Meet the Writer: Leah Angstman

Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Leah Angstman. If you’re into connecting with authors through social media, Angstman is on practically all the platforms, which you can find on the homepage of her website.

Grab the Lapels: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

Leah Angstman: I was a child at the end of the Cold War, a time when the Space Age was drifting from secretive creepiness into endless possibilities for discovery, so my first answer would be astronaut. We all wanted to be astronauts. When the Challenger shuttle explosion stuck a pin in that dream, I wanted to be Billy Idol’s girlfriend, then Bruce Springsteen’s girlfriend, then Jordan Knight’s girlfriend (if you don’t know who New Kids on the Block were, I can’t help you), a teacher like the generations of women in my family, a fireman (yes, a fire “man” — that was all it was when I was a kid), an underwater explorer like Jacques Cousteau (every kid’s hero at the time), and then a private investigator who solved the really tough cold-case crimes that showed up on Unsolved Mysteries. My first tangible dreams were wanting to be a country singer (it was the age of Garth, Faith, and Reba), then an opera singer, then a Broadway star. I was the strange child who knew every word to Les Misérables before I’d even entered grade school. By middle school, the world of cut ’n’ paste zines had taken over, and there was an endless internal battle between Broadway superstar and famous writer until well after college — though I still wanted to be Bruce Springsteen’s girlfriend.

A sense of discovery is always in my work, and I’m sure that comes from my earliest memories: space, watching the Berlin Wall come down, identifying flower species with my mom. I was always competitive: racing through Book-It! books to earn Pizza Hut rewards, wanting to be the first one done with any project; and I wanted to repeat anything I saw that amazed me: I was easily swayed into wanting to be certain TV hosts and Tony stars, to have my own nature show or raise horses like some documentary I saw. I think I infuse that vulnerability, awe, and fickleness into my characters; I very rarely write characters who already know what they want — because who among us ever really knows what we want? We want it all, and the more choices there are, the longer it takes to decide, or we just never decide in the end. So, I write characters who want it all — but in the abstract. Characters who can’t choose. And I’m sure that comes from the fact that — even well into my adult years when I was publishing; writing poems; acting in local community theater; floundering between big cities from coast to coast; bartending to pay bills; taking odd jobs like travel agent, talent scout, custom framer, ex-rodeo bronco rehabilitator, and historical reenactor — I never could decide what or who I wanted to be.

GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

LA: I dabbled here and there, writing lyrics to songs I’d play on my guitar, or writing simple travel journals when I’d vacation with my mom, but writing didn’t become necessary and an ingrained part of me until my best friend died in a car accident in high school. That was the shake-up. That was the first crack in my shell, the first time I learned how fragile we are. I was already atheist — though raised in a churchgoing Christian family so I could never say out loud that my only belief was in molecules — and it was the first time I asked the big questions, dug them out of the back of my brain and studied them: Why are we here? What is the purpose of this thing or that thing? How do we survive into that elusive “old age”? How huge is the actual cosmos, the multiverse of multiverses? How insignificant am I in all of this?

We are incredibly vulnerable and breakable when we are sixteen. Writing was my way of sorting through the trauma, of understanding why I’d been left behind, and, more importantly, how to move forward. My writing was born of tragedy that I’m not ashamed to say I’ve never gotten over. And I know my poor characters suffer for it. They all have to hurt immensely at some point, because that’s the only way I know for them to learn how to heal. My characters are probably the parts of me still learning to heal, the parts of me that still feel guilty when I think about the unfairness of one life weighed against another. My characters are my teenage pain that walks around in my shadows.

GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?

LA: I grow with each new project, as we all should if we expect to move forward instead of sideways. My first novel took me eleven years to write, my second novel in nine years, and my third was written as a rough draft in fifteen zombified days and nights that my partner endlessly complained of. So, I’ve learned to move faster and let go sooner. I’ve come to love small imperfections instead of weeding them out with a fine-toothed comb. Every time I read my writing, I’m never satisfied, and I want to change every little comma, murder adjectives and passive voice and prepositional endings, and I think that’s growth. It’s okay to be displeased with older writing because that means we’ve grown out of it, grown into something else. It took me until my third novel to be able to say to myself: there’s a hundred-thousand words here, so you’re always going to find something that you could change, so just stop changing it. I’m also an editor and a publisher of other people’s work, and I tell my authors in the final throes of editing: “When you’re just exchanging one word for another, you’re done. Let it go.” The biggest way I’ve changed creatively is that I’m able to say when I’m done. That’s not something I could do throughout my twenties and into my thirties.

