Hillary Leftwich has a knack for titles. Her new collection has arguably the best one I’ve encountered this year: Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock. In it, she combines surreal fiction, sharply-composed poetry, and taut nonfiction into an unpredictable and compelling whole. In addition to her book, she’s also the person behind the reading series At the Inkwell Denver; in other words, Leftwich is someone who can approach literature from many sides. I talked with her via email about the range of work in her collection, literary kindred spirits, and her handling of class.
I don’t usually start interviews by asking about titles, but Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock may well be one of the best titles I’ve ever encountered. So — was there a point in writing this when you knew that this was going to be your title of choice? And when did that phrase initially come to you?
Thank you! The title comes from a prose poem piece in the collection where I was playing with the meaning behind ghosts and strangers, the similarities behind people and lovers in our past being both intimate as well as distant. I chose this as the title of the collection because it sums up the people as well as the pieces in this collection incredibly well, without planning. A happy accident. I did have it narrowed down to three titles from three pieces in the book and sat down with Steven Dunn, who helped me arrange this collection, to decide what fit best. This title won, hands down.
Your collection blends — as far as I can tell — fiction, poetry, and memoir. What led you to combine all three?
It’s important to not stay static in one genre. I started out writing nonfiction, then moved on to flash fiction because flash doesn’t require tremendous amounts of time. But I wanted to study poetry and hybrid as well. Hybrid just makes sense to me in a way a lot of fiction and poetry as stand-alone pieces don’t. Combining all of the different genres is a result of learning and writing everything I could get my hands on at the time. Many of the pieces are a result of my experiences at different jobs, or riding the bus home with my son, or observing the people and situations around me. Like people and experiences, they’re all different, so each piece can’t possibly tell their stories in the same context every time.
How would you say placing all three in such proximity enhances certain qualities of each?
Sometimes a person’s story becomes lost in fiction or their voice is quiet in poetry. I think placing all three in close proximity is showing there are different ways to see a person, describe a scene of complete horror, or convey a moment that not everyone has the experience of knowing how it feels to, say, almost lose a child. The heartbreak of solo parenting. The lives you see riding the bus when no one knows you’re listening or watching. Nothing in my life has ever remained stable, and my writing reflects that. The instability of this world can’t possibly be contained in just one form.
One of the most striking stories in the collection is “Four Mothers of Demons.” Have you ever been tempted to write a full-on work of horror?
Absolutely. It was such a fun piece to write and I want to continue with that style of writing and voice in the future. Growing up reading my mom’s hardback Stephen King novels, there was no way to avoid his influence on my writing. Horror will always be my first love when it comes to writing, and there are so many amazing women authors who write horror to admire and read their work in the present day. Yes, there is always Shirley Jackson, Anne Rice, and Poppy Z. Brite and many of the older generations. But now we have Kelly Link, Mariko Koike, Sarah Read, Chesya Burke, to name a few.
You write very candidly about parenting and class in a way I don’t see a lot of writers doing. Is there a challenge that comes with writing with this much candor?
There is a lot of challenges I face when writing about parenting and class. I haven’t read a lot of work where I have connected with a writer when both are concerned. Usually, it’s just one or the other. Lucia Berlin was the first woman writer I felt this type of connection with. A Manual For Cleaning Women changed the game for me. Being a maid as well as a single mother, I related to a lot of what she wrote about. But in my own life, it felt much darker. I had a difficult time with my son’s friend’s parents. We had nothing in common. I couldn’t relate to many social circles either because look at me: I was a single mom, covered in tattoos, working odd jobs and constantly moving apartments and locations. It’s hard to explain to people who are in a class that is so different from yours how you manage to pay your bills or raise your son, but you’re trying to do the best you can. It’s terrible. But that’s how our society works, right?
Do you have a sense of what’s next for you, in terms of future writing projects?
A hybrid memoir, a horror novel, and a children’s book about epilepsy, because my son didn’t have access to a lot of reading material about his epilepsy when he was younger.
Would you say that running a reading series has had an influence on your work as a writer?
Definitely. I’ve had the privilege of hearing so many amazing writers read their work over the past three years, it remains with me. I see and hear their struggles as writers, their accomplishments, as well as their heartbreaks. The most important influence has been allowing people to have a safe space for their words. Nothing is more devastating than not having a voice. Everyone deserves that.
Photo: Jay Halsey