If your first impression of Leesa Cross-Smith makes you believe she’s a sentimental woman who loves God, her husband, and her children, a woman who loves tea, fruit-flavored lip glosses, and quiet snowy evenings, you wouldn’t be wrong. She is that woman. But if you read her writing, particularly her latest, So We Can Glow—a collection of short stories and flash fiction due out next week from Grand Central Publishing—you’ll think she’s rebellious, astute to the point of making you look away, and so brazenly sensual you may need to close the bedroom door for some privacy. She’s that woman, too.
It’s that complexity—still waters that run deep, if you’ll excuse the cliche—that makes her work so damn readable. I interviewed Leesa back in 2018 about her first novel Whiskey & Ribbons, and our conversation then circled around race and grief, religion and faith. It was enlightening and easygoing, but as I prepared for this second interview I knew things would be different. More charged. More…horny. The stories in So We Can Glow are vibrating with energy, power, and sex.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one of these forty-two moving pieces is the most memorable, or which you think is the funniest. And if you’re a woman, I’ll leave it up to you to find yourself in these stories—as a teenager or married with kids, single or in a love triangle, or maybe, in an uncomplicated thruple. You’ll be reminded of hot summer nights, crushes that blossomed, and the music that made you who you are today.
Leesa Cross-Smith is a co-founder, with her husband Loran, of the much beloved online journal, WhiskeyPaper, which is currently on hiatus, and the author of a third book, her debut collection of short stories, called Every Kiss A War. It was my pleasure to speak with her again, this time about desire, her writing tic, and the inherent power of women.
The Rumpus: There are forty-two stories here! How far back are these stories spanning?
Leesa Cross-Smith: I wrote some of them as far back as 2010 and 2011. At the same time I was working on my first short story collection, Every Kiss a War, I was trying to write as many stories as I could, then I just kept writing. Some are new and some are old!
Rumpus: Would you say that you prefer the flash form? Short stories? The novel?
Cross-Smith: It’s hard to say. I do so much more planning when I write a novel. It’s all-consuming and I can’t think about anything else. I wouldn’t say I have a preference because I do love writing novels. But there’s something stubborn and defiant about writing short stories because people are often like, I can’t read short stories because I don’t get them. And something about that makes me be like, I’m just gonna write a book of short stories.
So, it’s hard for me to say which one I like better. I like both. And I like going back and forth between both.
Rumpus: I have a guess about which of these is a central story, but I want to know which of these is a central story. Can I guess first?
Cross-Smith: Yes, of course.
Rumpus: Forgive me, names keep slipping, but it’s the story with the two teenage girls coping with the death of one of the girl’s sister, which is not a spoiler.
Cross-Smith: “Winona Forever.”
Rumpus: Yes! “Winona Forever.” Duh! That felt like a central story to me.
Cross-Smith: My agent and I went back and forth and spent a long time on the order of the stories, focusing on things like length and themes, grouping them accordingly, spacing them out. And yeah, that one does capture the heart of the stories—that and a bit later there’s “Out of the Strong, Something Sweet,” both centered on teenage girls.
I’ll also say “Crepuscular,” which might’ve been the first as well as one of the longer stories that I wrote to put in this collection. I was reading it so much while I was doing promotion for Every Kiss a War and it really encompasses obsession and a character wanting to do this wild thing just because she wants to. And that idea encompasses a lot of the collection: doing this wild thing.
And when it comes to wild things, I’m not like that at all! I’m not very impulsive… I’m a planner and I’ve been with the same man for twenty-five years. But I like to express that side of me that doesn’t come out when I’m meal planning or driving the carpool.
I would also choose “The Great Barrier Reef Is Dying but So Are We,” because it sets up this idea of complicated relationships. We have our natural desires within the domestic everyday of our lives, especially women. But I like you pulling out “Winona Forever.” It’s a sticky, horny story!
Rumpus: Can we talk about the sticky horniness? I kept thinking, Am I supposed to be this turned on? During this whole book? Uh! Can you talk about the dynamics of sex here? And how you’re using them in the stories?
Cross-Smith: There’s a line from another story in this collection where I write about women being “brilliant, horny, misunderstood.” I’m definitely not scared to write about sex. I’m trying to be realistic. And it’s just a part of people’s lives, if they choose to have it be a part of their lives! It’s not like I always intend to write about it, but stories without sexual tension have a tendency to bore me. It doesn’t have to be erotica or this extreme thing, because even Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with Elizabeth and Darcy—it’s their attraction to each other and the possibility… it’s the sexual tension that keeps me reading.
When I’m writing I’m not thinking, I want to make this story horny, but I’m thinking about my own experiences and how in high school me and girlfriends would write lists of the boys we wanted to kiss… that kind of stuff. To write a story completely void of sex would be bizarre for me because I… just don’t think like that.
Rumpus: I knew that Alvin Park, our mutual friend (and an associate editor at Little Fiction) was reading So We Can Glow about a week or so ago, so I asked him to give me a question. Here it is:
Leesa, so much of your writing holds this sort of aching desire at its core. Desire in romance, yes, but also desire for friendship, family, and human connection in general, always treated with nuance, empathy, and the greatest respect for every character involved. How do you approach writing that sense of desire, both in its physicality and emotion?
Cross-Smith: Aw, Alvin. What a superb question! I always try, as best as I can, to lay things bare. What does this person really want? What is this person really thinking when they look at someone? And so… I could have deep things sometimes, but other times it’s simply, “He looks really sexy there leaning against the counter.” Of course there are all these other things behind it, especially if you know each other and have a history together… but also he looks really beautiful standing there and we should take that in for a second.
