Interview: Leesa Cross-Smith
Inventive. Authentic. Honest. All these words have been used to describe Leesa Cross-Smith’s work, yet the same very well could be said about the author herself. Writer, wife, mother of two, unabashed Christian, she often credits her family and faith as guiding compasses in her life, and it shows in the compassion she extends toward her characters and readers alike.
In March 2020, Grand Central Publishing published Cross-Smith’s short fiction collection, So We Can Glow. The collection explores the intersection between the domestic and desire as experienced through the feminine lens. New York Times–bestselling author Roxane Gay praises Cross-Smith as a “consummate storyteller” and offers this in a recent review:
Leesa Cross-Smith is such a beguiling writer and her skills are on full display in So We Can Glow. These are stories about breathless love, lustful abandon, all that glitters, hot summers, cool pavement, sticky skin, beautifully beating hearts. There is such authenticity to these stories and nostalgia that is tempered with just enough of a clear-eyed understanding of the world as it is, not just how we hoped it might be. It’s also refreshing to see a writer crafting stories that are so unapologetically for women, about women, a love letter to who we are, the best and worst of us, held high and true, so we can glow as brightly as we dare.
Leesa Cross-Smith’s other publications include the short fiction collection, Every Kiss A War (Mojave River Media, 2014), as well as two novels, Whiskey & Ribbons (Hub City Press, 2018) and the forthcoming This Close to Okay (Grand Central Publishing, 2021). Her flash fiction has appeared in literary journals such as SmokeLong Quarterly, Split Lip, Hobart, and Atticus Review. In addition, she and her husband, Loran, cofounded the journal Whiskey Paper.
CRAFT is so pleased Leesa accepted our invitation to guest judge our 2020 Flash Fiction Contest. She and CRAFT flash fiction section editor, Kristin Tenor, had a chance to correspond with one another via email.
Kristin Tenor: In a craft essay you contributed to SmokeLong Quarterly in 2016 you wrote, “Flash fiction is where I get my quick and dirty.” What in particular do you find most attractive about writing and reading flash fiction?
Leesa Cross-Smith: I love writing and reading little stories, quick moments…big feelings shrunk down to bite-size snippets. I’m so in love with small moments of intimacy and all that’s left unsaid. It’s beauty, it’s art. And I especially love flash fiction that stretches out upon rereading…things that sneak up on me…little things I notice later.
KT: As mentioned in the introduction, you’ve written two novels, two short story collections, and several flash fiction pieces. Where does story begin for you? At what point in the process do you know in which format your story and/or character will feel most at home?
LCS: When it comes to where a story begins for me, I almost always start with some sort of visual of a tiny moment or a word or a line of dialogue. Sometimes it’s a fully formed character, but not as often. It can be someone touching someone else’s hand or the cuff of a sweater…I admit that it’s sort of a magical thing for me I can’t always explain…but when it happens, it happens and I’m very grateful for it. It’s hard for me to say when I know which format will make the story/character feel most at home too! It’s just different every time and I give myself room to circle back. That’s why so often I write flash fiction or a short story about a character and return to that same character later, because I’m not finished. And it’s not that I need to make the original story longer…but it’s because I want to meet them again…wherever they are…and listen.
KT: Your recent short story collection, So We Can Glow, curates so beautifully the obsessions and complexities which shape the heart of what it means to be a woman in this often crazy, mixed-up world. The opening piece, “We Moons,” could be considered a siren song of sorts with its collective voice: “We read and write our books, sing our songs, scream our screams, and fall easily into the arms of a God who loves us.” When you began writing pieces for this collection did you have an intended audience and/or theme in mind or did the stories organically coalesce on their own?
LCS: Thank you for your kindness! I wrote these stories over a long period of time and it wasn’t until I had a bunch of them that I really realized they had a lot of the same themes—girlhood, womanhood, friendship, wildness, relationships with somewhat rascally men, etc. So that was organic…how it happened. But once I saw what I had…from that point on, I did focus on making sure the rest of the collection matched up. My intended audience is girls and women and anyone who has or knows or loves anyone with a girlheart.
KT: Some of the stories in your collection experiment with structure. “Teenage Dream Time Machine” is narrated through a series of text messages between friends. “Stay and Stay and Stay” takes on the form of a hotel confirmation. When constructing these pieces, which inspired you first—the premise or the structure? What do you see as the benefits and risks associated with embracing a hermit crab structure vs. a traditional narrative form?
LCS: I was equally inspired by the premise and the structure. In “Teenage Dream Time Machine,” I knew the women would be texting because it’s how they communicate and that story is connected to another story in the collection…the women are the mothers of teenage girls and the other story is from the POV of the teenage girls. So, it made instant sense to me that these women would be texting about their daughters and the events that occurred in the other story. And when it comes to “Stay and Stay and Stay” taking the form of a hotel confirmation…I wanted the story to read like a round up of what could happen…what if when you checked in/out of a hotel, you could get a printout of what did or didn’t happen in that room? Almost like a journal entry…a little emotional…a little detached…a warning…maybe it would change your mind about what you’d do or want to do.
I’m pretty uninterested in benefits and risks when it comes to my own work, because I just do what I want…and honestly, I think the only risk would be not being true to your heart or your art.
