Monday, August 4, 2014

Co-editor Omar Figueras interviews #BLauthor10 Leah Lederman

"Flapper," by Meg Flannery
Check out Omar's interview with Leah Lederman, with art by Meg Flannery, and stay tuned for a guest post by Leah coming mid-week.

OF: In your story, "Dust to Dust," the nameless main character cares for and attends to the elderly, in life and after death. Her story is replete with fine details and nuances of end of life care. What was the inspiration behind your story? Have you ever worked in in hospice, or have you had a loved one in hospice care?

LL: This story comes directly from a deep-seated neurosis involving cleaning. My home is by no means overly clean, but I have a long history of finding solace and satisfaction in cleaning. My journals as a kid generally included some note like, “When I got home I swept the dining room and washed dishes” (which should also tell you that my childhood was incredibly boring). My first job, starting at age fourteen, was as a night-time cleaning lady. It just so happens that  I worked at a few medical offices. Later in life I worked at one again, not as a cleaner but as an assistant. But this story is about cleaning, not medical care.

When my husband’s grandfather died, and then later when there was another death in the family, I found that my knee-jerk reaction was to clean the person’s house. I don’t cook well and I’m not a hugely effective organizer, so this was the way I felt I could contribute. It also provided me with some time to be alone – in the midst of funeral plans and mourning – to be out of the way and reflect. Sometimes I worried that I was overstepping, though, especially when I considered that the dust and debris I was wiping and sweeping away was, in essence, a physical part of the deceased.

The idea stuck with me for a few years before I finally just made up my mind to sit down and write it. I didn’t mean it to end up so creepy, really, but I didn’t want to write a story about grief.

OF: Why did you decide to name only Janet, the other assistant at Sheet County Hospice, and not the main character not the deceased?

LL: I’m reluctant to name my characters because I find names unimportant and because the process of naming distracts me. I want to focus on the way they operate, and when I slap a name on them, it immediately seems contrived. I get tripped up on things like, “Would a ‘Susan’ really say that?” and then I’m thinking about this character’s parents, and what they must have been like, and what led them to naming their daughter ‘Susan.’ In one sense, thinking and backtracking like that really digs down into the character; however, I find that I can get sidetracked on a name, and I would rather focus on the story at hand.

Also, I like the idea of the story as an inner monologue, or an “insert yourself here” type of thing. Leaving her nameless makes her – and the deceased – more universal. A name creates a demarcation—a separation between the writer and character, or the reader and the character. I like not having it there.

Janet has a name simply to distinguish her from the main character, and she exists in the story merely as a prop. She is only a name. If you took off her nametag, she would disappear.

OF: If you were to provide your main character of your story with a second chapter, a continuation to her story, what would you like for her to do?

LL: I’d say that we’ve encountered this woman at the end of a long, very bizarre career in collecting dust of deceased people she may or may not know. I’m not sure I want her to do much of anything further!

I am curious to see exactly how it is she got here. What (who) was her first urn? When did she start doing this, and why? If I were to continue this woman’s story, it would only be as a prequel.

What obsesses this character is the physical remnants of life, such as dust. Similarly, I think she’s interested in “layers” of life, especially when those layers involve the intimate and minute details of a person. Think about removing a piece of flooring and discovering a piece of thirty-year-old carpeting, or removing a light fixture to see the previous two wallpaper jobs. She would see this and think, this was the wallpaper they’d posed in front of for their prom photo.

So, I’m not sure I’m going to make her a real estate agent or anything like that, but I’d like to see her explore, and perhaps collect, more than just dust. Maybe she has a separate area for carpet and wallpaper swatches…

OF: Who or what were your first influences as a writer? Books or stories, poems or essays that led you into and influenced your writing?

LL: I write because I don’t know what else to do with myself. I write letters, I write lists, I write down snippets of conversation. I like to write about how I see people, and I like to keep my writing at an arm’s length. If anything is autobiographical, it’s several years distant, usually. The greatest influence on my writing is what I’m reading, so I’m always reading something.

Katherine Patterson was probably the earliest influence on my writing. I wrote a story in 5th grade based on Bridge to Terabithia and my teacher wanted to send it to her. It was perhaps the first time I ever realized that writers weren’t just dead people. They are real people, alive and breathing.

Other than that, I like reading things that make me want to write. I tend to gravitate towards country-bumpkin writing like Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, Haven Kimmel’s She Got Up Off the Couch and most recently Larry Macmurty’s The Last Picture Show. I like straightforward writing about real things that happen to real people. This is also why I enjoyed Tina Fey’s BossyPants. I read that and thought, yeah, I can do this. I read some Tom Robbins and found it impressively ornate and intricate from its plot(s) down to its sentence structure, but I found those same items annoying and pretentious at times. No one talks the way he writes. And if they did, I would want to punch them.

OF: Who are you reading at the moment? What's next on your reading list?

