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An Interview With Leslie What
An interview with Trent Walters
June 2002

© Leslie What
Leslie What
Leslie What
Leslie What attended the Clarion Writers' Workshop in 1976 but stopped writing to do other things, like maskmaking and puppetry, tap-dancing and stage performance, babies and community work. She published her first story in Asimov's in 1992 and has since added over one hundred publication credits in a variety of media: theater, non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and documentary scripts. She won the Nebula Award for her short story "The Cost of Doing Business" and has taught writing at conferences including Write on the Sound, Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, and South Coast Writers Conference.

Leslie What Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: eWhat: The Electronic Leslie What

The Sweet and Sour Tongue
Nebula Awards Showcase 2001

Luis Royo
Prom Night
Historical Hauntings
Bedtime Stories to Darken Your Dreams
Bending The Landscape: Horror

Leslie What: real name or pseudonym?
Both, actually. It goes like this: I'm a first generation American. My father had changed his name (or it was changed for him) to Bill Nelson at Ellis Island. He had deserted the Russian army in a dramatic escape to the American sector soon after his troop marched into Berlin. He worried that his mother would suffer if his whereabouts became known and never revealed his real name to anyone. My mother is a Holocaust survivor, born in Germany, and the only one in her family to survive. My parents greatest wish was to establish a typical middle class American family dynasty, but having lived through enslavement and starvation, witnessed murder and war, they inadvertently passed on skewed perspectives to their children. We were among the first families in Orange County to post barbed wire fencing around our backyard.

When I decided to make writing my career it occurred to me that Leslie Nelson sounded a bit too carefree and Scandinavian for the brooding, dark and wildly creative person I saw in myself. I did not want to take my mother's name because it felt too sad to be reminded of the family we had lost and my father wouldn't tell me his name, so I needed to come up with something suitable. A friend was going by the name of Karen Somebody, which I quite liked, and I looked for something close to that, but with less syllables. As I sat around thinking, What is the name that says who I am? What do I want to do with my life? What is it all about, etc., it seemed funny and appropriate and easy just to choose What, so I did. It's been my name, legally and professionally, for some 25 years.

Do you think the real pseudonym creates expectations in you as a writer or in your readers?
Probably! The name suits me, suits my personality, and conveys a sense of humor. It's less pretentious than a lot I could have chosen, had I been able to come up with any others.

What effect has your parents' difficult beginnings had on your work?
I'm sure it had some effect, at the very least providing extra grist for the mill. But I'm not a writer because of my experience or the experiences of those close to me. I'm a writer because I care about interpreting all of life's events and conveying my interpretations through the art of storytelling.

You have said "I've been writing since grade school and have decided my reason for writing is a desire to know how things will end and trick myself into believing I can control that. I suppose my early inspiration came from Andrew Lang and E. Nesbitt." Could you describe the path from Nesbitt to your first professional story? What approach(es) do you feel had aided your break into Asimov's in September 1992 with "King for a Day?"
My favorite stories were those imaginative tales where even though people made mistakes and turned against one another, redemption was always possible, either because of magical or mundane interventions. I liked stories about ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstance, stories where surprises turned out for the good, and where the characters found sustenance through faith and adherence to their ideals. I also went through a big Trixie Beldon mystery phase, in case you're wondering.

The "King for a Day" story just happened. I had been fascinated by Elvis impersonators for some time (still am -- fortunately, one of the premiere Polynesian Elvis impersonators lives here in Eugene, so I'm not deprived) but didn't really think the story was SF. I sent it to Asimov's on a whim, having been rejected for more traditionally SF stories many many times before.

