In her second novel (and fourth book) This Close to Okay, Leesa Cross-Smith continues to prove why Roxane Gay called her “a consummate storyteller.” As a big fan, my advice when it comes to reading work by Cross-Smith is to never, ever assume you know how things will end.
This Close to Okay opens with a tense scene: Tallie is driving home across a bridge on a rainy night when she sees a man, Emmett, standing on the edge. It’s clear to Tallie that he’s considering taking his life. She rushes in to intervene, but instead of calling for help or dropping the man off with someone else, Tallie makes the decision to bring Emmett to her own house for the weekend and to keep from him that she’s a licensed therapist. It’s the first in a series of events that had me putting the book down to pace around my living room, because Tallie isn’t the only one withholding information. With narration switching back and forth between Tallie and Emmett, the reader is stuck in the middle, knowing both too much and not enough.
Leesa’s most enviable talent, if I had to pick just one, is her ability to write good, well-meaning characters who make big mistakes. As I got to know Tallie and Emmett, I found myself rooting for them even as I pushed up my judgmental glasses. Before we began our ”official” conversation, Leesa was kind enough to let me spend a few minutes debriefing all the twists and turns of This Close to Okay, so there wouldn’t be any spoilers in the interview and still, they were difficult to avoid. In this way, it’s a hard book to talk about with people who haven’t read it yet, which is me saying, HINT HINT: Go read it!
Leesa Cross Smith is the author of four books, including So We Can Glow, a short story collection that I hold dear. Along with her husband, Loran, she is the cofounder of the much beloved Whiskeypaper, which is currently on hiatus (HINT, HINT, Leesa) and she is, like me, in love with International Kpop Sensation USB Hub, BTS.
Below, we chat about why Leesa likes putting her characters in metaphorical escape rooms, ageism in the literary world, and how This Close to Okay was the hardest book to write.
Rumpus: Where did this story begin?
Leesa Cross-Smith: Maybe in 2015 or 2016, I made a note in my phone that just said, ”Man on the edge of a bridge, woman convinces him not to jump and takes him home.” And then it was over the process of years that it became this story. I loved the idea of strangers meeting and figuring out a little bit of life together, and sharing their secrets in an intense situation. It was born out of that one image, which happens to me a lot with my stories and books.
Rumpus: We switch between Tallie and Emmett telling the story. Who came first?
Cross-Smith: It started with Tallie for sure. With her seeing him. I’d been reading a lot of books that weren’t my typical read, that were really quick and you-totally-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen-next style of writing and it made me think, What if I don’t approach this book like literary fiction, like I usually do, but more like an action movie where you see lots of things happening before you can get a grip on what it means. So, I was trying something different with This Close to Okay anyway. It started with Tallie, but once I had a clearer picture of what I was doing I knew I was going to go back and forth, so there would be so much unknown and the reader would get to know these characters at the same time the characters are getting to know each other.
Rumpus: There’s a running parenthetical that happens, from Emmett, and inside those parenthetical asides the language is full of sense-oriented details and images, which is what I call “Leesa Cross-Smith magic” because your work often has that kind of attention to the world of our senses. I’m curious about how you see this working in this novel?
Cross-Smith: I love this. Thank you! I wanted the reader to wonder, What is this? What is he doing? He’s doing something different. We may not know why he’s doing it, but a lot of people can relate to trying to root yourself during a period of great anxiety. It may not even be clear in the middle of the book why he’s doing it, but by the end of the book, it will make sense.
Rumpus: Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this kind of attention to detail is often attributed to women. When you give it to Emmett, it does challenge how we’re seeing him as a whole character, because he’s doing not-so-nice things but then these details humanize him in a way that made me sympathize with him.
Cross-Smith: It’s true; it’s not very expected. I hope it does humanize him, even as he does something that causes the reader to want to write him off. Both of these characters are keeping things from each other that could make you want to cancel both of them. [Laughs]
Cross-Smith: Because she did this and he did that, but I always write characters who really mess up a lot, because we all mess up a lot.
Rumpus: It’s funny you say that, because I was thinking about Whiskey & Ribbons while reading this book—how if you told someone the basic premise of your two novels, most people would say, “No way this can work out in a positive way.” Like, Whiskey & Ribbons is about a woman who falls in love with her tragically deceased husband’s best friend. [Makes a buzzer noise] Get them out of here, but I absolutely fell in love with those characters and believed in their love. And now we have this scenario here, so now I’m convinced you like working in the gray. The dark gray.
Cross-Smith: Right. I can’t really explain why. I just try to make sure the women I’m writing are as complicated as possible. Just allow them messiness and darkness, and then finding out who’s still there when the dust settles. Is Tallie still there for herself when everything settles? It interests me, and keeps me coming back to get the work done. I love a complicated person and a complicated relationship. But only on the page, I should emphasize. In real life, I don’t know how well I deal with that.
Rumpus: This is novel number two, right? Can you tell me how you think you’re growing within the novel form?
Cross-Smith: I can’t really say, because when it comes to This Close to Okay, novel two, it was the hardest book I’ve ever written.
