In the Spotlight: Leslie Greentree

showlights

I met Leslie Greentree last year, thanks to Alix Ohlin, our 2013 Little Bird Contest judge. Alix chose Leslie's moving (but funny) story, "The Room of Pickled Things," as the contest winner. It's now one year later, and the 2014 Little Bird Contest submissions are already starting to rumble in. I love this time of year!

While we are waiting for the contest deadline and playing with Vol IV book cover designs, I thought it would be fun to catch up with Leslie and find out what she's working on now, a year after her win.

Read her story excerpt, below. It is, I believe, what people in the business call "unputdownable." I won't spoil anything — the piece speaks for itself — but I will reveal to you that I'm hooked. I want to read the rest to find out what happens. Like, right away!

I'm also happy to see that Leslie continues to write in the same emotional paradigm as she did in "Pickled Things": biting-and-funny-yet-sad-and-true. It's my favourite combination.


Leslie Greentree

Meet Leslie

Leslie Greentree is the author of two books of poetry, "guys named Bill" and "go-go dancing for Elvis", and a collection of short stories, "A Minor Planet for You". In 2004, "go-go dancing for Elvis" was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and in 2007 "A Minor Planet for You" won the Howard O’Hagan Prize for short fiction. She has recently completed her second collection of short stories and is now at work on a third. Stories from these collections have won the CBC Alberta Anthology competition and the 2013 Little Bird Writing Contest. In 2012 Leslie and her partner Blaine Newton co-wrote a play, "Oral Fixations", while drinking Mai Tais in Maui, and she is excited about its world premiere in Red Deer, Alberta this fall.


Handwriting or computer?

I almost exclusively write on computer, sometimes using the “notes” on my iPhone for ideas and snippets, because I’m too lazy to transcribe, but I find it much more effective to edit by hand on a hard copy.


Page count or time count?

I tend to measure feelings of success or completion by word count. While I know sitting and staring at the screen for 37 minutes at a time – letting wheels turn in my brain, watching birds through the window – is a vital part of the process, I somehow don’t believe anyone else will think it “counts.”


First drafts or revision?

I never let a first – or even a second – draft out into the world. I revise a lot and add layers once the first draft is complete.


Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?

I write solo (except for the co-authored play mentioned in my bio). Then I take it to my kick-ass writing group, which is made up of a poet, a playwright and a poet/novelist, all of whom play very well with other genres.


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

At home, I write in silence. Oddly, when I’m on a writing retreat, I light the candles and play Greek pop, Italian tenors or monks chanting in Latin – nothing I can understand the lyrics to.


Who are you reading these days for influence, and why?

Such a seductive question – you’re going to be trapped here for hours! I’m a reading whore. I read mysteries by Jonathan Kellerman and others of his ilk, because they’re all about human psychology. I read novels and short stories by Charles de Lint – urban fantasy that connects city life with artists, mythology, magic and sometimes technology. I read a ton of short stories – many, many Canadian collections but also American and Irish collections, and British ones when I can find them. I have a weird collection of short fiction anthologies that makes me insanely happy: stories about gargoyles; Canadian zombie fiction; Manhattan noir; lesbian fiction; Christmas Sci Fi; Canadian mysteries; wayward, wicked women; gay and lesbian Sci Fi; prairie writers; and all the Journey Prize and Best American Short Story anthologies. I am madly in love with Jose Saramago. One of the most startling and haunting novels I’ve ever read, which I go back to every few years, is I Who Have Never Known Men, by Jacqueline Harpman. Three books that continue to inspire and challenge and are irreplaceable in my library: short fiction collections The Devil Out There by Canadian author Julie Keith and No One Belongs Here More Than You by American author/ filmmaker Miranda July (my god, I wish I’d written these two books!), and a non-fiction book, The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill by David M. Buss. And one more story that keeps coming back to me: one of the runners up in the Little Bird 2013 competition: a story by Adam Giles titled Sacred Garbage. I read a ton of literary novels, too. I’m an addict. And I don’t want help. Give me independent bookstores. I will go broke and be happy about it.

What's the best advice you would give a new writer?

Really? You’re still here? Bless your heart for listening to me go on.

