* — April 2, 2017
An Interview with Leopoldine Core
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Author

by T Kira Madden, Justine Champine, and Annabel Graham

“…but there are these moments that leap out at me. They rescue me and they rescue my work.”

No Tokens: You have this exceptional way of carrying a story along with very familiar, whether they’re comforting or unsettling, passages or places. We see people in bed alone, chatting with someone in their living room, talking to their dog, and then bam—a jolting line that is so unlike the ones that came just before it. Either they take the lens of the piece and spin it around, turn it inward, or they bring a brief and sudden moment of horror, or they show a disarming tenderness that had been undetectable on the story’s horizon. Reading your work can feel like wading into the ocean and coming upon an abrupt drop in the sand, your feet suddenly in colder, deeper water. One of my favorites is, “Why won’t I let myself dream, she thinks with a chill. She senses, as she has sensed before, that there is something she doesn’t want to know about herself. Something that the goblins of her subconscious know.” What can you tell us about dispensing moments like these in the landscapes of your work? Do you have methods of distributing language that is perhaps more internally focused, or pretty, or holds mystery, amongst sentences whose strength is in their evenness or familiarity?

Leopoldine Core: I do try to cultivate an uneven topography when I write—maybe because it helps me to highlight significant moments. I mean, not every moment in a story is significant. If every moment were significant, it would be hard to experience them all. So I surround moments that feel important with dullness. My stories reflect the way I experience the world—I’m a quiet person but there are these moments that leap out at me. They rescue me and they rescue my work.

And I find that dullness on the page is not really so dull—it has an electricity to it because there’s more room for the reader, their imagination is forced into greater detail. I like giving the reader that power. And I like taking it away—countering their thoughts very suddenly with a specific one of my own. Like, actually this person has giant breasts! Or, actually they’re queer! Or, actually they’re a bit devious! Because I relish those moments in my daily life, when I look a second time at something and realize I was wrong. There’s some magic in being wrong.

NT: I love your endings because they often finish in motion—someone looking into a camera, opening a door, taking a breath before speaking. Leaving one of your pieces feels as though I’m just turning my gaze toward another world for a moment, and the on-goings of the one I just stepped out of are moving forward whether they are under observation or not. Your characters feel whole and so deeply human, they seem to require no ultimate resolution. As I formulate my original question I’m feeling like I’m led to more, so I’ll ask you about a few sides of the same thought: What compels you to end pieces on an upward motion, the moment before an action takes place? Do endings need to feel like they are completing something to be successful? Do you construct your stories in a way that reflects something more life like, I mean as far as people never being really ‘finished’ or their problems or experiences never truly reaching a final point? Does anything ever actually end?

LC: Maybe I have a weird sense of entirety. I’ve been reading the Library of America’s Collected Writings of Jane Bowles and I find the “Scenes and Fragments” section so deeply satisfying—they all seem like whole stories to me. Maybe a “whole” story is inherently somewhat partial. What is missing energizes the text. It comes to life all punched up with holes—the reader brings it to life.

Experience ends only once—when we die. Until then, we have all these different lives going on inside our bodies and they all contradict each other. This is why resolution in a story is impossible. When I end a piece, I try to leave room for the future—the next moment in the story that is absent from the page.

NT: The stories in When Watched have such an intimate, voyeuristic feeling to them—reading them, I felt as if I was peering through a keyhole into someone’s life, watching something I wasn’t supposed to see. Which is so interesting in relation to the setting of New York City, a place that arguably offers little, if any, privacy to its inhabitants. It’s a strangely common occurrence in New York to be put in the position of watching, or listening to, someone’s most private moments on the street or through the walls of an apartment building. As someone who grew up in the city, how would you describe your relationship with watching and being watched, with privacy (or lack thereof), and your interest in exploring these themes? How has New York influenced the way that you write, the way that you observe?

