Leesa Cross-Smith’s story of Evangeline, a classically trained ballet instructor, her ill-fated cop husband, Eamon, and his best friend, Dalton, was almost twenty years in the making. And yet, her debut novel Whiskey & Ribbons seems timeless. It will fool you into complacency, in the manner of a cozy blanket and a warm fire, but the human motivations and desires at play are not, of course, what they seem.
Cross-Smith is an unabashed homemaker, mother of two, and co-editor with her husband, Loran, of the well-respected online journal, Whiskeypaper. She’s also the author of a short story collection, Every Kiss A War, a writer for Oxford American, and an avid user of Twitter. It was in that space that I knew of her well before the book deal was inked.
On the morning of Martin Luther King Jr. Day she and I spoke about what it takes to come back to a story and characters after a time away, how she’d want her book to be framed in the world as a black writer, and how her Christian faith influences her writing.
[Don’t miss a special Rumpus signed giveaway of Whiskey &Ribbons by Leesa Cross-Smith, available through March 31! Details here. – Ed.]
The Rumpus: I know you were stalled on this novel for a long time. Wasn’t it originally a short story?
Leesa Cross-Smith: It was originally published as a short story. When I first got the idea of making it a novel, I felt really overwhelmed by it and thought, There’s no way I can do this, so just let me just try to make it into a short short story. Yeah, it had a lot of forms.
Rumpus: You stopped working on it and then came back to it. Why?
Cross-Smith: I killed Eamon halfway through and I had a writing mental breakdown. I don’t mean an actual breakdown, but more like the writer’s mind breaking down. I literally stopped and cried into my hands. I’d never killed a character before. I didn’t know how to feel.
So I stopped. It was shortly before September 11, 2001, and so I was completely drained. What could I write about? The world was ending. What’s the point? And so I could not even write it at all. It wasn’t an important thing in my life; I was taking a semester off college and I needed to go back, finish, and graduate.
Rumpus: So what happened?
Cross-Smith: In 2010, I was trying to put together a collection later. I spent all that time in between raising my kids and getting them into school. I didn’t really have time to think about writing, but when I did come back to it, I liked the idea and I wondered what would happen if I just tried to wrestle with it a little bit.
Rumpus: I love Eamon deeply. If he existed, I would make a pass. But we either canonize or we condemn the dead. We either forgive their faults or that’s all we can remember about them. So how did you decide to tell the truth about a person who, in the beginning of the story, we already know is dead?
Cross-Smith: That was really tough. He’s not perfect. He’s not the best to his ex-girlfriend. He gets out of that relationship in a garbage way. He could do better. When I got a blurb from one of my favorite writers, Bonnie Nadzam, she wrote that Whiskey & Ribbons was about good-hearted people. That, to me, felt like such a gift, because that is what I tried to do. Especially in our culture, everyone likes to say “this person is trash and “this person is an angel.” But what about the people who are like all of us: they mess up sometimes, but can be super-amazing. Not perfect, but really good-hearted.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the kindness of secrets. Eamon and Evangeline have this unspoken agreement that they don’t talk about many aspects of his job as a police officer. Does Eamon’s intentional shielding of the danger inherent to the job make his death even more unbearable?
Cross-Smith: I originally had a section of the book about the kid who killed Eamon. In one draft, I wrote his name and in another draft I had a scene where Evi [Evangeline] had to avoid the kid’s family. But then I talked to one of my editors and I decided to take that out completely. It’s just a random act of violence and that’s where I wanted to leave it. There’s so much the family members of victims don’t know. They don’t know what the perpetrator was thinking. They have no idea why it happened. That’s why I didn’t write in whether or not Eamon was taken to the hospital or if he died on the scene. It didn’t matter, because it wasn’t a mystery that he was murdered, which is why I tell you in the first sentence he’s dead. It’s true that there’s so much Evi doesn’t know. But we do get to see Eamon as a lover, as a friend, and as a soon-to-be father.
Evi clearly knows that he has a dangerous job. She knows that he puts his life in danger every day. For me, how I thought about my marriage before I got pregnant was very different from the way it was when I got pregnant. Once I got pregnant, I saw my vulnerability, and I started thinking about things like life insurance. Evi, too, is a realist.
Rumpus: So, I remember when Brit Bennett’s The Mothers came out, and people talked about it in terms of it being a black story. But when I read it, it felt like a universal story. I think black writers aren’t allowed to tell a story without it being put into a category—
Cross-Smith: They never are!
Rumpus: I never really lingered on who’s black and who’s white in Whiskey & Ribbons. That’s not anything I ever lingered on. How would you have the book framed?
Cross-Smith: Bonnie Nadzam had said the book is defiant in all it doesn’t say. And I love that! I don’t mention race very often. But I wasn’t being intentionally defiant. I’m just black every day. Evangeline and Eamon are just black, so Evangeline is not going to take a long look in the mirror to say, Look at my skin. She’s going to go and make herself some tea.
I think this is revolutionary and defiant in a culture that’s craving these books to make me, the reader, feel I’m immersed in this whole other world. But is it really that revolutionary to write a black woman simply making her tea in the morning? Without mentioning her race? She’s dealing with grief and love and lust and jealousy—are those not completely human emotions, completely divorced from the color of our skin? My agent and I talked about this a lot. Is this going to be shelved in African American literature? I definitely want it to have African American on the list of things you’re going to say about this book—because I’m African American and so many of the characters are African American. But I think if someone is going to the bookstore and is like, Let me curl up with an African American novel, because I want to be completely immersed in a black city with black culture and black art, they would pick up Whiskey & Ribbons and read a book with Grateful Dead and Marshall Tucker Band.
