I am so happy to introduce today’s Writers Talk interviewee, my dear friend L.E. Leone. & I’m especially happy to introduce her, because it appeared for awhile that it wouldn’t happen—I thought I had misplaced L.E. & her ukulele, not to mention her interview responses, somewhere in the California wilderness. She herself, as is so often the case, didn’t realize she’d been misplaced.
Any hoot: L.E. Leone, in addition to being my very good friend & one of the regular contributors on the Robert Frost Banjo blog, is a successful writer & musician. She has published two volumes of short stories: The Meaning of Lunch & Big Bend, as well as a collection of restaurant reviews titled Eat This, San Francisco. L.E. is also the regular Cheap Eats restaurant reviewer for the weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian. Musically, she was a founding member of the band Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, & has also performed with the Buckets & Lipsey Mountain Spring Band. L.E. currently has a solo music thing going under her nom de guerre of Sister Exister. You can check out her album Scratch on CDBaby here.
You can also check out her poem, “Licking Knives”, on the Writers Talk blog. I should perhaps point out that the poem is "NFSW."
Most importantly to me, L.E. has been a tried & true friend since the early 90s. She has always been supportive of my creative endeavors, be they writerly or musical—& I must say, whatever musical endeavors I have these days were greatly inspired by L.E.’s own serious “can do” musical attitude.
& so: here’s L.E.!
When did you first realize your identity as a writer?
I think I was six. I was walking on the playground behind Immaculate Conception school in Youngstown, Ohio, looking at my little shoes moving across the asphalt, hearing grasshoppers jumping in the dry weeds around the perimeter, and thinking that in spite of all evidence to the contrary, I was Agent 99 from Get Smart. It was my first exercise in point-of-view, and as soon as I realized that I was one (a point of view), and that that was about all I was … it was over.
Around maybe fourth grade I started making poems, which I self-published on scraps of paper and passed to the kid I had a crush on. He passed them to his cousin, and they made the rounds. And I made my reputation—which I still have—as a kind-of literary clown. These poems were usually two simple, rhyming lines about something predictable (such as snow or tree frogs) designed to lull my little classmates into a stupor, and then a third line which—by design—had nothing to do with anything (such as Miles Standish). The goal was to get them to laugh out loud in the classroom. Really, I’m still doing almost exactly that.
Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.
My short story “Spinach,” for example, started with a line from a song that a friend of mine wrote: “I have a photo / from the first day we met / it helps me remember / but I usually forget / I keep it in my shoe / in case I get lost” … Six lines, I guess, which I thought were brilliant, and which sprung me into one of the longest stories I ever told. For no good reason, really, I told it in a kind of a made-up dialect. Something southern-ish. And I set it in Alma, Arkansas, and Tucson, Arizona, really because those were two of the places I had just played on tour with my old band, and they kind of stuck in my head. Because the shows went pretty well, or something.
So happens, there was also a point, during that tour, where I got in a huge fight with one of my bandmates while we were driving through the Sonoran desert, and I fantasized about leaving him behind when he got out of the car. The story “Spinach” has nothing to do, really, with any of these things. Yet they’re all there, in the story. It’s a twisted, three-way love story that’s sad and funny. After that tour, my bandmates, with whom I lived, dispersed for the holidays, and I stayed behind in San Francisco and stayed up late, and wrote, and wrote and wrote.
A couple of editors at the Paris Review really helped and encouraged me with the dialect. I remember them saying: “Go all the way. Take it to an extreme. Really get inside of this character.” And I did, through several rewrites, until it eventually worked. I came to love the way that particular narrator spoke, so much so that I have adopted some of his made up words and malaprops for my own. Years later, when the story was published in my book, another editor, my friend Mike DeCapite, had the bright idea of adding a couple of wigs onto this desert-days shopping list, and now that is my favorite thing about the story. I laugh every time I think of it, and it wasn’t even my idea, or words.
