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Writing Stories that Linger: How to get to the heart of your character 

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Leesa Cross-Smith is a writer from Kentucky, USA. She is editor of the online literary journal Whiskey Paper.

Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-SmithThe manuscript for her short story collection was shortlisted for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor prize and was a semi-finalist in the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her short stories have appeared in many literary journals such as Carve Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Word Riot and Smokelong Quarterly, and her debut short story collection “Every Kiss a War” is available from Mojave River Press.

I first discovered Leesa Cross-Smith’s short stories in Carve Magazine where I read her story Whiskey And Ribbons. I was immediately struck by the astutely observed scenarios, the sharp dialogue and the emotional complexity of the characters. Here was a writer beautifully in control of her prose and I was keen to read more.

I caught up with Leesa to discuss one of my favourite stories from the collection Wayfaring, a beautifully written tale examining a restless man’s relationships with two different women before he sets out on the road. It’s a story that lingers long after you have read it and is a finely crafted example of character development. You can read Wayfaring online over at Pithead Chapel.

Jennifer Harvey: One of the most striking things about Wayfaring is the way the character develops within the story. In the beginning he comes across as uncaring and a little thoughtless: he even describes himself as “an asshole”. But as the story progressed and I found out more about him I began to sympathize with him a little. Is this what you had in mind with the main character?

Leesa Cross-Smith: I did have that progression in mind! I wanted to make sure he was upfront about his asshole-ishness. I didn’t want him to make excuses for it. I love people/characters who can admit who and what they are, even when it’s hard or weird to do it. And I’m glad you felt that way about him because that’s how I wanted the reader to feel! Such a treat when things actually work out like that! Thank you so much.

Jen: How did you discover the main character in Wayfaring? Is he based on someone you noticed in real life that you adapted a little or is he compiled from observations of more than one person? Or perhaps he’s completely invented?

Leesa: This character was kind of an offshoot of another character in my collection from a story called “The Wild Hunt”. Whether they are the same character or not I’ve always left up in the air for people to decide on their own and some people won’t see any connection at all maybe, and others may feel like they are the same person. They can both stand on their own, of course, but they are very similar. They’re my cowboys, my drifters, my rambling men. I’ve never been close-close to a man like this and in real life, these men don’t interest me at all, but for whatever reason, I write about them often and fall in love with them on the page/in movies/in song lyrics. So I’d say he is surely completely invented, but from a variety of different influences/observations and country songs and old-timey cowboy movies and dreamy things like that.

Jen: Why did you choose not to name the main character?

Leesa: The character from “The Wild Hunt”, which is sorta the companion piece to this one, is called West. I didn’t want to make a direct connection to that name in “Wayfaring” but that’s what I call him in my head. West. And this character in “Wayfaring” is running off to the west, escaping his old life. Since it’s written in second person, I left out his name, choosing to only call him “You”, which could be everyone/anyone/someone in particular.

Jen: The ending to Wayfaring is open ended. We are left with the impression that he will eventually return home. You hint at it in the passage:

“You always leave but you’ll be back because you always come back because this is your home and you love it here … You do. You will. It is.”

But we cannot be sure. Perhaps his restlessness will prevail. I loved the uncertainty there is about this character and the ending tells us a lot about him. The conflict there between moving on and going back home. I think the main character suited this type of ending. Did you set out with that in mind?  Do you prefer to write open endings? I know I do.