KT: Many of your characters explore their sexuality, still not in a way that feels tawdry or overblown. For example, Evi, from your novel Whiskey & Ribbons, has an intimate relationship with her brother-in-law as she mourns her husband’s premature death and yet remains a woman of deep faith. How does one handle such layered complexity without it becoming too imbalanced?
LCS: Thank you for this! I just try to be as brutally honest as possible when it comes to my characters and their hearts/emotions/intentions. Yes, Evi is a woman of faith and she’s reeling and emotional, but she’s also falling in love with her brother-in-law and that includes the sexual feelings for him. It may seem weird or too complicated to wade through for someone else, but it’s not weird or too complicated to wade through for me. I write about women and lust and desire and sex a lot because it’s part of the world and it’s part of my world. And so is faith. I don’t write about sex so the reader will think it’s “steamy” and I don’t write about faith with the intent to try to preach to anyone. I’m only being true to my heart and true to the hearts of my characters, and humans are super complex and layered! And I’ll always be interested in the female gaze and what women want because I love love love women.
KT: A global pandemic, nationwide protests against racial injustice, skyrocketing unemployment, questionable governmental leadership, weather-related natural catastrophes—let’s face it, 2020 has been an extremely difficult year for us all. How have these events affected your writing process and/or your identity as a writer? Do you have any advice on how one continues to stay inspired during such trying times?
LCS: None of this has affected my writing process or my identity as a writer, really. I had a book to turn in and I turned it in. I sold another book and there are always one or two things bubbling that I can’t talk about. My family has been blessed re: staying healthy so far. I have no other advice on how to stay inspired outside of trusting in and hoping for something bigger than all this. My trust and faith and hope is set firmly in Jesus. I am inspired by art and beauty and love and the big big big unfathomable supernatural things that no politics or disasters or sickness or sadness, etc. can ever touch. It’s how I survive, really. I don’t know how else to be.
KT: You include a long list of inspirations at the end of So You Can Glow, mentioning several song titles and their artists. What is it about music that speaks to your creativity?
LCS: Songwriters are some of my favorite writers. Songs have a lot in common with flash fiction. A small amount of time and space to make your feelings known. Songwriters like Justin Vernon, Frank Ocean, Fiona Apple…their music, their poetry…I’m very easily inspired by them and so many creative hearts! Movies, stories, paintings, sculptures, etc. That list could’ve gone on for a lot longer because I’m inspired by so many things!
KT: Congratulations on your newest novel, This Close to Okay, being slated for release in spring 2021. Could you please share with us a little bit about the story’s premise and what you hope will resonate most with your readers?
LCS: Thank you! This Close to Okay is out February 2, 2021, and it’s about a woman who sees a man standing on the bridge in the rain and she stops her car to make sure he won’t jump to his death. She convinces him to go for a cup of coffee and come home with her. She’s a therapist but doesn’t tell him that because she doesn’t want him to shut down in case he has an aversion to talk therapy and she doesn’t want him to treat her any differently. The story takes place over a rainy Halloween weekend in Kentucky and it’s written from their alternating points of view. What I hope resonates: how powerful surprise kindness, and love and connection can be…how important it is to hope and fight for light, even when the darkness seems unbearable…how comforting it can be to truly spend time listening and getting to know another person…how we all have tender, sad, weird moments and how it would do us good to remember how connected we all are.
KT: Which authors and/or stories have you found exciting lately?
LCS: I’m excited about Naima Coster’s new book What’s Mine and Yours and I loved Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West.
KT: What in particular will you be searching for when judging the CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest?
LCS: Intimacy, sweetness, obsession, connection. Beauty on a sentence level. A new way of looking at something.
KT: It’s been wonderful to be in conversation with you, Leesa. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your insights with our readers. As we conclude, I wonder if you might tell us how you’d complete the following sentence: At the end of the day all I want is ____________.
LCS: quiet and my books and my teapot. Maybe some rain too.
Thank you so much, Kristin! It’s my pleasure.
LEESA CROSS-SMITH is a homemaker and writer from Kentucky. She is the author of So We Can Glow (Grand Central Publishing, 2020), Whiskey & Ribbons (Hub City Press, 2018), Every Kiss a War (Mojave River Press, 2014), and the forthcoming This Close to Okay (Grand Central Publishing, 2021). Every Kiss a War was a finalist for both the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (2012) and the Iowa Short Fiction Award (2012). Her short story “Whiskey & Ribbons” won Editor’s Choice in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest (2011) and was listed as a notable story for storySouth’s Million Writers Award. The novel Whiskey & Ribbons was longlisted for the 2018 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and listed among Oprah Magazine’s “Top Books of Summer.” She was a consulting editor for Best Small Fictions 2017. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, Best Small Fictions 2015, NYLON, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poets & Writers, The Rumpus, and many others. Find more at LeesaCrossSmith.com.
KRISTIN TENOR finds inspiration in life’s quiet details and believes in their power to illuminate the extraordinary. Her work has appeared in the Midwest Review, Spelk Fiction, Milk Candy Review, Bending Genres, Anti-Heroin Chic, Emerge Literary Journal, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, among others. Her flash fiction piece, “Pruning Season,” has been nominated for Best of the Net 2020. Kristin is also the flash fiction section editor at CRAFT. She and her husband call Wisconsin home. Find more at kristintenor.com or on Twitter @KristinTenor.