The Rumpus Book Club chats with Leigh Camacho Rourks about debut story collection, Moon Trees and Other Orphans (Black Lawrence Press, October 2019), writing flawed characters with tenderness, finding humanity in violence, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include María Sonia Cristoff, Jenn Shapland, Paul Lisicky, Samantha Irby, Tracy O’Neill, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club chat was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to the Rumpus Book Club chat with Leigh Camacho Rourks about her debut story collection, Moon Trees and Other Orphans!
Leigh Camacho Rourks: Hi!
Frank G. Karioris: Hello!
Marisa: Thanks for joining us tonight!
Leigh Camacho Rourks: So thrilled to be here. I was worried all day somehow I would get the time wrong or some other catastrophe.
Frank G. Karioris: Really excited to hear more about the book, and just to say “hi” and fangirl a little bit about the amazing Leigh!
Marisa: To get started, can you tell us a bit about how the collection came together, for you in terms of the writing process and also how it landed at Black Lawrence Press?
Leigh Camacho Rourks: A bunch of it came from my MFA thesis (quite a few years and a degree ago), but it took a while to really understand the whole work, to figure out how the stories fit together. I started entering it into contests maybe two years before Black Lawrence Press chose it for the St. Lawrence Book Award.
I was a finalist a few times in other contests, so when I got the call—that was amazing. I actually found out going into see George Saunders talk. I missed the talk, heh. And stood outside the venue, alone, on a dark New Orleans street crying and calling people.
At least one of the stories started way before then—it took almost twenty years to get that story to be something I was proud of. And at least one story was written maybe only a year before the manuscript won the award. So, the collection spans a lot of years!
Marisa: Wow! That must’ve been very exciting, and validating, that phone call.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: Oh my god, there was some phone tag, during which I thought maybe?! It was a nail-biter of a night.
Marisa: How did you decide on an order for the stories? Did the order change from the manuscript you submitted that won to the final, published book? (I’m especially interested in whether “Moon Trees” was always the opener.)
Leigh Camacho Rourks: The order didn’t change from acceptance to print, but it did change quite a few times before that (and was submitted to different contests during that time in very different forms).
There is so much advice out there on how to order a collection, all of it confusing to me! “Best story first” is one people like, but—and I hope this is okay to say—I like all my stories (or all of the ones I see as done and ready). Getting there is a process, but once I’m there, I’m not ranking them.
The final order came two ways—the first was asking myself what the book is really about for me, and that turned out to be love (or need of love, lack of love, fear of love, what have you). And no story more clearly was that for me than “Moon Trees.” And then I sort of lined up last lines, titles, and first lines and looked for the song.
Marisa: “Moon Trees” seems to guide the reader into the collection; it really sets the stage for the tenor of the book, if that makes any sense.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I’m so glad to hear that. They say that the first pages of a book teach you how to read it—and I guess despite writing crazy bayou murder stuff, I want people to read with tenderness, which I think “Moon Trees” at least tries to have.
Marisa: I think there is lots of tenderness in there with the murder and crime!
Leigh Camacho Rourks: That’s good to hear!
Marisa: Do you have a favorite story? And I also love to ask, which was the hardest story—which one took twenty years to get right?
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I don’t know that I have a favorite story, maybe “Naturallique” because it’s such a weird little nugget that no journal wanted but that I was (am) proud of.
And “Ghosts” took twenty years!
Marisa: Oh, “Naturallique” is one of my favorites! Those journals were wrong.
Frank G. Karioris: In speaking of tenderness, I wonder about a sort of related idea/action/feeling, which is intimacy and friendship. Throughout the stories these relations/experiences seem to take more of a backseat. How do you see these traits/characters/characteristics in these stories? Or, maybe, as you noted above, part of it is to provide space to see the lack of these?
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I think that’s the heart of these people; they are social orphans in one way or another. They long for connections, but, well, making them is hard. And life without love (friendship, family, romance, what have you) is a dangerous place.
Marisa: I’m curious what draws you to the “crazy bayou murder stuff”? (Which I’m totally into, fwiw.)
Leigh Camacho Rourks: Oh man, I have always been sort of murder-y in the stories I tell myself. When I was a teen in South Florida I would look into canals wondering what critters were in them and what it would be like to look down and find a body, so some of its just sort of my imagination.
But I have also been around violence (not murder, of course). My friends were often brawlers. And, well, Miami and Louisiana felt dangerous to me a lot of my youth. People talking about hating Cubans. People talking about hating each other. It stains you.
I’m also super curious about death in a clinical sense. Bodies fascinate me.
Marisa: How close do you feel to these characters? As you noted, many are social orphans of one kind or another, but it felt to me like you, the author, had affection for them.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: Oh I love them. It may be unhealthy. They are dear to me.
Marisa: Is it strange to have them out in the world now, in the hands of readers?
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I have been terrified. I don’t need other people to love them—they are flawed and some do monstrous things. But I hope people see them, see their flawed humanity, because if I didn’t do that right—it feels exploitive if I messed that up.
