When we talk about folks who are writers and editors and literary citizens, very few are the whole package. Leesa Cross-Smith is an exception, exceptional at all three. I first encountered Leesa’s work when she became the Kathy Fish Fellow over at Smokelong Quarterly. I followed her work collecting and publishing the beautiful, lush short story magazine, WhiskeyPaper. Leesa’s stories invite the reader to the table, pour them a couple fingers of something good, and leave them reeling. When she’s not casting a gorgeous eye on the slush pile at WhiskeyPaper, Leesa can be found championing the work of other writers and embarking on new projects and adventures. We’re so glad to have her answer our Take Five interview and to present three flash pieces: “The Length,” “All That Smoke Howling Blue,” and “Sometimes We All Fight in Wars.” —CMG


ES: Can you tell us about your writing environment? What are the essentials you need around you, if any?

LCS: I like to write in my bed, on top of my bed after my bed is made. I write at home almost always, I get too distracted when I’m out in the world. I’m super-sensitive to smells, sounds, being startled. I can usually control those things when I’m in my own house. I don’t usually listen to music, I like the quiet. And I like to have endless mugs of hot tea on the table next to me and my husband is pretty magical in that respect. He brings them to me, sometimes I don’t even have to ask.

ES: Where are you from and where are you now? How does sense of place factor into/inform your writing? How about your editing/reading?

LCS: I am from Kentucky, born and raised and I’m still here. I write about Kentucky a lot. Kentucky girls, Kentucky weather, Kentucky feels. I like stories about the country but not just grotesque country stories … totally normal chill stories about the south. My family is from Kentucky and Alabama, I love the south, it’s my favorite. It’s homehomehome. It’s comforting to me, so I go there a lot in my writing. And the south can be so different from other parts of the United States and I love that about it. So often, writers are super-rooted in where they come from and that is reflected in their work … whether it’s NYC or the midwest … I’m proud to be from and to write about the south. I love being associated with it, even loosely. It’s who I am and who I want to be, fersure.

ES: What are the basics of your process? Do you start with a word or idea? Do you write immediately or let it simmer for a bit? How do you edit? Do you ever give up on ideas or do you recycle them?

LCS: I usually start with either a line, some words, or a visual I’ve created/recreated in my brain. I’ll see a pair of shoes and wonder who would wear these? And go from there. Or I’ll have a flash of an idea like he lives on an orange houseboat and go from there, simply because I saw a picture of an orange houseboat I loved. And I thought … who would live in that? Who is he? What is he like? What angers him or makes him glow? And then the rest spills out.

I usually let it simmer for a bit. I’ll write down bits of it, revisit it, maybe write down some other ideas … let it simmer some more. And if I sit down and try to get a story out of it that doesn’t come easily … I’ll let it simmer some more.

I edit by letting it sit for a bit … reading it aloud a lot. I’ll have my phone or computer read it back to me a lot. I’ll take a walk and listen to it. I’ll show it to my husband and my beta reader, Steve, and ask them questions and then dig back in when/if I need to.

I won’t give up on an idea if it keeps coming back to me. And even if it doesn’t work in a specific piece, I’ll totally recycle it or smash it together with something else, see if it works. I’ve written lots of things that way … by putting two stories together, switching them around to see what works.

ES: What other art forms factor into your work? From what and where do you draw inspiration?

LCS: Movies give me lots of ideas. Mumblecore and quiet movies, quiet moments. Period pieces. Life and living. Seeing someone do a tiny thing or daydreaming. I get inspiration from the things I love like baseball and late-night conversations. Music gives me a lot of ideas too. I heard Sufjan Stevens sing “in this light you look like Poseidon” and I wanted to write about it. Just, how it sounds and how it looks and all the different things it can mean. It’s so beautiful to me. Sufjan is a beautiful alien-angel and I love his lyrics so much. Fiona Apple singing “he makes my heart a cinemascope screen showing the dancing bird of paradise” really pleases me/my writing heart. Makes me want to write and write and write. The Be Good Tanyas singing “I had to throw down my accordion to get away from the police” does the same thing. It’s so specific and lovely. I’m also inspired by Jesus and grace and mercy and flowers and pretty dresses and the tiny things that make life magical/worth living.

ES: If you had to give a good friend three books to read while spending a misty Pacific Northwest Winter (which I know you know about), which books would you give them and why?

LCS: Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy because it is one of the coziest, warmest books I’ve ever read and I love everysinglething about it. The Beach by Alex Garland because it’s so good and quick and so summery, you can disappear into it. The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges because it’s soul food and about forgiveness and sanctification and everything that is bigger than we are or ever can be.

I won’t give up on an idea if it keeps coming back to me. And even if it doesn’t work in a specific piece, I’ll totally recycle it or smash it together with something else, see if it works. I’ve written lots of things that way … by putting two stories together, switching them around to see what works.


The Lengths

Kieran was bottle green in her mouth—the taste of wilted, salted kale. Sometimes she convinced herself she could still hear the popping Morse code braille of his tap-dancing, a kaleidoscopic map of sound leading the way back to him. Even when he was home in Ireland. Even when he had shows in New York. Even when he had shows in New Zealand and she was in her American bed alone with a steamy mug of tea and clover honey; reading historical fiction about Scottish men in kilts, dashing warriors thundering the ground on leviathan, shadow-black horses.

They were a romance novel come to life, only Kieran usually wore a too-big sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. God bless the sexy superhero mysteriousness of a half-covered face. He also danced on street corners, in Irish pubs, restaurants, places where people sat down for foamy black-brown pints of Guinness, fried fish and chips with thick wedges of lemon. Cottage pie, bangers and mash. Cheese and chive fritters, beef stew. Irish whiskey steak, soda bread, butter. Sticky toffee pudding.

Someone at the table next to them said Kieran’s quick feet cast a spell. Hypnotized. His legs, his muscular wood-strong thighs—they were magic wands. Her friend snorted, she blushed. They Beavis & Butthead laughed.

Heh. Magic wand. Abraca-effing-dabra. Girrl, he can use his magic wand on me.

That first night, first kiss after the pub closed, Kieran handed her a frosty, pocket-sized bottle of bourbon. They passed it back and forth, draining it in the white winter night. The snow-pink sky was so pretty, it worried her. She ached. She could actually feel it in her back, the upper muscles of her arms. He asked if it were okay to kiss her, would it make her feel better.

What they became: muscle ache and massage, spoon and spoon rest. Relying on one another as much as snowflakes and Narnia lamppost light, helium balloon and string.

“Your hair, it’s like … red clouds,” she said, handing herself over to him—vanishing against the drumming of her bourbon-flickered blood.

“The Lengths” was first published at Counterexample Poetics (2014).


All That Smoke Howling Blue

The first thing Bo ever said to me was that I had a face like an alarm clock—resplendent enough to wake him up. He and his younger brother, Cash, ran a garage on the shitty side of town. My car was always busted. That’s how we met.

Since then I’d been living with both of them—driving Bo’s old truck whenever I wanted and kissing Cash when Bo was at work. Bo knew about the kissing, I just didn’t do it in front of him. I slept in Bo’s bed most nights unless he really pissed me off. I loved them both equally. I used to make a peanut butter and jelly joke about it but no one understood what I meant. Bo kept his shoulder-length hair slicked back and Cash kept his short. See? They were different.

Bo had been teaching the blue-eyed shepherd puppy to howl and that’s what they were both doing—sitting on the floor, howling at the ceiling. Bo was picking leftover bits of tobacco from his tongue and I reminded him again that he shouldn’t smoke in the house. My hair was still scented with woodsmoke from the fire we made out back the night before. Bo stood and stuck his nose against my neck and sniffed me real good. I was at the stove stirring the baked beans.

“Mercy,” he said. Soft. It was the name my mama had given me and he always said it a lot. It made me feel special how it got both meanings coming from his mouth. My name, a begging blue prayer. We kissed. Bo’s kisses were feathery, Christmas-sweet. Cash hungry-kissed like a soldier on leave.

Bo stuck the puppy underneath his arm and stepped outside. I watched him through the screen, howling up at the sky. The puppy was licking his face.

Cash came through the front door and gently kicked my boots aside to make a path.

“I thought it was my night to make dinner,” he said, clinking a six-pack on the kitchen counter.

“You can tomorrow. I made fried chicken, potatoes and baked beans. Biscuits are in the oven. I got Bo to open the can since it scares me so bad when it pops,” I said.

“Well at least he’s good for something, right?” Cash said, barely laughing.

“He’s out back teaching the puppy to be an asshole,” I said, pointing with the wooden spoon, careful not to drip.

“Will you cut my hair tonight?” Cash asked, taking off his ball cap and opening a beer.

“Why? You got a crush on some girl you wanna look cute for?” I asked.

“Yep. Some girl named Mercy,” he said, smiling. I twinkled.

The sunset light ached at the windows. The puppy let out a brushy itty-bitty howl that went on forever. It just kept right on crackling. I’m telling you, I thought it’d never stop.

“All That Smoke Howling Blue” was first published at Cheap Pop (2014).


Sometimes We Both Fight in Wars

He lives on an orange houseboat when he’s home and sometimes he fights in wars. He tells me of course. Of course he’s killed a man with his bare hands. He says of course like he’s digging a deep hole—a small, sharp shovel stabbing a whopping rock. I want him to show me. I motion for him to stand up and I get in front of him, press my back against his chest, pull his arms around me and wrap one around my neck. Press my palm against his pointy elbow. Show me. Pressing and pressing. (The whole world is my palm pressing against his pointy elbow, his hips against my hips.) I ask him if he’s okay. He nods into the back of my neck, slides his arms down and tugs at the hem of my dress, lets his fingertips brush the bare skin of my thighs. I wiggle away and we sit back down at the table. He slides his playing cards over and picks them up slowly, fans them out, switches them around. We play Two-handed Rook with the windows open until I feel like a drip candle melting down the neck of a wine bottle. The summer storm sends us to bed; his navy blue sheets, a white flag. He holds out his hand for my earrings; jewels the size of sweat bees, the color of sunlit cough syrup. He puts them in the jewelry box along with the other treats collected from mysterious, foreign cities. The names, rolling languages that feel good in my mouth. Sweet sounds, hard and bright like frozen blueberries against the inside of my cheeks, glassing across my teeth, hissing on my warm tongue. That was years ago, the time he came home with a dirty face, smelling like campfires and spiced rain and asked me to marry him. The time I laughed (coy as white clover) and told him to ask me again later. Later. I am still waiting. I am the water holding up the house. Sometimes we’re not even humans, we’re fucking animals—rubbing noses and sniffing each other. Sometimes we take bloody knives, carve our initials into thick, tall trees that haven’t been planted yet. His heart is a heavy, loaded gun he hands over to me, lets me spin on my finger. Wait don’t shoot. The overgrown garden of what we don’t say, fecund in our hothouse mouths. Every kiss is a war. I write ask me again, yes on a piece of paper, burn it in a jar. I write sometimes we both fight in wars on the bathroom mirror in cherry blossom-pink lipstick; wine-breath-whisper it into his ear while he’s sleeping.

“Sometimes We Both Fight in Wars” was first published at Smokelong Quarterly (2013).

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 at LeesaCrossSmith.com.