An Interview with Leigh Camacho Rourks

Monday, November 25, 2019

A few years ago, an odd little story came across my desk about a lonely man who receives an out-of-the-blue package of breast implants in the mail. The response from the editorial team was unanimous: “Now this is one we haven’t read before.” We didn’t end up accepting the story, but we were intrigued enough by its combination of solid writing and unique scenario to ask its writer for more work. That writer was Leigh Camacho Rourks, and the story she sent in response, a homecoming story (entitled “Shallowing”) that opens with its bayou-born heroine training a shotgun barrel on a dove, not only found a home in TriQuarterly issue 149 but also appears in Rourks’s debut story collection, Moon Trees and Other Orphans (Black Lawrence Press, 2019).

The collection received a starred review from Kirkus and has placed Rourks’s name in conversation with southern gothic greats like Flannery O’Connor. It showcases her ability to stare deeply into the grittiest aspects of human behavior and use them to weave story lines as affecting as they are unsettling. Her characters are violent and manipulative and lonely and desperate; they lead hard lives, and she places them in predicaments that only make their lives harder. It is difficult reading at times, but that’s the whole point of it: if we are to understand and sympathize with one another, we can’t look away.

Moon Trees is one of my favorite books of 2019, and I was honored to talk (via email) with Rourks about the various questions, experiences, and obsessions that gave rise to its stories, and the unexpected role that Jay and Silent Bob (from the 1994 film Clerks) played in bringing them to life.

TQ: I was struck by the originality of the situations in these stories. A woman masterminds a scheme to sell caffeinated breast milk to body builders. A schizophrenic fears that her daughter, born of a moon tree seed, is taking over her brain. An ex-con’s parole officer turns up dead in one of his nutria traps. Where on earth do you find these ideas?

LCR: At their core, all of my ideas (and especially my preoccupation with the sorts of extraordinary—but not unheard-of—situations you reference here) begin with my obsessive curiosity about what causes people to cross lines. What breaks people and pushes them into behaviors (good or bad) that they themselves would once have found impossible. So that’s the base of my idea soup. But the specifics come from being an open and voracious reader and listener. For example, the first story you mention—the caffeinated milk scheme—came from a crossing of rumors I’d heard (the idea that breast milk is the “perfect food” for adults!) with products I’d seen (I used to buy caffeinated candy when I had to drive two hours to work, which made me very curious about how caffeine is sold and used), news articles I’d read (people being poisoned by caffeine powder), and people I’ve known (a person I love who no longer leaves her home, old friends who were always looking for a great idea to make a buck). It is as if I am always collecting puzzle pieces that lead me to a question, and that question becomes a story.

TQ: You lived in southern Louisiana. Were any of the characters in the book inspired by people you actually knew? Were any of the situations inspired by real events or happenings?

LCR: I was born in south Louisiana and have spent a huge chunk of my life there, although I actually mostly grew up in south Florida. Southern Louisiana is a beautiful place, one that I love, filled with humans I love. But I have also witnessed great sadness, poverty, and danger there. Every story, every character, every circumstance in the book is connected to something I have known, but those connections are not always one-to-one correlations.  Instead, you can look at any of the characters in the book as collages of people I love and of myself and of people I have met and of people I have heard tales about. In these stories, I try to tell the fact of the region as I know it and as I have lived it, but the stories themselves are not collections of facts or truths.

TQ: Given its setting and themes, your book has been discussed as belonging to the southern gothic tradition. Do you agree with this classification? And if so, did you set out to write stories that fell within this tradition.

LCR: It’s a complicated question. I wrote part of my dissertation (for my PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) on this very subject. The truth is that there are some negative connotations connected to the southern gothic tradition—most worrisome are its connections to the Lost Cause and Local Color movements, which are racist and exploitative. That being said, there is also a lot of beautiful, hard-lived writing in the tradition, writing that speaks to me because of how familiar the places and people feel. What is called gothic (the strange, the grotesque, the dangerously unfamiliar) is, for many of us, not magic but indicative of lived realities told through familiar, if sometimes larger-than-life, tropes. It’s a living tradition and one I am certainly a part of (the question of consciously or unconsciously depends on the day), but also one that is morphing. Authors are playing with those old tropes, revitalizing, changing, and subverting them, and that’s what I try to do, too.

