This Off-Kilter Triangle: A Conversation with Leah Hampton
In Leah Hampton’s own words, F*ckface and Other Stories is a collection about “Appalachia, corpses, ecoanxiety, and smart women.” So much can be added to this list: honeybee collapse, jobs, “butt stuff,” cancer, wildfires, urban elitism, industrialization, tender masculinity. The alchemy of organizing a short story collection has always been fascinating to me; people talk of a sensibility or voice, linked stories, story cycles, and so on. F*ckface accumulates meaning in a sedimentary manner, gathering layer upon layer of fragmented, crystallized emotion to form a glittering whole.
What these stories most obviously share, of course, is place. Much has been written about it elsewhere, but in short, Hampton’s Appalachia is one filled with beauty and danger, awe and dread, its inhabitants painted in all their complexity with heartbreaking, painstaking nuance. Another thread woven through these stories I particularly love is that of work: a park ranger is driven to the end of her tether by the dead bodies she finds in sublime nature; a firefighter battles wildfires as his soon-to-be ex-wife empties out his house; a grocery store clerk faces the loss of the best friend she’s in love with while trying to figure out what to do with the dead bear in the parking lot. As Hampton puts it, these are not stories of the “go to the lake house and think about feelings” genre, but rather, working people grappling with the economic, emotional, and environmental challenges of their daily lives. The forces that buffet these characters are formidable, and the prognosis, more often than not, is bleak. But amidst the darkness live startling moments of grace, acts of unexpected kindness, and expressions of unlikely empathy.
It was my great pleasure to speak to Leah about her writing process, how she gets people to tell them about their jobs, the Appalachian “Well,” and listening to characters when they show up in your living room.
The Rumpus: I wanted to open by asking you about the epigraph for F*ckface, the Wendell Berry quote: “You cannot save the land apart from the people, or the people apart from the land.” What does that quote mean to you and your writing?
Leah Hampton: Wendell Berry is an iconic figure in Appalachian literary circles and he’s very much about farming and back to the land movements, as part of the generation of writers from the 40s and 50s who started that movement in that area. I knew that I was writing about symbiotic relationships between the environment and people and it seemed right to have this quintessential iconic Appalachian figure who summed it up in one line. Like here’s all these people with problems and you can’t save them unless you also ask the question about—like you can’t save a person who has breast cancer unless you ask yourself a question about the chemical plant in that town that is a cancer cluster, you know?
Rumpus: Which brings me to the question of place, something that’s clearly important to you in this collection. Something I find so powerful about your depiction of rural Appalachia is the way the natural landscape resists the romanticism of the perhaps urban gaze—the way in which nature is both beautiful and sublime, but also deadly, and brutal, in a very real way. Could you talk about that?
Hampton: The short answer is what the book’s trying to do is say: here’s the landscape, quit fucking with it. Because that’s only going to come back on you. That’s a lot bigger than just Appalachian communities. But it’s important to talk about that problem when you’re talking about Appalachia because you’re talking about the oldest place in the world geologically, where all the coal and timber and energy comes from—the Eastern seaboard lights stay on because of this region—and it’s been a place that’s been violated. It was really important to me to feminize the space, to push against the stereotypes of the place, which are often very masculine, very “early frontier.” I just don’t buy into that. If your stereotypes are right-wing, I wanted people see that it’s not just masculine and it’s not just Trump country. At the same time, if you’re thinking about it from a more leftist perspective, I also wanted to tell people not to hug the trees. Like, leave the trees alone.
Rumpus: Which brings me to the animals—can we talk about them? The dead bear in front of the grocery store in “F*ckface,” the red squirrel hoarding nuts in the woodpile in “Boomer,” the fawn hit by a car in “Parkway.” And the sow in “Meat,” that was so shocking when they find her alive after the fire, and then in the next line they barbecue and eat her. I eat meat all the time, and yet still, that was somehow incredibly violent. You get emotionally attached to that sow because she survived the fire, and that makes the ending all the more crushing.
Hampton: Yes, and that was about how desensitized people in the meat industry are to the whole thing because they’ve had to kill so many of them. Animals, yes, there’s the bear, there’s bees, there’s frogs, there’s a sow. I feel like animals have a character and can be characters. Maybe that’s part of my brain that’s more magical realist, but I really like thinking about animals as if they’re, well, people in a story. I mean, I talk to animals. I talk to the possums on my porch. I refer to the bears in the woods behind my house as my neighbors, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. I think everybody talks like that. So, I felt like that was a reflection of this area, really any rural area, and I wanted the characters to have those relationships. I like amplifying animals’ experiences so that they’re equal to human experiences.
Rumpus: Something else I noticed and really enjoyed was that these are workplace stories, in that they’re about people doing jobs, which is somehow very satisfying.
Hampton: I’m writing about jobs all the time. I mean people have jobs, I don’t understand the whole “let’s go to the lake house and having feelings” genre. 99.9 percent of people, if their marriage is ending or they have cancer, they still have to go to work! And it’s a third of their life. So, thank you for noticing that. There are all these things I feel like are part of our daily existence, like periods, and going to work, and animals if you live in a rural place, and those things are really important. One of my favorite Appalachian writer quotes is by Mary Lee Settle, who’s from West Virginia. She was interviewed by the Paris Review a few years ago and the interviewer asked her: “Other writers admire your work so much, why do you think you’re not more popular or well known?” Mary Lee Settle takes a breath and goes: “Because I don’t write about being vaguely uncomfortable in Connecticut.” Isn’t that perfect? And seriously I want that tattooed on my arm. Do not write about being vaguely uncomfortable in Connecticut.
Rumpus: And the work in your stories itself is so specific. How did you go about researching all these different jobs?
Hampton: For “Boomer,” I talked to firefighters, I read a lot of local news stories and watched tons of videos—because there were tons of firefighters filming the wildfires, even though the news wasn’t covering it—and just listened to how they talked to each other. The story “Devil” took me months of research as well, because I had to figure out what rank this guy would be in the Air Force, where he would be stationed, and what kinds of tasks he would have. For that I talked to people who’d been in the first Gulf War, and my father’s been in the Air Force so I remember seeing him doing Air Force stuff. I just pay attention. Like the husband in “Twitchell,” the way that he has everything in his pockets because he’s a house inspector? We had an inspector come inspect our house when we bought it, and I was fascinated by how many pockets he had in his pants.
I do a lot of old-school library research, where I dig into archives, read newspaper articles, or I get books on things. But as far as talking to people, I tend not to say I’m working on a story, because they don’t tell you the same things when you do that. Whereas if you just say: “How come you have so many pockets in your pants?” You know. And then he’ll just empty them, and be like, this is the pocket knife my grandfather gave me, and this is the pen I always use when I’m correcting police forms, and so on. I just try to be really casual with it.
Rumpus: That makes me wonder about where stories start for you, and how they develop. Does it start by noticing a guy with lots of pockets, or are you already working on a story and say, looking for a character to fill it, when you happen to spot the pocket guy?
Hampton: The stories that come quickly and most easily, it’s when I overhear someone say something or I witness some kind of image that I know is a really interesting thing for someone to say or do. It’s like a rolled-up parchment and I just start unrolling it. I try really hard—because I’m such a control freak in my real life—I try really hard not to push the story in any direction. I try to just listen, and figure out, okay, that is a really interesting line of dialogue, who would say it or what would be the response to that? And it slowly unravels. “F*ckface” is a good example. That story originally started because I knew somebody who lost a hand, and began wondering, in a place like this, how does someone respond to seeing that for the first time? Then this random nineteen-year-old girl just showed up, who worked at a supermarket, who was freaked out by the woman with one hand. But then I followed her, and that led to a totally different story.
Rumpus: When did the dead bear that opens that story show up in your process?
Hampton: The bear shows up towards the end of writing the first draft. I kind of wrote that one from end to beginning the first time around. While I was writing it, there had been an incident on one of the college campuses nearby. You often have dead bears run over, you see them on the side of the road, and somebody told me that there had been one on campus. It just struck me as being such a sad moment, stumbling across a bear carcass. I was working on the story and someone told me about this roadkill, and I thought, of course, of course this nineteen-year-old girl named Pretty would have to deal with a bear carcass. For me that’s a lesson: if I just relax, these magical fictional people just show up in my house and start talking to me, and if I don’t push the conversation, my brain will take me in these crazy directions.
Rumpus: So you don’t have a sense of “plot” when you begin, or do any outlining?