1. Read a lot. Read widely within the genre you want to write in, and read widely beyond it.

2. Listen to constructive criticism. Really, really listen, and internalize. No one writes something perfectly, shinily brilliant on their own. Our work is always improved by an intelligent editor. Find people you trust, show them your stuff, and then listen carefully and without ego to their comments. Sometimes they’re wrong, but they’re more often right and their input will make you a better writer. Oh! And don’t expect them to do this all for free – buy them dinner (do not just offer a coffee – we all prefer wine and a big greasy plate of nachos), offer your editorial skills in return, throw them a book launch, or actually pay them for their expertise.

3. There are a lot of writing mythologies out there; don’t be intimidated by them. Writers will tell heroic tales of how horrifically early they get up to write each day, speak of muses and rituals and magical moments where stories are “given” to them fully formed and, apparently, not in need of edits. It’s all true and none of it’s true. Just find your timing and your flow, and make the time for writing. Be playful and inquisitive – creation should be an exploration and an adventure into the crazy and fascinating realms of your brain – but also be aware that sometimes writing is a dull slog through a drab wasteland. You’ve got to keep working through those times.

Tell us your thoughts about the Little Bird Contest!

What was it like to be the winner last year? It was the best. I admire the huge talent of Sarah Selecky and last year’s judge Alix Ohlin and was so delighted to win the 2013 competition. I thought the stories by all the runners up were amazing and loved the chance to discover those writers. And, honestly, because I’ve been taking so very long between books, it delighted me to no end to have my name associated with such an intelligent, literary prize. I also like that it supports birds. (A friend told me a while ago that I have too many birds in my new manuscript. My response: Are you crazy? What the hell do you have against birds? Though I have to say that a bird dies, badly, in the short story manuscript I currently have out in the world looking for a home – sorry, that damn muse made me do it and I have no control …)

Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today

I’m writing about death. Not the sadness of it, which we all know, so much as the weirdness of it — the strange rituals, the sidebars, the bizarre ways we manage our reactions when faced with this mysterious and terrifying passage. The excerpt included is from the title story of a new collection I've begun working on, tentatively titled "Exit Interview (and other stories)".


Excerpt from Exit Interview, by Leslie Greentree

Only my mother could turn her impending death into performance art, and get a fucking grant for it. I don’t know what I expected once we got through the initial shock that she was dying – maybe that we’d finally spend some time together, have those mother-daughter conversations you see in all the death movies. But that’s not the way my mother does things.

By week three she was madly taking notes — she got all breathless with excitement. Maybe part of the breathlessness was due to the lung cancer, but other than that it was no different, ultimately, from how she always behaved at the start of a new project. Except, of course, she had to take a lot of breaks between her note-taking to take a lot of drugs, and a lot of naps, and go to a million doctor appointments. Except, of course, this time the project was her death. “Exit Interview,” she called it.

I came home from work a few weeks later, and a reporter was sitting on our couch. I knew Anthony. When your mother is a public figure you get to know the media pretty well. Still, I was taken aback to see him – that she hadn't told me she was granting interviews.

“What are you doing here?” I was cautious. I've learned over the years to keep an eye on her timing, wait for her big reveal, but apparently it had happened while I was offstage.

Anthony took my hand. I’d never noticed before how tiny his hands were, how soft as he pressed my fingers. “Your mother has been telling me she has a new project in the works,” he said. “It sounds—” Here he paused, his enthusiasm for the project clearly warring with the death timer that had necessitated it.

“Yes, it does, doesn't it?” I said. I pulled my hand away and excused myself. I waited until I was out of the room before wiping it on my pants.

Anthony has been covering my mother's career for years. He wrote about her long before she was famous, calling her a bright new light in the theatrical scene. After a show last year, I saw them backstage; my mother was glowing the way actors do when they come off stage, still suffused with the energy of her performance. She had her hand on his arm — nothing inappropriate, but I saw the look in his eyes. She said, “You've always been so good to me, Anthony,” and as he glowed back at her I could see he agreed. I watched her face shift ever so slightly, and, while she never said anything about it, from that point on, Anthony was the first media person she called whenever she had news.