So, this all probably sounds pretty patchwork-y by now, but I think it’s one of the most cohesive and complete things I ever wrote. And all I’d wanted to do, initially, was try to imagine a reason for a guy keeping a photograph for years and years in his shoe.
Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)?
I do well with deadlines. Stop laughing, John. Really, though, I wrote a regular column for my high school paper. I was the editor of my college paper, and had to crank out editorials twice a week. And ever since graduate school, where I focused on fiction-writing, I have had to produce a weekly column under deadline pressure. I love being in a newspaper, because people read it. It’s local, immediate, and in my experience butters more bagels than books do. But really the bottom line is that more people read newspapers than books. Right? I might be wrong, and in any case it is of course changing. I’m told print media will all but disappear. It’s been pretty good to me, but I’m not going to dig in my heels. Wherever people are reading what they read, that’s where I’ll go because that’s what it’s about for me: my words, and your eyeballs. Or ears. I have loved writing (and recording) for this blog. It gives me a deadline (which I missed this week, that’s why John was laughing) … and a voice. The truth is, I don’t eat a lot of bagels.
How has being a writer affected your relationships?
That’s a really good question. I can tell because I don’t have any idea how to answer it. I have fucked up and lost friends because of something I wrote. It hasn’t happened often, but it has and I hate that and would love a do-over. My weekly column is tricky because I write about my life, and my life includes—in fact, features—my relationships.
Most of my friends seem to get a kick out of being in my column, even though I use nicknames and often make things up about them, say they said things they didn’t say, and in some cases tease them. One of my closest friends, and perhaps my favorite person to write about, has put a restraining order on me, writingwise. But I sneak things in, like this, because I love to say her name: Crawdad de la Cooter.
As for romantic relationships, hmm, I do wonder sometimes if publishing poems and restaurant reviews about bad dates might not be counterproductive to getting good ones. Honestly, if I met me in a bar (for example) and knew who I was and what I wrote, I would be afraid to date me.
On the other hand my writing is what gives me confidence in myself, and therefore (I assume) makes me at all attractive. It is how I flirt. I don’t mean in love letters. I mean in restaurant reviews—and, to a lesser degree, in short stories, songs, and poetry.
So another way of looking at it is: If I weren’t a writer I would never have had any romantic relationships … to be negatively affected by the fact that I am a writer.
How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any? This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.
I would describe my community of writers as Nancy Krygowski. She’s one of my oldest, dearest friends, and a great poet from Pittsburgh, PA. Every Friday, before the end of the day, her time, she has to send me a new poem, or else. And in return, by the end of my work week (which is three hour later, ha ha) I have to send her three pages of fiction. In this way, we force each other to produce. It’s a great arrangement, because I love Nancy, and absolutely adore her poetry, so when I crank out my three pages, I feel I am earning something way more precious than paychecks, or even accolades: I am earning the existence of one more poem of hers in this underpoetic world. So my inspiration to write, these days, comes from my desire for someone else to write. And this is working, for both of us.
In a broader sense, my community includes writers with whom I have become, through the years, great friends and even soulmates—even if our friendships no longer revolve around writing, as they once did. There are a handful of these special friends scattered around the country at this point—New York, Ohio, Idaho, upstairs—and at one time or another, in one way or another, they have all saved my life.
What are your future goals in terms of writing?
I’m glad you asked. Because, for the first time since fourth grade, I have one. I have a goal! What I want to do is change the world. How? By doing something no one has ever done, to my knowledge: writing a series of stories, each with at least one positive male character who is competent, kind, cool as hell, lucky as fuck, on fire, and (it so happens) in love—madly, openly, and entirely coincidentally—with a transgender woman. Do you see why this is vital? The biggest social, political, or for that matter socio-political issue of our time, as far as I can make out, is that not a lot of people want to go out with trans women, and those that do, tend to be secretive about it, and ashamed. I would like to do something about this.
Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?
Easy. The tissue-comb harmonica.