Tony is from Liverpool: he is a boxer, and an actor, and of formidable size. I hardly know him but he takes me to the Turkish Baths on East 12th Street. He throws me in the cold water, then the hot, then the ice. He thrashes me with eucalyptus fronds and massages me in the steam room. He does all this, over and over, for two hours. He takes me into a shower stall and cuts my hair, because he is also, he says, a hairdresser. He lies me in a cot and feeds me carrot juice, and later borscht. When we get outside, he veers into a bookstore and reads me Neruda: In the dark pines the wind disentangles itself….
“The Boxer” appeared in 52 Men published by Red Hen Press in Pasadena USA in 2015. 52 Men was featured in an essay by Amanda Fortini in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2016. “52 Men suggests that our identity is at least in part a product of our romantic past, and that the particulars we choose to depict that past are significant, comprising a kind of personal psychobiography… Leonard’s focus is zoom-lens tight: she describes the various men, zeroing in on what they said and did -— and how she responded — in a pivotal moment. .. She suffered a grievous early trauma… and she’s wounded. Yet she’s also slyly, coolly observant and has transformed her experiences into art… We know her, ultimately, through the book she has written. The narrative specifics she selects to describe the men are hers, as is the deadpan humor; all of it arises from her artistic consciousness. “Although in style and tone 52 Men differs from either Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights or Renata Adler’s Speedboat, it is, like both of these books, a novel of impressions unified by the author’s sensibility.”
Louise was raised in Manhattan. She was born in New Zealand of British and Maori descent and has traveled widely throughout the world. At 28, she quit full-time magazine work in Manhattan to be a creative writer. Compared in the LARB to Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwicke, she favors the crot and short form; her focus is on men and women, the interior lives of girls, and the experience of extremes. She has lived in New York, Europe, Mississippi, New Zealand and Australia, including in the outback of Western Australia. She lives now on Lake Ontario, New York.
Long before the Me Too movement, you’ve been writing books and coming of age stories [Since You Ask, Miss Me a Lot of] about survivors of assault, abuses of power. Can you tell us a little about the origins of 52 Men and why you wrote it?
I wrote 52 Men while flung out, alienated in the outback of Western Australia. I felt so estranged from my life growing up in Manhattan, it was as if people from my past appeared in hologram in the sky. I had to pay witness to them.
It also seemed to me that these 52 relationships were the fallout of a particularly brutal relationship in childhood. That relationship is in Part 2, though fictionalized. I wonder if all of us have some blight on our childhood, some rupture that destroys what might have been -- and what we therefore, in some ways, always long for. The Garden of Eden lost, the human condition in which good and evil, in us, live side by side.
Why did you become a writer?
Writers, some of us, need to tell our own sides of a story; this need arises from childhood or some wrong, some injustice. It can also come from an experience of ecstasy -- that, by expressing, we prolong or hold onto.
Who were some of your formative influences? And what advice did they give you?
I was lucky. I had a lot of praise, and a lot of encouragement, from early on. This gave me a solid identity and purpose. I was writing for newspapers in Manhattan and New Zealand at 15 and 17 and 18: reviews, interviews, a front page column, a long feature on a boy's prison, which I toured at age 17 with a newspaper photographer. Creative work was more fraught, and personal. I took to heart the advice of my father and of poet Kenneth Koch who I studied with at Columbia College in New York: don't try to write like someone else; write as yourself. It sounds easy, yet it is what all writers strive for: to be distinct, while at the same time not being a virtuoso or resorting to frills and bows. The work I like best is work like the rose created by the blood of the nightingale -- it has to capture that person's soul or life blood.
What other art forms interest you?
All art forms that transcend words attract me; I cannot help but think that visual and musical arts forgo the expectation of making sense of life, of extracting a meaning or lesson. I would prefer not to have this responsibility. That being said, age helps.. Truths I could not see, or would not, have at last forced themselves upon me. It's worth staying alive for, even if painful. I revere the poets who wrote their brilliant work young. But for me, I quote Aeschylus, a favorite in college: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
What are you working on now? What are your forthcoming projects?
In 52 Men, the telling in shorts of 52 encounters with men in my life, is the seed of a novel on a reform school boy I met at 14. I've been writing that story ever since ... Innocence, lies, manipulation, sex, violence... all of these took me decades to understand and I hope this will be my next book. There's also a collection of essays I wrote on lovers who enacted joint suicide pacts. They're tragic but oddly beautiful, romantic yet the result of power (usually a man's), delusion (both men and women's) and hope.
What are your views on the future of communication and how technology is changing the way we communicate, read, interact with the world and our imaginations?
Meanwhile, technology provides a continuous stream of information -- yet still, this only the raw material with which the writer works. It's what you do with it that counts. Beware as one would beware a proliferation of Sirens on the beach.