“I’m Not a Big Fan of Rules”: Hillary Leftwich on Writing “Aura”

Hillary Leftwich

Aura, the new book from Hillary Leftwich, is a lot of things — a mother’s correspondence with her son, a writer’s origin story, and an at times harrowing account of abuse. It maintains the same formal innovation and structural intricacies that characterized Leftwich’s previous book while also offering a candid look back at its author’s life. Leftwich and I conversed about the process of writing Aura and the act of revisiting the personal histories contained within.

The text of Aura abounds with spells for a variety of purposes. Is there a similar sense of ritual when it comes to your writing practice?

Definitely. Writing for me is a ritual in many ways—researching, setting up my space, being in the right mindset (emotionally and physically), and really adoring what I want to write about. All of these things are necessary for me to even be able to write anything that I’m committed to and serious about pursuing. 

Throughout Aura, you allude to other writing that you did on the same events in your life that inspired the memoir. What has shifted, in terms of how you write about this period of your life?

I think what shifted was a more confident voice. During the times in Aura when I was really struggling as a single mom and my son was having a lot of neurological issues involving his epilepsy—(which made it hard to have any kind of a social life or any free time at all, let alone write), I thought no one would want to read about being the outcast single mom or all of the jobs I had to work to pay bills, or even shitty apartments because it’s the only place we could afford. All of these real-life topics I faced didn’t fit into the standard of what I thought was considered writing in the writing world, where white cis men dominate. Now I know better (we all should). 

Both Aura and Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock make use of hybrid structures. What attracts you to this as a form?

I love this question because now I get to take up all the room in the interview talking about my love of hybrid forms. I’m not a big fan of rules—forms sure, rules, no. Never have been, even as a kid and into my teenage years. So it isn’t surprising that I fell in love with it within my writing. I was never satisfied with one particular way of writing a piece—whether it was prose poetry, a lyric essay, or a flash fiction piece. The confinement. Coming from a DV relationship where your entire world is limited within spaces—you are made smaller and smaller by someone else’s force, and especially when the person abusing you has a mental illness, the need to break free from this—including within my writing—was necessary for my own mental health. Anything that feels restrictive I run away from. 

For years I was labeled as a “flash fiction writer,” and that’s all people knew me for when nonfiction was where I started getting my feet wet. I get bored with writing the same genre and want to constantly surprise myself, experiment, and try what other hybrid writers are doing. Reading Monster by Walter Dean Meyers really cracked my damn world wide open. Writing in the form of a movie script? Totally blew my mind, and I soaked in every last word. Reading Meyers made me realize you can do anything in the hybrid form—anything you want. This is the only space I want to write from. 

Did you plan to include found documents in Aura from the initial stages onward?

I did not plan to include any photos or found documents until Kevin Sampsell, my publisher at Future Tense, mentioned it as an option. Then I thought it might be good to provide evidence of my son’s hospital stays and the court bullshit I had to go through with his bio dad. But most of all, the drawings my son made when he was little during that time really make it feel, as a reader recently pointed out to me, like a baby book in many ways, and I love that so much. 

Were there any ways in which writing about your life changed the way that you viewed certain past experiences?

Since this is really a memoir written for my son from my lens as a recollection of his journey, my answer would be it’s almost like being hypnotized and retelling a story from the point of view of a shared experience with someone who was there, but their memory was erased entirely. So for me, it was painful to relive everything, knowing my son would be reading it one day and possibly questioning my judgments. This was the whole reason why Aura was written. So my son can understand why I did what I did and what he went through (since his epilepsy erased almost all of his memory of the events). 

What was the most challenging aspect of your past to write about?

When they ask me this question, I have told other people it was writing about my childhood, but really, it’s writing about the choices I made as a mother that clearly were irresponsible and downright dangerous. To admit openly, to write about the mistakes I made, knowing I would be judged—especially as a mother—made writing about these situations extremely hard. But my son needs to know the truth, and I can’t hide that from him. Aura is about who he was and how he became who he is today. To back down from writing about this would be like lying to him about a huge part of his early childhood. I could never do that to him. Is this the legacy I want to leave him? The story that will be left for him to unravel? Well, it better be damn straight. 

Do you find that you approach writing fiction and writing nonfiction differently?

No. Because in both genres, a very dominant voice is happening that takes over and is similar in both cases. If you look, for example, at Lidia Yuknavitch, she writes in so many genres, yet the familiarity of her voice is unquestionable. All fiction carries traces of nonfiction and all nonfiction has elements of fiction. I think once we feel confident using our voice in writing it’s hard to not approach different genres when we’re writing the same. 

What’s next for you?

I’m wavering between a collection using hybrid and poetry works involving brain waves, music, and other e-forms exploring epilepsy and its history—or a literary fiction novel based on my experiences cleaning pay-by-the-hour motels. Or both. I can’t decide yet. I always waiver between the things I want to do because that marketing voice inside won’t stop whispering but is it marketable? When really (and clearly based on my writing history) I don’t give a shit. So probably both. 


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