In Conversation: Leah Hampton

In Conversation: Leah Hampton

Leah Hampton’s first book, F*ckface and Other Stories, was released in July 2020. The twelve powerful, funny, tragic, and surprising stories are set in towns across the Appalachian South—from Western North Carolina to Eastern Kentucky to West Virginia to Tennessee and beyond—and are populated with complex and complicating modern Southern characters who shoulder through precarious and devastating circumstances, often in darkly humorous and subtly rebellious ways. Through these characters Hampton—originally from Eastern Kentucky—interrogates the Appalachian South, what it means to be from here, what it means to love this place. The sense of natural beauty in these modern mountain stories is lush and reverent, and the dual threats of climate change and industry feature prominently. 

On a sunny day in November, Hampton and emerging fiction writer Annie Frazier met via Zoom for a pandemic-friendly conversation about Hampton’s work. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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ANNIE FRAZIER: You live here in Western North Carolina, and I gather your family comes partly from Eastern Kentucky. Can you talk to me about what draws you to write about this region and its people, and what importance place holds for you in general as a writer?

LEAH HAMPTON: What draws me to write about this region is, yeah, I have a lot of family connection to it, and also I don’t know how you can live here and not create something. I often wonder about people who live here—is there anyone who doesn’t then take up pottery or start painting or…? It’s the kind of place where you want to create. I just feel really compelled to write about it because I live in a naturally beautiful area. But also because the history is so important to me—I’m a history buff—and because of the complexity of it. It’s a misunderstood place, and often a marginalized place, and I find that really interesting. So it’s just this perfect storm of beauty and complexity and marginalization that makes it a really good subject, especially for fiction, but for any art. 

I think I’m of the Ron Rash school when it comes to place. I think people are defined by their topography. I think it affects us unconsciously—consciously, too. A lot of the characters in the book are being acted upon by the land, whether they realize it or not, and I think that’s very common for a lot of people. You don’t realize how much you’re affected by the geography of the space that you live in until you really start to examine it. That’s really interesting to me. I think if I lived anywhere, I would be writing about the place where I lived.

AF: Your stories cover so much ground when it comes to the damage being inflicted on these mountains by climate change, pollution, and industry. Talk to me about what environmentalism means to you and how you’ve twined it into these stories.

LH: My first job out of high school was working for Greenpeace, and in my younger days I was quite an eco-warrior—I mean, I wasn’t, like, capturing whaling ships or anything. But I was a fundraiser and I worked for the Blue Ridge Parkway and for the National Parks and Conservation Association, things like that. And that was where I learned about a lot about this area specifically. But it’s also where I learned about editing, because I had to do a lot of grant writing and stuff like that, so it was this really important apprenticeship in how the world works, and it wound up being important to me professionally and personally. 

I’ve always cared about those things and I’ve always been interested in nature; I love to hike. And I did my undergrad in history, and some graduate work—I really love to study history. Also I’m a very political person. I ran for local office this year. And so, my whole adult life has been paying attention to environmental issues. Having worked in nonprofit, and then having lived in this place, I see the kind of ground-level—if you’ll pardon the pun—personal-level impact that those things can have, the communities that are affected when a chemical company doesn’t follow the rules or what-have-you. I’ve seen those people, I’ve met those people, and I just kept storing that stuff away. 

“Parkway,” the story in the book about the park ranger, is based on conversations I had going back to my early twenties with park rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and on the Blue Ridge Parkway who had all kinds of terrible experiences for which there was no assistance at the time. We don’t think of people who work in natural spaces as having to deal with trauma when the reality is that a lot of those people see it more than even some small-town hospitals. So, I have always been interested in it. Part of how I have matured as an adult is being really aware of the environment acting on the individual, so that was what I was compelled to write about.

AF: I was especially drawn to the many women characters who populate this collection. They feel deeply recognizable to me—unique, strange, wholly Southern women finding ways to operate just outside of or around or adjacent to an old system that wants desperately for them to look, sound, and behave the same as maybe their mothers and grandmothers did before them. They’re often quiet women who rebel, are shunned, and press on with their strangeness in subtle ways. Talk to me about these modern Southern Appalachian women you’ve created.

LH: I mean, I think you just described us. 

AF: Huh, maybe that’s why I like them so much!

LH: I was the weird kid in school—I don’t know about you—and everybody told me to be sweet, so I was sweet, and then I wrote a book about it. I’ve been saying this and saying this, and I’ve got an article coming out in Guernica about this. I love men, and I love mountain men, but I’m so tired of their stories. I’m just tired. The women of Appalachian myth and art are very often desexualized. They’re living their lives inside of some man’s life, or because of some man, and I’m so tired of it. 

I see this as being a very feminine place. And I see rural spaces as matrilineal and as complicated and non-binary. And if you study politics, if you study history, the ways in which our mistakes act upon women usually tell you a lot, long-term, about how a given culture or community is going to survive or not. 

So, these little tiny personal moments and these, like you said, “small rebellions” that these women have, I think you can see that in what any woman is writing right now in the twenty-first century. We’re all tired of it, and we all know that we’re kind of a keystone to how things are really going to work or not for us. So I don’t think I’m alone in writing about that. And I felt that it was important. I felt that I wanted to write about and to women. But I was very careful—and my editor was great about this—I said, “There will be no pretty font on the cover. It’s not a girly book. I don’t want to do that.” And with how the cover looks and the title, they obviously understood. I was very lucky. It isn’t necessarily just a woman’s book, but there is a lot about gender. 

AF: That does feel like what a lot of women are writing about right now, and it feels so good to read.

LH: To have someone who’s not living her life inside of some man, or if she is, she knows there’s something wrong with that. To have women who are complicated. When I do high school visits, I’ve had students say to me, “Well, but I didn’t like her because she’s cheating on her husband.” And I’m like, “Yeah, women do that. We contain multitudes!” You can still enjoy the story, and you can still think she’s right and also recognize that you can have a complicated woman. She doesn’t have to fit. 

I also get very frustrated by the ways in which we write—or, really, don’t write—about women over forty. And how suddenly your body becomes less interesting and there are certain tracks that those characters have to fall into. I was definitely interested in busting that open, because I do think of the physical space of Appalachia as being very feminine and being older—it’s one of the oldest places in the world. So, if you’re going to talk about older women and an older landscape, there’s crossover there, in terms of how we can reimagine it.

AF: Sticking with character, as someone who grew up outside of Appalachia but whose family is from here, so many of these characters are familiar to me in a very specific way. They have a sense of reserve to them, a quietness, a distance between themselves and others, and even a distance sometimes between themselves and their own thoughts and emotions. I feel like it’s rare for a writer to capture that very Appalachian reserve so successfully, but you’ve done it. I’m curious about your process of writing characters who maintain that reserved buffer, both around and within themselves.

LH: I know exactly what you’re talking about. You have to remember that my dad’s family are from Eastern Kentucky—Harlan County—but my mother’s family is British, and that’s a whole other kind of reserve. So I have, like, double stiff upper lip. Double emotional distance from my own feelings. Or, squared, I guess it would be. So I’m very aware of that, and I see it in a lot of people. 

I really like close third person narration, and one of the conscious decisions I had to make when I was working on this book—because it is political, and it was hard not to be preachy about certain issues—was, not everybody has an internal monologue that is…how can I put this? We don’t all have this obsessive kind of educated internal thing where you’re aware of your own neuroses and that becomes almost a character in the story. The kind of writing I know Mary Lee Settle would just spit stones at. 

But there are people who are just as intelligent but who have been trained emotionally and who, out of necessity, have to distance themselves from their own emotional development or epiphany. I find that fascinating because it’s often the result of some kind of socioeconomic or other disparity, or some kind of push on that person, and that push creates tension. So you can be inside of one person and only have their perspective, and yet you can create tension because they’re smart enough to know what’s happening to them, but they also may not be able to reconcile it. That, to me, is a more interesting voice. It was very much on my mind. Not with every story, but with several stories. I wanted to show that internal process of knowing but not knowing, and the tension that creates inside a person.

AF: In quite a few of these stories, there’s a level of familiarity with the details of less-than-common jobs that fascinates me. Could you talk about your research process for stories like these?

LH: Some of them are jobs I’ve had. Or jobs that people I’m very close to have had. I know people who’ve worked on industrial farms or worked in meat packing. I was a checkout girl in a supermarket many years ago. I’ve worked a lot of retail. 

I also interview people. I don’t always tell them that I’m interviewing them for a book, though, because they tell you more if you don’t tell them it’s for a book, if you just ask them, “What’s that for?” when you point to a tool in their toolbox. 

But, having grown up in a working-class family—my father was a mechanic—and having always been around people who had job jobs, I’m very aware of work as being a third of your life, minimum. I see that as being very central to who a person is. What do they do? What do they do with their hands? As my mother would say, how do they earn their crust? 

The things I had to research were things like specific types of scientists and scientific research. I had to go to some labs, I had to go to some bio research facilities. Firefighting, I had to look into. I had to learn a lot about beekeeping. So there were things that I had to formally research. And then there were people that I talked to. 

But then I think the other component of it was just that I’m a person who—if I go to a wedding and there’s a chocolate fountain, I’m the person who stands there and thinks about the girl who’s going to have to clean that up when the wedding’s over. I’m that person, because I’ve been that person. I tweeted one time, “It’s not that I don’t love manly-man movies with car chases, it’s that I really love fruit stands.”

AF: I remember that tweet!

LH: They always knock over a fruit stand! And I’m standing there going, Frank has spent his whole morning organizing those melons and along comes Al Pacino in a Corvette, and now Frank’s got to file an insurance claim. His whole weekend is ruined. I can’t focus on the movie. I think about working people a lot, so it’s just in my DNA to notice that stuff.

AF: Speaking of research and of movies, I wonder how many of the most deeply place-based stories in this collection required the writerly equivalent of location scouting for a movie. Do you visit the places you write about before or during the writing process to gather the natural details that give these stories such richness, or does a lot of that come from memory of places that are familiar to you?

LH: No one’s done this yet, because I think I’ve managed to preempt it, but there’s going to be things where you’re going to be like, “Well I live in Kingsport, Tennessee, and I know the hospital isn’t on that corner.” There are times when I have had to take liberties just so something would fit with what I was trying to do. But I’m really big on scaffolding, and most of the physical places that I’m describing are based on someplace I’ve hiked, someplace I’ve driven through. For “Mingo,” I had to drive. I was like, “I want to write a story where she goes from Charleston to Harlan.” I wanted to be in it. I have to be thinking about a physical space. 

For the stories where I don’t do that, it’s just because it’s something that’s, as you said, so familiar. I know what the back office of a supermarket looks like because I’ve worked in them. Things like that I can kind of conjure up. But it either has to be something I’m already really familiar with or some wood that I’ve already physically been in.

But then, you know, I’ve never fought a forest fire. I had somebody tell me that they read that story before they knew who I was and they thought I was a firefighter, which was a really high compliment. But I’ve never been in the woods when there’s a forest fire. That was based on talking to people who had. So, I do create things, it is fiction, but I think if you know the area well enough, even if you haven’t been to the physical space you’re describing, you can create the analog of that thing in your mind.

The other thing I do sometimes is look at people’s clothes. Like, if I can’t go to a fire, but I can look at your turnout gear, then I can see where the dirt is and where the rubber’s melted on your boots and that kind of thing.

AF: The story “Twitchell,” tackles issues of pollution, immigration, and community. The main character, Iva Jo, feels like our empathetic guide, though she’s often cautious and anxious about her own empathy. Iva’s friend Margie, on the other hand, represents a kind of insular, othering, closed-off thinking that both perpetuates harm to locals and denies acceptance to newcomers seeking a life in this region. That dichotomy and division feels familiar and important to highlight. Can you talk about the inspiration for this story and what your aim was for it?

LH: There were several inspirations for that story. I have a lot of friends who live in communities in this region who are my age and a little older who are experiencing health issues. I’ve met and known people who have had mystery cancers, and we all know what those mysteries are. We know where that stuff came from if you live in certain spaces. So I found that fascinating. 

Margie was this manifestation of a big group of women who live here, and their thinking, and their clothing. I thought a lot about her hair—spiky hair—and I felt like I had met her even though I made her up. I felt like I knew her, and if I bumped into her at the supermarket, I would know her name was Margie. 

There are so many women that do that, and it’s a protective instinct, and it’s rooted in that kind of white supremacist training that a lot of Southern women have. I wanted to push against it. This isn’t a perfect place and we do have problems with our politics, but also with the way that we treat people, especially migrant populations here, especially people of color. I knew that I couldn’t write a book where I appropriated the voice of a person of color, I didn’t want to do that, but I thought it was important to interrogate some of the whiteness of Appalachian women. I wish I had done more of it, but I think Margie does a pretty good job, and I think it’s the longest story in the collection. I wanted to represent that aspect of Appalachian femininity. 

