In this crazy, tumultuous time, it helps to have at least one friend you can rely on. And here at Fear No Lit, we are blessed to be literary BFFs with Leesa Cross-Smith. She’s someone we enjoy talking to, and someone who, it seems, enjoys talking to us. And from her appearance in Tasha Coryell’s series Writers Watching Sports and her Visual Interview with Erin Dorney — and now Fail Better! — it’s pretty clear we talk a lot. We tie up each other’s phone lines, so all that the rest of you get is a busy signal.
Hey, we’re not complaining. Leesa, after all, is a great writer and has plenty of wisdom to share.
Co-editor of The Whiskey Paper, Leesa’s writing has appeared in Hobart, Paper Darts, Wyvern Lit, Sundog Lit, Carve Magazine, Monkeybicycle, and many, many more. Her debut short story collection, Every Kiss a War, was published in 2014, and received nods from the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award and 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her new novel, Whiskey & Ribbons, will hit the proverbial shelves on March 8, 2018, but it is already available for preorder.
The Kentucky native is very southern, sincere, and has a list of likes that just doesn’t stop. She was kind enough to talk to us about transforming terrible writing into something great.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Leesa Cross-Smith: This may sound like a cop out, but truly the worst things I’ve ever written are my rough drafts. I always think my rough drafts are the worst. And by the time I show my work to anyone (even my husband/first readers) we’re well out of the rough draft phase. What I mean mostly is ideas that aren’t fully formed quite yet — language I haven’t taken the time to nail down, stories that are simply skeletons, random thoughts, ghosts of ideas. They’re terrible until I work harder on them.
I don’t have like one story that is the worst… but more like they’re all the worst until I spend the appropriate amount of time on them, let them marinate for long enough. Anything I rush through is bad. I’m a fast writer, but I also can’t rush it.
I never show people that work early on. Never. It’s not ready yet. It’s a skinless wormy baby little thing and it’s so bad until I fix it.
Also, the worst things I’ve ever written are stories where I’m attempting to write like someone else. But again, those don’t really make it out into the world because they’re terrible and I can’t write like anyone else but me. Trust me, I’ve tried — in the past. I don’t try anymore.
Is there any writer in particular you end up imitating more often than another? What is it about that writer’s style that you like so much?
LCS: I honestly don’t think so! Or maybe I should say I’m not sure? But I will say that some of my fave writers are songwriters, and I really admire and love songwriters like Fiona Apple and Neko Case and Sufjan Stevens.
They just say what they say in a really simple way that can knock me out. Like Sufjan singing, “landscape changed my point of view.” Or Fiona singing, “and it’s a sad, sad world when a girl will break a boy just because she can.” Or Neko singing, “can’t scrape together quite enough to ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.” Those are the types of things I try to imitate.
I’ll also add that I adore writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and John Updike who took the simple, tiny moments and turned them into wonder.
Do you show different types of work to different readers? Or do you pretty much have a set lineup of readers for everything?
LCS: My husband is my first reader and reads everything I write. He isn’t a writer, so it’s nice to have someone outside of it all to read my work. Also, he loves me a lot, so he’s always kind. And my other reader is my friend Steve Karas who is a writer — and a good one — and he reads almost everything I write. He’s also kind and a really good listener and, most importantly, someone I trust.
So, you have a novel coming out early next year. How many really bad first drafts did you write before you started showing it to people?
LCS: Wow, I can’t count them all! A LOT. I started writing the first version of my forthcoming novel back in 2000, and it took a lot of different forms. It’s been a short story. I tried to begin it as a play. It’s been a novella. I’d say I wrote maybe… somewhere between twenty or fifty first drafts of it before I showed it to anyone?
By the time I sent it to my agent, I’d been working on it off and on in its current novel form for a couple years. It was a long process for me, but that was helpful because by the time I did finally show it to my husband and my agent and beta reader, I felt super comfortable showing it to them. I knew I had at least something.
Now the novel is in the editing phase, right? So was it more stressful back when you didn’t know what the story was and if it would come to anything or now when you actually have a deadline to finish it and send it out into the world?
LCS: We’re out of the editing phase now! And I’ll mos. def. say it was more stressful back when I didn’t know exactly what the novel was going to be! Being on deadline and sending it out into the world doesn’t stress me out nearly as much as the unknown or the process itself. Or I guess I could say… I’d use a different word for the feeling I have now. It’s not stress or nervousness but just excitement and also a lot of wonder and wow.