“A lot of people…when they’re hurting, they turn hard and want to close themselves off and love less….but what about the people who open up even more…want to love even more than before? Those people interest me. Those are my favorite kind of people. God bless those people. That’s the kinda person I want to be everyday.”
One of my new favorite writers in the small press universe is Leesa Cross-Smith. She’s extremely talented, supportive of other writers, funny, kind and smart. And she has a brilliant short story collection coming soon from Mojave River Press, called EVERY KISS A WAR. I approached Leesa about having a chat here on my blog in advance of the launch of collection (APRIL 21ST!). But we wanted to do something a little different, so we decided instead of talking about the entire collection we’d talk in depth about just one of the stories. We settled on one of my favorites,”Making Cowboys.” The story may be found here at Little Fiction.
KATHY: Leesa, I love “Making Cowboys” so much. It’s such a warm, gentle story, filled with love. I was struck, rereading it, how there’s very little overt tension/conflict in this story, yet….the reader knows it’s there. We have the newlyweds, who have been married previously, have had their hard times and their hearts broken. That they love each other is so apparent. The tension of the story lies in this feeling of a new start for all of them, and all the giddy joy and fear inherent in that.
So I asked myself, what drives this story? Why was I so drawn in here? We are always told, make your characters want something. Here, Charlotte so wants this new life to work. She loves them all, her own son, Wyatt and Wyatt’s daughter and the story is all about Wyatt and Charlotte returning from their honeymoon and about to spend their first night, all together as a new family, in Wyatt’s home. I realized that that was what it was. You created such wonderful, relatable characters, gave just enough of their background to make your readers fall in love with them and root for them. That’s what drives the story, what makes the reader keep reading. It’s simply and beautifully, and confidently told. It works on every level.
So! My first question is this: Talk about the writing of this story a little bit. Was the cowboy hat your starting point, as it is in the story? And did you mean it to be a symbol (the “family hat”) or did that just arise on its own?
LEESA: When I started this story, my intention was to give both Wyatt and Charlotte something new. Like, two items that signified their new lives. Talismans, amulets, even. And I wanted them both to be a bit uncomfy with those new things. Wyatt doesn’t “feel” like a cowboy, even though he has a cowboy name…so something about the cowboy hat makes him self-conscious…like he’s playing at being someone he’s not. And he chooses a sexy, busty mudflap cowgirl belt buckle with a wink as a gift for his new wife. It’s not something she’d usually wear, either. So while they’re comfortable with kinda becoming these new people in this new life…there’s a bit of hesitation there because new things are scary!
So I had this idea that while Wyatt wants to wear the hat because Charlotte loves it and loves him in it, he’d take it off from time to time because he wasn’t used to it yet. And it’s the kinda hat that would get a lot of attention, so it’s the first thing someone would notice when they talked to him. (Like Raylan Givens wears in Justified or any hat like that…it’s the kinda hat that couldn’t go unnoticed. People feel compelled to compliment it/mention it in some way.) So when he shows up on his ex-wife’s doorstep to pick up his daughter, his ex-wife of course makes a comment about it and he immediately takes it off. But! He puts it back as soon as he’s done talking to her because he’s a new man! The hat isn’t for her anyway. It’s for Charlotte and his new family.
I did mean for it to be a symbol! But I think it came together in an even better way than I originally imagined. :) I didn’t overthink it, I just kept writing and let the characters pass it around kinda like a game.
I’m a big believer in starting over. In forgiveness and second chances, so I really wanted to bring that home in this story. The idea that there can be a sweet love story after two failed marriages and teenagers. I’m a hopeful romantic.
KATHY: I love the idea of giving your characters “amulets” that serve as symbols, but also drive the story in some way. It really works for me, this manner of storytelling, and you do this seamlessly. I think in the hands of a lesser writer this method could be heavy-handed and obvious. But not with you, with this story.
I also like that while it was your starting point, and your intention, it moved organically beyond your original idea and worked even better than you’d imagined. That’s an argument for letting go of one’s own creation a little bit and letting the good stuff come on its own.
I loved this: “I’m a big believer in starting over. In forgiveness and second chances, so I really wanted to bring that home in this story. The idea that there can be a sweet love story after two failed marriages and teenagers. I’m a hopeful romantic.”
I think this is exactly why I love your work so much. Charlotte and Wyatt and those kids…I love them. So my next question is: Would you consider writing more of this family? Extending to novel length? And I guess the complimentary question is: Have you ever written a novel? If not, have you considered it, with these characters or any others?