When did you attend Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight's Clarion workshop? Apparently, afterwards you continued to work with Wilhelm and Knight. What did these experiences do for you as a writer? What ideas, exercises and what-not do you hope to bring with you as a teacher of Clarion in 2002?
In 1976, I was an unfocused, brash young thing who quit her steady job and spent the money saved for a trip to Europe to instead attend the Clarion Writers Workshop. I met another young writer named Eileen Gunn and together we drove out to East Lansing. We remain close friends. After Clarion, I moved to Oregon to be near Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm and a few other writers, as well as folks from another aspect of my life: the volleyball team at the Anaheim Unitarian Church. In Oregon, I took up with artists and vaudevillians, learned to tap dance, discovered I could create ephemeral environments inside of a Woolworth's photo booth. I became involved with the underground arts scene, financing projects through my work as a nurse. I had lots of fun, some of it documented in other venues. I wrote two stories a year and participated in Damon and Kate's monthly workshop until my father died, when I returned to California.

My father's death changed everything and also required I relinquish the Brash Young Thing title I had held so many years.

I worked as a nurse, married, became a puppetmaker and maskmaker, endured childbirth, became the primary caregiver to two children under the age of three, and rejoined the workshop after moving back to Oregon in 1985. My big mistake was bringing the only story I had written since becoming a mother. This was something I had slaved over for some two years -- my masterpiece, crafted in those rare moments when I had time away from the babies -- a story about a misunderstood person trapped in a world not of her making.

The story was not -- how to say it -- well-received, and I found myself devastated by the criticism. I gave up writing and returned to maskmaking, baking, and being a Campfire Youth Group leader to satisfy my creative urges. Years later I happened upon Damon at the grocery; he seemed genuinely delighted at running into me. He said something like, "Leslie! Hey... we haven't seen you around for a while, have we?"

And I said, "Don't you remember how you trashed my story? I can't ever come back! It was too humiliating!"

And Damon thought it over and said something like, "I don't remember the story and I don't remember the critique. But if you'd like me to take another look, I'd be happy to. And you're welcome to come back if you're willing to give us another try."

This exchange left me wondering if my perceptions about the whole thing had been wrong. I revised the experience in my mind and decided that while my expectations had been challenged, I had not really been personally attacked. At least, Damon still liked me.

By then the children attended elementary school and some of my confidence and brashness had returned, which allowed me to give the workshop another shot. I persevered until I started to publish my work, perseverance being the best explanation I have for any subsequent success. I am a slow learner and also an unfocused thinker and self-discipline has never felt natural. The workshop has been quite important to my development as a writer and I grew very close to Damon and Kate. Damon's death in April 2002 has been a tremendous personal loss.

I'd been away from the Clarion experience long enough that I decided to check out some other writers conferences, and I attended several large prestigious events, most of which weren't all that useful. (One exception was a week-long class with Robert Boswell -- he's a great teacher.) I bring to Clarion the model of the writer who took her time to settle into her work. I bring the experience of a student who kept track of which techniques inspired and which stifled. I bring the wacky perspective of an artist trained to appreciate the sublime underlying realties of a box of Jell-O. My goal as a teacher is to offer honesty, encouragement, and support, but never to stifle creativity; there are others better suited to that task.

How has having Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm as mentors shaped you as a writer? What are some of the "techniques inspired and which stifled?"
When I attended Clarion there was a bias against mythic fantasy because it wasn't what the instructors or most of the students were interested in reading. I've since been associated with a writing group (the Eugene Wordos), whose goal is to help workshop members publish, regardless of genre. I appreciate this approach, that is, basing critique on the story's intent and trying to help the writer explore its full potential. I still call people on sexism, racism, or stupidity when I see it -- but if someone is writing the kind of stuff I'm not interested in reading -- gross-out horror for example -- I either excuse myself from the critique or try to be helpful where I can. I don't tell people not to write the things that interest them, though I might suggest they further explore those aspects I find compelling.

