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"The Profitlessness of Seeking Peace": An Interview with Nic Leigh

Nic Leigh lives in California.

Nic Leigh's story, "Will-of-the-torch," appeared in Issue Sixty of The Collagist.

Here, Nic Leigh speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about voice as an idea, will-o’-the-wisps, and stripping sentences bare.

What first inspired you to write this story?

It’s hard to say. Though I remember a long train ride being at the genesis of this piece, I make so many changes and tweaks that hardly any of the original material—including any evidence of the initial inspiration—remains. I read an interview with Leonard Cohen recently where he said, “I don’t have ideas. I don’t really speculate on things.” I appreciated reading that because I often feel the same way, but it’s complicated to admit you don’t have ideas. You’re still stuck with considering where things come from and where they are going. If I do have ideas, they probably look more like oil slicks than laser beams. I’m more of a voice person; voice is very important to me, and is the dictator in all of my pieces. That is what I hope I have complete control over. Probably the voice is the inspiration, unless that implies that it comes first, which wouldn’t be true. More likely, the voice is the idea.

In what ways is “Will-of-the-torch” in conversation with the will-o’-the-wisp from folklore?

In many of the ways you might imagine being in conversation with a symbol of something that keeps retreating from you as you approach it. Most obviously, here, how that represents fighting to know someone you are supposed to love; the profitlessness of seeking peace, of trying to be spiritual or have expectations or make connections; and good, old-fashioned fear.

A first-person narrator slips in and out of this piece in a really interesting way. Though the narrator is mostly faceless, every so often we get an “I” or a “my.” How do you envision the relationship between the narrator and the reader in this piece?

That question interests me, because I did not consider the narrator to be “faceless,” even in those sentences which do not have a first-person pronoun. I view those sentences as being experienced by the “narrator,” and so maybe rather than being faceless (we are on the outside and can’t see in), those constructions are even more personal. I have never been able to work out the trick, which is sort of popular right now, of the nameless (faceless?) third-person character (“the man walked to the store,” “the wife picked up the phone and regarded her hand,” etc.). My stronger instinct would be to eliminate the subject there altogether in order to move closer. In general my instinct is to remove structure; I feel edgy whenever I think I can see it. For some reason, right now, first- and second-person constructions are working best for me to achieve the closeness and distance I want. Though I know all constructions eventually become wearying. As to the last part of the question, I’m not sure I envision the relationship between the narrator and the reader at all. I think they might be the same person for me, but I’m not courageous enough to confront that further here.

I love the aliveness of the language in this story: “The headache-causing detergentness of the bedspread. Fear like a spooked horse’s fear.” Is the language in this piece similar to your past writing, or is it unique to this story?

All of the sentences in this story are subjects, which gives it a weird rhythm. I like it and have been experimenting with that trick more, though I must admit not to any greater success yet. It stems from a habit of obsessively stripping things away. For example, “Do I even need objects?”! But there are other possible outcomes of that habit. For instance in this other story of mine, where I hope the effect was more of an emotional sparseness.

Who are you reading right now?

Oh, a lot of the usual kingfish—right now maybe some large doses of Guy Davenport and John Ashbery. Shout out to Tim Earley, who I think is killing it.

What projects have you been working on since “Will-of-the-torch” appeared in The Collagist?

I’m not submitting many stories right now so I can pull back and write something longer—which means a longer collection of short pieces because I am incapable of writing any one piece longer than 2000 words. I could agonize over what that says about me, but—yeah, I could definitely agonize over it.

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