We Call Upon the Author to Explain (III): Hillary Leftwich and Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock
Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices 2019), which is featured in Entropy’s Best Fiction list of 2019 and is a finalist for the Big Other Book Award. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and runs At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Currently, she freelances as a writer, editor, journalist, and teaches writing at Lighthouse Writers. She is a Kenyon Review scholarship recipient for 2021, and her writing can be found in both print and online in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Hobart, and others. She lives in Colorado with her partner, her son, and their cat, Larry. Find more of her writing at hillaryleftwich.com.
Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer whose work has appeared in Tin House, The Washington Post, Brevity, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and more. They are the recipient of grants and fellowships from PEN America and Sundress Academy for the Arts. Their novel All City (Seven Stories Press) and their essay collection Psychopomps (CCM) were published in 2019.
Hillary Leftwich is a writer, an editor at Heavy Feather Review, a generous friend, and wears many other hats as well. Her book Ghost are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock came out with Civil Coping Mechanisms Press last year, and Hillary was kind enough to talk with us a bit about her process, how her other jobs influence her writing, and her motivations for writing.
Alex DiFrancesco: There's a wide variety of pieces in the collection Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock. What made you place them all together here, what do you think were the defining themes and overarching connections that defied things like genre and point of view?
Hillary Leftwich: Really it was just everything I had written from 2010 up until today. The essays about single motherhood, my son's biological father, the jobs I had to do to make money, and individual pieces were written for my son. The entire book is basically a love letter to my son from young, stupid mom me up until today, as if to say, I'm sorry your childhood was often terrible. These words are all I have. Forgive me.
AD: There's a heavy use of color in a lot of these pieces that creates an overall mood that is sometimes the defining take-away from a piece. Can you talk more about these sensory decisions, and how they shaped some of the pieces?
HL: I want the reader to feel as if they are in a movie with me and see what I'm trying to surround them with. I want them to remember what they read long after. The very act of remembering can impact our memory. So, it’s necessary to include vibrant sensory details in order to connect a scene in our brain to avoid disruption. For example, in Eye of the Hummingbird, the main character shoots his wife. Her blood is the color of raspberry jelly. Combining taste and color with something horrific can signal our brain to associate these with our own memories, both positive and negative. This is just one technique I use when making sensory decisions.
AD: There are a lot of call-backs and some of the varied pieces seem to have a recursive nature, taking on the same themes for different perspectives. In a way, in the pieces structured around the young woman's kidnapping, I felt like I was a bit in the world of Twin Peaks, where we're seeing odd snippets of a way something like this can define a small part of the world. Was this an influence? What were your other influences?
HL: I always had an obsession with learning about people, specifically women, who disappeared or were murdered. I wanted to know why. I watched a lot of true crime shows. I grew up reading about Adam Walsh’s son, children kidnapped and murdered, women, many sex workers, found killed. All of these stories broke me and intrigued me to want to learn more. Many of the stories I read or shows I watched were told from both perspectives—the victim's as well as the murderer. It wasn't until I began working as a private investigator many years later that I realized the shows and the movies are nothing like what happens in real life. In real life, the photos of someone murdered are horrific and stay with you like a loop in your brain forever. This has always been a heavy influence on me, those days, those cases. To get in the mind of someone who could cause such damage to another human being is terrifying, but sometimes necessary to solve a crime.
AD: I got the feeling, often, that the characters were very deep wells we were only getting the tiniest glimpse into. Did you write more than what went on the page? Or was it all in your mind? Do you see writing more stories for these characters and perspectives?
HL: I tried writing longer pieces on many of the stories, but it just didn't want to go any further. Instinctively I think as writers, we all know when to end a piece. It's just a gut reaction saying, stop. No more. Nowadays, I want to write longer pieces. I think sometimes certain stories should end abruptly and some should have more time to talk.
AD: You're an editor, a writer, a mom, and from what I understand, do other day-jobs in there, too. Can you describe where you fit your writing into this bigger picture, how you get so much work done?
HL: I used to get up at 3 am to write, but now that I'm unemployed, I'm having a hard time writing. It's the pressure and the anxiety, you know? I think many folks are feeling the same way—this pressure of all of the "free time" to write. But the world is burning, and in many ways, it’s necessary for change, but also brutal. Every day there is hope and every day there is heaviness. I can't write, not on a regular basis, nor do I want to. Not now. My eyes are wide open.
AD: Violence echoes throughout this collection. Can you talk more about these ripples, how the act of violence affects the stories told here, and the way they're told?
HL: I come from a violent background. I never took it upon myself to write about violence. But you can’t escape your past, right? Still, given what I've experienced, both in my life, my son's life, as well as my professional life, it was inevitable. When I discovered Ai Ogawa, I loved and connected immediately with her ability to write from all perspectives, including the murderer, including the person who inflicted the pain. For me, to be able to tell a story from the eyes of someone who is clearly going to die, or to switch this around and tell a story from someone who is about to kill someone, can be a way in which to take control of a situation. I feel Ai mastered this technique or knew it intuitively, and this is why her work is so stunning.
AD: The final question of this series is always from the line in "We Call Upon the Author to Explain" that goes "prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can't fix." With that in mind, if you had to cut one thing from this collection, from a story to a line, to a word, what would it be?
HL: I'd probably cut out a lot of the traditional poetry. I was first starting to experiment and find my voice, and looking back now, I should have stuck with the prose poetry. But it's all about learning, right? That’s what’s up.