Joan Leegant on Writing “Displaced Persons”

"Displaced Persons"

I met Joan Leegant the first time I attended a writer’s residency—in 2017—at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I was excited to read Leegant’s new short story collection, Displaced Persons, winner of the New American Fiction Prize, set half in Israel and half in America. Aside from elegant and accomplished writing, what grabbed me about these stories, especially the ones set in Israel, especially now, is the window into ordinary life. Israel has a large immigrant and refugee population; many people who live there have been displaced at one point or another. Meeting the characters in these stories, finding their humor and humanity on the page, was uplifting.

I caught up with Leegant by email.

Can you describe the settings of your stories?

The book is divided into two sections: East, which are stories set in Israel; and West, stories set in the States–Los Angeles, New York’s boroughs, Washington, DC, a road trip from New York to Idaho.

Is there a theme that unites this collection? How did you arrive at the order for this collection?

I wrote the stories one by one, over a period of some 13 years. The first one was published in an anthology in 2010 and the last in a literary journal in 2023. When I felt I had enough for a collection, I put them together and looked to see how I might organize them.

Once I decided on Displaced Persons as the book title—also the title of the one of the stories—I began to see common concerns across the stories, although I don’t set out to explore particular themes or ideas in my stories. I have learned I need to set aside any intentions. The writer who describes this best for me is George Saunders. He talks about needing to get out of your own way and to let the words drive the narrative. 

I felt the collection needed a physical structure, scaffolding, to give it greater narrative coherence. I saw that I had an equal number of stories for each location: 7 set in Israel, 7 set in the States–and that they could be grouped as East and West, a division I like and which, echoes the theme of belonging or displacement, as two opposite poles. 

In the Israel stories (East), the characters are geographically displaced: they come from Iraq or Sudan or Russia or America. This geographical displacement itself has multiple layers. 

In the American stories (West), the displacement is more interior, characters more internally displaced. They may not feel at home in their own lives– through divorce or family strife or because of mental illness. 

An element of gratitude emerged in these stories alongside the exploration into belonging, even in the most “harrowing” (as one reviewer put it) stories. I didn’t plan this and am glad to see it in the collection. The hard reality of exile–from home, from place, from self, from wholeness–is softened by occasions for gratitude. We struggle, life is hard, but there are moments of reprieve, even if they’re just a teaspoon in the ocean. Someone else might call it grace.

How did you come to writing?

I started writing fiction at age 40. The “clever” explanation is that I went to my local community center to swim and the pool was closed, but I had a babysitter (my sons were 3 and 5) and there was a writing workshop happening in the building, so I went. 

From the moment I began that community center class I was hooked. I loved it, especially writing stories. It had been a long time coming. I had gone to law school and worked as a lawyer and while I didn’t hate it– my real love had been writing and reading–fiction, poetry, plays. As a young lawyer, I went to Israel, thinking I’d stay six months and stayed three years. During that time I wrote and recorded dozens of songs, mostly folk (this was 1978-1981).I even had a brief stint performing in clubs, singing and accompanying myself on the guitar. So I’d always had this other side.

After the community center class and several years taking more workshops, I went to a low-residency MFA program at Vermont College (now VCFA, Vermont College of Fine Arts) to make a greater commitment to the work, have more structure, and get more help with my writing.

Can you tell us something about your publishing history?

As I was finishing my MFA, I published a few of the stories. By then, I’d been writing fiction for ten years. It took that long to not only get better at the craft but to be willing to mine material that was close to the bone. My MFA program helped enormously. Four years after I finished the program, at age 53, I published my first book, a collection of short stories called An Hour in Paradise (W.W. Norton). It won several prizes, which was profoundly validating–the PEN/New England Book Award, the Wallant Award for Jewish Fiction, finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. I had also begun teaching writing by then. 

Seven years after An Hour in Paradise, I published a novel, Wherever You Go (W.W. Norton). Novels do not come easily to me. I struggle with plot and lose my way. During the years I was writing and publishing the stories in my new collection, Displaced Persons, I also wrote drafts of two novels, which I put aside about a year ago. I will probably go back to one of them. 

I have also lately been writing essays, which has opened up an entirely new voice. Two, in shorter versions that what I envision them to be ultimately, will have been published by June. 

What kind of a reader were you as a child? Now?

I read a lot of poetry as a child. I liked the sound, the rhythm and the rhyming. I liked the way meaning was tucked into those rhyming and rhythmic sounds. And, as I said, I wrote a lot of poetry as a kid. I remember writing poems at summer camp when I was 13 or 14. 