Leesa: I did set out to leave it open ended, yes! I wanted to put in there that this isn’t the first time he’s done something like this. It is part of his personality. His friends know it and even tease him about it. Like he has a little ticker/timer in a cloud above him that his close friends can see. Oh he’s leaving again. Oh here he goes…The Wayfarer. It’s almost like a joke. I’d written him to a certain point, then he begins to change his mind. Reconnecting with Scarlett in a way that actually works now has him thinking maybe he shouldn’t go. Maybe he should ask her to go with him. Maybe he should change his mind about things. Since he was feeling that way already, I wanted the story to match those feelings. So he leaves, yes…but for how long? Does he call Scarlett as soon as he gets there and ask her to come meet him? Does she answer the phone? Does he show up on her doorstep two weeks later? Two years later? Do they ever talk to each other again? It can go so many different ways like so many things in life, so I wanted to leave it there and let it sit there just like the fog and “almost” he talks about earlier on in the story. I try to leave a little bit open at the end of all of my stories because in my mind, they always go on and on and never quite end. So I try to do that justice as much as I can.

Jen: One of the things that interested me about the main character was the way he opened up to Scarlett. He is trying to be honest with her, to tear down his defences and to love her. But something seems to hold him back – a fear of being hurt perhaps. I found that it was this that endeared him to me a little, this unexpected fragility. But he has spurned one woman and been rejected by another – what do you imagine for him in the future? Will he find love?

Leesa Cross-Smith

Leesa Cross-Smith

Leesa: Thank you for this thoughtful question. I love how you put that… “this unexpected fragility.” That’s so true! I wanted to get across that he and Scarlett have a special connection. It was something real at least once. He can open up to her in a way he can’t with other women. He is serious when he asks Scarlett to go with him out to New Mexico and at first she thinks he’s just being cheeky. He accepts that she may think that and maybe he’s a bit shy to tell her NO REALLY PLEASE GO WITH ME I NEED YOU I WANT YOU I LOVE YOU I’M SCARED OF THINGS… so he does what he can do in his own way: spends his remaining time in Kentucky with her and only her, has dinner with her, kisses her, makes love to her. Those things he can do to show her he cares about her in a different way. I do think he will find love and maybe it’ll be five years from now with Scarlett or maybe it’ll be with someone else. The important thing is that now he is actually ready and when we meet him at the beginning of the story, only then is he admitting these things to himself. At the end of the story Scarlett tells him he’s a good man and he brushes her off and she says it again and he still doesn’t really believe her but he wants to be a good man, he does. He’s trying.

Jen: You seem to be very adept at writing about men and women – your psychological observations are always very astute. What do you put that down to, this ability to write from both perspectives?

Leesa: Well, thank you so much for this. This kindness, I appreciate it! I joke sometimes that men just like sex and food THE END and I know that’s a bit sexist, but I’m okay with it. My point is that I don’t think men are all that complicated. Humans are complicated yes but my personal relationships with men haven’t been complicated. So when I write from a male POV I always make a point to make sure he “sounds like a guy.” In my opinion:

They also don’t apologize for their feelings as often as women seem to. Some of those differences are innate, I think, and some of those differences are learned from society/culture/the media. These are my personal experiences and I’m not in any way saying that this is what all people are like. But that’s where I start. I do feel like I understand men somewhat and I can’t say exactly why. I can write from a female POV because I am one (and a pretty girly one at that) but also, just to keep it fun and interesting, I like to write from a male POV too. I live with a man and am raising a small one, so I feel like I get my fair share of exposure to men and how they think. What I love to do most is to write stories where men and women are together and those differences are highlighted and they’re forced to work things out. That interests me and fuels a lot of my work. The romance, the struggles, the good and bad of all of that.

Jen: Do you have any short words of advice for writers setting out on their writing career?

Leesa: My advice is to work work work work work. So often people ask how to start writing or how to get their foot in the door and I always ask the same question: What are you working on? This kind of thing just doesn’t happen! It takes a lot of work. A lot of hard work! A writer needs to be writing, a writer needs to be reading. Has to be writing and reading if they want to get anything done. So that’s my advice, quickly. WRITE! And then write some more. And some more.

 

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Jennifer is one of our judges at MASH. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Stories For Homes anthology. Her radio drama won the 2001 European Regional Prize in the BBC World Service International Playwriting competition and a commendation in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian as part of their poetry workshops series. Contact Jen via Twitter.

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