LL: This is a very boring time to ask me this question. I have suspended my rights to buy more books (unless they’re at a thrift store, and then only maybe) until I have read all of the books that I have on my shelves. I *collect* books. Sometimes they just take up residence and I’ve never opened them. So, right now I’m reading The Oxford History of the French Revolution. I’m not going to lie, it’s a bit dry. But very informative. Perhaps too informative. There’s a lot of history and theory on my list this summer, which makes sense because those are the books I always buy with the best of intentions when in fact they just end up collecting dust (see what I did there?).

I counteract any potential reading dryness with a decent page-turner, and so I’ve enlisted the help of Game of Thrones. It’s a big deal on TV, I hear. Some people I know even get together to watch it, and it blows up on Facebook. So I’m on the bandwagon, starting with the books.

OF: Briefly describe your writing process. Do you have a daily ritual, a pattern you adhere to, or is it all random, haphazardly falling on the page?

LL: It depends on the piece. Some of them – like "Dust to Dust" – floated around in my head for a few years before I finally just pegged them down. I don’t let it take years anymore. Sometimes I have the idea and it nearly writes itself. That’s happened a few times. More often, however, I work on a chunk at a time: “OK, tonight you need to work on the conversation between xxx and yyyy” and then “make sure you describe the car ride really clearly” and etc. Once I have the pieces, I put them together and read it through – I do this best if I take about a week away from it, and it helps to print it off and read it from the page –  and start tightening it up to make sure it flows the way I want it to. I absolutely always have someone else read it for me, whether it’s a sibling or a friend. They help me know whether I’ve delivered the right “tone” or “flavor” and of course they tell me if there are any glaring inconsistencies or content errors.

The trick is to get writing. I can tinker mentally all day long—sometimes I do. But after papers are graded (OK, sometimes before) and everyone else is in bed, I will write. I do my best to let myself go off on tangents, or down rabbit holes, and I work even harder not to edit myself along the way (even if the red and green squigglies drive me nuts). Sometimes I don’t even look at the monitor, I just type away and let the words create something that I didn’t even know was in me. That’s my favorite part of writing, when I read something and think, “That came from me?”

I often give myself mini writing prompts that help me build a story. If I know that I’m trying to instill a sense of say, dread. Then I set a timer and start writing about all the different ways “dread” feels, what brings it about, what to do about it, etc. I might not use any of it, but a lot of times the things I came up with in these fifteen minute drills become a part of the story.

OF: Any favorite literary magazine or presses?

LL: I admit one of my biggest failings is familiarity with literary magazines and presses. I’ve always just read books, and here and there when a friend gets published I buy whatever they were published in. But I don’t follow any one in particular. I am certainly open to suggestions.

Here in Indianapolis there’s a group called The Indy Pub Co-Op and they distribute a zine comprised of local submissions—poetry, short stories, graphic design, illustrations. I have contributed a few things to their publication, and enjoy the art they put together.

There is one called Ploughshares. I liked that one because I knew some of the writers. I guess that’s the key—knowing someone who’s somehow been involved. That’s how I heard of Blood Lotus and Two of Cups Press.

OF: What are you working on right now? Anything thrilling looming in the near future?

LL: I’m working on something right now that is uncomfortable to write, and will certainly be submitted under a pseudonym when the time comes. It’s black humor about turning victimization on its head.

I’ve also made some headway on the “book” I’ve been authoring – with help from my dad – about his experiences in Vietnam. I made up my mind, going in, that it was going to be a ten year project. I’m about three years in at this point, and pleased with my progress.

Finally, there’s the journal-box of doom. From when I twelve years old to the present day, I have kept a journal (now it’s more in emails to myself than in cat-picture diary books). I’ve got some ideas mapped out for turning certain moments into short stories, or little prose poems. I don’t know what you call them.

OF: Any hobbies or interests outside of writing? Do these activities somehow inform your writing? How?

LL: I am a college instructor, freelance editor, and a mother outside of my writing. These occupations seem like that bleed into one another, inherently, though I feel like my life is pretty compartmentalized. I don’t write about teaching or about being a mom. Plenty of other people do that. I like to watch people objectively and record my observations. I can’t write about my students or children because it’s too close to me.

I used to dance a lot. In fact, I once choreographed a piece that was about the frustrations of writing. I never completed it, and I’m not sure if that says more about me as a dancer or as a writer, but I don’t like it. I have brushed off pieces of writing after three years and continued to work on them, though, so maybe I shouldn’t say “unfinished.” I have a lot of work in suspension. On hiatus.

The biggest influence on my writing is what I’m reading, and it’s garbage in garbage out. I like to read things that make me want to write.

About the artist: Meg Flannery is an M.F.A. candidate at Southern Illinois University. She is from New Jersey and graduated from Marist College with a B.A. in English and minors in creative writing and photography. These are her first publication.

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