Angstman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Alternating Current. The press has operated since 1993.

GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing? 

A: I’m seldom happy with my writing when I revisit it, so I have to tell myself to leave it alone. Stop tinkering. No one else will read it with exactly the same brain that I have, so they’ll see it completely differently anyway. They won’t notice this comma. They won’t know I’ve switched this word with a different one because it sounded more historical, even if it actually isn’t. They won’t care if I leave this prepositional phrase dangling menacingly at the end of a sentence.

I always get beta readers for my writing, and I trust my partner’s eyes a lot. Beta readers help me step outside myself and see the book as someone else sees it. My partner tears my work apart, and he always makes it better, even if it’s often a painful process. He’s my first set of eyes on all my new work, so I don’t embarrass myself.

If I’m really unhappy with something, though, I set it aside and come back to it later — sometimes years and years later. I don’t write fast work; my writing takes me years from start to finish, so I’m totally okay with just setting a piece aside and dragging it out at some indeterminate point in the future, opening the time capsule to see what my younger self thought was so great or so terrible. Then, I usually tinker with it until I hear my partner laugh at the dark moments while he’s reading the current draft in the next room — that’s when I know it’s done.

GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book, Out Front the Following Sea?

A: Oooof, so much. Out Front the Following Sea is my first novel, and she’s a demon. From the first entirely handwritten 275,000-word incarnation to the ending text that made it into print, the work is indistinguishable as the same story. I went directly from writing poetry to writing a novel, and I didn’t know how to do it. I had to write it and rewrite it and rewrite it and drown babies and rewrite babies, and knock out nearly half the book that went into heavy exposition and a whole smallpox epidemic and the histories of characters who ended up as footnotes or lost on the cutting-room floor. It was a learning experience that sucked up years of my life, but it taught me the value of an outline, chapter word-count goals, and telling my characters to shut up and move on.

I also had to learn the breaking points of my readers. I’m a writer who loves historical tragedy. I’m the Titanic, I’m the guillotined heads of the French Revolution, I’m the exploding Hindenburg, and Oh, the humanity! I watched the Space Shuttle Challenger in real time, after all. I grew up with Baby Jessica falling down the well and the birth of the 24-hour CNN news cycle. I read full biographies of tragic figures before I was old enough to know what half the words meant. I dwell in historical darkness, and I have to know where that line is, that point when the reader says she doesn’t have the stomach for the hardships, heartaches, and blood anymore. This was something I had to learn — where that line was, when to cross it, and when to stay well-enough away from it.

GTL: Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?

A: The main reason is that it covers a lot of controversial topics and leaves a lot of them in gray areas; the reader has to decide what to make of the randomness of chances, the consequences of choices — this is the fodder for endless discussions that dig deep inside a reader’s psyche, an opportunity for real connection among groups of friends. From religious contention to questionable characters who may be “good” or “bad” depending on who’s viewing them, the story doesn’t let the reader get away without investing something of herself into the outcome. I want my readers to lose tiny pieces of themselves to the pages and pick up new pieces of themselves that they didn’t know they were missing. Out Front the Following Sea is not a surface-level read; it begs you to go deeper than you want to go, to step outside your comfort zone.

I’ve also thought through discussion questions, colonial recipes, printables and craft activities, and I have a whole packet at my website that readers can download to lead a meaningful discussion or gathering surrounding this story, so go take a chance on it with your reading pals! You might just learn something about yourself and your friends that you didn’t know before.

39 comments

  1. Great interview! Who of us does know exactly what we want?? I’ve been a reader my whole life and never considered opening my own bookstore until I was 33 and that was because my husband brought it up. It just made sense. I hope it happens but I’ve got to plan it right!
    I love that the author developed a whole interactive packet for readers for their book. That’s fun. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This interview was great! I feel like I “vibe” with what Angstman is putting out there. I love how she started to heal her trauma by writing. Also, I wanted to briefly be Jordan Knight’s girlfriend – for about a month, before I switched to his bandmate Donnie Wahlberg, who clearly was my soulmate all along. 😉 I like the “bad boys,” ha ha. Also, who DOESN’T want to be Bruce Springsteen’s girlfriend?? I love the cover for her book and I think I need to seek it out.

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    • Yes! I think you and Angstman must be about the same age based on her references and me knowing how old you are. I love how the 80s were SO teen girl. I mean, the posters, the books, the games. It seems like a great time to have been a teen. I do hope you read this book and write a review!