I sometimes wish that I had made her even more complicated, or made her sympathetic in some way, so that you could see why we befriend those women and why we tolerate them. But it’s challenging, because that story is trying to do a lot. It took me a long time to write. It took me a long time to find somebody to publish it because it’s got maxi pads in it and stuff that editors just don’t want to touch. It took a long time. I kept telling my agent, “Just quit sending it to, like, twenty-seven-year-old editors named Kevin. Send it to a magazine where they’ve got a grown-ass woman running it, you know? She’ll get it.” And we finally found a place to publish it. 

AF: I know you’ve probably been asked this a million times, but I’d love to hear what it’s been like to publish your first book during a pandemic that has brought the world screeching to a halt.

LH: I think it’s hard for writers right now, because you want to promote your own work and there’s just so much noise. But you’re also aware that you’re very small in this big, international, global problem. And it’s been an election, too, which would’ve made it equally challenging. I have a friend whose first book came out on the day of Trump’s inauguration, so she’s been very sympathetic about the pandemic. 

But where I’ve landed on it is I’m still going to talk about myself and I’m still going to talk about stories and I’m still going to promote my stuff. I don’t have the same reserve about it, and the reason for that is because I feel weirdly privileged to have had my book come out right now. I’m very aware, as a history buff, that the way that we process trauma is by talking about it and by telling stories. That’s what The Iliad is, that’s what folklore is, that’s what we need as a species. We need to tell stories. That’s how we get through difficult situations. I feel very humbled and very honored to be a person who has been telling you a story during this difficult time. I’m like, “Yeah, it’s terrible! Let me tell you a story.” That’s how I’ve decided to look at self-promotion. 

But it’s been difficult. There are so many people I wish I could have met. I wish I could’ve done more in-person events. Ultimately, I’m fine, I’m safe, I’m healthy, and I got to tell you a story at a time when we’re all really scared, and that’s an honor.

But I know it’s hard for people, and I completely understand other writers who are going crazy with it, because, you know, you put in years of work and then this happened. So I don’t fault anybody for however they’re reacting to it.

AF: Tell me about the bold decision to call this equally bold collection F*ckface.

LH: Well, another tweet that I had was, “If you want to find out who really loves and understands you, call your book F*ckface and just sit back and wait.” Because when I told people who know and love me, “So, um, I think I’m going to call the book F*ckface,” they were like, “Of course you are.” Including my editor, who was so gung-ho. She was like, “Let’s do it. Let’s just do it.”

Now, the story “Fuckface” got written first. That was one of the first stories that I wrote in the collection, and it was like a child that named itself, like I couldn’t not call it “Fuckface,” even though I knew it meant it probably wasn’t going to get published. There’s something about it that organically felt like this is what it’s called. And as I finished the book, I realized he was a really important person, my favorite person in the book. He’s based on someone I know, and I feel really attached to who that character is and what he represents for me personally and for the region and for the characters in the book. This little bright spot of hope. 

I knew the book was coming out in an election year, so the nuance and the politicization of language was important. I wanted to slap people in the face a little bit and have them think they knew what this was going to be, and then realize, “Okay, but that’s not what this is.” That was the effect I was going for. My editor completely got it and she was really down for it, but because of the way that bookselling works, we had to censor the u. 

But I’m proud of it, you know? I’m proud of it. I told a local newspaper, “If I’m going to be forty-six when my first book comes out, you’re going to remember the name. If I had to wait this long, I’m going to make sure you notice when I finally do it.”

AF: I love that every story has a one-word title, like the book itself.

LH: Thanks. That’s a Robert Gipe conversation. I knew that I wanted [a] one-word [title], and before the book was finished, Robert Gipe and I had a conversation. You know, he does one-word titles. This was a couple years ago, and we were talking about our work. He said, “If you can’t whittle down what you’re doing to one word, then whatever it is you’re doing, you’re not really doing it.” And that really stuck with me. I had already kind of committed to one-word titles for this book, and then I was like, “If Gipe says it, it’s true, so that’s what I’ve got to do.” 

AF: Humor is such a crucial element in these stories—dark humor, subtle humor, laugh-out-loud humor. Talk to me about the importance of allowing these stories, even some of the saddest ones, to maintain an edge of funny.