Hampton: No, I find that stops me. I often know how something ends. Not always though, maybe half the time. And then it’s a matter of getting there. Maybe why I prefer short stories is plot, is the emotional response to whatever’s happening to that person. It’s not about any action that anybody takes, really. Because if you think about plot in formal Greek tragedy, the point of no return is two seconds before the short story starts. You wouldn’t have a short story if that moment hasn’t already happened, if the mistakes haven’t already been made. I saw Colm Tóibín speak once, and he said that a short story is a thing—a room or situation—and then there’s a mouse. So a thing and then another thing. And when I think about all the stories I love, that’s what they’re doing. This off-kilter triangle, where you’re pulling to see where the hypotenuse is going to be. That’s what’s so interesting about the form.
Rumpus: During one of your events, I heard you talk about “following your characters” until you “can’t help them anymore.” Could you say a little more about that?
Hampton: There’s a linguistic tick that we call the Appalachian “Well.” What it is, is someone says something that you don’t really know how to respond to, either you don’t know if they’re being passive aggressive, or they’re being a thirst trap, or it’s just too much information, or you’re angry with them, or you’re in love with them, and in any of those situations where you don’t know what to do, you do the same thing. You just go: “Well.” And it’s the most beautiful thing. It’s specific to this region and I love it.
Say you and the person whom you might cheat on your husband with are sitting at the Dairy Freeze, and one of you says, “I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately,” and the other goes: “Well.” And that’s it. The reserve of that, and also the confession of it—like, “I don’t know what to do right now,”—is what I meant by not being able to help these characters anymore. I think of characters as real people. When I say they show up in my house, they really do, and I sit with them for a while before writing about them. And I get to a point where I’m just like: “Well.” We think that this park ranger’s going to move down to the beach, I don’t know. I don’t have any more answers for you. I’m just as uncomfortable as you are right now. End of story. There it is. Here she is. Well. So that’s how I decide how I end something, that “Well” moment.
Rumpus: That is the perfect encapsulation of the feeling I get from your collection. “Well” could’ve been your title, if you could say it in that voice. The problem if it’s just written, it doesn’t really work.
Hampton: Yeah, it’s not the same; you have to be sitting there. You have to do the face; there’s a body energy to it. They don’t move, they don’t walk away, they don’t hug you. You’re just with them. I like those moments. When someone does that to you, they’re confessing they don’t know what to say to you. And it’s not a rejection. It’s an inclusive thing; it’s said with kindness, but they’re telling you: I don’t know where this goes from here, but I’ll sit with you. I’m not leaving the conversation. But I’m not pushing it anywhere either. And you just settle into a kind of silence with each other. That kind of energy is what I mean about how my stories end.
Rumpus: There is so much wisdom and emotional acuity in these stories, and perhaps I’m projecting, but I wonder if that comes in part from you having lived many different lives before becoming a writer. How do you think your prior careers and existences have shaped your writing? What’s it like being a debut author now?
Hampton: That’s so interesting because the criticism I have of my own writing is that there isn’t enough wisdom in it. Because I read so many other writers, like Elizabeth McCracken is a great example, who make these statements about the nature of being, just off-handedly, as you’re going through the supermarket with them, and you go, oh my god that’s so true! I always feel like I’m not doing that.
Rumpus: You are! I highlighted many lines of wisdom. I’ll email them to you.
Hampton: Maybe there’s a confidence that comes from writing when I’m older. I don’t feel the need to be belletristic, or feel the pressure to write a pretty sentence that will confuse someone. I don’t feel afraid of being seen in some way or misunderstood or whatever. All that kind of stuff falls away. I think I just really want to do it, tell the stories. I think if I was twenty-five, this would floor me. I would be so self-conscious or disappointed or over-the-top and narcissistic about it. In those moments I think to myself: this is not a community college classroom at 6 p.m. on a Friday night where everyone’s hostile and no one’s done the reading. If you can handle that, you can handle anything. So I guess I have a sense of proportion about writing and publishing. I don’t have expectations from the reader or from myself about whether this is going to be a big book or a little book or any of that kind of stuff. I don’t want to say I don’t understand imposter syndrome, but I think the older you get the less imposter syndrome you have. I’ve been in so many situations that are so much worse, so much more humiliating professionally, that a rejection from a journal is fine.
Photograph of Leah Hampton by Carrie Hachadurian.