit on top of the covers. I never write at a desk. I write on my laptop or write down ideas in the notes app on my phone. I write with my kids playing charades in the same room sometimes. But most of the time I write in my bedroom. There are books and books and books and books and orange twinkle lights.