LH: Going back to what we were saying earlier about mountain people, you’ve got to have a sense of humor if you’re going to live this life. So it was indicative of the people I’m writing about, that kind of dark comedy, which I see all the time here. It was representative, but I also think it works as a device when you’re writing. Because I am writing about, like, gender theory and environmental destruction and just these hopeless situations where people have cancer. So, as a way to keep the reader engaged, I think it’s a good tool for the writer to be like, “It’s depressing and terrible and there’s butt sex!” to kind of keep you with it. In the world-building, it works on a representative and character level and I think it works in terms of thinking about audience. 

And I have a really dark sense of humor, so it’s true to my voice also. I think people are often surprised if they meet me or see an event that I do before they read my work, I think people expect the book to be even funnier than it is. And then I like smack you in the face with this thirty-page story about breast cancer. But I write to get all that stuff out of my system, so I think my work is very dark, and that enables me to be, as a person, much lighter. The comedy’s going to work its way in because humor is a coping mechanism, and it is for a lot of people, so that felt important to write about.

AF: Okay, last question. I want to talk about Dollywood. In your story, “Sparkle,” [originally published in Appalachian Review] the narrator is unhappy in her marriage and is enamored with her husband’s work partner. She takes him to Dollywood and, in a series of subtly devastating moments I won’t give away, discovers he’s less enchanted by the place than she is, which is a personal blow to her. So can you talk about setting a story at Dollywood and about centering that glittering, technicolor place so it became an extension of the narrator’s emotional self?

LH: As a person of the region, I am of course genetically predisposed to be fascinated by Dolly Parton, right? We all love Dolly and she is really important to all of us. But I’m also fascinated by the fascination with her. What is it about her, and what is it about this hyper-real, plastic version of the thing we already live in? Because that’s what Dollywood is. It’s like this little snow globe inside of a snowstorm. Why are we so obsessed with that? 

I think it’s the way in which she herself, in her costume and in her attitude and then in her waterpark and her roller coasters, is just turning the Appalachianness volume up to fifty. And I’m drawn to it because it’s so unabashed and it’s so self-loving, two things that we—generally speaking, in Appalachia—do not do. We are abashed, as a group. So it’s cathartic. She’s this walking catharsis. 

I have had the experience of being in Dollywood on days when she was in the park, and it’s this buzz. It’s amazing. So I thought that was a great place to put a person who was emotionally conflicted about, well, pretty much everything in her mountain life. She’s not sure about her marriage, she’s not sure about her heart, she’s not sure about who she is herself, she’s not dealing with the grief of her family—all these things she’s avoiding that are so rooted in this place. So let me put her in the most heightened version of this place I can put her in, and see what happens.

The inspiration for that story really was to retell the James Joyce story, “Araby,” because I have always thought that James Joyce would’ve loved Dollywood. If we could get a time machine and go get James Joyce, he’d be like, “Take me to Dollywood.”

AF: As I read it, I realized that a person’s reaction to Dollywood—and especially to Dolly’s childhood house in the middle of all that shine and plastic—can tell you a lot about them, and I appreciate that you took a place that’s easy for people to make fun of and you made it more important than that.

LH: If you go to a place like Dollywood and you can’t see us there, then you’re never going to see us. And I find that so interesting. The way that we are just so obsessed with her. Across political lines, all over the region, everybody has this thing about that place. I’m academically very interested in that. And also personally. I kind of want to write another story about Dollywood. 

There are two things that didn’t make it into that story—it’s already kind of a long story. I really wanted to write about the little church, too, and I really wanted to write about the bird sanctuary, which is near that church. If I were to go back and write it, I think about the idea of her sitting there with this guy, you know, and an owl just swooping over her head in the bird sanctuary, and what that would mean. But it felt like too much to try to do all that. There’s so much about that place—somebody needs to write a whole book about it. ■

Annie Frazier lives in North Carolina and received an MFA in fiction from Spalding University in 2017, where she served as Social Media Coordinator for the program and as a student editor for The Louisville Review. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in Paper Darts, Hypertrophic Literary, Longleaf Review, Cabinet of Heed, Philosophical Idiot, CHEAP POP, Still: The Journal, Crack the Spine, apt magazine, and North Carolina Literary Review. 

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