Leonard Crosby on Staying Grounded in the Sensual

Leonard Crosby on Staying Grounded in the Sensual

An interview with Leonard Crosby, from The Write Stuff series:

Leonard Crosby grew up in the mountains outside of Seattle, in a house full of books. After moving to, and escaping from, South Dakota and Montana, he’s now settled in Oakland. His work has been published in Somnambulist, The Oakland Review, Forklift: Ohio, and Eleven Eleven. He occasionally hosts the One Lone Pear Tree reading series in his uptown garden. He can be contacted at leonardcrosby.com.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I tell them I’m a teacher. It’s more honest. I teach for eight hours a day, I only write for two. Plus, everyone’s a writer these days, so when someone tells me that, I’m suspicious. Even when talking about the genre I’m most interested in—science-fiction—or the details of writers’ problems, it’s nowhere near as fun to discuss it as it is to write it or read it. Usually, when people talk about writing, they complain about motivation or time to write, and I’m much more interested in the specifics of the craft: ways of describing the human face, staying grounded in the sensual, deciding when a short story needs to become a novel, etc. Those topics don’t usually come up.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

Avoiding clichés while writing what entertains me. I don’t expect to make any money or fame out of writing, I do it for myself and people who like similar work. Everything’s been written before, pretty much, so if the story’s the same, you have to try to make the language your own, or come at it from a slightly different vantage. At the same time, I’m not as interested in language as I am in character, plot, ideas, and putting them together to build a sense of wonder, excitement, and gravity. And when I stray from that, by trying to write to the popular consciousness or pushing the language too hard, it’s a struggle.

If someone said I want to do what do you do, what advice would you have for them?

I’d politely tell them to go for it, while inside feel indifferent. I know a lot of writers and a lot of “writers” and making it real all comes down to the same thing: putting in the work. To paraphrase Stephen King, a few people are born with a natural talent for language and the dedication to work on it around the clock—McCarthy, Joyce, Morrison, etc—others are just good with language but they still spend all their time doing it—King himself, Martin Cruz Smith, Margaret Atwood, etc. Great writers and good writers. To get into the good category is just a matter of drive and willingness to suffer. Being great is a matter of luck.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Yes, because my writing has improved over time, and it’s become less painful than when I was younger. First drafts used to be like pulling teeth, and I never finished anything decent until two or three years ago. I now have stories come to me and I finish them in a week or a month. That never used to happen. I also have bursts of joy while writing. The therapy of it is useful: the more existential crisis I have, the more writing feels like a solution. It’s a nice distraction from the meaningless of life.

I also feel successful because I work as a teacher and an education administrator at a small college. Since my undergrad, I’ve always loved campuses, the culture of learning and community and all that. I grew up doing construction and landscaping and I’m thankful every day to sit in a warm clean office. Living in the liberal Bay Area—after growing up in conservative small towns— makes me feel at home in ways I never have before.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

My maternal grandmother. She worked her whole life as a nurse, from the 40’s until the 70’s and had to put up with a ton of shit just to get actual training and jobs. I think of her as a feminist pioneer (though I doubt she imagines herself that way). She’s also a very loving and accepting person.

My mother’s family moved to Florida in the 1960’s where my grandfather’s brother had a lawn maintenance company. My grandmother found work at a hospital (I don’t know if it was a VA or what) and they were just starting to integrate. The hospital had to hire a black nurse, but all the southern staff refused to work with her. My grandmother explained, “Didn’t make any difference to me, why should it?” and so they teamed up. Later, she reflected, “That woman was one of the hardest working, sweetest people I ever met.”

How much money do you have in your checking account?

4353.03$ but I have three months of back rent to pay due to landlord issues.

What’s wrong with society today?

Hubris and a narrow vision of the future. Short-term answers to long-term problems. Humans have always been like that, but in the past we didn’t have easy access to as much information, so now there’s less of an excuse. Also, in the past such things might just cause a war, a famine, maybe a pogrom. With mass nuclear weapons stockpiles and a population of almost 9 billion, it may end us for good, along with a lot of other life on this planet.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

Just whiskey, on doctor’s orders.

What is your fondest memory?

Maybe reading Fredrick Pohl at thirteen in my bedroom by the light of a lava-lamp I’d gotten for Christmas. I found a box of sci-fi books of my fathers in the attic and that was the first one to hook me. I have fonder ones but that does stand out.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

Once, if I see my girlfriend. I don’t like to toss the word love around lightly. How often do I see something I’m willing to die for? Not often.

But I do feel bursts of wonder and joy all the time: seeing egrets in the wetlands my commuter train runs by, acacia trees in bloom, students having “a-ha” moments, strangers showing kindness and solidarity to each other. Smaller kinds of love, I suppose.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

A transition to a sustainable economy that doesn’t involve mass incarceration or mass death (human and otherwise). I’ll take escaping nuclear war and the continued existence of humanity for second place.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

It keeps us from killing ourselves. I’ve suffered very little in my life (I have probably the greatest amount of privilege in the world, being a straight white American male) so that’s not surprising. But those few moments when I’ve considered suicide, music or stories have brought me back up from despair. I think it’s hard to quantify how many lives it saves (it’s obviously in the third or fourth or fifth category in the hierarchy of needs) but how many more teenagers would we lose if we took away music? How many more veterans if we took away the Iliad, or the Thin Red Line or Matterhorn or writing therapy? A lot, I’d guess.

What are you working on right now?

I’m finishing two short stories, planning two or three more for a collection. I have a novel outlined but I probably won’t start on it unless I get a writing residency this summer or if I quit my administrative job and just teach. It’s hard for me to write a novel on two-hours a day.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I like writing that’s mostly focused on character and plot, but deals with big philosophical issues at the same time: James Jones, Frank Herbert, Ursula K Le Guin.

I can appreciate “literary” writing (William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, John Hawkes, etc.)—it has its own way of causing wonder and poignancy, but it doesn’t draw me back again and again. Ulysses is pretty amazing if you read it through twice, but I’ll probably never do it again. I’ve re-read the Dune series and the Hainish Cycle dozens of times.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

Make Google, Amazon, and Apple provide universal basic income for the Bay Area, lol. Honestly, compared to much of the nation right now, I think the Bay Area’s doing OK.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Maybe going to a punk show at Merchants Saloon with my girlfriend, getting a good thrash in the pit. Or seeing a rap show at the Fox Theater. Generally just drinks and dinner (maybe with friends) then heading home to our bed and cats.

What are some of your favorite smells?

I’m a very lucky person, so smells that remind me of my happy childhood: the dry woody smell of our tool shed, cut grass, sweaty wool caps after a romp in fresh snow, wood smoke from our stove, dog-covered blankets. And combinations that remind of people, some gone now: coffee, cigarettes, and sawdust for my father, dust, diet coke, and antique furnishings for my paternal grandparents.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

To go to space. Hell, I’d pay for it if I had the money.

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