I also read novels when I was young, but they were not the novels many bookish girls read. I had a visceral distaste for Little Women or anything by the Brontes or Jane Austen. I gravitated as a preteen and teen to the works of A.J. Cronin, a Scottish doctor and novelist who wrote about priests and other seekers. I read Richard Llewellyn, who wrote How Green Was My Valley. My older brother introduced me to the Russian writer Mikhail Sholokhov who wrote Quiet Flows the Don. I recall Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Edna Ferber’s So Big. I had a taste for sweeping books in sometimes exotic (for me) settings that dealt with political and moral issues. 

A writer I’m reading now is Claire Keegan, whose economic prose and deeply moving storytelling I find astonishing. I like economical prose, prose that doesn’t stint on feeling or character but also doesn’t call attention to itself: Tobias Wolff, Jennifer Egan in Goon Squad, Elizabeth Strout, J.M. Coetze. And I continue to read poetry. Mary Oliver. Billy Collins. Anthologies.

What short story writers have influenced your writing, inspired you?

Grace Paley, for her mastery of voice, her immediacy–the first writer I read who dispensed with quotation marks! William Trevor–for his subtlety and generosity and compassion. Tobias Wolff–his economy. Bernard Malamud, especially The Magic Barrel–the magical realism, his stories where God appears in various guises. I’ve taught and loved many stories of contemporaries Jim Shepard, George Saunders, Peter Orner and Charles Baxter.

The brilliant story writer Edith Pearlman, who died in 2023, was my friend–we lived near each other and met at a writer’s festival. She was a true inspiration. She published hundreds of stories with literary magazines and small presses before becoming nationally known in her mid-70s, even though she’d been writing and publishing for 40 years. She viewed each successful story publication as permission to go on and write the next story. She, more than any other writer, affirmed the value of persistence, of staying true to one’s gifts and recognizing one’s affinities (such as short fiction)–and, as importantly–recognizing one’s non-affinities (such as novels). 

Can you talk about your writing process?

I write by hand even though I can hardly read my handwriting because I am too glib, too detached when I type, plus I am distracted by the words appearing on the page. If I could write with my eyes closed, I’d do that. Once I type it up, I write all over the printed pages–mark it up and mess it up, visually, so it still feels malleable, still the wet clay that can be shaped. Whatever works for the writer to get closest to the truth or the interior narrative mind is what’s right for them.

I also work at night–I’m a night owl in general, especially when I don’t have a day job. For years I rented a space outside my house and would come home at 5 or 6 am after a good long night of work, just as others were first heading out to work. I no longer rent a space and have been trying to work more in the afternoons, which I can do if I reserve a study room at my local library. Something about the time limit on the library study room makes me do the work. That and leaving my house.

We’d love to hear more about the book’s publication process.

Displaced Persons is being published by New American Press, an independent literary press that awarded the collection its 2022 New American Fiction Prize. The judge was novelist and New Yorker contributor Weike Wang, who selected it from 500+ submissions. I was thrilled and honored by both the win and the publication. I am also grateful for the generosity of the writers who took time to read the manuscript and write blurbs for the book’s back and front covers, which is part of the publishing process but always feels awkward for the writer who has to ask. 

I’ve gotten terrific support from writers these months before publication of Displaced Persons . I don’t have a big in-person literary community, and I am moved by the outpouring of goodwill and enthusiasm from fellow writers and publishing professionals I’ve never met face to face.

My gratitude for the small independent literary presses like New American Press. Their work is more important than ever, for all the reasons we know: the shrinking publishing universe; the contraction of outlets for book reviews, making it harder for publishers to get out the word about good books; the disappearance of so many brick-and-mortal bookstores. Add to that the difficulty of publishing a collection of short stories. 

What writing/publishing projects are you working on now?

I am working on long essays, a form I haven’t worked in much before. I find myself drawn to the type of essay that recounts a personal experience which then becomes a springboard to exploring something historical or cultural outside myself and larger than myself. 

Do you have advice for writers who aspire to publish a short story collection?

Story collections are an art form that can be shaped in many beautiful and interesting ways. But not all story groupings lend themselves to the sort of structure I used–or to any structure other than placing them between the same two covers. Beyond that, there are few rules. 

My personal guidelines: don’t include weak stories just to add heft. The standard advice is to lead with your strongest work, but that can be difficult to evaluate. My advice is to go with a story that gives the reader a good introduction to your voice and your preoccupations. Also: be on the lookout for repetition in the assembled stories that could detract from your collection’s power. 

Find an epigraph–a stanza of a poem or line from a play or song lyric that appears in the first pages that will evoke the feelings or preoccupations that are primary in your book. This epigraph will help focus not only your reader eventually but you, the writer, as you to determine what your book is about. 


Martha Anne Toll is a novelist and literary and cultural critic. Her prizewinning debut novel, “Three Muses,” was published 2022. Her second novel, “Duet for One,” is forthcoming in early 2025.

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