Your style is reminiscent a kind of minimalism, pared back of non-essentials -- no heavy imagery or over-explanatory speculation -- like a Raymond Carver story without his gritty realism but your own socially domestic concerns. Did you cultivate a style, trying on different voices to find one of your own, or did this fall naturally into your lap? What speculative and non-speculative writers have influenced your work and in what way?
I discovered Robert Sheckley's short fiction as a teenager and was amazed by his humor and weird mischief. Much later I was introduced to the work of Damon Knight, Carol Emshwiller, Amy Hemple, and Ron Carlson, all writers with tremendous appeal to my inner-trickster. I attribute my minimalist style is to having written for an alternative weekly newspaper, where anything longer than 800 words wasn't acceptable for publication. That experience taught me to gather tons of essential information in notes while focusing the printed word on the essential elements of storytelling.

How has your appeal to humor and weird mischief of your "inner trikster" developed in your own work by reading Robert Sheckley, Damon Knight, Carol Emshwiller, Amy Hemple, and Ron Carlson? Do you ever rebel against inclinations or go with its flow?
I work to tell each story in the most suitable way. Often, but not always, that manifests itself in a subtle or broad comic style. But some stories work better in a more serious voice and it's not uncommon for me to switch gears part way if I think a piece isn't working.

How has dabbling in other genres (literary with "The Sweet and Sour Tongue" and mystery with "The Happy Homewrecker") improved your fiction in particular or the way you view fiction or the genre in general? Do you have interests in branching out into other genres?
There are often, but not always, differing conventions that distinguish literary fiction from genre fiction, but I write what I read, which is a bit of everything. I've recently started to write plays and radio commentaries as well. Write what you want to understand is probably the best explanation for why I write in different genres. If I want to know how to bake a kugel, I write a recipe. If I want to know about the inner conflicts that prevent families from openly expressing their affection for one another, I write fiction. I've also ghost-written the memoirs of a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, written several non-fiction works about aging, written for an internet game, written an erotic historical novel, and am currently writing a mainstream novel with fantastic elements.

A number of your stories -- "Compatibility Clause" and "Beware the Truancy Officer," for instance -- rely upon O. Henry's unexpected ending for an effect, albeit not the sole effect. What makes you attracted to this form? What is there about the form that continues to please audiences over the past century?
Those two were earlier stories; I'm finding myself less attracted to the surprise ending and writing more stories that build to an inevitable, albeit surprising end. A story that will be published in 2003 in Mike Resnick's anthology Women Writing SF as Men starts with the premise that a sperm donor is about to meet 10,000 of his offspring for the first time. What elevates this from a one-joke story to one slightly more affecting is that the guy has since married and started a family. The story skewers expectations about fatherhood while examining familial conflicts and issues of identity. Sometimes a wacky approach is the most direct route to the truth.

A story that will appear in The Mammoth Book of Road Stories from Carol and Graf examines a character who has done wrong but thinks it's in her power to drive away from the trouble. After all, she's an ordained minister whose church is in her car. If there's a higher power, he's riding in the front seat beneath her, so who's to say if she's taking a wrong turn?

Like Edith Wharton, you have some fascination with ghosts. What makes this subject matter ideal for development? Where most ghost stories ignore the religious implications, yours dive in. Are ghosts a method to discuss religion?
I think my fascination with ghosts stems from my desire to interact with the past. Ghosts are a metaphor for memory and remembrance and metaphorically connect our world to the world we cannot know about.

So, in that sense, it seems that ghosts are the perfect literary device for looking at religion -- because for many of us, spirituality is somewhere outside of our day-to-day reality.

Is the writer in any way responsible for the interpretation of her works? People commonly misinterpret Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled" as an advocation of taking the unusual path. In the genre, critics recently mistook Tom Godwin's classic "The Cold Equations" which forced the decision between sacrificing a young innocent girl or an entire colony, as misogyny. Likewise, "You Are Who You Eat" could be interpreted as trading one social Darwinism for another (or at least a biological Darwinism for a social one).

Whether or not the interpretation seems correct, should a writer defend her original theses to avoid critical abuse when the writer is buried and can no longer defend herself? How should a writer defend herself from later critical revisionism?

