Leslie Haynsworth is the $1000 prize-winner of the 2010 Roanoke Review Fiction Contest for her story “Two Left Feet.” According to Haynsworth, her story “grew out of an offbeat news which appeared in the New York Times in 2008… about this island off the coast of Washington State where three men’s right feet—just the feet, and nothing else—had washed up in recent months. I moved the setting to my native South Carolina and changed the three right feet to two left ones, but in many other respects I hewed fairly closely to the original news item.”
Haynsworth is an MFA student in fiction at the University of South Carolina, where she serves as fiction editor forYemasee and web editor for the USC Arts Institute. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, The Common Review, Gulf Stream, Live Oak Review, A River & Sound Review, CrossRoads: A Southern Culture Annual, and elsewhere. She’s currently working on a satiric novel about academic life, which is in no way inspired by her own experiences in academia. Heather Repass speaks with Leslie Haynsworth below.
You changed the original setting of the news article which inspired “Two Left Feet” to South Carolina for your story. Why? Does your home state often inspire aspects of your work?
The original setting for the news story was the Pacific Northwest, and I initially intended to set the story there too, but as I started writing, I realized I wasn’t familiar enough with that part of the country to be confident that I was portraying it accurately. So I moved the setting to South Carolina just because I know that coast so much better. But whether my home state inspires my work is an interesting question. Most of my work is set in or around South Carolina, but I’m not sure I’d identify myself as a “Southern” writer in the sense of being persistently concerned with exploring what it means to be Southern. Having lived (briefly, I’ll admit) in the West and the Northeast, it seems to me that in the last generation or so, as we all consume the same mass culture, regional differences have tended to fall away. The South is still a different place from the Northeast, but I think it’s a lot less different than it was when I was a little girl. Certainly it’s not as distinctively its own place as it was in Faulkner’s time. I definitely think of myself as a Southerner, but I’m not really sure what that means for my writing or for my identity.
What things do inspire you to write?
That’s an interesting question too. I have vague ideas for stories all the time, but I can never tell which of those ideas are really going to blossom into stories. From talking to other writers, I think that’s a common experience. I do have one friend who actively looks for interesting news stories, and almost all of his stories are inspired by what he reads in the newspaper. I’m more inclined just to start musing about this and that while I’m doing housework or taking a shower, and sometimes my musings will coalesce into a particular scenario, and then sometimes I’ll find myself wanting to run with that scenario and flesh it out more, and I’ll make up these characters and give them names and put them into a particular scenario and start getting interested in them, and then I’ll know I might be onto something. But, again like most writers I know, I can’t always tell which stories are really going to work. Some of my most promising beginnings have gone nowhere. And sometimes rough or weak beginnings lead to stories that become much more exciting in the middle—and I can’t really explain how or why that happens. I’m just happy when it does.
How did you discover your talent for writing?
To be honest, having taught a lot of creative writing classes, I think almost everyone has a talent for writing in one way or another—a vantage point on the world, or a voice that is in some way really fresh or exciting. So I feel a little uncomfortable thinking of myself as having a “talent” for writing. But I do have a passion for it, and that’s something I discovered pretty early. I was a voracious reader as a kid, in fact, kind of famously so—they named the library at my summer camp after me. And I can remember being seven or eight and making up stories in my head, and by the time I was about 10, I was writing some of those stories down. So writing was always something I wanted to do. But, again like a lot of people, I think, I was pretty tentative about that ambition for a long time. I took a creative writing class in high school and made a D in it. That’s a story I love to tell my students now. The feedback you get from teachers or other mentors can discourage you so easily when you’re young. But I look back now and see that my high school creative writing teacher just had a sensibility that was very different from my own. What I’ve come to realize in recent years is that success as a writer comes at least as much from perseverance even in the face of discouragement or rejection as from any innate talent you might have.
What led you into the MFA program at the University of South Carolina? Do you have any plans yet for your life after graduation?
After college, I decided I wanted to be an English professor, so I got a PhD in Victorian literature. But along the way, I kept taking on these writing jobs, in advertising, PR, feature writing, etc. So when I went on the academic job market, I ended up being hired to teach professional and creative writing rather than literature as I had initially planned. And I loved it—and what I loved most of all was the creative writing classes. Working with my students on their writing made me realize too that maybe my secret, tentative ambition to pursue a writing career of my own might actually be worth pursuing. But with a teaching job and two small children, I found it hard to make time for my writing, and when I did squeeze in that time, I found it hard to tell if my work was any good. I realized I would benefit a lot from being part of a community of writers. A few years earlier, I’d profiled several noted writers for Publishers Weekly, and all of them had said their MFA experiences had been really instrumental to their development as writers and to their professional success. Going back to school at age 40 when I already had a PhD felt crazy, but after a lot of thought, I realized it was something I really wanted. My mom kept telling me I deserved to give myself a chance to succeed as a writer, and for me an MFA seemed like the best way to do that. I chose the program at USC simply because we lived in Columbia and I felt like I couldn’t uproot my whole family so I could get yet another graduate degree. But it turned out to be a great choice—it’s a particularly friendly and supportive community of writers, and the fiction professors—Janette Turner Hospital, Elise Blackwell, and David Bajo—are all fantastic, just really astute and insightful readers. Working with them and being immersed in a program where we’re all thinking about writing and commenting on each other’s writing on a regular basis has made my work so much better in so many ways. I still sometimes have these moments when I’ll think I was crazy to give up a tenure-track job to go back to grad school, but really I don’t regret it for a minute.