My mother let Anthony out and came into the kitchen where I was dumping macaroni into a stainless steel pot. I hissed as the boiling water splashed onto my thumb. “I'm making pasta,” I said. “What sort of sauce do you want?”

“You’re angry.”

“For fuck's sake, Mom. You’re dying, you've started some death art project, and you want to — what — bring in a photographer to take pictures of me crying and holding your hand? No way.”


Note: These monthly spotlights showcase Mysterious Middle Drafts (MMDs). That means they are somewhere between first drafts and final drafts. This is a challenging stage! Emerging writers bravely share their work-in-progress here for discussion, but this is not a book review or critique: this is a venue for the appreciation of Mysterious Middle Drafts. Thank you for making this writing space safe and supportive.  

Discussion:

  • What remains with you after reading Leslie's work?

  • Can you articulate what’s working in this excerpt – and more importantly, why it’s working?

  • How is your own writing practice like Leslie's? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below. And thank you, Leslie! 


Chirrup Chirrup!
Be open, and let yourself love this.

4 comments

I loved loved loved "The Room of Pickled Things" and picked it out as my winner last year when I read all the collection "blind". Thank you so much, Sarah, for this visit with Leslie Greentree. Today this excerpt blew me away, for the tearing rhythm and force of the writing, but ironically also because I am working on a story for the contest based on my own experience of how my mother orchestrated her death from lung cancer. My first thought was "Now I'll have to put that aside" but then I was inspired again by Sarah and Alix's comments last year about how many interesting and varied stories are written from the same daily prompt, and perhaps will keep on with this story. Many thanks, Leslie, for your courage and generosity in sharing a work in progress--to my mind, the true mark of a pro. Best of success to you.
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Right from the first line, you're laughing in that way that, if broken down into its various components, would be comprised of: empathy, alarm, and ticklishness. Her writing tickles my funny bone, despite the major theme of death lording over the characters. What stays with me is the need-to-know. And because I CAN'T know right now (until I read the completed story) I find my own brain has hopped in the driver's seat and gone for a joy ride (which is how I know I'm loving a piece). I am imagining all the possibilities for this art project, and for how our protagonist bounces off the art project. I'm imagining the lesson the protagonist may/will glean from her mother's project and her mother's willingness to face death head on (but that may be my own projection desiring that a meaning be gleaned from all this). For me, the reason this works so well is the voice. From the very first sentence, our narrator's essence becomes clear. It's a crusty, but human essence, and it's not just 'believable', it's true. I read a piece by Rob Lowe recently where he said that only bad actors are lying when they perform. The same goes for writing, in my opinion. And there were no lies to be found. My practice is like Leslie's in a lot of ways. I tend to do computer/iPhone, I never share first or even second drafts (and third/fourth/fifth have to be pried from my hands). I also have a small group of amazing people out there who I exchange work with. I try to receive their feedback openly, and without self-judgment. And I also work hard to maintain a playfulness with my writing. I have a little mantra I sometimes say to myself which goes a little something like this: You can be cautious in any other realm of your life. Your health, your finances, your relationships, your career. Caution belongs there, alongside your playfulness. But when you sit down at this desk, anxiety is not welcome. Only playfulness. I'm so glad to read more of Leslie's work, and definitely can't wait to read the finished story! Also, she's so right about Miranda July being incredible...
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I liked the first sentence. "Only my mother could turn her impending death into performance art, and get a fucking grant for it." It drew me right into the scene and to the tension w mom. I have witnessed a couple of people taking death head-on w a lot of grace and character lately, so it resonated w me. As for process- I veer more towards handwritten, however, I also, like Leslie, enjoy listening to music that doesn't interrupt my writing process- for me it is usually French folk. Well done!
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Leslie Greentree

Meg, Shannon and Mary, I so appreciate your comments - I will freely admit that I had to take a mighty deep breath before putting a relatively early draft out there in the world, but Sarah creates such a wonderful, safe space for it, doesn't she? And I love hearing about your writing processes. (And now I'm going to find me some French folk music, stat!) Meg, please, please write your story. It will be nothing like mine, and there's room for so many unique ways to talk about such an intriguing topic. Thank you all for taking the time to comment - you have made my day. Happy writing to us all!
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