Writer in the Spotlight
Leah Browning has worked as a freelance writer and editor since 1995 and is the author of Babysitting Basics, Babysitting Rules, and Sleepovers (Capstone Press). She was a contributor to Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul 2, and her work has appeared in over 20 online magazines, in addition to articles published in the Arizona Jewish Post, Tucson Lifestyle, Wild Violet, Working Writer, and the Los Alamos Monitor. Since 2005 she has been the editor of Apple Valley Review.
Hi, Leah, welcome!
Thank you, Robin! I really appreciate the invitation.
There are a lot of topics I want to cover here, but I want to begin by telling readers, as I told you, that you have always been one of our favorite contributors. We've never passed on anything by you. "Skating" appeared in our Fall 06 issue, and it's one of those pieces I haven't stopped thinking about. It's got it all: great writing, evocative imagery, crystal clear characters, and a sweet, wonderful ending that took me completely by surprise:We are driving away from our house when we see them,
next to us on the sidewalk. The boy is on roller skates,
and the girl is walking a Golden Retriever on a red leash.
This is in the summer, in Tucson, where heat rises
off the pavement like snakes from a basket, winding
its way around my legs, pressing heavily on my head.
The children are young—ten, perhaps—and they seem
not to mind; I am twenty years older and return
from a short walk to the mailbox feeling hot and sleepy.
"It's his first time," you say, making me think of sweaty,
uncomfortable sex, but you are only talking about the boy,
on his skates, wobbling awkwardly from side to side, not knowing
how to take long, natural-looking strides. It's been years since
I've been on roller skates, since I've even seen someone
on roller skates; blades are more fashionable now. I can't think
where he would have gotten this pair, why he is wearing them,
and in Tucson, in the summer, of all places. When I turned ten
I had my party in a church basement, where the wood floor
was slick and a high school girl stood behind a counter and pulled
roller skates from high shelves. My size was gone, and I had to stuff
the toes of my skates with paper. I had invited the boy that I loved,
and he arrived with his mother, a little after everyone else; he skated in
smooth circles, following me around the room, or so I imagined.
We were all following each other, really. When we were tired
we sat on benches and unlaced our skates, but the feeling
went on, as though with every step that I took I were still skating
in my threadbare white socks. After the cake, and the presents,
I walked out to the car in my sneakers, still gliding, knowing even then
that the lift came from my head and not my feet. Outside, the boy starts to fall,
flailing his arms, and the girl catches his hand, righting him.
As we drive past, I see his face, pinched in concentration, staring down
at the sidewalk, afraid of falling. Next to the girl, the dog trots,
panting in the heat. She walks between them, her expression as calm
and amiable as the dog's. We sail past them in our air-conditioned
bubble, and I turn to look back. The boy is unsteady, but the girl
continues to hold his hand, anchoring him. I turn back to the road,
wondering whether they are brother and sister, or friends, or more;
whether, after chasing each other around a roller rink, they will walk
toward the bathrooms in their stocking feet and he will kiss her,
lightly, near the Coke machine,
and they will someday end up married, living in the desert
with their two children, earthbound. One of our children asks
a question then, and I forget about the kids on the sidewalk,
and the dog and the skates, until we are getting ready for bed
that night, and I see your back as you remove your shirt. You
are still thin, the small bones of your spine curving in symphony
as you bend to unbuckle your belt. "Do you remember how it felt,
after you took off your skates?" I ask, and you look up, blankly,
and my heart sinks; I feel it tighten under my skin. Then your eyes
focus on mine, where I am standing on the other side of the room,
and you cross the bed toward me on your knees and say, "The floating,
you mean?" and I take your hand, pulling you up, and you kiss me,
lightly, at first, as though we are ten again, standing in a church
basement in our bare socks.
I thought at the time, and still do, that it's based on a true story. Is it?
This would probably be a more satisfying answer if I were living on the east side of Tucson with my high school sweetheart. This is why I like fiction so much!
But no, the story line in the poem is not strictly true, though many of the details are from real life. The majority of my poems are like that; they tend to braid threads that have come from a few different places.
In about the third grade, I did have a birthday party at the local roller skating rink, which was in a church basement. At the time, I had a mad crush on a certain boy, who did arrive at the party with his mother. These were all buried memories, though, and I hadn't really seen or thought about roller skating or this boy in probably fifteen or twenty years.
