Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith; Reviewed by Kris Faatz
Leesa Cross-Smith’s Every Kiss a War (Mojave River Press) is a vivid, immersive read. The stories, each a finely-constructed miniature, explore facets of love, the struggles inherent in relationships and especially in romance. Cross-Smith’s characters are unflinchingly human. They are strong, needy, careless, loyal, neglectful, self-sacrificing; they hurt each other without thinking, or while thinking only of themselves; they would do anything to find and keep love.
Cross-Smith is a master of language. Her writing is lyrical but never highflown. She places exactly the right image at the right moment, in a handful of words creating a simple but unforgettable setting: a baseball diamond at night, an apartment where the bookshelves are organized by color, a commune-house kitchen where earthy tea brews on the stove. In each setting, in each story, she invites the reader in. We know these places, whether because we’ve seen them before or because she draws them so clearly for us. We step into the house, the apartment, the car, the kitchen, and we close the door behind us and watch life play out in front of our eyes. These are often everyday people like ourselves. They do everyday things, simple on the surface, but if we watch and listen closely enough, we find that each of them has the power to break our hearts.
The stories in EKAW are tightly connected in theme and subject matter. Did you always have a collection in mind, or did the pieces emerge more individually? Did you write any of them specifically to fit with the rest of the group?
I did have a collection in mind. I wrote almost all of them specifically to fit into a collection. “And It Can Never Be Too Dark Or Too Bright” and “Whiskey & Ribbons” were the individual stories I had at first and I wrote the rest of them to fit the theme of what I already had in mind.
The collection often looks at men and women navigating attraction and romance (of course there were also exceptions to that). What drew you to focus on this particular angle?
I just really love writing and reading about men and women and relationships. It’s what I look for, it’s what interests me, so I got stoked thinking I could get away with building my collection on those things I already loved. Those things are what compelled me to write the stories, to put a collection together. I love movies/books/music about men and women and relationships and the ways that men and women are alike and different.
In many of the romantic situations, we see people hurting each other quite casually (“Kitchen Music” and “Kentucky Sugar,” for instance). What led you to explore this particular kind of experience?
I enjoy putting my characters into quietly or not-so-quietly uncomfy situations, to watch them wiggle themselves out. I like writing breakup/make up stories. I like giving the characters room to figure things out/figure their situations out without immediately explaining their motivations, because maybe they don’t even know what their motivations are yet (although I always do.) So, in those specific stories that you mentioned, I have gone out of my way to introduce characters who make pretty shady or hurtful decisions. And I have the people closest to them attempt to navigate their way through those things. I think we as humans are more like this than we care to admit. We hurt one another and don’t always know exactly why, when we’re doing it, or we want to admit what we’ve done and ask forgiveness, but we’re too proud or too scared or we’ve gone too far. I enjoy digging into all of that when I write.
As a reader, I found some of the protagonists challenging, exactly because they could cause suffering so easily and seemed to have a shallow view of love and commitment. (I’m thinking especially of Violet in “What the Fireworks are For,” and Margot in “A Day Like Any Other”). What drew you, as a writer, to create those characters? What was it like to get inside their heads and write about them?
Margot is a pretty evil character. In that story, her husband describes her as a maenad, “evil and snakelike with sharp claws where her hands should be…her poisonous kisses will take his last breath. Her red mouth will devour his heart.” He doesn’t really hold back on how he feels about her. She is very different from Violet to me. Although both women commit adultery, deceive their husbands, they do it for completely different reasons. I wanted to write about women who made awful choices and not so much about what led them to make these choices, but the aftermath of the choices they made. Margot is unapologetic about her affairs. She thinks her husband should just be thankful she’s around, be thankful she lets him love her. She’s given him a daughter, she comes home some nights, what more could he ask for? She warns him that he knew what she was like when he married her. In a way, he did. He thought he could “fix” her. He lied to himself about that. Margot feels like her husband was weak because he loved her so much. She’s pretty much every man’s worst nightmare. That’s why I wrote her. That was fun.
Violet is a dearer character to me because she is the protagonist of my novel and the protagonist of three linked stories in Every Kiss A War. Violet is young, immature and doesn’t quite realize the weight of what she does and the decisions she makes. She’s wild and reckless, flirty with a man she’s interested in, and when everything goes too far, she lets it. I would argue that Violet has a deep view of love and commitment. She does love her husband Dominic, but she willingly chooses to stray. The decision didn’t sneak up on her. I love Violet. She means a lot to me because she represents wildness, the ability or non-ability to be tamed, sin and forgiveness. She’s a representative of mercy and unabashed sexual desire. She feels bad for the things she does, but she does them anyway and does them again. I believe this is how most people operate, myself included at times. I try to mirror those basic human emotions, even the awful ones, in my writing.
A lot of people who read EKAW want to talk about Violet and her stories because they try to understand her or want to put her in a box. I try really hard to keep her out of a box. I want her to be surprising and I think she is! I love her madly and will defend her, even her darkest parts, but at the same time I don’t feel the need to.
