Hygge, Racism, Womanhood: An Interview with Leesa Cross-Smith
The world is discovering Leesa Cross-Smith. At the end of 2020, NPR’s Book Concierge included her dazzling short story collection So We Can Glow in its list of best books of the year. Reviewer Jessica Reedy called Cross-Smith “a gifted storyteller” who had “written the most well-observed slices of girlhood and womanhood” she’d read “in years.” So We Can Glow was also included in the longlist for the 2021 Joyce Carol Oates Prize alongside The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Leave the World Behind by Rumann Alam, and Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, to name a few.
So We Can Glow isn’t Leesa Cross-Smith’s first published book, or even her second. It’s her third, and for longtime fans of her work, it’s a joy to see her audience expand both in the United States and abroad. As of this printing, her novel Whiskey & Ribbons has been translated into German and is forthcoming in Vietnamese.
On February 2, This Close to Okay, Cross-Smith’s fourth book, was released by Grand Central. I had the pleasure of chatting with Leesa over Zoom right before Christmas about This Close to Okay. We met bright and early while we were both still enjoying cups of hot tea. What follows is our candid conversation about weekends, hygge, suicide, racism, womanhood, and secrets.
Leesa Cross-Smith is a homemaker and writer from Kentucky. She is the author of So We Can Glow, Whiskey & Ribbons, Every Kiss A War, This Close to Okay and the forthcoming Half-Blown Rose from Grand Central Publishing. She is longlisted for the 2021 Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura: Good morning! (sips hot tea)
Leesa Cross-Smith: What it do? I’m so not a morning person. What about you?
UVM: I can be a morning person, but it’s not my natural inclination. For years, I would wake at 5 am to write at a coffee shop before work.
LCS: For how long would you write?
UVM: From about 5:30 to 7:20 am. Then I would walk to work from the coffee shop.
LCS: I would much rather stay up all night until 5 in the morning than actually get up at 5 in the morning.
UVM: So, you're a late-night writer.
LCS: Absolutely. I had to because when my babies were little, I had to wait for them to fall asleep.
UVM: So, one thing I loved about Whiskey & Ribbons, that I feel like also happens in This Close to Okay, is that it seems like the majority of the book occurs over the span of a weekend.
LCS: Yeah, I do that a lot.
UVM: Tell me about that. What's the draw to the weekend timeframe?
LCS: I think it's because it's this forced intimacy. In Whiskey & Ribbons even if they had been avoiding these feelings, and avoiding having these conversations, when they're snowed in together for the weekend, they have no choice. And then when it came to This Close to Okay, I just wanted that forced intimacy again in a super short amount of time. I love movies that do that, too, where it's just one day and you know they only have, like, 24 hours to get something done. I never get tired of that.
UVM: I don't think I'm going to spoil anything when I say that This Close to Okay deals with suicide. How did you know you were going to end up writing about suicide?
LCS: From the very beginning, I knew Emmett was going to be on the bridge ready to jump. My goal was to turn it into something bigger that felt more universal than just this guy on the bridge. Something everyone could relate to… shrinking it down to say we have all crappy days… simple as that, maybe it’s an impulsive thing. But maybe it’s something deeper and bigger too… we all have incidences that make us want to give up, but what does it look like when someone reaches out a hand to you to say you’re not alone, let me help you carry this burden, come with me… we can do this together? What then?
UVM: You have hygge operating in the book. We’re friends, so I know you are into coziness, so that was not a surprise for me. It was an interesting moment though, when Tallie mentions it.
LCS: They both love the coziness, for sure—Emmett and Tallie. She asks him if he's heard of hygge and he's like “no, but whatever this is called, I love it.”
UVM: How long have you been into hygge?
LCS: Since birth (laughs). The first time I ever saw a proper definition of it, years ago, it defined hygge as the absence of anything annoying. I love this sort of heaven you can create on earth where nothing is annoying. It’s a Danish and Norwegian word and especially over there, it stays so dark sometimes… these really dark, cold stretches. It makes sense to want to light candles and try to make it the best of a situation. That's what I usually try to do with my books. I have a horrible or wild thing happen then have the characters scrambling to hold their lives together because I feel that's how most people are living. Everyone has something going on and they're trying to keep going and be a person in the midst of all that.
UVM: I feel there are so many parallels between Whiskey & Ribbons and This Close to Okay. One of them that I found interesting is that in W&R we have characters whose skin color or race is mentioned but it's not the main focus. In This Close to Okay racism plays more of a role. How did you come to the decision to let the real world surface this way?
LCS: I knew I was going to have Emmett be from a certain part of Kentucky where it can't be ignored as much. Growing up whenever I saw or read books with Black characters, so often, being Black was the focus of the book. If there was a little girl, she was a slave. White people get to read books that are about other topics, but we're always fed these books that are just about race. As often as I can, I have my characters just living their lives. Since most of my characters are Black women in the South, it's going to come up from time to time because they live in those bodies. But they have a whole lot of other things going on. It’s certainly not the focus.
UVM: Did you know how this book would end when you were writing it, or did it surprise you?
LCS: (Laughs). It surprised me in a way! (Laughs). But I love it.