All of that being said, I don’t think of these just as regional stories, but as class stories, as a part of today’s Grit Lit movement, which includes much more than just the American South. And, of course, sometimes I just think of them as stories, the only stories I knew how to tell in the moments when I was telling them.

TQ: So you feel that southern gothic has evolved as a genre in recent years.

LCR: Yes, absolutely and beautifully, and I feel honored when I am put in the same categories as the diverse group of people who are currently spurring that evolution.

TQ: This is your first story collection. Can you talk a bit about the experience of deciding what stories to include and what order to place them in?

LCR: The advice out there is pretty standard: use your best stories, put the best of the best first, then the best of the best last, and also the best of the best in the middle. What does that even mean? For me, not a lot. I was at a loss. I like all of my stories, at least the ones I manage to wrangle into a shape (perfect or imperfect) that matches the shape in my mind.

So instead, I thought about theme. I thought about the sound of the stories. Their tones (both emotional and musical). I even lined up last lines and first lines and titles, seeing how they sat next to each other. What sort of song they wrote. I tried to find the heart of the collection, and I finally decided the heart was love: the need of it, the want of it, the loss of it, what all that does to you. Then the first story was easy. “Moon Trees,” my hardest story about love.

TQ: I have a special place in my heart for “Naturallique.” It’s a story marked by the loneliness of its main character (the divorced man who receives the breast implants in the mail), which places it in good company with the other stories in the collection, and yet there is a humor to it that makes it stand out. How did that element arise in this story, and how do you think humor can serve stories like this one?

LCR: It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever written, but I never did manage to place it in a journal. It’s a weird one, so I am glad you like it. I enjoy humor, and I like to work with it, but the market for funny stories about the kind of stuff I tend to do—let’s say, lonely people dragging dead bodies through swamps—that market is fairly limited.

But my mother gave me her quirky, sometimes morbid sense of humor, and I am glad for that. She taught me you can laugh, or you can cry, and laughing is a hell of a lot better, and honestly that’s what humor serves. It gives us another way to process grief, fear, and even love. We are not one-note beings. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we cry. That’s important to me, so that story needed to be in the collection, I felt.

As to how it arose, well, it started as a joke I told myself. I got this picture in my head of a box full of breasts and thought, who would it be funny to send that to? What would that story be? At first, the story didn’t work because it was just a series of jokes. It was funny, but it was also just a shaggy dog of one-liners. It needed heart. It needed something real and big at stake. It took a good while to get that story to its shape.

TQ: So many images from these stories lingered well after reading them. I keep returning to the image of the mother from “Moon Trees” standing in the Saran-Wrapped room, all of the colors from the plastic—“pink and blue and minty green, spring pastels” —creating a kaleidoscope effect around her shaking figure. And to the image of Lolo leaning against the statue of the Virgin as she smokes. Do these images arise all on their own, or do you go looking for them in some way?

LCR: What an amazing compliment. Thank you! Lolo’s story originally started with that image. I was obsessed with this picture I had in my mind of a woman sort of chatting with the Virgin while having a smoke. Those statues are all over some neighborhoods in south Louisiana and south Florida, and a startling amount of them are these grimy things in overgrown yards. I’ve always been fascinated by them. But the image itself sort of came to me as whole cloth and haunted me. Who was that sassy woman?  I think images can work that way, as hauntings. I see something in my mind and can’t shake it, and since I can’t paint, I try to get at it with words. But sometimes the words lead me. I start playing with them, and then the image comes out of one or two I love, but once it is there, again the image will haunt me, tugging at my mind’s eye until I get it right.

TQ: We meet many of these characters on days in which they just snap. Something comes loose inside of them, and they act out—violently—in ways that seem to frighten (and yet not really surprise) them. I’m thinking in particular of Karo from “Shallowing” and her action at the story’s end; and of Milas from “Deformed,” who responds so violently to Cole’s threats against “the soft stranger” in the grocery store. Are you drawn to characters like this? People who have the capacity to come unhinged?

LCR: I have a strong belief that terrifies me, and that is that every single person can snap, that every one of us is somehow, in some universe, under some specific circumstances, capable of very terrible things.  Any one of us.

I don’t like it, but I do believe it, and so on some level I am trying to work it out in these stories. Those two characters, I love them as humans so much. They are so vulnerable. They are made up of little bits of me and other people I love. They are intimate characters, and so it is odd, I guess, that I wrote them doing such horrible things. It is less that I am drawn to characters who have the capacity to come unhinged, and more that I am drawn to figure out how it is that people’s—our—hinges become fully broken. 