As for my post-graduation plans, they’re totally up in the air at the moment. I’d love to go back to teaching, but those jobs are hard to come by. I definitely want to finish my novel, and hopefully start working on another one—I’ve taken lots of notes on a couple of different ideas that I’m excited about.
You work as fiction editor for Yemasee and as web editor for the USC Arts Institute. What have been your favorite moments in those jobs?
Working for Yemassee has been so great—I think any MFA student who has a chance to work on a literary magazine and doesn’t do it is crazy. Reading through piles of submissions teaches you so much about what works and what doesn’t, what makes a story really compelling, what grabs an editor’s attention, and what makes her put even a promising story in the rejection pile. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I started getting a lot more of my own work published after I began reading for Yemassee.
As for my favorite moments as fiction editor, they’re when I find those stories that I just love and am so excited to publish. You have all those manila envelopes piled up in the in box, and when you pull one out, you never know what you’re going to find. Most of the submissions I read are interesting or promising in some way, but when I find one that pulls me in and makes me say, “Oh, wow,” that’s really exciting.
Working for the Arts Institute has been great because it’s given me a chance to see what goes on in the arts all across campus, and to get to know artists in other disciplines. I think when you put artists from different fields together, they can cross-pollinate in really interesting ways.
Would you be willing to tell me a bit more about your satiric novel about academia?
Sure—it’s been so much fun to write, I almost feel like it’s not fair that it’s also counted for course credit! It’s set—as so many satiric academic novels are for some reason—primarily in an English department. The basic premise is sort of like that nursery rhyme where, for want of a nail for this one horseshoe, a whole kingdom is lost. The plot is set in motion when a lowly adjunct professor of English starts scheming to land a slightly better job as assistant director of an obscure institute on campus. Not being as well-versed in campus politics as she should be, she inadvertently sets off a fairly catastrophic series of events. Poking fun at academic life has in many ways been cathartic, and what’s especially fun is that all these people who know I’m working on the novel are always coming up to me and saying, “hey, have I got a story for you—this just has to go into your novel!”
In what ways is writing a novel different for you from writing short stories?
In some ways, it’s actually easier to write a novel. I tend to be a long-winded writer, and I always find out—and want to write—more and more about my characters and their situation as I go along. Short stories force you to be disciplined and efficient, and that doesn’t come naturally to me. But those are also valuable qualities even for novel writers, so I really appreciate the way stories force me to make my prose more lean and to consider what absolutely needs to get said and what can simply be implied, or left out altogether. What I wish, though, is that there was more of a place out there for fiction that falls in between the 10-20 page range of the typical story and the 300 pages or so of the typical novel. A lot of the ideas I have feel like they’re more than short stories but not quite novels, and there’s not a lot of room in the current market for novella-length work.
Is there any advice that you wish someone had given you when you started writing?
Absolutely—I wish I had understood back then how important it is not to get discouraged by rejection. It happens to everyone, over and over. I think most people who aspire to be writers have probably had a fair amount of academic success and are acclimated to having their work praised rather than rejected. So when you start submitting your work and get those initial rejections, it feels a lot worse than it really is. Once you’ve been a journal editor, you really understand that every journal has to reject very promising work on a routine basis. Last year, I had a number of stories and essays accepted for publication and one of my friends said, “Wow, you’re doing so well,” and my response was, “You have no idea how many rejections I got, though.” Other people’s success is very visible to us, but their failures aren’t so visible. So based on what we can see about how others are doing, compared to what we know about how we’re doing, it’s really easy to feel like a comparative failure. I track my submissions on duotrope.com, and it provides you with all kinds of handy stats, including your acceptance rate. Right now mine’s at about 4.5%, meaning that I have one acceptance for about every 20 submissions I make. Next to that stat is a message from duotrope that says, “Congratulations! Your acceptance rate is higher than those of other people who are submitting to the same markets.” If I had understood from the start how routine rejections are, it would have been easier to maintain confidence in myself as a writer even when my work was being regularly turned down.