LC: I grew up in a narrow, cluttered apartment in the East Village and that relationship to space has shaped my work in a deep way. As a kid, I spent much of my time in bed and if I had a friend over, they joined me there. I did everything in bed. It was where I ate, did homework, painted, watched television, talked on the phone. Spending time with people in such close quarters really informed the way I speak and who I want to speak to. I mean, being in a small space with someone for hours—it had to be someone I really liked. And that turned me into kind of an intense person—like I’ll only tolerate people I’m besotted with. And I just want to be alone with them. In a large room, I’m a bit awkward, my body knows less what to do. It’s the same in my stories—I put characters next to each other in small spaces. It’s where I want to be.

NT: One of the things that really thrilled me while reading When Watched was all of the queer characters who were there at the centers and edges of your stories, existing in these worlds without their presence hinging on any straight need for queerness to be linked with or explained by some feeling of anguish or conflict or courageousness. It often feels like queer people are used as this half-formed tool just there to wrench out the emotional undercurrents of other character story lines in fiction, film, and music and it was such a breath of fresh air to read this collection and be free of that. So many of us have longed for a book full of characters like yours and I wonder if you would share some of your thoughts on producing work that, among so many other things, brings something solid and complex to what feels like a void in literature?

LC: Thank you. I try so hard not to objectify the characters I imagine. It’s part of why dialogue comprises the bulk of my stories—because I want the voices I’m generating to tell me who they are. I kind of want them to defy me in some way—even if its just me defying me.

Writing dialogue always feels like a challenge not to lie—to depict the soul in its particular excess. We carry our past around in the way we talk and our future lives there too. It’s the easiest way to know someone: talk to them. Talking is some of the best writing we do.

I believe—I mean, I know—that there’s a range of being within the queer body. Because there’s a range of being within every body. Everyone has their own unique gender and sexuality and that excites me. I’ve always been interested in characters and situations that are hard to define.

My book is queer in the same way I am—I can’t really separate the two. There isn’t quite a word for what I am and some people hate that—those people, they will tell you what you are. And I see that in my characters too—something that is hard to place, and a weird kind of joy in the act of refusing to label desire. I appreciate how transparent books are. When people draw a line between the book and the self, I laugh. You can tell so much about a person by a single sentence from their book. How they describe a situation or a face or even a chair—they reveal some piece of who they are. Maybe the events are fictional, but the feelings and the arrangement—that is always real.

NT: In each of your stories, you take the most ordinary, everyday moments—a couple lying in bed, two friends smoking pot in an apartment, an encounter at the grocery store, a road trip—and zoom in on them, infusing them with a certain shimmering quality, turning each rock over to reveal its underside. And your stories fit together so beautifully as a whole. Can you talk a bit about what the process of writing this collection was like? Did you start out with a greater vision of how all of these separate stories would work together, or did you write each piece individually?

LC: I wrote each story individually and they accumulated over the years. Then I realized I was writing a collection that would at some point be finished and honestly I felt a little sad. I wrote the last story with this in mind—“George Harrison and the End of the World”—a story very much about my fear of the end. Many of the stories in When Watched revolve around an attention to death and finishing a book is its own kind of death. It was a relief to insert those feelings of terror so plainly into the text—and then push them into another dimension, as is always the case in fiction, you’re just fibbing your way to the truth.

NT: Do you have any rituals, writing or otherwise?

LC: I have many rituals. In a way, I have nothing but rituals. I don’t get tired of things. I eat at the same restaurants, I buy the same foods at the store, I listen to the same music, read a lot of the same books, talk to the same people. In some way, my obsessions protect me. It’s like they have me, not the other way around.

My friend Lee was saying the other day that she likes rituals that happen one at a time. She said: “One at a time makes almost anything a ritual.” I thought that was so beautiful. And suddenly I understood how she keeps her home so clean. She finishes her rituals. Whereas mine are spilling all over each other, little messes everywhere: a bed full of open books, the computer open to a hundred documents, various food items scattered on the desk. I really like editing and it does feel somehow ritualistic. I remove so much of what I write. I think that’s most of what writing is—gutting the text, taking things away.

Leopoldine Core was born and raised in New York’s East Village and graduated from Hunter College. She is the author of the poetry collection Veronica Bench and the story collection When Watched. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Joyland, Open City, PEN America and Apology Magazine, among others. She is the recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award for fiction, as well as fellowships from The Center for Fiction and The Fine Arts Work Center. Core lives in New York.