Cross-Smith: But I can speak to novel three, which I’ve finished and turned in to my editor, because that book was so much easier for me to write—so I know it’s getting easier. Half-Blown Rose is novel number three, but it is book number five and I’m working on number six now. And feeling like yes, it’s getting easier for me now. But it wasn’t easier for This Close to Okay.
Rumpus: Why was this the hardest?
Cross-Smith: I have no idea, Monet. No clue. I have labored over this and talked to the Lord about it, because I’ve been really free knowing I won’t have these feelings with another book. I went through all that and I know those feelings are done. For some reason, I went through something while writing this book, and I don’t know why. It could’ve been because it was my second novel or it could’ve been because I was working on two books at one time—this one and my second short story collection, So We Can Glow—or it could’ve been all of those things. I really can’t say right now. Maybe one day in the future. But when I finished… I thought, okay that’s done, like a through-the-fire situation and it didn’t happen again. I’m already through another book and onto another one.
Cross-Smith: If I figure it out, I’ll come back and tell you. [Laughter]
Rumpus: Okay, deal.
Let’s talk about the shape of the novel, in particular the compression of time. Whiskey & Ribbons takes place over a weekend, and this book is between Thursday night until Sunday. How do those constrictions of time function?
Cross-Smith: In Whiskey & Ribbons, I was forcing two characters to confront what they’d been actively avoiding. With This Close to Okay, I knew that in order for Tallie to be able to feel comfortable doing this, I needed her to feel like she had to distract him—just for the weekend; it wasn’t something that could go on for long because she had to get back to work on Monday morning. He’s going to have to figure out what he has to do. He can’t live with her forever… they can’t forever stay the way they are over that weekend. It’s my version of an escape room. I do that with my books.
Rumpus: The last time I interviewed you (because that’s what we do), I asked our friend, Alvin, to contribute and he had a brilliant question about desire, but not just romantic desire—about desire as a whole. In this book there’s a strong undercurrent of sexual desire that some readers may find hard to grapple with. Tallie and Emmett have enough going on, and yet!
Cross-Smith: Agreed. It’s another complication. So much of that desire is happening more in Tallie’s brain than in Emmett’s, but I knew that it would turn a lot of people cold and they wouldn’t like it. Okay! I still allowed her to have her own inner thoughts, without monitoring from me. I don’t censor my character’s thoughts because someone might not like her. I can’t write like that; she has to be a full person. I let her fantasies about him trot around in her head for a second. But I also want to add that the comfortability and the intensity of the weekend… it’s not so wild for me to think they wouldn’t welcome an escape from everything else that’s going on.
Rumpus: Was there a section that was difficult to write?
Cross-Smith: A spoiler?
Rumpus: Okay, okay! I also wondered about research rabbit holes.
Cross-Smith: I considered going to school to be a therapist for a few years, but the other rabbit holes are also spoilers!
Rumpus: Oh dang it! I’ve decided this book should not be spoiled, if it can be helped. Okay. What did your revision process look like? And/or how is drafting different from revision?
Cross-Smith: I just keep writing and rewriting until I get there. I show it to my husband and dig back in. I show it to my agent and dig back in. When I’m drafting, I’m pedal down, nonstop. When I’m revising, I’m forced to take time because other people are reading it… and that’s a good thing, that distance, so I can get back in it and finish properly.
Rumpus: With all the books you’re working on, you’ve found success at an age when many would’ve told other writers to give up. Ageism cuts both ways in the writing community. Either you’re too young to have anything to write about, or success after thirty (and all those thirty for thirty lists) somehow means success came late.
Cross-Smith: Right. This is something that never “pressured” me, because everyone is different and I do feel very blessed not to compare myself to other people often. I started submitting stories after both of my kids were in school. I was in my early thirties then. I am in my early forties now. I’m too late for a thirty under thirty or a thirty-five under thirty-five, and honestly, I didn’t even know those things existed back when I was that age. They weren’t on my radar, or on my list of goals. I really do just mind my business about that stuff. Congrats to everyone on those things! I’m fortysomething, minding my business, about to send my first baby off to college, about to launch into promotion for my fifth book coming next summer. Everyone does different things at different times. Doesn’t make a blip in my brain, honestly. Like, who has the time?
Rumpus: You spoke a little, earlier, about writing this book less from a literary fiction standpoint and more like genre fiction, in particular like a thriller. We’ve spoken before about how the current trend of marketing can limit books by categorizing them into neat boxes. Then, it was how Whiskey & Ribbons could be siloed into Christian Lit or Black Literary Fiction and why neither of those is the whole story, and now, with This Close To Okay, I think you cross those lines even more.
Cross-Smith: Yeah, I just consider those labels not my business at all. My team at the publishing company, my agent, they can deal with that stuff because that’s much more their side of things. I can easily say I write literary fiction, but yes, it can be “successful” enough to be called “commercial” fiction and it’s “contemporary” fiction, too. Some of the characters are Christian and some aren’t, and some of the topics are thrilling, and a lot of the characters are Black… a lot of them are women.
I don’t think about the labels at all when I’m writing because they don’t mean anything to me. But I understand they might, to some people! But also, I refuse to be boxed in. I write books, period! Right now, they’re fiction! But maybe one day, I’ll write a nonfiction book about how much I love BTS! *finger heart*
Photograph of Leesa Cross-Smith by Leesa Cross-Smith.