It’s rare to find a writer who can jump as fluidly across genres as Leigh can. It’s the literary equivalent of an athlete playing in the MLB and NBA.
Leigh’s second novel Self Care, a biting satire of the wellness industry and corporate feminism, came out last summer. Earlier this year, she published What to Miss When, a poetry collection written in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic that includes poems about stress cleaning, fears of grocery shopping and watching “Tiger King.” Reading it was a surprisingly cathartic experience.
Leigh was nice enough to chat with me about her books, online discourse and more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
First off, what was your path to writing and publishing?
I have an unusual educational background. I did a lot of theater and acting in high school, but I was also very depressed, so I dropped out of high school at 17. I just started working and going to community college. Then at 19, I moved to New York City to become an actress.
I had a LiveJournal where I was posting short stories and poetry. I started to build a following for that and got my first short story published in a literary magazine while I was in acting school. At acting school, I was the one who read the whole play. My scene partners would ask, ‘Do you know what happens at the end?’ I realized I was the bookish person in acting school. That, combined with getting the story published, made me realize I wanted to be a writer.
I ended up publishing my first two books with Melville House before I finished college in my mid-20s. I got those published just by being very online. Through LiveJournal, I made a lot of connections and I went to a book launch party, where I met Catherine Lacey, who had an internship at Melville House. Catherine gave my manuscript to the publisher of Melville House, who then published it.
I was at the right place at the right time. I didn’t have the credentials. I didn’t have the degree. But I was just putting my work out there.
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You’ve called Self Care a Trojan horse of a novel. Can you explain what you mean by that?
About a year into writing, I realized what I was trying to do, which was to make a Trojan horse that on the outside is a pink, fluffy satire of Goop or The Wing (although the book is set in a version of Bustle, but no one knows that. It’s just in my own mind.).
So, on the outside, I was making fun of these wealthy, white wellness influencers. Everyone gets that layer of the satire, but then inside the Trojan horse is examining how we behave on social media and a look at the rules of engagement. How, for a woman, confessing something shows your vulnerability, confessing that you have been a victim is a way to get attention. Those two things can come into conflict online as people are choosing sides about who to believe, who to get behind, who’s been victimized.
Tell us a bit about your approach to What to Miss When.
I feel like a bit of an outsider in the poetry world. I don’t have an MFA, but I spent a lot of time with people who did have MFAs, and that poetry is obtuse and obscure. I don’t understand it, then I feel stupid. I want to write poetry for people who feel stupid with some of the more obscure, experimental poetry. I love hearing from people on Instagram who say they’ve never bought poetry before but that they bought What to Miss When.
That’s super gratifying to me because I like the kind of poetry that if you read it the first time, you get something out of it, and the second time, you get another layer out of it, but there has to be something on that first read that speaks to you. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you feel less alone. That’s the kind of poetry I like to read, and that’s what I’m trying to write.
Both Self Care and What to Miss When explore online virtue signaling. What draws you to that theme?
I’ve always loved eavesdropping and am interested in watching how social dynamics play out in online communities. From my experience running Binders, a Facebook community of 40,000 women writers, to when I was writing Self Care, to just eavesdropping on comment threads on Instagram, I’m fascinated by the performative quality of internet discourse.
It’s just so interesting because I was a feminist activist when I was running Binders. I was very left-wing, I was angry. I thrived on outrage. I was in that kind of online feminist activist community in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Then, I had a turning point where I thought, ‘this is really toxic because I’m watching women use feminism as a kind of weapon to hurt other women, by telling them they’re not doing feminism correctly.’ I got turned off from that and resigned from Binders.
But then I watched as this kind of mentality spread until we get to 2020 when women are doing a lot of virtue signaling online to show they’re one of the good ones because they live in fear of being one of the bad ones. They don’t want to be a ‘Karen.’ They don’t want to be racist. So, they’re performing their virtue and their allyship. I’m just cynical about online activism after everything I’ve been through.
You do so many different types of writing. How does your approach vary depending on what you’re writing?
Poetry and fiction is where I feel the safest — where I think I can go the furthest. It’s like hiding behind a cloak. I was more comfortable exploring the theme of the culture of victimhood in fiction, in Self Care, than in an op-ed, which feels more risky. An op-ed is saying this is my opinion, and I’m ready to defend it, come at me.
Here’s an interesting example. Last year, in 2020, when I was writing the poetry collection, I wrote this poem called ‘Heretic,’ which was about how I think politics has become a religion for secular millennials. We have astrology. We have our love for Dolly Parton and politics. I felt like something was missing.
I was emotionally moved whenever I saw religious leaders speaking on TV, at John Lewis’s funeral or even at the inauguration of President Joe Biden, when Garth Brooks sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ I was crying. I wrote this poem a year ago, and then earlier this spring, the book was already finished, and I tweeted something about [self-help influencer] Glennon Doyle.
An editor at the New York Times asked if I wanted to write an op-ed about it and I ended up writing an op-ed version of that same poem. But the poem was like the laboratory where I was developing my ideas from an emotional place because poetry feels to me more intuitive and emotional and less rational and argument-driven.
Thanks again to Leigh for speaking with me. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram and order her books here. I couldn’t let her go without asking for book recommendation and she suggested No One Will Miss Her by Kat Rosenfeld and Lost in Summerland by Barrett Swanson.
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