Interview with Leah Stewart Camille Renshaw One on One

portrait Interview with Leah Stewart

interviewed by Camille Renshaw

Published in Issue No. 45 ~ February, 2001

Leah Stewart is the author of the novel, Body of a Girl. She has been a creative writing teacher and an associate editor of Double Take magazine. The daughter of an Air Force serviceman, she has lived in nine states and two countries. She holds degrees from Vanderbilt University and the University of Michigan. Her short stories have appeared in various publications, including The Kenyon Review. We first met several years ago while she was working as staff at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee.

Camille Renshaw: Faulkner once wrote, “Art is no part of Southern life… [but] is almost the sum total of a Southern artist.” Do you think writing or art is still somewhat out of place in Southern culture, or is that tension different this century?

Leah Stewart: Currently, I don’t see much difference between living and writing in North Carolina and living and writing in Boston, except that it’s much cheaper to do the living part of it in the South. It doesn’t seem to me that writing and art are out of place in Southern culture; in fact, I’ve always thought of writing in particular as a huge part of it. (And I’m living between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, two towns where there’s all kinds of art and music and writing going on.) It’s in books that you see the version of the South I think he’s talking about here – steeped in its history, especially the Civil War and its legacy of slavery, racism, and separatism. I’m attracted to the Southern gothic sensibility, with all its dark secrets: Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, William Gay. But, on the whole, that’s not the South as I’ve experienced it. The summer I lived in Memphis I felt closer to that version of the South than I have anywhere else; maybe that’s why I set the book there.

I’m not even sure how much I’d identify myself as a Southern writer, not because I wouldn’t like to but because I’m not sure how authentic that claim would be. I’m an Air Force brat; my parents are from Alabama and Tennessee, but I didn’t really live in the South (Fairfax County, VA, is not the kind of South we’re talking about) until entering Vanderbilt. And I don’t have a sense of Nashville as a city trying to hang onto its history. In fact, I was a senior at Vanderbilt before learning about the school’s connection to the Fugitives. It’s not something Vanderbilt plays up, I’m guessing, because of the racism that was part of their worldview.

I’ve moved so much – to the Southwest, Northwest, Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast, as well as England – that no particular place seems to me to have shaped my character. I don’t really feel the urgency about place that Faulkner certainly did; no character I created would feel as conflicted as Quentin does about whether he hated the South. He’d just move.

CR: What were you doing the summer you spent in Memphis?

LS: I was interning at The Commercial Appeal, which is the Memphis daily. My job was in the Neighbors department, which is about as far from Crime as you can get, but a friend who was interning in Metro sometimes covered the police beat. She talked about rapes that weren’t making the paper, like the woman assaulted across the street from the apartment where I was living. I was 19. It was the first time I had ever lived alone, and, as in my book, a number of murders were committed in the area that year, mostly men killing young women. So I was scared. One night I burned my finger badly on the stove and was too scared to walk down the block to the convenience store for Neosporin.

But I also really liked Memphis – it had a larger-than-life character unlike any other place I had lived. The city is a place with a strong sense of its own history: Elvis, Al Green, Beale Street, all the colorful Memphis figures the people there like to tell stories about. It really has that Southern gothic flavor we were talking about earlier.

CR: Did Body of a Girl require much research?

LS: For a while the research consisted of long phone conversations with my police beat friend. Then, when I didn’t know a piece of information the story needed, I tended to either work around it or leave myself a note to fix it later. I had a strong reluctance to do any research – sheer laziness, I guess. By the time the draft was finished, it had a lot of those “fix this later” notes. So I was forced to research in earnest and read memoirs by crime reporters. I talked to a Memphis medical examiner, a couple of cops, a nurse. I read a number of articles from the Memphis paper about Graceland, crime, politics, drug use, etc., and used the Internet to research opiates. The main thing I learned about research is that you have to do it – and then find a way to incorporate that knowledge without parading it.

I read a number of literary/mystery books with an eye toward learning something in particular for my novel, like Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn. I also read Edna Buchanan’s books, crime novels narrated by a female cops reporter. And, late in the process, two P. D. James novels were extremely helpful. I had trouble with plot, something no one had ever taught me, and learned from James that when you have a large question driving the narrative, you need to set up and answer a number of other little questions along the way.

CR: How much personal experience went into the book? When I was reading the novel, I had to resist making you the same person – perhaps because your physical descriptions are similar.

LS: The story line is certainly in no way autobiographical. Certain details are, although sometimes Olivia’s reactions are not the same as mine. As for how much of Olivia is me… I’ve been asked that question several times and find it difficult to answer. In the original draft of the first 50 pages, Olivia had all of my own dissatisfaction with being a reporter. Then I realized that if she was uncertain and unhappy on the first page, I had nowhere to take her. She needed a faith in her work and in her own toughness that could be shaken. So I changed her voice, made her talk tough, and added lines like “Murders are my responsibility.” Her fears about crime are my own, although hers take her to a level of obsession mine never have.

I guess the short answer is that she’s not me, she’s Olivia. But I made her.

CR: Your novel is filled with haunting sentences like, “There is something that [Allison] did that I didn’t, and because of that, she is dead. I am alive.” What about these intersections of identity and obsession interests you?

LS: There’s something so big about obsession. Much of daily life is small, but if you have an obsession, you have a great deal of emotion connected to it, and emotion’s where drama comes from. And it’s interesting because it’s fundamentally inexplicable. You can build up theories to explain it – oh, she’s obsessed with that man twice her age because her father was distant, etc., but that’s never quite sufficient. Why that older man and not another one? Most often, the person obsessed can’t even explain it. Michael Caine has a good line in Hannah & Her Sisters: “For all my education, accomplishments, and so-called wisdom, I can’t fathom my own heart.” Psychology has filtered down the idea that everything we do can be explained, but we are all to some degree mysterious, even to ourselves. The way obsession taps into that mystery fascinates me. (But I don’t know why!)