LEESA: I love reading novels about families! Getting to see issues and events from different sides/different points of view. I had to make myself write about the family in Making Cowboys in third person. I originally wanted to write it from first person but wanted to do something different, stretch myself a little bit. It feels very much like Charlotte’s story…but I wanted to step outside of it. So the short answer is yes! :)
I’d like to write more about them…to talk more about Wyatt’s past and Charlotte’s too…I’d really love to write more about their first few dates…and Charlotte flirting with him at the baseball games. And Wyatt being slow about making the first move because dating wasn’t really even on his radar…he was staying busy with other things…and also he’s a newly-rediscovered gentleman. I’d love to write about how raising a teenage daughter changed his brain a lot about how men treat women in society. I gave them both children of the opposite sex so that Wyatt could connect with Charlotte’s son, Joshua, on a base level (baseball pun!?) since he was already his baseball coach and if they had nothing else in common, they have that…and the fact that they are both dudes.
And same for Charlotte and Karis. If nothing else…they are both girls and can sweetly roll their eyes together about the things the dudes do…and bond over girly things. I love writing about the sameness/differences between men and women and how those things affect and brighten and confuse our relationships. So yes, I think there are lots of things there to explore and I’d like to someday! Selfishly, I put little things in my stories as placeholders…for me to obsess over and come back to later. The equivalent of folding a page down…or something like that. So I made Wyatt a baseball coach. I love reading about/writing about baseball…so this way I have an “excuse” to research the things I don’t know. For example, a friend of mine is a high school baseball coach so I’ll text him HEY DO YOU GUYS EVER HAVE PRACTICE ON SATURDAYS AND IF SO, WHAT DO YOU DO. And he’ll gimme the secrets. :) And also I love writing about domesticity. So I like thinking of Charlotte setting up her new house…the little things she’d do to make it her own and to make it cozy for her new family. It’s kinda boring writing it out that way, but those little things rocket-fuel my brain to create new things.
And in the story, it is mentioned that Wyatt and Charlotte’s children hadn’t really gotten into any real trouble…so we know that’s coming. I feel like Joshua and Karis would get involved in teenage shenanigans fersure. That’d be fun to write. Both that, and Wyatt and Charlotte reacting to it.
I’ve written a YA novel that I’m not quite sure to do with and I’m okay with that for now. And I’ve written a novella expanding on my story “Whiskey & Ribbons” that I am excited about. I am currently writing a novel re: my character, Violet, who is the main character in three of the stories in my collection, Every Kiss a War. The novel is about Violet and her ex-husband and her boyfriend. It’s coming along! I feel like I could write about her forever because she’s so wild-hearted. There’s a lot a baseball, a lot of kissing and a lot of 90s music b/c Violet has a youngish cool aunt who was real into riot grrrl and Violet was raised on that stuff.
KATHY: LOVE this answer. I feel like I could keep asking you questions forever (especially about the other novel ideas, the novella for Whiskey & Ribbons, etc.) I’m so happy to hear you’re oriented towards expanding on your characters into novel length. I’d love to read any book you write.
I want now to look at the language of your stories and this one in particular. One thing I’ve noticed that new writers do is they latch on to any words/diction that pleases them and sounds cool without thinking about the particular “voice” of their story. It makes for pretty sentences! But not a feeling of cohesion. I feel like you stay true to your own voice or the voice that fits your stories with your attention to language. Here are just a few examples:
Like I’ve got a can of dip in my back pocket and only listen to country music,
Being together like that was as fresh and crisp and new as the striped linens on the king-sized bed in their honeymoon cabin
Swam like little lake creatures baptized in wet, North Carolina moonlight.
These are just from the first few paragraphs. Anyway, I want to talk about how you approach language when writing. Do you go with what comes naturally? Or are you thinking of creating that voice? To me, it’s about authenticity. EVERY KISS A WAR works so well, feels so complete and cohesive, partly because you maintain a very authentic voice and aesthetic throughout. Nothing feels forced and what I want to know, is do you ever override your own voice for the sake of a story, to make it “sound” different?
This is an odd question, sorry! I’m hoping you sort of understand what I’m getting at here….
LEESA: Thank you much for all of this kindness, Kathy! When I start a story, I always go with what comes naturally. Creating a strong voice in my writing has always been easy for me., so I really don’t have to overthink it. There are lots of things that don’t come easy for me but that is one of them, so fortunately I don’t have to think about it too-too much. When writing Making Cowboys, I originally intended it to be the lead-off story in an entirely different collection. So I wasn’t concerned with whether or not the voice sounded too much like the other stories because it was gonna be something else entirely. But when I (& my publisher, Michael) decided to make it a part of EVERY KISS A WAR…because it felt similar…and it worked out that way…I did read it a lot with that in mind.
Was the voice unique? Were there moments that didn’t feel true? I felt a little freer with this one because of writing from a third person POV when I usually write from first person. I felt like I could take my hands off the wheel for a bit and let whatever was gonna happen, happen. I saw these characters in this country western store in my brain…this man feeling uncomfy in a cowboy hat and his new wife trying to convince him he was adorable in it. And then I just started tippitytapping.