TQ: How difficult is it to write violence?

LCR: It is much more difficult for me to research violence than to write it. The research can be very traumatic. Writing it, or at least drafting it, however, becomes an architectural and theatrical act. How does the body move in a fight, under impact, in panic? Where would my arm be if I fell like this or like that, or how does one really breathe when chased? That sort of thing. It is the definition of active writing. Just imagine me swinging my arms again and again in my living room, as I try to figure out exactly where a character’s hands might hold their weapon or how their shoulders might hold their pain. Other times I must draw out a scene (stick figures) in my notebook to see how the action unfolds. Then, the difficulty returns in revision, as I try to find the spots of empathy and truth in the scene, and I must force myself to see the characters as human and not simply as dolls I am moving across a stage.

Violence against those who cannot fight back is the worst thing to write, though, and is hardest at all stages. I often rewrite a scene like that again and again. I can think of one where the violence in a scene in the first drafts was ambiguous, and then in later drafts it didn’t happen at all, and in still later ones it only almost happened, but in the final draft it does because I finally fully understood why I felt it needed to be there.

TQ: How do you go about researching violence? What does that look like?

LCR: I’m not sure you can write what you can’t see. Some of it, just a simple fight, doesn’t need research beyond interviewing some pals. I took tae kwon do. I’ve had a lot of fighter friends. I watch professional fights occasionally. But you get to anything else—what happens to a body that’s been electrocuted, for example—that requires research. So, I hit the internet. For the story where that happens, I read a lot of articles on copper thieves killed or nearly killed by electrocution. I read interviews. I made myself look at the photographs. It was really hard. And then I needed to see those pictures through the gaze of my character, so I had to imagine loving those people. I had to not look away. I had to see them as humans deserving of love and empathy, and not deserving of my gawking. That’s hard—to take that on and look with a steady gaze at pain—but anything else feels unethical. And still it’s a gray area. I know that.

TQ: Let’s talk a bit more about process. I read that you like to have a movie running in the background when you sit down to write—and often, that movie is Clerks. As a writer myself, I find this fascinating. I need complete silence when I write and find the slightest noise distracting. How did you get into this habit, and what is it about Clerks that helps you find your way into your stories?

LCR: I cannot stand silence. I can’t think in it. I am the stereotype of the TV generation, so I often write with my TV droning on in the background (my dirty secret is that our TV is almost never off). The danger there is getting sucked in, so when I do write with the TV on, it needs to be something I have seen so many times that it has become easy background noise.

Clerks was one of the first movies I found that worked that way for me. One reason is that I am a huge fan and I know it by heart, so it isn’t really distracting. But another reason is that the dialogue is so rhythmic. It is probably weird to some people to hear me call that movie beautiful, but I find its rhythms beautiful. Say what you want about Kevin Smith, whose film it was, but he understands the beat of dialogue. And dialogue is one of my favorite things on earth. Besides, now, it is almost Pavlovian. I hear the character Dante whining, and I think, “I should write.”

TQ: Any other writing rituals?

LCR: I am kind of anti–writing ritual because I worry that if I become too reliant on any such ritual, my circumstances will change, some element of the ritual will become impossible, and I will suddenly find myself unable to write. Give me a laptop, some background noise, and, in theory, I can write anywhere, anytime. The reality is not so neat, though.

My only real ritual is rereading everything (or at least a chunk) that I wrote on a project before I continue. It isn’t practical, but it sets my head and helps me understand where I am going. It also means I rewrite a lot as I go (which, if Twitter has taught me anything, is a great and grave sin). I am just one of those people who needs a clear understanding of where I stand before I can walk anywhere, and if I am not happy where I find myself, I need to adjust before I continue my journey.

TQ: I attended an interview recently that ended on the question, “What makes you happy?” I loved both the question and the writer’s response, and vowed to end my next interview on it as well. And so I ask you: Leigh, what makes you happy?

LCR: As I read this last question, my husband is sitting next to me on our tiny loveseat playing video games and my cats are sleeping on their cat tree close enough that I can almost touch them. My whole family so close to me. I just heard a bird at the window. This all makes me happy. Seeing someone I love doing what they enjoy. Being close enough to touch. Needing nothing. Knowing I can slip out into nature anytime I want. That makes me happy.