Professor Leigh Wilson is the Director of Creative Writing and a well loved professor here at SUNY Oswego. She has written two books of fiction, one winning the Flannery O'Connor award, and the other being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her works have been featured in The Georgia Review, Grand Street, Harper's, and many more. Her short stories have also been read on NPR. She is a wonderful writer and I had the pleasure of hearing her speak during the Living Writers series taught by Professor Juliet Giglio. I was also lucky enough to be able to have her answer a few questions for me about her experience as a writer, being a published writer and how it feels to have her work highly acknowledged.
From hearing you talk to the Living Writers class, it was mentioned that you’re first book was published by Penguin and your second book was published by New American Library which is now a part of Penguin/Random House. How does it feel to have been published by well-known publishers? It’s a dream for some people to have their work published by them, was it a dream for you?
I never thought about publication of a book until I had 8 or 10 short stories, and then my agent at the time told me to start thinking about it. The dream of getting my name on the cover of a book wasn’t how I started writing.
I first started writing at 14 when I got a scholarship to a boarding high school, and was so homesick for the places and people I had known that I kept a vial of dirt from Tennessee in my pockets at all times. I wrote my family and friends into characters, the familiar places of home into settings, to be close to them all again. During that first year away my mom divorced my dad and married a California guy and that summer we moved to California in a Volkswagen bug that I swear was like cramming into a phone booth and driving 2000 miles. We had to leave the family dog at a neighbor's house. We were almost killed in a tornado the first day of traveling. Though I didn't know this would be the case when I first went away to school, the familiar places were no longer home. And so writing became a way of familiarizing myself with the strangeness of the world--and it’s still how I enter the world and make sense out of it. I'm pretty sure that all art comes first from sadness. Even the happiest of endings means that a hard, hard journey has been taken. I don't know, I really don't know what I would have done without the writing. It was never about my name in lights for me.
I’ve discovered that you were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize? How did you feel to have such a vast recognition by the literary community?
Just for full disclosure, I was nominated by William Morrow, my hardback publishers of Wind:Stories, as their selection of the year for the Pulitzer Prize. I wasn’t short-listed. It was an honor, but one that meant less to me than the fact that they had done a great job promoting the book on my behalf. I’ll just say that prizes and awards, like publication, are a dangerous way to build self-esteem. I really think one must love the act of writing, believe in the process of the art form, for one’s work to have meaning and significance. The rest is gravy—very good gravy—but you can’t have a great career, or even live a good life on that.
You’re originally from Hawkins County, Tennessee. That’s a big change when moving to upstate New York. Does the change of atmosphere change your influence of what/how you write? Or did your passion for writing start here?
My first book, which is southern in its settings, its characters and its cultural concerns, was written almost entirely outside the south. But as I said, I was defined early in my life by a concern about home and the meanings of home. So I wrote a lot about the south though stories in that first book were written while I was in college in Massachusetts and grad school in Iowa. My second book was written entirely in upstate New York, and I think the settings and characters and cultural concerns shift away from those in the first book. Place in fiction is often called an obsession with southerners, but the fact is, place influences the flavor of any writing, and my “place” had become upstate New York. The novel I’m working on has a southern setting, however—but I have spent a lot of time lately visiting my elderly mom, who has moved back south from the west coast.
What are your goals for the next few years as far as publishing goes? Do you have anything you would like to get published? Any new work?
I’m working on that novel, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the past decade working on flash fiction, a very short form that I find fascinating and extremely satisfying. It’s a challenging form for any writer, and is as close to poetry as I’ll ever get: the way it can be read and re-read in one sitting; the allusiveness of meaning; the concision of moments. I’ve been trying some short prose essays as well—I guess you could say I’m working a lot in very short prose forms while also working on a novel. I like that blend because a novel takes so freaking long to write that you can grow impatient with the characters sometimes. Flash prose brings you out of that world and into radically different ones. It’s refreshing. And, for me anyway, a way to explore ideas and behaviors that don’t fit into the novel’s purview.
Do you have any advice for future writers on getting published? What’s the best thing to do when a writer wants to publish their first piece?
My best advice, truly, is to take your writing as seriously as possible, write what matters to you, write it and re-write and re-write it again. Get good at it. Listen to critiques. Find ways to make the process meaningful and satisfying in itself, beyond audience, beyond publication. There is chaos in the world and you can write the world into meaning—and we writers are so very lucky that our process does this for us. Don’t focus on celebrity. Only try to publish when you’ve got exceptionally good work. You will find that the thrill of publication is ephemeral, but personal pride in work well done never, ever, goes away.