Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, the debut collection by Hillary Leftwich, is a sad, funny, broken, hopeful book: a strange coming of age. Leftwich has written a surreal Midwestern Gothic full of hand-me downs and family secrets; just as her characters open other people’s bathroom cupboards to “see the expensive tampons and boutique makeup”, opening the pages of this book allows the reader a compassionate, tragic, and sometimes difficult look into a darker side of innocence lost. We should not avert our eyes.
Nancy Stohlman: In the spirit of flash fiction, describe this book in six words:
Hillary Leftwich: It hurts to live with ghosts.
NS: Love it! Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock is your first book, congratulations! Has it been everything you imagined?
HL: My expectations were pretty low, so when I began my solo marketing and Denver/Front Range “Book Tour,” I was taken aback by the amount of support I received. It takes a lot of courage to share your words with the world, so no, it was not everything I imagined it would be. It was better.
NS: Is there a favorite story or “germ story” in here—the one piece that really started this book becoming a book?
HL: Germ story! I love that! The one piece that really got me going with continuing writing this hybrid collection would be “I Lost My Orgasm.” And I want to thank my ex for giving me the inspiration to write that piece.
NS: One of the strongest themes in your work for me is the loss of innocence. You are able to be funny about it, as in this line about a first sexual encounter: “You see your stuffed bear, Mr. Noodles, shoved between the wall and the bed frame, gaping at you with a look of abandonment…” but I still feel a lot of sadness–indeed, abandonment–in this loss. Your thoughts?
HL: That piece is based on my first experience of getting sexual with an older boy I had an immense attraction to and who intimidated me with his mohawk and leather. I remember seeing my bedroom through his eyes and feeling both ashamed as well as terrified. A sadness in knowing I was about to cross a threshold with this person that I had never crossed before. I suppose the melancholy of making a decision to leave part of our childhood behind is what comes through.
NS: At other times the transformation feels more manipulated, more sinister, as in this line beginning with unicorns and mermaids and ending with: “Shhh she sang, her hands two sleepy birds cradling me—you don’t want to be a little girl forever.” Does she? Do any of us? Why do we get so lost in these old versions of ourselves?
HL: That’s the first piece I’ve written about my childhood sexual molestations by an older girl who lived across the street from me when I was five. Her manipulation of our friendship and pressuring me to allow her to do what she wanted to my body is my first memory of losing something huge as a part of myself. I often wonder what kind of a woman I would be today if I still had that part of me she stole. Then again, maybe it’s best not to think of it as something missing. We fill our emptiness with all kinds of demons.
NS: Wow. And yes, so true. I was thinking: many of the stories here are told in the second person (you) and are also just surreal enough to make me wonder if they originate in dreams? If not in dreams, where do they originate for you?
HL: I have a need to make everything in my life surreal to understand other people as well as myself.
NS: Yes, agreed. Now the characters in this book exist in what we might call blue-collar Americana—they are factory workers and cleaning ladies and single parents. And yet there is no idealization of another world, no striving to escape circumstances. I was struck by this line: “I don’t trust anyone who’s never had to clean up someone else’s shit.” Do you think these characters are more content than they let on to be?
HL: Many of these pieces are nonfiction, especially the ones involving my days as a maid, and of course, being a solo mother. Christina, the woman who cleans my old office building, actually said that. And I agree with that statement. Being in a situation of barely making it paycheck to paycheck, feeling more comfortable with folks in the same boat as you, broke, struggling, is something I never attempted to escape from. To me, it was both comforting and absolutely a state of content in many ways. I only felt judged and wanting to be in better circumstances by those who looked down on me and the folks I worked or socialized with. I still feel this way. I don’t think that will ever change.
NS: There are a lot of references to ghosts, obviously even in your title. But after reading your work, I felt that the real ghosts are our own departed versions of ourselves, adults haunted by our past versions of ourselves. You say, “There are lots of ways to remain half alive and half dead. Tons.” I feel the ghosts in this book are not outside of us but inside. Talk.
HL: The ghosts inside us are what I believe drives us to destroy ourselves. Hauntings of people and situations passed, and like you said, a “departed versions of ourselves.” It’s easy to be half alive and half dead. It’s harder to educate ourselves and learn to grow, to move beyond our old selves and our ignorance. But we need to, especially now. Especially now.
NS: Yes, especially now. Which brings me to another theme I see in your work: resilience–the many ways that, as we are yearning towards our own fruition, forces from within and without can make us pivot and pervert but not die. Do you think there is redemption for these characters? Should there be?
HL: One of the hardest things about being alive is experiencing suffering, and seeing others suffer and learning the world is never fair. That sometimes, you experience something so horrific it hurts to keep breathing. There should always be redemption, but life doesn’t work that way. Redemption means a happy ending, and there can never be a happy ending without tremendous loss.
NS: What advice do you have for writers who are working on/want to publish a book?
HL: When I was pregnant with my son, everyone came out of the woodwork to share their horror stories and advice about pregnancy and giving birth. Turns out, none of it applied to me. I had my own unique (and scary) experience. You will have your own too, but you don’t have to go it alone. Seek out advice, ask for help, have a friend you trust, or a writing group look at your work. And when you’re ready, find me. I’ll be teaching a class on how to self-promote and create your own book tour for those on a budget.
NS: Yes, I love that comparison. Thanks so much for playing, Hillary! Links to buy the book and other promo links?
Hillary Leftwich is the author of Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock (CCM Press/The Accomplices 2019), which is featured in Entropy’s Best Fiction list of 2019 and is a finalist for the Big Other Book Award. She is the poetry and prose editor for Heavy Feather Review and runs At the Inkwell Denver, a monthly reading series. Currently, she freelances as a writer, editor, journalist, and teaches writing at Lighthouse Writers. She is a Kenyon Review scholarship recipient for 2021, and her writing can be found in both print and online in The Rumpus, Entropy, The Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Hobart, and others. She lives in Colorado with her partner, her son, and their cat, Larry. Find more of her writing at hillaryleftwich.com