Marisa: Somehow, mostly they don’t seem monstrous. Only a few of them seem really bent on causing others pain or harm… mostly they kind of happen into the violence, or at least it felt that way to me. They are deeply human.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: It’s one of my big life questions—what makes us do things we wouldn’t normally do—what pushes us—changes us (for good or ill)… I’m convinced any of us are capable of horrible and wonderful things, but if that’s true, what pushes us one way or the other?
Marisa: I completely agree (about everyone being capable of both horror and wonder). That’s such a big, important question—what pushes us in one direction.
I’m also curious whether you think there can be redemption for those who go the way of horrible things? In the book, redemption wasn’t emphasized. Which felt very real to me.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I guess it depends on what you mean by redemption. I don’t think all things can or should be forgiven, but I do think you can re-find your humanity if you have lost it or thrown it out.
Frank G. Karioris: This is partly why I was asking about friendship, as there seem points throughout some of the stories where that pivot point comes up and the outstretched hand simply isn’t there. Which is really difficult. Both in reading and in real life of course.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: Yeah, I think for me that missing hand is a real part of the equation. We need, desperately need each other.
Frank G. Karioris: Absolutely! And so, maybe, really, what I mean(t) is: Damn, did I want someone (anyone) to get that hand, to see it just for a second.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I think that sort of deep abandonment or loneliness is my biggest fear, and it’s like a toothache you have to probe with your tongue; I keep writing it.
Frank G. Karioris: Even in the story with the sister, where a form of kinship (both blood and otherwise) is a core piece of the story, the hand offered is… well, lets say it isn’t the warmest hand ever offered!
Leigh Camacho Rourks: Yeah, maybe that’s another reason I like “Naturallique.” It’s one of the few stories I have ever written where the hand is really and truly there (though it is also held back some).
Frank G. Karioris: For sure. It is a beginning. I think the toothache metaphor is a really good one for this, as a note.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: As a writer, I recognize that in many ways these stories are little plays where I move things around to try to better understand my own anxieties!
Frank G. Karioris: Indeed! And, in truth, full disclosure, what I study/write-about is so deeply intertwined with friendship and sociality as form(s) of intimacy. So really, my question is asking about my own anxieties!
Marisa: Who are the writers you’ve been influenced by, Leigh? The stories here are so unique—really unlike what I’ve read before.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I am all over the place. As a kid I read a lot of Elmore Leonard and Dick Francis, and a bunch of science fiction. So I think they are bound to be in there. Zora Neale Hurston and Tom Franklin were a big part of my life while I was writing a bunch of these stories. Benjamin Percy and Bonnie Jo Campbell were huge influences—I studied under them and adore their work.
And thank you. I think there is another sort of influence in there: the storytelling traditions I come from. Both Louisianan and Cuban cultures are very story-teller heavy. I come from fantastical storytellers, the sort where you can’t quite tell what is real and what is myth.
Marisa: I think there is a feeling of oral storytelling to this book, for sure. And I see the science fiction influence, and also maybe some fairy tale-feeling elements?
Frank G. Karioris: I definitely second seeing the storytelling aspect!
Leigh Camacho Rourks: Oh man, I love fairytales. My mom gave me Grimm’s fairy tales when I was super young. I just read them over and over and over.
Marisa: We spoke with Kimberly Lojewski about Worm Fiddling Nocturne in the Key of a Broken Heart, last year; have you read that collection? I think you’d love it.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I haven’t! Putting it on my list now.
Marisa: When I tried to think about this book’s “relatives,” that collection came to mind first.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: That makes me happy. I absolutely need to read it.
Marisa: What are you reading/watching/listening to right now? Anything forthcoming that you’re especially excited about?
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I just started Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias and I am reading this amazing series about a doctor to vampires (no lie) by Vivian Shaw. I’m rewatching Futurama and just finished Carnival Row. I loved it. And I am listening to Lizzo (like everyone else).
I’m really excited just how much diversity is coming at me book-wise.
Marisa: I hadn’t heard of Carnival Row, but it looks amazing!
Leigh Camacho Rourks: Oh yeah, its a lot of fun. My weirdo brain needs a lot of pretty things to look at and it is really beautifully shot.
Marisa: We’re almost out of time—thank you so much for joining us, and sharing some of your weirdo brain! Any book touring plans in the near future?
Leigh Camacho Rourks: I’ll be at the Tampa Bay Festival of Reading this weekend and I’ll be in Oregon in January, then New Orleans for the Tennessee Williams Festival. And you can find me at AWP in San Antonio this March, in the throng!
Leigh Camacho Rourks: This was a lot of fun. Thank you for that.
Marisa: Well, I look forward to meeting you at AWP! Less looking forward to the throngs…
Leigh Camacho Rourks: LOL! Right?
Frank G. Karioris: Thank you so much for this wonderful book, Leigh! So wonderfully written and just impressive as all get out.
Leigh Camacho Rourks: Thank you, Frank, and thanks for coming!
Marisa: Yes, thanks, Frank! It’s always nice when members join in the conversation. Have a good night everyone!
Photograph of Leigh Camacho Rourks by Lety Renoir.