Leah Stewart is the author of the novels Husband and Wife, The Myth of You and Me, Body of a Girl, and, most recently, The History of Us. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati, and she lives in Cincinnati.
Q: How did you come up with the scenario for your latest novel, The History of Us?
A: It started with my desire to write something influenced by George Eliot's Middlemarch, which follows three different couples affected by conflicts between love and money, and idealism and reality. So I wanted to have three couples of my own struggling with various takes on one issue—in my case, location and identity. Cities like Cincinnati, where I live and where the book is set, don't loom large in the national imagination, and I'm interested in how that affects the citizens' sense of themselves.
Q: Do you have more sympathy for some of the characters in this family than for others?
A: No. Readers certainly do! I'm endlessly fascinated by the ways that people make their own lives more difficult, so characters who get in their own way often seem poignant to me, where others might find them frustrating.
Q: When you start writing a novel, do you always know the outcome, or are you sometimes surprised?
A: I usually know where I want to land, but I don't know how I'm going to get there. Sometimes my intention changes in the writing of the book, but usually by a third to half of the way through I'm sure of the ending. Sometimes I even go ahead and write it.
Q: As a teacher of creative writing, what advice do you give your students about creating compelling characters?
A: They have to seem like real people to the author before they'll seem real to the reader. There are different ways of getting to that imaginative place—exercises that ask you to imagine every detail about someone, or write a character's emails to his mother, or her dream journal. Sometimes I suggest beginning students model a character on someone they know (without telling the class who that is), as I find that students recognize interesting details about their friends and relatives but struggle to invent those details for a completely fictional character.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm working on a novel about a 91-year-old—a former nurse and WWII veteran—who develops a fascination with her much younger neighbor, a woman rumored to have killed her husband.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: How about good books I've read lately? Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld, We Are All Completely BesideOurselves by Karen Joy Fowler.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb