Leopoldine Core on First Meetings, Fantasies & Getting to Know A Character

by Claire Luchette

Leopoldine Core’s stories filled a void I didn’t know was there. Selecting a favorite from her debut collection When Watched is an impossible task — each entertains, delights, and impresses. Her plots are meticulous, surprising, and her characters are fascinating: the kind of characters you’d want to get a phone call from, just for the chance to hear them speak. They say the kind of biting things that make you laugh, then cringe. Most of the nineteen stories in When Watched explore the relationships — sexual, friendly, and otherwise — between pairs of characters. Core’s fiction picks away at the vulnerabilities and impulses that incubate in us, both when we’re alone and when we’re stuck with other people.

Core answered my questions about the work of crafting her stories and why she likes to put characters together and see what happens.

Claire Luchette: One of the joys of reading your characters is the attention you give to how they think and feel and act in public, as opposed to when they’re alone. It hints at a self-awareness that is so important to a character’s psychology. Do you think we’re more ourselves around other people, or when we’re alone?

Leopoldine Core: The self isn’t a single entity — it contains so many trembling, conflicting parts. This is why I like to shuttle between the outer and inner worlds of a character, so you can see what they say and are unable to say. I remember a teacher once telling me that I should know my characters entirely — even if I don’t share every detail of who they are in the text — I should know. But I tend to have the opposite experience when I write. There is so much I don’t know about these people — a story is just a glance and that is my attraction to the form, how partial it is. You are thrown into someone’s existence for minute and then they’re gone and maybe the story keeps going in your head. I don’t know exactly who these people are and I write from exactly that point of unknowing — of desire.

Luchette: Many of these stories also focus on partnerships — pairs of people, and the intimacy between them. What interests you about duos?

Core: I find it easier to talk to one person than a group of people and my stories reflect that. Often in a group — though this isn’t always true — the conversation stays a bit lighter, a bit more polite. But when you talk to one person, if you like each other, a lot is revealed very quickly. So when I’m writing, I like to jump right into that intensity, use it.

It’s also spatial — it’s a set up I understand, two heads side by side in a room. I grew up in a narrow, messy apartment in the East Village. There literally wasn’t a lot of room to move around, so at best I would invite one friend over and we would sit on my bed and talk and do our homework and eat. I did everything in bed because it was the one surface that was always clear. And so I guess I grew accustomed to being very close to someone when I spoke with them, and to often being alone. My neighborhood wasn’t very safe, so most of my free time was spent indoors. And somehow I wasn’t bored. I liked being home in bed, talking to someone or myself. I still do.

It’s so revealing, how we behave when encountering each other for the first time.

When I’m staging a story, I like to find ways of putting two people with nothing in common right next to each other, and trapping them in the room or the car, seeing what they say. Like when people are first meeting in a story, how they interview each other — or some people never ask the other a single question, they just talk about themselves. It’s so revealing, how we behave when encountering each other for the first time.

Luchette: “When Watched” delves into the highly imaginative mind of Theo, a young girl who dreams of disappearing. What was challenging in writing her?

Core: “When Watched” was the first story I wrote. I wanted to write a story that emphasized the ways kidnapping is eroticized in the culture and I was struck with the idea that the child in the story would join in the fantasy — staging her own death. I didn’t want to erase her though, that was a fear of mine. I didn’t want to drown the character out with my theories about pop culture, you know? The story is about someone who feels unseen, unloved — indeed, neglected, so as the writer, I wanted to be sure to see her. I wanted the story to live very much in her mind. One feels a moral obligation when writing about children — not to flatten out their humanity, their weirdness. I spent a long time thinking about who Theo was, having conversations with her in my head. Because I knew that once she was real, she would write the story, carry me to the end.

So much of what drives my work is the tension between fantasy and reality — and the fact that you can’t quite separate them, they start to fizzle together in the same pool.

Luchette: These stories are all narrated in the third person — usually close to one character’s thoughts, but in some cases roaming between characters (like in “Historic Tree Nurseries”). What does the close third person offer you, the writer? Is it control, or maybe more objectivity?

Core: I write in the third person because I like hovering over the scene, seeing the surface of everything. I write kind of dull stage directions and then punctuate them with feeling — or that is my goal, anyway, to keep the terrain uneven, pinball between flat and lush language. Really I write in the third and the first person — because I dip into the mind’s of my characters quite often and these thoughts occur in the first person. And dialogue, which accounts for the bulk of most stories, obviously occurs in the first person. I like shuttling between the third and first — I want to have both always. I want to be inside and outside. Because my experience of being alive is exactly that way, these constant shifts in attention to the material world, the world of other people and the world of my own head.

Luchette: In “Orphans,” we follow Miranda as she gets to know Drew, a homeless transgender guy from AA. Drew ends up being so much more compelling than Miranda, though. Is it always clear to you from the beginning which character you’ll follow through a story?

Core: That story was such a surprise. I didn’t know what would happen to Miranda, this character I felt so maddened by. Her behaviors are excruciating to watch, and yet they set the scene for much about the world around her to be revealed. When people say stupid things, ask insensitive questions, make choices based on total delusions, behave greedily — they stand to be corrected by those around them. I like watching that happen in a story. Miranda is a bit demented. She represents a part of the culture that lives in so many of us — the part that fears and mis-sees the exact person it hopes to fuck. Violence against trans people is brought on mainly by desire, I think. Because trans people are so incredibly beautiful, and for many people, they can’t bear this — their desire for a person who challenges, indeed shatters, gender norms. Miranda is violent in her stupidity, mostly, her addiction to the nimbus of her own fantasies. I wanted her to meet someone who would emphasize her hate and fear and desire and total narcissism — point it all out.

Luchette: You also write poetry. How do you navigate the truths you want to explore in poetry versus fiction?

Core: My poetry could be categorized as nonfiction. It is generally drawn directly from experience, written in the first person, and quickly. I think if I spent a lot of time on my poems or made an effort to fictionalize them, I would ruin them. They leap right out of me and I try to preserve them in that state — I have a protective impulse, maybe.

Whereas so much time goes into my stories, so many hours of lying in the dark thinking. All the elements of the plot have to hook together in a particular way, even if it’s a story about a woman who never leaves her bed. And I’m generally writing about at least two people, sometimes more, so their voices need to be distinct. This is why I write the dialogue first, so I can build an intimacy with the characters before I begin describing them in the third person. If I can read ten pages of dialogue without any names indicating who said what and still know exactly who is talking, then I feel ready to start describing the room and the faces in it. But I also sometimes use dialogue in the place of describing the face. I like when the words passing between two people show us what their bodies look like.

I like when the words passing between two people show us what their bodies look like.

I spend hours reading my stories aloud, sometimes tape recording them to see what sounds true and what doesn’t. I write fiction but the work needs to be grounded in a living reality — a world I believe — or I’ll abandon it.

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