Interview with Leigh Rourks
Cuban-American author Leigh Camacho Rourks lives and teaches in Central Florida. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Beacon College. Her short story “Moon Trees” was awarded the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. Her story “Pinched Magnolias” received the Robert Watson Literary Review Prize in Fiction. Her work has appeared in a number of journals including Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Triquarterly, and Greensboro Review. Her debut collection of short stories, Moon Trees and Other Orphans, won the St. Lawrence Book Award and was published by Black Lawrence Press in October of 2019.
Where do your stories come from?
This is one of my favorite questions—ever. Anytime anyone asks me it, I’m not sure that I always give the same answer. We’ve got so much advice out there about what to write about, but I think actually asking individual writers where their stories come from is super-interesting.
I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by Katherine Dunn who wrote Geek Love. She said, “Forget ‘write what you know.’ Write what you want to know.” A light went on for me. This is why I read. As a kid, you devour books because it’s a way to experience a thousand lives. I think that’s really at the core of why a lot of us write. Again, it’s about curiosity. I write it out to figure it out.
A lot of times I’ll see something in a newspaper, online, or hear it on the radio, and I get curious. How did those events come about? What does those events mean to someone else?
With “Moon Trees,” the first story in my upcoming collection, I was listening to NPR and there was a little clip about Stuart Rosa, the guy who took the seeds to the moon. Before he was an astronaut he was a smokejumper. He would jump into forests that were on fire, and then he was this guy who went to the moon and brought a forest full of seeds up with him. It’s so poetic when we boil this guy’s life down to just a couple of facts. It becomes this weird, beautiful, mythological, magical thing. What if I believed in magic? What would that mean to me? I was obsessed with the What If? until finally I wrote “Moon Trees.”
“Shallowing,” whose ending is very controversial, started with an article about some kids who’d killed some whooping cranes in Louisiana. I’m a huge lover of nature and animals. I thought to myself that it’s easy to think they’re monsters, that these were just kids who were born wrong and use that as an explanation for why they would destroy something so delicate, so on the edge of extinction, so beautiful. Then, the next easy answer is to just be like, “Well, boys will be boys, and bad stuff happens.” But what would make someone who wasn’t a monster, who it wouldn’t be socially expected of, to do something horrible like that? That’s an uncomfortable question.
My stories come often from curiosity. I hear something. My internal imagination goes a little nutty with it, and then I have questions. The stories are a way to find some answer to those questions.
We can see the mythological references in your poem “Apollo and Daphne” very clearly. Is myth something that informs and appears in other places of your work? Is there a mythology created by the sum of your work?
I think so. I think everybody who has a body of work probably is creating a mythology.
I love mythology. The first thing that I remember writing was when I was in elementary school, maybe third grade. Remember those popup books?
Yes. I loved those.
You pull tabs, eyes open, and stuff like that. I made one with a variety of materials. I figured out how the tabs would work and all of the mechanics. I took books apart. I used the myth of Pandora’s box as the story. It was for a class project. I was so excited about it. When you pulled a tab, Pandora’s box opened.
Myths were a way to hear stories from all over the world. I love cultural stories. I always have. Right now, I’ve been listening to Neil Gaiman read Norse mythology when I cook, so I’m still into it. I’ve written a lot of unpublished things that rely on myths from all across different cultures.
I think part of it is cultural. I’m a Southerner. I’m Cuban. We are storytellers in both of those cultures. Yes, all cultures are storytellers, but it’s very forefronted in Southern and Cuban culture. It’s always about the fish tale, the bigger-than-life version of the story. That’s the myths of our families and the myths of our towns. When we retell them, we make them bigger each time.
Some of my work also exists by accident in its own universe but it has its own laws, myths, and guidelines. When what I’m working on now is published, you’ll see a character or two who have been in other things cross over and reappear. I think that this idea that as writers we’re living in our own little world lends itself to the idea of mythology. Certain things have come up in my work over and over again like the moon or the three stars that when I was a kid I called the Three Sisters, which are Orion’s Belt. I told myself myths about these that were taken from things that people had told me. I sneak those myths into my stories.
What is your revision process?