I haven’t felt like I’ve needed to override my own voice for the sake of a story to make it sound different very often. And when it has happened, I’ve gotten frustrated and taken a step back. Whenever I feel the need to force something in my writing, it never works. So I have to let it rest and come back to it. There have been times when I’ve worried that my female narrators sound “too much” alike…but I really don’t worry about that anymore. I write the women I want to write and have grown more confident with simply letting my style be my style…and letting that speak for itself.
I try really hard to write things down to the bone…and then make them special. And sometimes someone really is just opening a door or making dinner…and nothing needs to be added. But if can squish things together…like talk about how they waited until their wedding night to have sex and get the reader from another scene in the present to the flashback honeymoon cabin, all in one sentence…I go for it and see if it works!
Kathy, you’re one of my favorite writers because your stories seem so magical…even when they’re about ordinary things! That’s really what I try to do. Make ordinary moments magical.
And that’s kinda what happens re: my writing process. So much changed for me in my writing brain/writing world when I gave myself 100% permission to write what I wanted to write however I wanted to write it. Magic!
KATHY: There is never a moment in your writing that doesn’t feel true or authentic, Leesa. There’s never that feeling of, oh, clever writer! You know what I mean? Anyway, this is a terrific answer.
I have two final things:
1) This is a typical interview question but I really want to know, ha….should someone make a movie about this family (and I hope someone does!), who would you cast?
2) Here’s where you get to come up with a question you wish I’d asked and answer it (optional, but you know sometimes the one thing you want to talk about doesn’t get asked!)
LEESA: I love this question! I always do! :) Wyatt was always Chip Esten in my brain. Or Chip Esten-ish! He plays Deacon on Nashville and he has such a gentle sweetness about him. And he says words with an “l” in them the same way Wyatt does. People who know what I’m talking about, know what I’m talking about! :) I call it the “North Carolina L” b/c it’s usually someone from North Carolina who says it like that…or someone trying to sound like that. It’s a very specific thing and I love it so much.
Also, I usually write men who are men-men, but also have a gentle sweetness about them because I live with a man exactly like that. (My husband is everything that is beautiful about being a man’s man while also being sugar-sweet so he’s my inspiration for characters like that, fersure.)
And Charlotte would be Joy Bryant. I love her a lot and she’s so, so beautiful. I kinda wanna cast her to play all of my girls. And most of my couples are interracial…I do that without thinking about it most of the time! I’d cast Cole Hauser as Charlotte’s ex-husband in flashbacks. And maybe Nia Long as Wyatt’s ex-wife.
As far as the kiddos, I don’t really have anyone in mind for Joshua, but Karis is my oldest niece’s middle name and that’s why I picked the name b/c I love it and I love her.
“Here’s where you get to come up with a question you wish I’d asked and answer it (optional, but you know sometimes the one thing you want to talk about doesn’t get asked!)”
—> What is your Story Song for Making Cowboys?
My story song for this story is “Two” by Ryan Adams. In it, he sings “I got a really good heart, I just can’t catch a break. If I could, I’d treat you like you wanted me to, I promise.” Such a sweet song. I never get tired of it.
It reminds me of Wyatt. He’d tried to make his marriage work, but it didn’t and he’d spent some time being crushed about that and he’s still a bit tender, so now what? Where does that desire to love someone and be kind to someone go? That desire to treat someone well and really love them…what does he do with that b/c it’s not going away.
A lot of people…when they’re hurting, they turn hard and want to close themselves off and love less….but what about the people who open up even more…want to love even more than before? Those people interest me. Those are my favorite kind of people. God bless those people. That’s the kinda person I want to be everyday.
I love thinking about Wyatt driving his truck home from Charlotte’s place after their first date and maybe he stops for a coffee or a Coke and maybe his tires are making that whispery-swishy sound on the road because maybe it rained a little bit when he was at Charlotte’s place and then he hears this song on the radio. And he’s like uh oh b/c he’s already fallen in love with Charlotte and the song is singing everything he couldn’t say yet. And he thinks about turning around and knocking on her door and telling her that stuff but he doesn’t wanna freak her out. So instead, he goes home and texts her: I had a really great time tonight and thank you for kissing me. Next time, my turn.
KATHY: Aw, I love that. Leesa, thanks so much for chatting with me!
Leesa Cross-Smith is a homemaker and writer from Kentucky. Her debut short story collection Every Kiss a War is forthcoming from Mojave River Press (April 2014.) Her work has appeared in places like Midwestern Gothic, Carve Magazine, Word Riot, Little Fiction and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. She and her husband run a literary magazine called WhiskeyPaper. Find more at LeesaCrossSmith.com.