I loved “Skee Ball, Indiana,” especially the ending (“I wanted to tell Marcus or Deladis or Brent or anybody that I could have been a good mom”). It struck me that the ending didn’t really resolve any conflict or give us much sense of how things will move forward for the protagonist, and this added to the story’s power. How did you decide where to end the piece and how to achieve the mood you wanted?
It’s hard for me not to resolve conflict! I love happy endings and fight for them when they fit. In “Skee Ball” I kind of wanted to get out of the story while the curtain was still coming down. The main character, Rory, has had an abortion some months ago and she isn’t quite sure how she feels about it. She’s still processing it and doing a pretty good job of looking at it from both sides. She’s in high school, she’s disappointed in herself, she’s disappointed in her mother’s reaction, she’s got a lot to unpack. So at the end of the story, I wanted to leave her alone with someone who was, in essence, a stranger, and have him going through something completely different, but just as weighty: his mother is dying. I wanted Rory to make a connection with him, for him to make a connection with her. Something as simple as: life is really really really hard sometimes, right? And have them both agree on that as the storm comes rolling in. Something so tiny as a hug right before the storm. So I knew I wanted to get out of the story before the storm rolled in and I knew I wanted Rory and Marcus to have a quiet, reflective moment on what was supposed to be a fun night. I wanted that story to be the kind of story where a reader would read it, get to the end, and then immediately go back to the beginning and read it again to see if they missed anything. I love stories that make me feel that way: that make me want to take another look and listen.
In “Sinnerman,” I loved the reality of the attraction between Sam and Peri, and the way you put a complicated situation on the page within a very short space (the fact that Peri can’t be much older than Sam’s own daughter; the fact that Sam would lose his professorship if anyone knew he was sleeping with a student; etc). How did you approach putting such a nuanced story on the page within the very short form? (I also wanted to mention that I love how much you tell us with the title alone.)
Thank you! I really love haberdashery and clothes, so I started there with them. Peri, watching Sam lecture in class, sorta falling in love with him because of his cuffs and shoes. Sam is my wounded animal. He’s really hurting and maybe he always will be, in some way. The fear of being fired doesn’t even touch him: he’s been through so much, that doesn’t worry him at all. His hurt, his past, it all gives him a freedom to be reckless, when a reckless situation presents itself. It doesn’t scare him. It gives him a certain boldness. So when Peri kisses him, he kisses her back. He’s a pretty carpe diem dude and here’s this beautiful young girl he’s attracted to, making the first move. The work has already been done, in a way. He’s just playing along.
I chose the “Sinnerman” title because it’s the Nina Simone song they are listening to in the hotel and because the story is about Sam and he’s our Sinnerman. With the first Sam story coming right before this one, a lot of the nuance work in this story had already been done for me, so I felt free to jump right in and let the reader play catch up. It’s ten years later, and here Sam is again. All the while, Peri is trying to figure him out. Is he forreal, is he married, is he a liar? He is being honest with her but she doesn’t trust it and it kind of all feels like a game sometimes to both of them and they both feed off of that. Sam also feels like he “knows” women. He has had his heart brutally broken by one and learned from it, he is raising a little woman, he feels like he’s holding the cards while Peri feels like she is, as well. I tried to make a simple thing complicated, a complicated thing, simple. I try to do that a lot when I write.
The ending of “A Day Like Any Other” blew me away. It was such a striking departure from what I would describe as the collection’s overall gentleness and restraint. How did you choose that ending?
Awesome response for you to have and I appreciate you telling me so! I always knew that ending was going to be that ending, and without spoiling it here for people who haven’t read the story, I will say that my intent was to surprise the reader and leave Sam seemingly alone to deal with everything. I was also dealing with the feelings of “the wages of sin is death” from Romans in the Bible. What’s truly at stake here? Where is unrepented sin leading these characters and all of us?
I loved how economically you gave us character and especially setting in these stories. The sensory details were always precise and immersive. How do you approach working in such a compressed form, especially in terms of creating context for the reader?
Thank you! I cut cut cut as much as I can. Any extra words, any unnecessary descriptions. I really challenge myself to strip it down as much as I can without being confusing. That part comes easily for me in my writing because I don’t enjoy writing or reading a lot of extra descriptions. I crave minimalism to a certain extent when I read and I try to match that when I’m writing, as well.
Thinking now as a reader, how would you compare your experience of reading flash to reading other, longer fictional forms?
I know what to expect when I’m reading flash and same for longer fictional forms. I know flash is going to get me in there quick and dirty and that’s what I want. I want to immediately be in the story and I want to get out fairly quickly too, but while I’m there, I want to feel things and be surprised, heartwarmed, interested, etc. In longer forms, I am going to be eased into certain things and I appreciate that too. I really love reading and writing both and get the same satisfaction from both too.
Have you always found that flash comes naturally to you as a writer? Is there anything about writing flash that you have particularly struggled or connected with? How does it compare with your experience of writing other forms?
