“Make Your Own Magic”: A Conversation with Leah Weiss
Hello dear readers! Later this month, I'll be in conversation with the incomparable Leah Weiss for the Mercantile Library. I have raved about her books on this blog before. She is the author of two novels, the stunning If the Creek Don't Rise, and her latest, All the Little Hopes, which releases next week.
Her talent and skill are on full display in this new novel; I read it in mere days. I suspect that you too will adore this story of two young girls coming of age in WWII-era North Carolina. It's a historical mystery with lots of heart, and a true page-turner!
In advance of our talk, I asked Leah some questions about her work and her journey as a writer. Below is just a tiny preview of what you can expect when you tune in on Wednesday, July 28th, at 7PM EST at the Mercantile Library's Crowdcast channel.
Ericka McIntyre: Your second book, All the Little Hopes, releases in July. What inspired this one? How is it different from your first? What will readers find there?
Leah Weiss: When I began my second project, my agent suggested I not follow the same ten-character technique of Creek but to challenge myself to write a plot-driven story (versus a character-driven story). I knew I wanted to include a little-known piece of WWII history that my mother passed on to me before she died in 2005.
Finding the narrators for the story took time and I started the book twice before two girls charmed their way into my heart. They were different enough, and their youthful perspective tackled hard topics in refreshing ways. I chose to call them Lucy (my mother’s name) and Allie Bert (her mother’s name). Their roots grow deep in eastern NC where most of Hopes is set, and I believe my personal memories made the story real.
EM: Place is very alive in both your novels. Your settings themselves could almost be characters in each of your books. How do you write so well about the landscapes that you set your characters and stories in?
LW: Developing place is important to me because it makes for cinematic writing, and cinematic writing is powerful. Your senses become fully engaged and you walk in the character’s worn shoes, eat at his humble table, sleep in her lumpy bed. You experience her jealousy, despair, rush of happiness, and yearning for something different. In If The Creek Don’t Rise some reviewers named the community of Baines Creek the primary character, and I loved that insight. But how do I write place so well? I hunt for the right words to take me there until I am there. It’s a lot of closing my eyes, listening to the story, and finding the rhythm that suits best. It’s noticing details. I write a lot of words and throw most of them away. If I’m patient enough, the cream does rise to the top and I succeed to the best of my ability.
EM: Both of your novels could be classified as historical mysteries—how did this genre become what you chose to write in?
LW: I love that you asked this question right after place because I think the history of a setting provides the authenticity a writer and a reader hunger for. I never thought I’d be bold enough to tackle historical fiction because of its scope and depth and accountability. I knew I didn’t have the patience to wade through the daunting research that someone like Kate Moore (Radium Girls and The Woman They Could Not Silence) tackled, but I could be as accurate as possible in time and place. And I found joy in that kind of research not because of the history (though that was always fascinating) but more because of the setting good research discovered.
EM: You didn’t publish your first novel until you were 70. This is encouraging to me, and I am sure many other writers, who feel like they may never get published! What has your journey been like? What advice do you have for people who worry they may never get there?
LW: I was in my 50s when one of my spiritual mentors whom I was emailing with commented on my writing style. He felt I had an interesting way of expressing myself and he particularly noted the undertones of humor. Thankfully, his suggestion led me to “interview” my mother shortly before she died. She was one of fifteen children raised on a tobacco farm with no running water and no electricity. Those memoirs led to short stories, a novel that didn’t find an agent, and then Creek that did. From the time I wrote mama’s first memoirs to the publishing of Creek, twelve years had passed. And that early research was the foundation for All The Little Hopes. I never said I was a fast learner, but I am tenacious and patient and I set a high bar.
And I’d be lying if I said being traditionally published wasn’t important to me. It was. It represented work done well enough to rise to the top of the slush pile. But I honestly loved the process of becoming a better writer.... I loved that it wasn’t easy. I loved that I could learn (for free!) from all the successful writers.
When I hear a writer say her primary focus is to get published, she may be putting out a half-baked story when it’s not the best it can be. Half-baked doesn’t cut it in the competitive literary world. I advise you to join critique groups. Find like-minded writers for discussions. Enter story contests to pit yourself against other writers, and really study the story that wins. If a story makes you laugh, cry, or your pulse quicken–figure out how the writer made that magic happen. And then make your own.
EM: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
LW: I hope everyone who tunes into your fine blog remembers to thank their independent bookstores and support their endeavors. Reach out to your favorite writers and invite them to participate in your book club discussions.... Next to writing, talking with people who love (and hate) our characters as much as we do is satisfying.
I remain eternally grateful for this challenging, humbling, and satisfying journey.
I am so excited to be able to talk with Leah next week. The event is free, virtual, and open to the public. I do hope you will join us for what will be a fantastic evening.
Until then, as ever, happy reading, and keep writing!