As part of her research into the pleasures of reading and writing quiet books, for her essay “Some Room to Breathe: In Praise of Quiet Books,” which appears in the May/June 2018 issue, novelist Leesa Cross-Smith spoke with fellow author Silas House, whose novel A Parchment of Leaves she holds up as one of her favorite quiet books. What follows is Cross-Smith’s interview with House, which she conducted earlier this year.
Do you set out to write “quiet” books? And what do you think about calling them “quiet” books? Is that a label you would ever apply to your own work?
I don’t think I set out to write those, but to me good literature examines the way the biggest moments of life happens in the quiet moments. I think the characters I create tend to be quiet observers, people who might lead quiet lives but are very sensory. I love the idea of examining what some might think of as “small, quiet lives.” To me, those are the most interesting people. I certainly wouldn’t mind that label being applied to my work. I think that “quiet” is often thought of as a negative in our culture but actually it is actually a quality we need more of in our world.
Do you enjoy reading quiet books?
I much prefer introspection to explosions. I want to live with characters through those quiet moments. That’s where we get to know them the best. One of my favorite books is Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, mostly because of how quiet and slow it is. Despite the quiet stillness, however, we are experiencing great drama through the main character’s longings. It is exquisite.
Are you a person who enjoys the quiet in general? Do you seek it out? Has that changed in your heart, in our current, vitriolic political climate? I always avoided the noise before but even more now!
The older I get the more quiet I become, I think. I grew up in a very communal house where people were always bursting in to tell epic tales or to sing songs. My childhood home was sort of a community center. I think that led to me being someone who craves the quiet but also someone who can’t go very long without interaction. I love being alone and being quiet but I also love a dance party with thirty people packed into our living room. But quiet is absolutely essential for me as a writer. The best thing I ever do for my writing is to take a walk alone in the woods behind our house. Nothing else gets my writing juices flowing so well. And yes, I think that I absolutely need more quiet in our current fractured world. I’ve made my circle of people much smaller and I look at social media far less. Speaking of which, there are few things more silent than scrolling through a newsfeed but Lord, it is so loud. It will drive a person crazy if they do it too much without seeking stillness.
How does the quiet inform your process? Do you need a quiet space inside or out in nature to write? (I love how you describe landscapes, the sky, etc. Do you need extra time and space to be out in nature to do this? To be able to describe it so beautifully and perfectly in new ways?)
The biggest part of my writing process is going for walks. Usually in the woods, but even if I'm in the city I can go inside my own head and become still the best if I’m walking and observing. I wrote my first three books with babies on my lap or at my feet so I don’t really need a lot of quiet during the actual act of writing but in preparation I need stillness, I need the woods. I spend a lot of time in the woods, down by the creek. Even though I'm not physically putting words on the page, that's where I get the most of my writing done. Whenever there is a scene of nature in my books, I go out and experience that. In Parchment, for example, there’s a scene where Vine is picking blackberries and she gets hot and sits down in the creek with her clothes on. I did the same thing, to totally capture that experience, from the thorns biting into her hands while picking berries to the heaviness of my clothes when I walked out of the creek. I call that “spiritual research” and it allows me to go far deeper with my characters than I’d be able to otherwise.
Leesa Cross-Smith is the author of Whiskey & Ribbons (Hub City Press, 2018) and Every Kiss a War (Mojave River Press, 2014). She lives in Kentucky. Her essay “Some Room to Breathe: In Praise of Quiet Books” appears in the May/June 2018 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Listen to Cross-Smith read an excerpt from that essay in the latest episode of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast.