Interview: Leslie What
By Gregory Feeley
26 July 2004
Leslie What published her first story, "King for a Day," in Asimov's in 1992, and in the dozen years since has published over fifty short stories, a handful of poems and articles, and two novels, including Olympic Games, just out from Tachyon Publications. She has also done commentary for public radio and written for markets as diverse as True Love, Modern Romances, Jewish Review, The Writer, and Parabola.
What remains best known, however, for her short stories, which have won her the Nebula Award, a nomination for the Pushcart Prize, and numerous anthology appearances. Since the publication of her collection, The Sweet and Sour Tongue, in 2000, she has sold more than two dozen stories to a variety of publications, ranging from the mass-market and commercial (The Chick's In The Mail, 100 Crafty Little Cat Crimes) to the small-press and literary (such as Triple Tree Publishing's anthology series Mota and Fiction Quarterly). For more information on Leslie, visit her website.
Gregory Feeley: Relatively few of your stories are actual science fiction—I don't know that you have ever had, say, a space ship in one—but you did once write a kind-of prophetic story, "How I Got Away," in which a woman founds a religion she calls The Church of Arnold and uses an Arnold beach towel as her altar. Has this startling success prompted you to make more near-future predictions?
Leslie What: I don't write about spaceships because I don't have anything to say about them. Space is not my issue. "How I Got Away" wasn't meant to be prophetic, and when my character sits on the face of her Arnold beach towel I didn't know I'd be insulting the future sitting governor of California. That story is about the difficulty of running (or in this case, driving) away from the past. I think my story "Death Penalty" qualifies as science fiction, although it's based as much on my reading of Dickens and an essay by Turgenev about "The Execution of Tropmann" as it is from research into current thinking in neuroscience. "That Jellyfish Man Keeps A-Rollin'," published in The Third Alternative #29, is a near future tale that started out as a meditation on VA services in the future. "Is That Hard Science, or Are You Just Happy to See Me?", from Witpunk, edited by Marty Halpern and Claude Lalumière, predicts a time when mothers use technology to monitor their teenage children's sexuality. Like that would ever happen. "My Hermit," in Mota 2003: Courage, edited by Karen Joy Fowler, charts a genetic component to loneliness. It's clear to me that I'm not trying to predict the future, but like most speculative fiction writers, I'm looking to understand today.
GF: Science fiction is a genre where lengths that are unfamiliar elsewhere—novelettes, novellas, trilogies—are common. But your work seems almost classically mainstream: a succession of short stories, followed by a novel. (At 234 pages, it's a pretty standard mainstream first-novel length.) Do you see yourself as belonging to a more literary tradition, as opposed to the shared universes, collaborations, series, and mud-pie fights of genre SF?
LW: When I was a kid, books weren't shelved in separate sections of the library, and I didn't know I was interested in SF until the mid-seventies. My friend Amber Lunch and I drove into Los Angeles to attended a lecture where Timothy Leary was speaking. Harlan Ellison was there, too, and he talked about the literature of ideas that was SF and made it all seem so appealing that I realized what I really loved to read was genre. I applied to Clarion because Harlan had mentioned it, though at the time I had never heard of Damon Knight or Kate Wilhelm or Thomas Disch or Joanna Russ or Joe Haldeman or Robin Scott Wilson.
The only other thing I can remember about the lecture was that Timothy Leary was wearing a white suit and that at some point, Amber and I were wandering down the halls looking for the Ladies Room and we passed Dr. Leary. Amber asked him where the bathroom was. Because men in white suits should know such things, I suppose. But he didn't know. He seemed flustered not to. He was concerned for our predicament, which was getting more and more desperate by the second, and he used his authority to ask a man in a security guard suit if he knew. That man knew enough to point down another hall. I can say that Timothy Leary helped me find my way in the seventies. I'm not joking. This was the most help I've ever gotten from any guru.
If I had to say I belonged to any tradition, and I guess you are asking me to out myself, so here it goes: my pretensions are even greater than those who aspire to write in the literary tradition. I would say I belong to the tradition of satire. The majority of my work uses exaggeration and irony alongside tropes of the fantastic.
When you say you write fantasy, the average reader (who hasn't gone to conventions or been privy to the various controversies raging online) thinks High Fantasy or Harry Potter, and when you say you write science fiction, the average reader (who hasn't gone to conventions or been privy to the assorted controversies raging online) thinks Rockets and Aliens and Star Trek. While I admire those genres, I don't write in them. Very little of my writing uses technology as its inspiration, so if I don't call myself a science fiction writer it's only because I've written very little authentic science fiction.
The most meaningful books of my childhood included E. Nesbitt's Five Children and It, Danny Kaye's Around the World Story Book, Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, and Gulliver's Travels. Looking on the shelf near me as I write this I see Wild Life by Molly Gloss, I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, The News of the World by Ron Carlson, Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender (all books featuring fantastic elements), assorted texts useful for research, writing manuals, and two spare inkjet cartridges. This seems like an appropriate time to quote Carol Burnett, who said, "Comedy is tragedy plus time."
The word count on Olympic Games is 93,000 words, btw. For someone whose average story length is about 4,500 words, this is quite a stretch.
GF: Olympic Games isn't actually your first novel. I notice that you haven't outed your pseudonym—and that when you wrote an "author's note" for the novel's entry on Amazon.com, you employed a third cognomen. Is that novel going to remain behind a demure penname?
LW: The novel you refer to, Nice Girls Do, by Leslie Joyce, an erotic historical (the French Resistance during WWII, only with sex), was published but never distributed. The publisher went out of business before the book was released and I don't know how many books were manufactured or where most of the copies ended up. I have several cases, which create quite a storage problem. At one time I attempted to use copies for garden mulch (the books didn't decompose), tried to used some as fire starter (the books didn't burn) and am currently using the books as insulation. I sent some to the troops and sometimes try to fit some into my luggage to sell at conventions. I know now that I would make a dreadful encyclopedia salesman because if I can't even sell copies of a sex book for $12.95, how could I sell copies of encyclopedias for five hundred bucks?
I've used a lot of names over the years. Some of this has to do with identity issues and some of it is just because I think it's fun to walk around at a convention with a nametag that says, "Mrs. Simmons, Supervisor" and have people think my name is Mrs. Simmons. I almost started publishing under the name of Delilah Waters. Eileen Gunn and I were at the University of Oregon, watching a video on Tibetan throat singers. In the middle of the film, I saw a name flash by that said, "Delilah Waters." Nobody else in the theater saw the name flash by. Naturally, I assumed it was a sign from the Buddha. Interpreting the sign proved a little trickier. That's always the case, isn't it? At first I thought it was the name I was meant to use as my name. When Gardner Dozois bought my first story, he asked if I REALLY wanted to go by Delilah Waters. I wasn't sure. Hearing another writer at a workshop say, "Now Delilah. . ." convinced me that I didn't want anyone to call me that. I have since given the name to a character in an (as yet unpublished) novel.
GF: I didn't realize that you were publicly acknowledging the Leslie Joyce book. Why did you adopt that byline?
LW: Maybe I should deny it? How am I to know what's best for my career? Well, I liked that book, and it was fun to write and I would have written more had the line not been stillborn. The book was a bit more shoot-'em-up than my usual thing, but I may never again be paid to write about people involved in a healthy relationship who have good sex and no inner demons and I did what I could to keep the pace lively, despite those dramatic limitations. Leslie Joyce is my first and middle name, by the way. It's what my mother used to yell whenever I was in BIG trouble. It seemed like a funny name to use to write a smutty book. I would have used my usual name except that I worried people would be shocked to read I had written something so tightly plotted.
GF: There is one well-established genre tradition that you have followed: the novel expanded from a previously published short story. Olympic Games began life as "The Goddess is Alive, And, Well, Living in New York City" in Asimov's six years ago. What led you from the shorter work to the longer?