UVM: A thing I really appreciate is that you let your characters have a true gamut of emotions. Sometimes your characters in This Close to Okay get frustrated with each other or dismissive, but they're also capable of forgiveness. In unskilled hands, the dynamics would be unbelievable. It would feel rushed or glossed over, but you really pull it off so well.
LCS: Those are some very high compliments, thank you. Those are the sorts of things I hope read really easily on the page, but that I labored over for a really long time, especially because I knew that Tallie and Emmett were going to have conversations in which readers might be on either of their sides. Over the course of the weekend, they shared heart energy, so they have to actually go through tough conversations. I wanted to honor all that had happened, so I knew I had a lot of work cut out for me.
UVM: I don't know if the next point is actually a question, but it's a quality I’ve observed in your work. It's something Jessica Reedy of NPR nailed when she discussed your book So We Can Glow. You catch all these little moments of desire between characters. In This Close to Okay, Emmett notices Tallie's pink toenail polish and there's a scene at a party where Emmett takes off his suit jacket that's downright hot. You have this skill of capturing the mechanics of arousal and attraction. Do you want to add anything to that?
LCS: (Chuckles) Thank you. Well, I don't think you're wrong there because I really lean into that stuff when I'm writing. I let my characters do whatever they want to do with their inner thoughts. I love all the details when we're getting infatuated with people, or just [the progression of] a crush to actual lust. It feels really normal for me to explore those things because they’re human emotions. I think it's important for women to be represented, for the female gaze to be represented. It's not a book about that, but it is one dimension of being a human.
UVM: I think not enough books do that, actually. I feel when books do that, some get labeled as chick lit and get put in another section of the bookstore. Then they aren't sold as literary fiction.
UVM: In So You Can Glow and This Close to Okay, you trace the slippery slope of bad decision making. All your characters are good people, but we see them making a bad choice then another. In this book, a few of those decisions get compounded—
LCS: Right. People are so multilayered! Never just one thing. I especially like to show that with women, good and bad.
UVM: We talked a little about my writing process at the beginning of this interview. Are you someone who writes at the same time every day?
LCS: It really depends what I'm working on. So, if I have a book I know I need to finish then yes, I'm writing every morning, and I'm writing as much as I can throughout the day. Sometimes when I especially feel like I'm propelled to figure things out for myself… I need to write and finish the story, so that I can see it clearly. And that will get me down in front of my laptop every day. I'm not hardcore like I write every day like from 10 to this time, because I have two teenagers in the house now. We're all home together, of course, because of COVID. I could be at the table working and then a kid pops out to have lunch. But I definitely will make myself sit there and get a certain number of words and keep track of that adding up—20K, 30K, and on and on. I just do it until I get there no matter what.
UVM: Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?
LCS: (Shakes head) No, I don't really have a preference. I feel very grateful that I can do both. I prefer to talk about novels because I encounter so many people who don't understand short stories. It's more exhausting for me to try to explain short stories to people who maybe don't like them or get them. But I hope to always write both of them.
UVM: Sometimes I notice when I recommend short story collections to my friends, who are not writers, they don't seem to know how to pace themselves with a collection. They’ve said to me, "I love the stories but after I finish one, I don't feel it's time to read the next one. " I think we writers talk to writers a lot and, and we might forget sometimes the response of readers.
LCS: Yes! And to that end, I write really short fiction. I think if someone were intimidated by a short story collection or just not interested in it, I have a story in So We Can Glow that's two sentences long. So, you can absolutely pick that up and read it and then put it down or keep reading.
UVM: When you're writing—and it seems like you're always writing, because you always have books coming out—do you read fiction? Or do you have to keep those voices outside of what you're doing?
LCS: I specifically don't read very much literary fiction when I’m writing, which sucks because there are so many books I want to read, but I have to put them aside. I end up reading a lot of nonfiction about, like, nature and birds. I can read The Brontës and Jane Austen, though. But I can't read a lot of contemporary literary fiction as I’m working because I get paranoid about what could be sneaking into my brain. The good part of that is that when I’m not working on a book, I have a lot of great literary fiction saved up on my list, so I have a lot of really great books to take with me when I go to the beach.
UVM: When This Close to Okay is released, I imagine some readers might be learning of you for the first time. Is there anything you want them to know about your work?
LCS: I think that my books are rewarding. I think about a show like Friday Night Lights a lot and how they introduce characters, and how they take care of their characters. I always think about it, like, if you're watching a show, and there's a character that you see once but never again I'm, like, what happened to that guy? I liked him, but then he's never in another episode. I do want my readers to feel like we go on these wild rides, but I really care about my characters. I want my readers to be able to trust me. I love the Jane Austen quote: “My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.” I repeat it often because it’s the same for my characters, for the most part. We'll get to where we need to get to, when we need to get there. And hopefully it can be a little cozy on the way.
Ursula Villarreal-Moura is the author of Math for the Self-Crippling (Gold Line Press, 2022). Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Tin House, Catapult, Midnight Breakfast, Bennington Review, Prairie Schooner, and the anthology Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction. Her writing has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize as well as for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and one of her stories was listed as distinguished in Best American Short Stories 2015.