Interview with Leah Hampton

photo by Carrie Hachadurian

Leah Hampton’s collection of short stories with the funny and troublesome title, F*ckface And Other Stories, was released by Henry Holt and Co in 2020. One of the themes we like best about F*ckface is articulated by the narrator in Leah's story “Boomers" — “None of this made the news.” The stories in this collection are grounded in rural Appalachia where the characters are charged with fixing things themselves because no one else is paying any attention, and no one else is going to do it for them. Tragedies like wildfires, dead bears in parking lots, or domestic violence are met with resilience and sometimes humor. The stories in F*ckface echo the complex realities of Appalachian life, even though national media often ignore that reality.

Leah Hampton is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and has been awarded UT-Austin’s Keene Prize for Literature, the James Hurst Prize for Fiction, and the Doris Betts Prize. She has held fellowships at Hedgebrook, the Adirondack Center for Writing, Wildacres, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University. Her work has appeared in Ecotone, McSweeney's, Electric Literature, storySouth, Literary Hub, and other places. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We asked Leah to answer some questions about the stories in F*ckface and what it’s been like to release a debut collection in the midst of a global pandemic intensified with such political division and unrest. 

Still: The Journal:  Congratulations on the release of your debut collection of short stories. Beyond the blurbs and official jacket copy, what do you want readers to know about F*ckface?

Leah Hampton:  I guess I want people to know that it's dark and funny at the same time, and that the characters have a lot to say about femininity, the environment, and class issues. I tried to deal with heavy subjects with some wackiness, and without getting too preachy. Also, for people who don't normally read short story collections, I'd want them to go into this book—and any collection—without expecting it to do the same things a novel does. Short story collections are more flexible and wild than novels. They rarely conform to expectations, so have fun with it; read them out of order, read passages aloud, that kind of thing. 

Still:  Could you talk about your early life and what influences there brought you to writing fiction?

LH:  My family is half British and half eastern Kentuckian, and we moved around so much I've lost count of how many schools I went to, so my childhood was a little, well pretty, chaotic. I was a weird, bookish kid, very shy. And my parents both left school at 16 and are working people, with no creative background or training. But they are both incredibly smart, multilingual, and very political. 

My mother took me to my first picket line when I was six. From early on I was encouraged to think about social justice issues, and that plus my genetic predisposition for storytelling made me who I am. I haven't changed much since I was little. I still make up stories, still talk to myself and the animals in my yard, and I still want to smash the patriarchy. Just like when I was in first grade. 

Still:  We’re sure this question is one you’ve answered a lot lately, but would you talk about what it’s like to launch a book of stories in the middle of a global pandemic when the country is also reckoning with systemic racism, police brutality, and political corruption? And what are your feelings about the role of the artist in all of this?

LH:  This is my first book, so I am sad that the pandemic prevented me from having a typical writerly debut. I was really looking forward to a book tour, meeting lots of new people, maybe teaching a bit. But then again, I feel grateful. The book has done pretty well in spite of current events. And most of all, I think stories are so important right now. The first place everyone goes in lockdown is to their Kindle or their Netflix account. We need stories to keep us company in dark times. I feel really honored that my stories got to help a few people through this difficult period. 

And I feel particularly glad that it found some unwilling or unsuspecting readers. Because the book has a "rude" title and kind of a manly cover in red, white, and blue, I'm told a number of conservative readers have bought it, without knowing exactly what it's about. They don't expect the ecofeminism in the book, or the other political themes. So there's at least one Trumpy bigot out there somewhere who has accidentally had his ass handed to him by reading my book—probably more. That's pretty cool. 

. . . Stories are so important right now. The first place everyone goes in lockdown is to their Kindle or their Netflix account. We need stories to keep us company in dark times.

Still: The Journal:  Have you found that any of your stories from this collection may take on new/different meanings when read in this current climate? 

LH:  Two stories in particular: First, the story "Boomer" covers the forest fires in Appalachia during the 2016 election. Forest fires are even worse now (out west) in 2020, and the election is even more toxic, so I hope that story resonates with people even more now, as a warning of what was to come. Second, the story "Meat" is about the pork industry. A few months before the book came out, the Trump administration basically canceled the regulation of pork production. Factory farms are now even bigger health hazards than ever, and the brutality I describe in that story has gotten even worse. Don't eat pork, folks. 

Still:  What is one story from F*ckface that you particularly like? Why? Tell us about that story’s specific evolution, inspirations, achievements, or anything interesting that would help readers to know about that story.

LH:  I'm really proud of "Twitchell" for the way it features older female bodies. A lot of women have told me how much it resonated with them, how much they appreciate it. We don't read enough about menopause and the inequities of aging in a female body. Often, it seems to me, that media, movies, and fiction stop considering femininity after 35, which is when it just starts to get interesting! We make the most interesting women, with the most wisdom and complexity, invisible. So I tried to write a story where all the gross and scary and beautiful aspects of menopause are hyper-visible. 

Still:  What have you created during the pandemic? Are you working on anything now? Could you tell us about it?

LH:  I've been writing a few essays, but mostly I'm writing really weird stuff. Wild hauntings and magical stories. I think my pandemic brain has gone a little bit insane, in a fun way. 

But I would advise people not to feel bad if they are having trouble writing, painting, or doing whatever creative stuff they enjoy during this time. I have definitely had dry spells and blocks. It's a tough time. Don't push yourself. 

Still:  Finally, we’d like to know what’s on your reading list. And what are you reading or what have you read recently that you’d recommend to others?

LH:  I just got my copy of Deesha Philyaw's The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
which I'm excited to read. I'm also eagerly anticipating Dantiel W. Moniz’s Milk Blood HeatBooks I've enjoyed this year include Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle's Even As We BreatheCarter Sickels’s The Prettiest StarEmma Copley Eisenberg's The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachiaand David Joy's When These Mountains BurnAppalachia has produced some amazing fiction the past couple of years, so you really can't go wrong. 

There's also some good poetry out there: Joy Priest's Horsepower is great, and I'm in love with Chessy Normile's Great Exodus, Great Wall, Great Party—it's pretty much a perfect poetry collection.


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