LW: I showed a version of the short story to the monthly workshop I attended led by Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm in their home. Damon liked the story. It was the second story of mine I can remember him liking. This meant a lot to me. Damon said he would enjoy reading a novel continuing where Thorne Smith had left off. I immediately read The Night Life of the Gods and got to thinking. The story grew from a small domestic comedy about relationships though the ages to a bigger tragicomic story about faith, grief, lust, destiny, and the limitations of magic. At least that's what I think it is about. The reader is encouraged to differ.
While I've published somewhere around 60 short stories, I've only written three novels, though now that my children have gone off to live lives of their own I find myself drawn to writing longer fiction. Two of my other novels (unpublished) are continuations of published stories Damon liked and wanted me to expand. You can see how much I valued his opinion. The book I'm writing now is the first (besides Nice Girls) that didn't begin with a story.
GF: Your most recent stories have appeared in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, a literary 'zine, and The Infinite Matrix, an online venue, and you have another forthcoming in Asimov's. You do not seem to be cultivating a core audience—or if you are, it's one with eclectic reading habits.
LW: I'm not trying to make things difficult for collectors. I remember one night in the seventies, when I was out walking around the block with some friends (I'll let them identify themselves if they choose). We were in an altered state. One of us had the idea, which seemed innovative at the time, about how to earn money to support our artistic habits. We walked up to people's houses, stood on their stoops, and waited for them to answer the door. I picture our expressions—glossy-eyed, smiling, earnest, stoned; more comical than deranged. When the people opened the door, we said, "This is what we do. Would you like us to do it here, or would you pay us to do it somewhere else?" I think we earned ten dollars but I might be exaggerating. I have the same approach to writing. This is what I do. Would you like me to do it here, or would you pay me to do it somewhere else?
GF: You are now enrolled in a Master's program in writing at Pacific University, which requires you to complete several ten-day campus residencies, work with a "writer mentor," and pursue your own studies at home. What is it like being an "MFA Barbie" (as you recently put it)? Does having a Nebula Award set you apart from the other students, or is it mostly age?
LW: MFA Barbie is my "Writing is Hard" variation of talking Barbie's famous "Math is Hard" quote. I've wanted to go back to school for some time and when the program at Pacific University in Forest Grove (outside of Portland, Oregon) opened up it sounded perfect. After completing four semesters and five residencies I will earn my MFA in writing.
I just completed my first ten-day residency and feel I've made the right choice. I'll be working the first semester with a nonfiction writer named Elinor Langer, who wrote a biography of Josephine Herbst and also A Hundred Little Hitlers: The Death of a Black Man, the Trial of a White Racist, and the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement in America. I hadn't planned to study nonfiction, but the more I heard Langer speak about her work, the more I grew to admire her accomplishment. She's a writer willing to take an unflinching look at unpopular causes and unsettling outcomes. She interviewed racist skinheads and portrayed one of the leaders of the Neo-Nazi movement, Tom Metzger—the founder of WAR (White Aryan Resistance)—as a complex human being who was a realistic mix of good and evil intention.
Complex bad guys I'm used to, but Langer took a tremendous risk in questioning the motives and methods of the good guys, in this case, Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who brought a civil suit against the WAR leader. Langer raises a far more disturbing question to my mind than whether bad men can have good qualities. Why do good people behave badly? I see how we turn away from qualities that don't fit our perception of the truth, and our reaction scares me.
I think that as a culture we know how to accept that our fictional good guys are complex. I don't think that our society knows how to accept that our real-life heroes may be immensely flawed.
You should know that the faculty have pretty much rejected the title of "mentor" and are lobbying for us to call them advisors. I'm guessing the word "mentor" won't appear in the next catalog.
I have published more than any of the students and a few asked me why I was even enrolled in this program. I said what I believe: that I have lots to learn and that I want to teach at the college level, and the credential will facilitate my ability to find work. There are some very accomplished student writers in this group; also some just beginning to discover their voices. The ages of the students range from twenty-four to fifty-plus, so I don't stand out because of my advanced age, thank you.
What I think sets me apart, if anything does, beyond my wacky fashion sense and appreciation of the bizarre (I'm the only one who bought a realistic artificial eyeball key chain from the bookstore), is my willingness to accept that there is always more to learn and that I have not reached the zenith of my accomplishment and believe my best work is yet to come.