It's difficult for a writer to defend her work for many reasons. One is that the reader comes upon a story Now, but the writer wrote that story Then. It is difficult to recreate the feelings and concerns that prevailed around the time of creation.

Another thing is that a story might spring from one idea but take a turn midway to explore other ideas. This is not always a conscious process. While the writer usually remembers the origins of her story, the reader is under no such pressure, and is free to tap into another place in the story and discover cryptic subtexts.

I'd also say that stories with appeal to others have appeal because readers can identify with universal elements and bring their own history and experience to their understanding of any given work. The chef can fry an omelet, but who is he to tell the customer that it is or it isn't to her tastes?

Some stories, like "Goyles in the Hood," beg for sequels. Have you received requests for sequels (if not, consider this your first)? Have you ever written or considered sequels -- whether or not enough were accumulated for a novel?
Many people have asked me about writing out the novel that continues on from the story on SCI FICTION "Thanksgiving," but that isn't something I've had time to further explore. I did write a novel that begins with the short story "The Goddess is Alive, and Well, Living in New York" and another one that follows the adventures of the protagonist in "Finger Talk" -- Mota, Tripletree Press, publication Fall 2002. The novel I'm working on now does not derive from a short story, yet seems to be my most organized piece of long fiction to date, which ought to tell me something.

The Nebula winner, "The Cost of Doing Business" [Amazing, Winter 1999] resembles a tale of noir on negative film. Certain works seem to be amalgams of different ideas -- as in the cliché "King for a Day" and the King of Rock 'n' Roll and what he might be up to these days. What ideas coalesced to form the basis of "The Cost of Doing Business?"
"The Cost of Doing Business" began as a challenge story, that is, I'd been told so often that one couldn't write about a character who was a victim, that I wanted to prove that I could. There are a lot of victims in the world and it seems unfair to ignore their stories. Being a victim is bad enough. One shouldn't lose one's story to conventions of fiction. My story is a dark satire that attempts to answer a question about why people do what they do, in this case, why would someone choose to put herself in circumstance where she knows she will continue to suffer? To translate this to a real world question, why would any women choose to stay in an abusive situation? If my story has any power, I believe that's because it suggests one plausible answer.

In general, do you begin with an idea, a character (Elvis), an image (man standing in line, looking for work), or a theme (would the famous be famous if people didn't know they were famous)? How do you develop an idea into a story?
My strongest stories are those that start from some fully envisioned stage scene that pops into my head, and all I have to do is figure out how to get a story to progress to that scene. I frequently quick-sketch a character, then go through a process to figure out things about who that character is and what he or she wants. Once I know this, I look at what are the opposing forces. As the characters are fleshed out, it becomes clear how they will react in any given situation and over time, a story often seems to write itself.

With your "fully envisioned stage scene" do you begin with the setting or the finale? What kinds of questions do you ask yourself to come up with the character and her opposing forces.
I picture a stage and fill in the scene, as if I am a set designer, drawing in all characters and setting and envisioning the full scene, noting details like furnishings and clothes and placement of the characters. These details don't always appear in the story, but I'm generally aware of where my characters are standing, what they are wearing, and what they are doing with their hands.

I always know about the socio-economic status of my characters -- their level of education, their jobs, their family status and order in the family. I give them quirks and think up past histories and explanations for why they behave as they do. It's always a judgement call when figuring out how much information of this type to add to the narrative, but I generally know my characters well enough to know if the things that block them are internal factors (like fear) or external factors (like a stalker).

Most of my characterizations come from personal observations and experiences, but I have done research -- both reading and personal interviews -- to learn about characters who might be less familiar to me.