      Liked by 1 person

              • You are both right! New Kids on the the Block (don’t you dare mix it up with the acronym! The acronym was their comeback name when they reformed after breaking up with their manager, who owned the rights to the full name!) formed in 1984 and had some breakout success in the early eighties, but their big hits (Hangin’ Tough, Please Don’t Go Girl, &c.) came out on their 1988 album, so they blew up between 1988 and 1991. Then they had some lipsynching scandal that wouldn’t even be noticed nowadays, and it tanked their popularity, like, overnight. For the record, I was born in 1980, so I was 8-11 years old during the height of their fame.

                Here’s my funny New Kids story: Tickets for their shows were so expensive and were sold a year in advance because the demand was so high. I begged my mom for those tickets like wut. Finally, she gave in and bought them. But the concert was a year away. And by the time it came up, the New Kids were not popular anymore, and I emphatically did NOT want to go. But my mom made me go (with her, of course, because I was 12) since the tickets were so expensive. I was completely mortified, the arena was half-empty, and I got teased about it endlessly at school. The New Kids ruined my street rep.

                Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve met a few writers who craft from a place of trauma, even the same trauma, for decades, and I always have questions — because I’m curious. Lidia Yuknavitch comes to mind; she always writes for her still born daughter, who would be about my age had she lived.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Happy to answer your questions! My same trauma is always revisited. In fact, I’m quite desensitized to new things that could/should be traumatic, but the young, vulnerable trauma is what still gets me every time.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s brave, accepting criticism from her partner, though maybe the partner’s the brave one. I can’t say my kids never let me read their stuff, because as they made their various ways through uni they would get me to proof read and edit; but I’m too blunt and too pedantic to be trusted with anything close to their hearts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My partner is BRUTAL. And he’s also not remotely poetic. He’s a physicist, so he looks at everything so technically. He’s always like, “This just wouldn’t work.” But my all-time favorite comments of his are where he highlights a word or phrase or entire paragraph and just comments: “Nope.” Sometimes I get a “lolololol, absolutely not.” I have to put on my big-kid pullups when I dive into his edits, but he definitely makes the book better (though I do tend to leave in some of the poetry that he wants me to take out).

      Liked by 2 people

  4. This was a fascinating interview to read. Interesting how often writers seem to start from a place of trauma. And I think characters who don’t know what they want always feel more honest to me than characters who do.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love that she’s so supportive of book clubs! So many authors seem to pooh pooh the idea of book clubs, or recommending their book to book clubs, but quite honestly, the ladies that make up book clubs are the ladies that buy books, so good on her for knowing her market 😉

    Also interesting that she uses BETA readers. I rarely hear of authors using them, but maybe that’s just because it’s not talked about as much?

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    • I know quite a few authors who use Beta readers, who are typically a loved one, a writing group, or a small group of people who agree to read each other’s work but don’t necessarily get together and write all the time. I hear about this more with smaller press folks, but that might be because I have no clue what big publishers do for authors in general. I once read about a woman who had her whole town read her novel and give feedback, and if I remember correctly, she gave them installments, like a serial, to see where they hoped the novel would go. It was really interesting.

      I met one author who hated book clubs because the members asked her to attend, and then they just had book club like she wasn’t even there, talking about what they liked and hated (!) about the book. She said it was humiliating and rude.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Book clubs rule! (I’m in a historical book club that focuses on Colorado-centric history, so I’m cool with the book club nerds!) If you know any book clubs who might be interested, I’ve got a whole page of material for you here: https://leahangstman.com/out-front-the-following-sea-for-book-clubs.

      And I highly recommend beta readers. STRANGERS, if you can get them. They have no emotional ties to your work, and you’ll get an outside perspective that’s worth its weight in gold. I try to get about 10 readers before I consider my draft finished. You don’t have to change everything they want changed or take every one of their comments to heart, but it gives you a good idea of what lay readers might think (and what you can maybe expect from negative reviews before they happen).

      Liked by 2 people

        • I actually find the beta readers myself before the book ever gets to the publisher. I usually just do callouts on social media for anyone interested in beta reading, and I’ll hustle until I get ten responses. If I get desperate and can’t get readers, I’ll offer to swap beta-reading with others who have manuscripts. This latter option is time-consuming, however, so if you go the swap-route, be prepared for the bulk of work that follows!

          Liked by 2 people

  6. I always think it’s much braver to show your work to someone you love than a total stranger – I think it would be easier for me to send something I’d written to an agent than show it to my mum or my best friend (even though I trust both of them)!

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