Rumpus: But that’s a stereotype, right? To assume otherwise?
Cross-Smith: For sure. They’d pick up my book and go, Oh, Phil Collins? And then would look at the front and look at my picture in the back and be like, What kind of book is this? So I don’t want to be misleading. I think of it as literary fiction. I’m fine with it being called African American literary fiction. But I think to frame this as a story about a black community is misleading because I can’t tell you how many people have read it and said, “Oh, I didn’t realize they were black.” White people have picked up this book and they just read right past it, because they don’t think about it. There aren’t all those stereotypical cues people look for, like, Is it in Detroit? Or New Orleans? How am I going to know it’s a black book?
Black people are everywhere. They live in Kentucky. They’re police officers and play piano and own their own businesses and write and read and are mothers. I mean, I can’t believe I have to keep saying that.
Rumpus: It’s interesting when you talk about white people reading the book and reading past the characters’ race, and their default is white. But when I go to read a book, I actually do a lot of mental work of parsing out what I think the race of the person is and if it even matters before I decide. It’s about where you’re coming from when you come to a book.
Cross-Smith: I’ve found that white writers really want to give you those cues, so what they’ll do is make sure the person is blonde. They want you to know she is blonde. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve picked up and she’s blonde. So then, if she’s blonde, we have to take from that she’s beautiful, right? It doesn’t matter what she looks like, if she’s blonde, she’s beautiful. So then we get it—she’s white, waspy. There’s so many cues and I’m, like, you can relax and let me read this book.
I’ve found little things can confuse people. There’s a part in Whiskey & Ribbons where Evi blushes and it confused people. But, of course, black people blush. It’s just a matter of how much you can see it. So then it made me wonder if people would read that and think, Oh, she’s white. But no. It’s weird to mention a character’s blackness in the first sentence.
Rumpus: Right, because that’s what we do—we walk around saying we’re black every five minutes. Right before I got on this call I told myself I was black.
Anyway, let’s talk about male friendships. I don’t think, in American culture, we allow men a lot of things, but one of the things we truly don’t allow them is affection for other men, physical touch with other men—a lot of the things we allow women in friendships that doesn’t become categorized as romantic. Can you talk about how writing Eamon and Dalton’s friendship took shape?
Cross-Smith: I was trying to present this relationship where you have these men who grew up together and they are absolutely crazy about each other. They are truly in love with each other. And it does come up that they used to have problems in school over it. People would tease them. And Dalton was very comfortable with it, while Eamon took it more to heart. These two men love each other and hug each other and have seen each other cry without fear that it means something else.
I’m speaking from an American point of view. I can’t speak to what it’s like in other countries, but even some of the guys I know here don’t sit next to each other in the movie theater. They have to sit a seat apart. But I love the idea of these really intimate friends. There are times I even mention they feel like the same person. They’ve known each other forever, like David and Jonathan from the Bible. So when we get to the point where Evi and Dalton are spending more time together, it’s a natural thing because they’ve already spent so much time together. And it really makes Evi examining her feelings for Dalton easier, because Dalton has so much of Eamon inside of him.
Male friendship is explored sometimes in raunchy teenage movies.You’ll have these dudes who do everything together and talk about girls together. And that’s how it was in high school. I knew guys who had intense friendships where they talked about what they were wearing and which girls to date, but in public you don’t hug once you get a certain age, and you can’t say “I love you.” But Eamon and Dalton are confident dudes and they’ve worked on this relationship.
Rumpus: I know you’re a self-identifying Christian and that’s something you’re proud of. I, on the other hand, am not anymore, but I was raised as one and I’ve often read books that are marketed as Christian lit. And at some point in those books, there’s always a message that comes down from God. I don’t know that you have a direct message, but I did feel a kind hand in the background. And I wondered how your faith impacted this book.
Cross-Smith: My faith plays a part in every single thing I write. One of the biggest compliments I got for a short story, which was about a higher power, was that I wasn’t being preachy. I never want to be preachy. It has such a terrible connotation.
My father is a preacher and he raised me without being preachy. My faith is in my work; it’s such a huge part of my life and heart. So I take into account my characters and their spirituality, or even their lack of spirituality and their lack of connection to God. In this book, I’m very specific about Eamon and Evi meeting at a church. Evi volunteers at a church. She’s very much a Christian. But being in a church doesn’t mean all kinds of things don’t come out of that. There are no perfect people. So it was easy for me to incorporate Evi’s hope in life after death, her hope in Jesus, her hope that Eamon is in heaven. She can believe that he knows her and his son are doing well on Earth without him. So that was on purpose, but I also wanted to be sure they were real people. Real sinful people who were struggling.
So there is colorful language in the book, there are sex scenes and sometimes when we’re in their heads they have thoughts that aren’t always perfect. They don’t sit around praying all the time. And even when Evangeline is praying, she’s angry and cursing in a prayer. I try to show the complications of faith. Christianity really gets boiled down to political parties, which is very false and not at the heart of who Jesus actually is—a holy living God that I believe in and who is living inside of me. That’s always coming out of me and my work. By accident and on purpose.
So this book wouldn’t be under the category of Christian lit, because there’s cursing and sex scenes, but it was 100% written by a Christian writer. Whether someone wants to sell it in their Christian bookstore is up to them. It is a book about Christians.