I’m a layerer. I have friends who sit down every day and write thousands and
thousands of words. They tell me that’s what I should be doing. That’s just not who I am. I belabor points. I ruminate. I try to hang out in sentences, so I’m a slow writer on the first draft. Then, I go back every time I touch the work—not at the end. I’m very recursive, so I’m backing up—but not always to the beginning. I read. I tinker. Then I move forward because I can be sparse on first drafts. As I do that recursive process, I layer in images and ideas. Occasionally, I cut.
Are there advantages to working in multiple genres?
Yes. I can work on many projects at once, which I think is the biggest advantage. No
matter how hard you work, no matter how good something is, you don’t have complete control over whether it gets out into the world. I think that’s an important thing to remember: You can write beautiful things that never get published. If you have lots of projects, not all of your fragile, little (or huge, novel-length) eggs are in one rickety basket. I also think it helps my creativity. When I feel really stymied, when I feel like I can’t think of what might happen next in my major project, then I work on my side projects.
First of all, it gives me a lot of backup work. Second of all, I think it makes my brain function better to work in multiple genres. Third of all, it keeps skillsets in shape that are not always in play such as that idea of conservation of language that’s in shorter pieces like poetry. When I’m playing around in a novel, I don’t want to get rusty on that. Working on short forms reminds me. I think I’m definitely better at some things than others, but I think that’s okay. I gave up the need to be perfect a long time ago.
Which makes you more productive.
I think so.
When do you think you gave up the need to be perfect?
In writing or life? [laughs]
I don’t know that I ever needed it in life. My writing programs forced me to read very actively, which is great. I learned a lot about craft and what I wanted to do, and what I didn’t want to do. It also taught me that there are very few perfect books, perfect poems, perfect anythings out there. And that’s not bad. We are human beings. The little imperfections are probably more of a key to who we are as humans than those lines that scan perfectly every time.
I know a lot of people who when they look back at their older work, they’re just appalled, and they’re sad because they’re a different writer now.
They’re better or different so what they wrote before is no longer representative, and it hurts them. Looking back at my earlier work doesn’t hurt me. I like that girl. She was a mess. I try to like all of the humans I have been, and none of them are perfect, so none of the work they produce will be. And that’s okay.
I’m usually happy when I look back at old work and it seems imperfect or not as good as something I’ve done recently because it means I’m progressing.
How did you decide on the order of the stories in Moon Trees and Other Orphans?
There’s standard advice about putting together a collection of short stories. It’s something like, “Put your strongest story at the beginning and your strongest story at the end.” It’s all about what’s your strongest work, except I don’t know what my strongest work is. Can I say this? I love all my pieces.
You can. You don’t have to dislike any of them.
Honestly, I love them. It’s why I do it. When I love them, then I know that they’re done. I tried a lot of different orders. So the opening story “Moon Trees” won an award, so I figured that’s maybe a good place to start.
That’s a good contender for the opening story.
Ultimately, that’s not why it’s there, though. It had to do with a combination of tonal movement, a gut feeling. Then I wasn’t sure if what I had was working, so what I did was line up last lines with first lines because readers may read these stories back-to-back. What does that sound like? What is that story when we read those together? That finally drove the order along with this sort of wacky idea of tonal flow that I came up with.
How do you know when a piece is done?
Jack Bedell, the poet laureate of Lousiana, was my first writing mentor. When I was a young writer, I asked him that question and he said, “It’s like business. There’s a law of diminishing returns.” You can always make something better, but there comes a point where the effort, the time, the tinkering involved in making it better isn’t making it very much better. The work you spend revising something should produce a definite result.
I know good work now. I read so much. I write so much. Whether someone likes my work or not, I know what I like. I know what I want. When it gets there, when in my heart of hearts it’s the thing I wanted it to be, that’s when I know it’s time to make sure I’m not just changing the same word over and over again and not publishing.
You’re making it different, but not necessarily better.
That’s usually about fear. I don’t believe everything I put out there is going to be perfect, and I’m okay with that. I think imperfect things are beautiful things.
It’s not so much knowing when you’re done. It’s knowing what you wanted it to be.