Writing flash does come easily to me. I like my short stories pretty short. I haven’t really struggled with writing it but I have connected with the smallness of flash fiction and they’re such little treats to read. My approach to writing flash is the same as my approach to writing longer other forms, although they’re different. I still revise the same way, still want to be as thoughtful as possible with the language.
I love the way the collection shifts between first, second and third person points of view. Do you find one of those easier or more fun to write than the others? Could you give a couple of examples of how you chose a POV for a particular piece?
Thank you! I really enjoy writing from all different POVs. Some people really hate second person, I don’t give a dang. I write what I want. I love second person. There are several second person POVs in EKAW and I chose those because I wanted to see if could do it. A fancy judge/editor person who got ahold of my book commented “feels very comfortable in second person” and I love that. I do. I specifically used Peri’s first-person POV in “Sinnerman” to give Sam a look from a different angle. He is clearly the main character to me, in that story. Peri doesn’t really have many outside thoughts: she is focused on him, he’s it. That interested me because she’s a bit obsessed with him, his clothes, how he carries himself, so it makes sense to me that she would be thinking of him so much. And there is a longer companion-ish piece to this story that I’ve written and it’s written entirely from Sam’s POV, which was something I was working my way up to. I love Peri, I loved seeing Sam through her eyes. There is another piece I’ve written from his daughter’s POV, as well. I like circling him. I’m fairly attached to him and adore him and love checking in on him, writing about him from all sides.
In my story “Hem,” I write from Mitchell’s first-person POV because he’s having a rough go of it lately and I wanted to be there for him, get close to him. And same for my character Evangeline in my story “Whiskey & Ribbons.” It’s her story, and I wanted to use her first-person POV to allow her to share her secret/most intimate thoughts with the reader, if she weren’t sharing them with anyone else. I wanted to give her that space. My story “Making Cowboys” was a tricky one because it’s written in limited third person, but it sometimes feels like a first-person POV from the woman’s POV. At first I looked for ways to perhaps “fix” that, but decided that I loved it like that. It feels close.
Violet’s stories were always and only forever first-person POVs. They had to be. It could never work any other way for me. They’re Violet’s stories. She’s the one we want to get to know. And whether the reader thinks she’s a reliable or unreliable narrator is up to them, and they may go back and forth about it! As much as I can, I try to let the story and characters decide which POV I should use and I’ll test out several before deciding, sometimes. I’m willing to be open about it and I feel comfortable using all three of them although I tend to write from first-person POV, most often. It comes most naturally for me.
Could you tell me a little about your writing practice?
I do not write every day and I don’t set a certain number of words or stories. Outside of working on a specific revision or story, I write when I have something to write and I don’t feel pressured to write a certain amount. I used to! But I think I grew out of it? I will write myself out of a scene before stopping or have a specific point I want to get to in the story before I quit for the day when I’m writing, but it’s not about numbers for me. And I can get a bit superstitious if I’m having a good writing day. I won’t leave in the middle of a scene, or I’ll think things like let me get him out of the car into the house then I can stop for today and those things work for me. But I don’t feel pressure to write and I don’t feel guilty when I don’t write. I work out most things on my walks, or right before falling asleep, or in the middle of the night before I even sit down to write anyway. So when I’m working on something, I will at times obsessively think about it and turn it over and over in my mind which for me, is working on it, even before or when I haven’t typed a word. I am very strict about finishing things though. I force myself to finish stories even if I hate the ending in the first draft. I do it anyway, get it down, then return to it when I feel like it.
Do you have a favorite piece, or a piece that’s especially important to you, in this collection? If so, what sets it apart for you?
I don’t have a favorite! But “Whiskey & Ribbons” will always be especially important to me because it was the first story of mine that got real attention from a real literary magazine when it won Editor’s Choice in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. And also, I wrote that story exactly how I wanted to write it. I only showed it to a couple of people, got one or two notes on it. I trusted myself, wrote exactly what I wanted to write without worrying if people would “like” it or feel a certain way about it. I said what I wanted to say, exactly how I wanted to say it, so for those reasons, it will always be my baby. And same for the three Violet stories. I allowed Violet the room to be messy and awful and sexy and strange and everylittlething she wanted to be, without apologizing for it. And she’s the protagonist of my novel—my first real novel—the novel that got me my (best and amaze) literary agent Kerry D’Agostino, which was a super-dream of mine. Because of that and a lot of other things, Violet is forever my precious.
Leesa Cross-Smith is the author of Every Kiss A War (Mojave River Press) and the editor of WhiskeyPaper. Her writing can be found in The Best Small Fictions 2015 and lots of literary magazines. She lives in Kentucky and loves baseball and One Direction. Find more @ LeesaCrossSmith.com.
Kris Faatz is a pianist and teacher. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Potomac Review, The Kenyon Review’s KROnline, andReed Magazine, among others. Her first novel, To Love a Stranger, draws on her experience of the classical music world, and was a finalist for the 2015 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award.