I try to notice tiny things, the way I do when I’m reading or watching something. To focus on the tiny thing and be brutally honest about that tiny thing even if it makes the character sound a little weird or obsessive. There’s a story in this collection called “Pink Bubblegum and Flowers,” and she’s just bored and annoyed and she sees a guy working on the deck and decides, “I want that one,” and obsessing over him is her plan for the day until something else pops up. And that tells you what you need to know about that character.
I’m just really aware that every person I walk past has a rich and full inner life like I do. That’s why I sit down to write—the love of language and capturing those things and putting characters into wild situations and then trying to wiggle them out.
Rumpus: Just about all of the narrators are obsessed with something. Most people would say obsession is a negative thing, but I think you give obsession a full range.
Cross-Smith: It can have different meanings. There are, of course, people who destroy their lives because of an obsession, which is not the thing that I’m talking about. What I’m writing about in the collection is the same as those high school obsessions where everything was about boys—calling them, driving past their houses, waiting for them, borrowing their clothes because they smelled like them, writing their names over and over again. A collective obsession. It can be a small thing that snowballs… like Minnie in “The Great Barrier Reef is Dying and So Are We” is obsessed with this idea that her husband is in love with his ex-girlfriend and then suddenly there’s another guy… and she feels like it’s her turn… she has to do something. It can shift. But there are times it can be innocent, too. In a way when it comes to obsession… it’s nostalgia for me, looking back at being a teenage girl.
Rumpus: That’s a beautiful segue, because I wanted to ask you about nostalgia. You invoke nostalgia a lot a lot in your writing. And what I’ve found most of the time is that it’s hard to avoid sentimentality and cliche, but I think you manage it over and over again! How do you avoid the cheesiness of nostalgia?
Cross-Smith: In some of my old bios I would say I’m Southern and sentimental. I try not to have fear about those things and we live in such an anxious time, which could be said about most of human history, but I think most people would agree that right now is a very anxious time, so nostalgia is a safe space for me, a little compartment to think about a time and place when things were good. So the 80s, 90s is when I grew up and it came really naturally for me to incorporate that into the stories. I’m blessed to have so many positive memories about that time and from growing up. I don’t really worry about things being sentimental… it’s okay if that leaks in.
Rumpus: Craft-wise, there are quite a few very short pieces here, but each time you create a whole world within those pieces. In “All That Smoke Howling Blue,” a story about a woman in a relationship with two brothers that’s not quite a thruple, I felt like I knew how old these people were, what their childhoods were like, without you ever stating those things directly. So as a writer I’m wondering, are you going back and layering these details in or do your first drafts come out with this much richness?
Cross-Smith: I got a letter from a student in college about that story that said, “What is this about? I don’t get it,” which was really funny to me because I felt like I’d done my job. With that story specifically, it did come to me all in one piece. People will sometimes say, “These are vignettes or this is a sketch of story,” which is their opinion, but to me it’s a complete story. I didn’t go back and add anything—if anything I went back and deleted things because that’s all that story is and needs to be: a scene made into a story, a big world made small.
I wanted to look around, notice things, and then have the story gone like smoke: quickly, almost like a dream. You should be like, “What was that?”
Rumpus: Several characters from the beginning of the book come back, I’d say to bookend the whole collection; is that also something you and your agent and editor did together?
Cross-Smith: We did! There were several versions of this collection. We would go back and look for connections. I ended up finding even more stories I wanted to write. There’s “Chateau Marmont, Champagne, Chanel,” that was at first one story and then I spent some time and I realized I wasn’t done. I needed to talk about these characters more, like that first story was only their beginning, so I wrote another called “California, Keep Us.” “Winona Forever” came first and then I asked myself, Who did those girls grow up to be? What is their relationship like now? And that became “Cloud Report.”
Rumpus: There were a million little descriptions that I loved. I wrote down one that stuck with me. It was about the way a man smelled which was, “…six straight hours under a white-puck sun,” I was like, YES, I KNOW WHAT THAT SMELLS LIKE. Does this stuff really just come out of your brilliant head?
Cross-Smith: Wow, thank you, Monet! I do try to have layers to my descriptions. Not too-too many, but layers. I love smells. It’s my strongest sense. I’m pretty sure someone else has mentioned this to me before about my writing, a tic I don’t even know I’m doing as much! But I always end up describing how someone smells… it’s like I can’t help myself.
Rumpus: The last story, “A Girl Has Her Secrets,” has one of my favorite lines: “You never have to apologize for anything feminine or for putting on your best red lipstick only to stay in the house, only to look out your window like William Carlos Williams’s young housewife—that crushed fallen leaf.”
The collection is so beautifully centered on women who, whether or not they know it, have power.
Cross-Smith: Whew, yeah. Writing about women in all different colors of what being a woman looks like and what femininity looks like comes really easy to me because I have a lot of ideas in my head. And it’s one of those things where I am who I am… but I feel like there are parts of my life where I was a different woman! Even if it was just a phase where I wore less/more eye makeup or lipstick or had a different haircut. That line from “A Girl Has Her Secrets” is about not being apologetic and stems from the fact that women apologize so much. For existing! For having their periods! For being tired! For having children or not having children! We end up apologizing for things that it never crosses a man’s mind to apologize for, things that make him who he is. So that was a really punchy way of saying you don’t have to apologize—if you don’t want to. And even with that… I’m just one woman and that’s my unapologetic opinion on it. Absolutely.
Photograph of Leesa Cross-Smith courtesy of Leesa Cross-Smith.