Gardner Dozois has called you "The Queen of Gonzo." What attracts you to a form which allows you to draw people acting as pets ["Say Woof" -- Asimov's July 1998]? What does such a title mean to you? Does a label make you want to break into new forms or improve upon your Gonzo throne?
I have no idea where any of this comes from. It's just fun to make odd connections and find order in chaos. Strange things have always seemed normal to me, even from childhood. That's a useful coping strategy when one lives in a world that doesn't make much sense. Creativity takes differing forms, depending on the person. Some people sew practical clothing, some paint landscapes, some create a story in which a pregnant woman in a gorilla suit learns to use sign language to communicate with the boyfriend she's afraid to talk to.

Damon Knight once laughed when he overheard me telling someone I was a typical housewife. This may have been soon after our local Jell-O Art Show, as it happens, the longest-running Jell-O Art show in the nation. I had created a Jell-O Zen garden, with a tiny rake and candy pebbles and sweet-scented Jell-O "sand" and it was the talk of the show. Anyway, it amused Damon.

Story ideas and images that make sense to me might not occur to other writers; nothing new here. One of our tasks as writers is to make the implausible seem sensible.

Speaking of labels, how would you define your work to date: fantasies, fabulist, speculative, or ...? Do you even consider you work genre?
I think of myself as a satirist in the classic tradition. There are those who might find this delusional, in which case I'll allow one amendment: a satirist in the fabulist tradition.

In your Speculations article on revision, you wrote "My favorite stories are ones where I find myself rooting for the bad guy and feel conflicted about that." Why? What makes a good bad guy?
Monsters are rare, meaning most people are multi-faceted and filled with conflict about morality and behavior. I am driven by and fascinated by the need to understand why people do what they do. How can someone go on once he has realized he's made a mistake? Why does remorse so often coincide with discovery of wrongdoing? I see regret and guilt as powerful driving forces in our lives and the most interesting bad guys are the ones who show evidence of a struggle between conflicting desires.

Regarding revision, how long do you need "to feel distance from the material?" Can you give an example of how images work subtly on a deeper level? Why do you think readers sometimes miss that you're "convinced my writing is chock full of wonder and meaning, even when no else sees that?"
I can tell you that I've recently sold three short stories written before 1996, stories I've been tinkering with since their creation. "It's a draft until you're dead" -- Cornelia Nixon.

Some stories have an expiration date and some can be redeemed forever. Don't give up on the things that you love, the things you need to understand.

My comic stories always have an element of truth. Usually that element is based on some memory of pain or hurt. Readers might not identify with a woman who dresses up in a dog suit to get a job, but most identify with the loneliness that could drive someone to do this sort of thing, and that identification allows them to understand the story.

I, as author, need both distance and time to analyze and process life as well as fiction. Otherwise, it would be too difficult to discover humor from what might otherwise be an untenable situations or events. As Carol Burnett said, "Comedy is Tragedy, plus time."

Apart from upcoming stories in the anthologies Mota in the Fall of 2002, The Mammoth Book of Road Stories from Carol and Graf in 2003 and Mike Resnick's anthology Women Writing SF as Men, what can we expect from you in the future? Can you tell us more about the "mainstream novel with fantastic elements" or any other novel possibilities?
I expect to have one or two novels published over the next two years and one collection of stories. Information available as it's available but I have nothing confirmed to date.

The novel I'm writing now should be completed in July. It's called Angels of Darkness and Light and is a comic novel about grief. In the story, four women journey to seek an audience with God and plead for world peace. They find God's intermediaries, angels, and this discovery allows each to take on both the good and bad characteristics of the angels. It's a feminist retelling of a talmudic story that has always interested me -- the one about the four Rabbis who enter paradise.

"How I Got Away" will appear in Mota and in another small press venue (called Polyphony, volume 2) is "Blind Date with the Invisible Man."

Copyright © 2002 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared or will appear in The Distillery, Fantastical Visions, Full Unit Hookup, Futures, Glyph, Harpweaver, Nebo, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Speculon, Spires, Vacancy, The Zone and blah blah blah. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine, he can be seen coaching Notre Dame (formerly with the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach), or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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