In this case, the impetus for "Skating" was a scene much like the one in the poem: I was married and living in Tucson, and while I was out driving one day I passed a boy on roller skates with a girl and a dog. The boy lost his balance, the girl righted him, and I drove past. Everything unspooled from there.
Well, I'm really surprised... I'm usually pretty good at knowing when something has been fictionalized. Great job there. I remember when that poem came in my editor and I really raved about it.
Thank you so much.
I think "Skating" is a good example of how mindful a writer has to be of all the details going on around them; I really think that's where the best material comes from. Would you care to share another poem with us that was inspired by a real-life scene you witnessed?
Many of them are inspired by real-life scenes. The first one that comes to mind is more recent, a poem called "Damage" that appeared last fall in Queen's Quarterly.
by Leah Browning
One has to question the logic of a swing set
embedded in a slab of asphalt
on the playground of an elementary school.
Those coltish legs slanted at an angle,
the dark smile of each seat hanging from chains,
but it was the 1970s all plaid slacks
and big collars and we didn't think about safety
then, in those years before AIDS and baby
car seats. It was still cool to smoke and sunbathe,
and I never had to wear a bike helmet
or travel en masse because the weirdo
in the white van who stopped me
on my way to school and asked if I'd seen his dog
and would I get in and help him look for it
was an anomaly, and we didn't lock
our front door or worry about picking up
a woman stranded by the side of the road
with her car because nobody had a cell phone
and looking back my god it's a wonder we
didn't all die; it's a wonder anyone survived
with all the lead paint and raw cookie dough.
So I never thought twice about the bed of asphalt
waiting for Jason Jackson's warm head
as he stood on the swing and pushed as hard
as he could with his legs. That swing set
is gone now, and the spinning death trap
we used to fall off of and even the teeter-totters,
with their pale splintered wood, but they were still
there then. And Jason didn't die, just cracked
his head open on the asphalt and had to go
to the hospital in an ambulance and get stitches.
Every day from then on his father went to work
a little later because he walked him to school
carrying Jason's little sister on his shoulders
in a fog of cigarette smoke, and all three of them smiling
as if it were the victory march.
The central scene in this poem, a fall from a swing, was based on a real event, and I think it stuck in my mind for obvious reasons. It didn't occur to me until years later, though, to wonder why playgrounds used to be so counter-intuitively dangerous, and then to think about all the ways that we damage other people (and ourselves), even with the best of intentions.
"Ear Mites," a very short story that appeared in Brink Magazine, was written after I adopted a kitten. His personality had been described as wild, and I had some reservations about bringing him home. It turned out that his constant movement was the result of ear mites, and after he'd been treated, he was an amazingly sweet, quiet cat.
by Leah Browning
The vet tells you that the kitten has ear mites. She has swabbed the kitten's ear with a Q-tip, and she holds the stick out so you can see: it's covered with little blackish dots.
"That's their waste," she says, and clucks sympathetically as the kitten shakes his head and flicks at his ear with one paw. "Has he been doing this a lot?"
"No," you say. "I don't think so." But now that she's pointed it out, the kitten seems to do nothing but flick his ears. You feel itchy just looking at him.
"I can't believe that the humane society missed this," the vet says.
When you get home, your boyfriend is at the table eating breakfast. He looks up and says, "How'd it go?"
"Raging case of ear mites," you say. You open the carrier slightly and leave it in the bathroom, shutting the door on your way out. "Don't touch him. The medicine needs to dry."
"Are mites contagious?" your boyfriend asks. "Geez, Molly, you let him sleep on the bed."
You shake your head. "To other cats, not to us." Still, while the kitten's in the bathroom, you strip the bed and wash the sheets in hot water.
Your boyfriend leaves for work, pretending to check your scalp for nits as he kisses you goodbye. You grimace but say nothing. He's been a good sport since you brought the kitten home from the shelter.
Two years have passed since your husband's death, and the twinge you felt at the sight of the tiny face behind glass seemed like proof: a maternal instinct, long dormant, slowly ticking to life. Now you're not so sure.
After a moment, you hear the sound of claws, a frantic scratching at the bathroom door. You busy yourself with other things. You wait.
What I love about your writing, Leah, is how you end stories so well! I can't tell you.... well, you must know... how many writers begin with a great set up, and it fizzles out... that's probably the number one reason why I pass on something. But you have great follow through.
