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.
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.