A kind of intimacy, a kind of edge: An interview with Christopher T. Leland

Jul 15, 2011

Christopher T. Leland is a committed writer.

The author of nine books, Dr. Leland's most recent book includes stories that he began working on when he was 19 years old.

The story collection, Love/Imperfect, was released in April and is part of Wayne State University Press's "Made in Michigan Writers" series.

I spoke with Dr. Leland via phone. We talked about the centrifugal force of cities, the "edge" of small towns, and the seemingly inescapable Michigan stories of Ernest Hemingway.

Brian Short: Welcome Christopher T. Leland to Michigan on the Page. I wanted to start with something I noticed in reading Love/Imperfect, your most recent book. Many of the stories in Love/Imperfect deal with people who either leave or don’t leave the small towns they grew up in. And I was wondering if you grew up in a small town? Did you feel that same kind of gravity pulling at you, trying to keep you there?

Christopher T. Leland: Well, yes and no. I actually grew up in middle-sized cities. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then in Huntington Beach, California, which is a suburb of LA.

But I think, just as in small town America, there is this center which is centrifugally pulling you toward it. And when I was a kid, actually, we would visit these places. We would go to New York and go to Chicago. But the city was always the place you ultimately wanted to end up.

I mean it was always, it was always what I aspired to. I mean, I’ve lived in New York, I’ve lived in Buenos Aires, I’ve lived in Madrid, I’ve lived in LA, I’ve lived in San Diego (laughs). I’ve lived in Detroit. I appreciate the attractions of the 'burbs and the attractions, actually of small towns. There’s a kind of intimacy and a kind of comfort and, also (laughs), frankly, a kind of edge that comes with these kinds of communities.

At the same time, I mean, what you love about cities is that you wake up one morning and go, I’m really bored with this, and so you can go, walk or drive or take the subway or the tram or whatever, three miles away and be in a different world.

BS: Do you think it’s easier to write in cities?

CTL: Hmm. Maybe not. Because it’s too easy to get away (laughs). As opposed to being trapped where you kind of go, okay, well, if I’m going to escape this then I have to write about it because I can’t just go to southwest (Detroit). I can go to southwest (Detroit) and speak Spanish and eat Mexican or Salvadorian or Peruvian food and feel like I’m away from the Detroit that I know. Whereas, if I’m in Charlevoix, I can’t do that.

BS: I was wondering, with Love/Imperfect, a number of the stories involve war. But the stories generally stick to telling what happened to people either before or after when the men went. Do you think of this book as at least partly a book about war?

CTL: I think, you know, sadly enough, I think for Americans, somehow, whether you’re a soldier or not, certainly throughout the twentieth century and certainly during the last half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, our lives have been so over determined  by war. I can’t think of my adolescence and my college years without thinking of the Vietnam War. I mean, it was a constant presence.

BS: When you think of Detroit or Michigan books, what pops into your mind?

CTL: Inevitably, you go back to (Ernest Hemingway’s) “Up in Michigan.” Everybody has to. I mean, I read that as an undergraduate. And I think my favorite story is the one called “The Light of the World” in which nothing happens.

It’s the one that takes place in the railroad station and they argue about Jack Ketchum and Jack Johnson. They argue about boxing matches and all this as they’re all waiting for a train. And it strikes me in that book as the most complex and ambiguous or ambivalent story in the entire collection. Because the only person who ultimately emerges as honest and admirable is the character who everyone dismisses.

It’s just a great story and I mean it shows you because, poor Hemingway, he gets either lionized or bashed. And, I mean, he’s a wonderful writer. He’s better at stories than he is at novels, as everybody says, but a terrific writer and a terrific influence.

BS: Christopher T. Leland is a professor of English at Wayne State University. He is the author of nine books, the most recent of which is Love/Imperfect. Chris, thank you so much for talking with me today.

CTL: Okay! And one more thing I wanted to make sure I got in. 

BS: Go ahead.

CTL: I’ve taught at Wayne (State University) now for 21 years. I can’t imagine — I think this is true — I can’t imagine a better gig. For anybody out there who is sort of developing ambitions in this direction. If you’re going to teach somewhere, teach at a large urban university where you get everybody. Yellow brown and black and white (laughs). The whole nine yards.