Thank you. Though I have to admit—I wrote an earlier version of this story that I thought fell completely flat. Sometimes I let things be, but I do tend to rewrite quite a bit.
As the author of two babysitting books, I guess you did quite a bit of that growing up. What did you plan to be when you grew up?
That varied a lot, but there were always two constants: I wanted to be a mother and a writer, specifically a novelist. In early elementary school, I started writing and submitting short stories to The New Yorker, and I can only imagine what they thought of my little hand-written manuscripts. I got the mail on my way home from school and fished my rejection letters out of the pile so that my mother didn't find out.
In second or third grade, my friend Holly and I also wrote a few pages about a boy who discovers that his best friend is really his brother. I think this was the plot; I still have the notebook somewhere. We took our "novel" to the school librarian, Helen Bronisz, and I told her that we were planning to get it published. I've never forgotten this, because she could have laughed in my face. She was incredibly kind to us, though, and she said, "Keep writing."
Who else encouraged you, did your parents support your decision to write? I ask, because I'm curious about why you'd hide the rejection slips from your mother...
My mom has always been very supportive of my writing, but I never talked about it very much. In general, as a kid, I was sort of secretive, but I mainly did normal kid things—ate too much candy, bought Sea Monkeys through the mail, and submitted to major literary journals.
Truly, I spent hours at the library reading short stories in places like Redbook and The New Yorker. To go off on a tangent here, I think it's really too bad that in recent years most of the women's magazines have stopped publishing fiction. That's how I was introduced to excerpts and short stories by many emerging writers, for example, memorably, Barbara Kingsolver. This was a big reason I wanted to start a literary journal. I wanted to see one more market for good women's fiction.
Oh, I remember reading those too... I never had the chutzpah to send to the New Yorker, but I did try my luck with Redbook a few times! As a fellow editor of an on-line magazine, I'd love to hear about how you got into that, and what's fun about it, and what's a challenge?
This was something else I've wanted to do since about the age of 12. On-line journals and magazines didn't exist then, and starting a glossy print journal was financially impossible, even as I got older. By 2005, I was becoming more and more aware of on-line markets. The field seemed to be changing, and it occurred to me that my fantasy of a starting journal could be a reality. I launched the Apple Valley Review toward the end of 2005.
There are a lot of fun things about the journal. I enjoy reading submissions, communicating with writers, editing manuscripts, and finishing the layout for each issue.
One of the biggest challenges is finding the time and energy to work on the journal, week after week, year after year. It's all worthwhile, though.
Yes, I know what you mean... keeping on top of all the submissions can be brutal. Do you ever get e mails from writers who are really angry at your feedback?
I rarely write detailed comments, so if I get flack from writers, it's more likely to be about that.
I hate sending rejection letters—did I mention that as one of my challenges? I have been on the receiving end of those missives many, many times, and it's not a great feeling. I never forget that I'm sending a message that has the potential to ruin someone's day.
Yes, I've discovered there's an art to being kind about it! You and I have known each other through our magazines for a few years now, and I may be mixing you up with someone else... but I think you turned down a story of mine where a woman unexpectedly stuck with her boyfriend's snotty teenaged daughter gets her stoned... claiming the subject matter was too "baldy" for your young adult market. Was that you? Was AVR aimed at young adults when you first started it?
No, that wasn't me!
Oh I'm glad! :-)
I've actually been surprised to discover that we have a larger following of young adults than I would have expected. I wanted the journal to be accessible to people of all ages, and I was always aware that a website is open to anyone, so I do limit the language and content somewhat. However, the audience I originally envisioned was completely made up of adults. One of our recent stories (Barry Jay Kaplan's "His Wife") is in part about a woman's recreational drug use.
Tell us about If I Were Rachel Ellery. I love the title. Is it young adult?
It's not young adult, though one of the major story lines does involve an older teenager. It's essentially about a 30-year-old woman who takes a break from her life to reconnect with her former husband.
That sounds like a book I'd read! Where did the idea come from?
It was based on a true story, too, though many of the details have been changed.
What about future projects?
I don't know. I'm writing fiction more than anything else right now, and I'll probably stick with that for a while.
Leah, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Your stories will always have a home here!
That's such a nice thing to say. Thank you again for the request; it was a pleasure to talk to you, as always.
YOU CAN VISIT LEAH'S WEBSITE AT: . WWW.LEAHBROWNING.COM.