Leah Weiss Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Leah Weiss

Leah Weiss

How to pronounce Leah Weiss: wice (rhymes with "ice")

An interview with Leah Weiss

Leah Weiss discusses her novels, All the Little Hopes and If the Creek Don't Rise, and offers profound advice for aspiring writers.

All the Little Hopes

Eastern North Carolina comes alive throughout the book. How do you give the landscape a voice?

I was born in the land where this book is set, and lived there until I was ten years old. Then we moved five hours north to Virginia to be with my daddy's people. In those early years, I was surrounded by Mama's sprawling family of fifteen siblings, my aunts and uncles who begat cousins. They were a kind and hard-working lot who stayed close to their roots. Only Mama moved away. I remember featherbeds, the outhouse, the ice box, the hand-cranked ice cream, and "putting in tobacco." Dinner was at noon, supper was at six, and everybody had well-tended gardens. Recreating the book's setting was as natural as breathing.

What inspired this book?

Before Mama died in 2005, I had begun "interviewing" her about her childhood years. My first published stories were about her memories. But, specifically, it was her comment about German POWs helping at tobacco markets in '44 that planted the seed for All the Little Hopes. I learned that between 1942 and 1946, forty-five states had POWs working farms, fertilizer plants, and in timber and canneries. Wikipedia estimates half a million prisoners were shipped to camps and governed by the humane laws of the '29 Geneva Convention. Seven hundred camps stretched across America. Eighteen camps were in North Carolina. One was in my birth town of Williamston.

Did you know much about apiarists before you started All the Little Hopes? How did you learn about beekeeping, honey, and wax production? Did you invent purple honey, or is it really possible?

My husband, Dave, began tending bees in 2017 and maintains three hives. I've absorbed some of his enthusiasm and research for bee knowledge and have come to understand the challenges. Then on a trip to Williamston, Rita Harden gifted me with three little-known facts from her childhood: Russian test pilots trained in Elizabeth City, her daddy's beeswax deal with the government, and purple honey that appeared one summer and was sold to bootleggers. I now know purple honey has been found only in central and eastern North Carolina, and is a genuine mystery. Two hives side-by- side can yield purple honey in one and amber in the other. I chose to make purple honey the medical salve for the Brown's gall-double- dang flu.

How did the mythical wolpertinger find its way into the book?

Research about Oma's birth place in the nineteenth century, her connection to German handmade marbles, and the Brothers Grimm and masterful storytelling from the Black Forest led me to an image of a wolpertinger. I was enchanted by its mythology, its appeal to tourists back then willing to pay to "hunt" them, and knew my storytelling Brown family would benefit from having one. Who could doubt Grimm's fairytales were true after they saw a "real" wolpertinger?

Both Bert and Lucy resist growing up in their own ways. Did you have any similar experiences as a teenager?

I don't remember being enamored of my childhood enough to want to stay there. In contrast to the 1940s of my mother's time, my transition from girl to woman happened in the sixties when the Women's Rights movement was making strides. Naïve, I looked forward to being a grown-up only to discover it was challenging, harder than I dreamed, and even boring. What I gained from my experiences over the ensuing decades is perfect 20/20 hindsight, and my writing benefits from those lessons learned.

Lucy would be best friends with Nancy Drew if she could. Are there any characters you wish you could bring into the real world and befriend?

I, too, loved Nancy Drew. I still have nineteen of my childhood Nancy Drew books (the blue book edition) and occasionally re-read them for nostalgia's sake. In my carefree summers in the late fifties, I spent days lost in Nancy's world. I'd sit in the shade of an oak tree and be so transported that I didn't hear Mama calling for supper. I yearned for the respect that Nancy garnered and the confident risks she took. I think all girls' dreams should hold those qualities.

You bring up interesting questions about redemption when it comes to the German POWs and the Real Bad Men. Is there a difference between redemption and forgiveness? Do you think it's always possible to make amends?

Redemption and forgiveness are gifts, aren't they? We can choose to give and receive salvation and mercy, but it takes wisdom to know they even exist. And for amends to be healing, it should never be a game of manipulation or win-lose. Bert learned that truth when she returned the things she stole. Helen was slow to forgive, and she suffered more than she had to. And who would have thought that German POWs could live peacefully among us?

Reading and writing are often seen as lonely activities, but throughout the book they bring people together. How do books foster connections? Who's in your book community?

I write stories to be read out loud like the Brown family tradition, and I encourage readers to sharpen that skill. Then there's the energy and connection through book clubs. I have five wonderful girlfriends in my club (Sheila, Shannon, Sally, Dominique, and Glennys), and we meet once a month, drink wine, eat good food, and talk books. We don't always agree on what books are best, but disagreement makes for interesting discussions. We all agree that when we meet an unforgettable character in an unforgettable book, it brings pleasure of great magnitude.

Do you come from a family of bibliophiles?

I come from a family of readers and conversationalists. My dad was a thinker who read about religions, philosophy, and history. My mother loved books that transported like the Mitford Series, Roots, and The Thorn Birds. My parents believed reading expands understanding, dispels prejudices, and teaches empathy. Mama didn't trust people who didn't like to read.

Do books have a designated place in your home? What's in your reading stack these days?

I have overflowing bookcases and messy stacks of books here and there (not the alphabetized order like the Browns). I love historical fiction and relish Southern voices like Vicki Lane's And the Crows Took Their Eyes, the unique writing style of debut novelist Ashley Blooms's Every Bone a Prayer, the 2020 Southern Book Prize winner Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler, and everything by journalist/writer/Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg. In my yet-to- read stack is Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris and The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict. So many books, so little time…a wonderful quandary to have.

Do you see yourself in your characters? How do you get from the first idea of a character to the person who lives and breathes in the final draft?

I didn't publish If the Creek Don't Rise until I was seventy, and it was my age that gave me a broad scope of experiences to draw from. As a writer, I take the liberty to make characters wiser and smarter or more daring and tender than I'll ever be. All the Little Hopes is dear to my heart because I got to turn back the clock and immerse myself in Mama's world. I had two names for the main characters early on, but Lu and Bert are uniquely their own literary voices. I don't pretend to speak for my mama, Lucy, or her mama, Allie Bert, who were extraordinary women in different ways.

What has changed for you as a writer since the publication of If the Creek Don't Rise?

I coincidentally retired when my debut book was accepted by an agent, and I had abundant time to devote to a new career. My extrovert nature has made the journey a pleasure to meet the reading public and hear how strongly they react to characters spun out of words. But it is my equal love of solitary time that has made me a better writer. My greatest surprise is my patience to do the tedious work to complete a book and not to rush the process. My greatest joy is the self-imposed purpose that drives my free time.

If The Creek Don't Rise

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I've always loved pretty words and sentiments, and I got much pleasure writing letters to friends getting married, struggling through a hard time, or celebrating a landmark. Some of those letters were framed by the recipients, so I knew I had a penchant for heartfelt prose that mattered to people. I was well into my fifties when a friend encouraged me to write a book of short stories, and my initial response was Does the world really need another book? But his encouragement and support planted a seed that grew roots. The first stories I wrote were about my mom, Lucy, and her life on a tobacco farm in the 1930s. She was one of fifteen children living in an unpainted house without running water or electricity. She and I found a special bond talking about her childhood, which she thought no one cared to remember. I didn't know that in a few months she would die of cancer and I would be left with grief and amazing fodder from those conversations. When the stories tugged at me to do more, I knew I wanted to write them.

Who are your favorite authors and why?

I am a picky reader. I look for a great story written exceptionally well, with the prose highly polished and the deadweight removed from the story line. Because I have a particular love for the southern voice, some of my top choices are obvious: Harper Lee, Rick Bragg, Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Morgan, and Ron Rash rush to the head of the line. Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides was as compelling a read as I've ever had. Even today the images of those sincere, flawed characters Mr. Conroy put to paper burn bright. A more recent book that was a marvelous surprise on all fronts (except it isn't southern) was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Who would have guessed that Death as the narrator could be so sympathetic and compassionate? Or that a book's format could be so original?

Where did your idea for the book come from, and why is it set in Appalachia?

The inception of this book began in 2011 with a writing contest that had a cap of 1,500 words and an opening prompt of I struggle to my feet. From the moment the prompt fell on my page, Sadie appeared in my mind as a complete person and personality, from her slight form and pale skin, to her mountain voice and her birth in Appalachia. Why? That's a mystery I can't explain. Maybe the Appalachia I heard about in my youth resonated in the pain painted in the opening five words. My initial task was to tell Sadie's story in only a few pages. I often wondered what the rest of the story was. Now I know.

Do you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?

Let me preface the answer with the fact that a favorite character for this writer isn't necessarily the lovable one with the kind heart, good teeth, and best intentions. Good characters ground a story and give us someone to worry about and cheer for. The reader in me never likes a book that doesn't have characters I care about. In this book, Marris Jones is about as good a soul as you'll ever find. But the ugly, blackhearted characters, those who manipulate and claw through life, are the most compelling to me as a writer. Prudence and Roy take the cake in that category. Two more self-serving and cruel people I'll be hard-pressed to write about. When I found the courage to walk into the mind- set of these characters (yes, they scared me), their stories floated to the surface like greasy oil, and so did their vulnerabilities. That was the surprise—to discover pivotal moments in their development that formed their life's dismal path and to ask the question: What would I have grown to be if faced with those obstacles?

You talk as if these characters are real, but they're not, are they?

A good writer strives to make her characters complex and flawed and susceptible to all human foibles, and that's what makes them real. But no, this book, the characters, and their settlement are a work of fiction pulled from someplace deep in my psyche and the soup of my life's experiences. Only Preacher Eli Perkins resembles someone I knew, and that was my favorite uncle, who was a Baptist preacher. He could fire off jokes, one after the other, rivaling stand-up comics. He was my inspiration for Eli, but everyone and everything else is fabricated.

What is the most fun part of the writing process?

When the book is 90 percent complete, all the major pieces are in place, each character has a distinct voice, and the narrative arc is clear— then the fun begins. I call this part of the process "polishing the silver." It is slow going but satisfying to fill in missing pieces and ponder every word to see what stays or goes for the sake of the story. I look for anything that bogs down the story line. Anything that doesn't make sense to the character's behavior or reaction. Then I wander deeper into their background and always discover something new and pertinent I didn't know about them the day before. While it sounds odd, the characters do take on a life of their own— and I miss spending time with them when the story ends.

What is the most challenging part of writing?

For me, it was developing an accurate timeline for the story. I thought I had created one, but it was not tight enough when dealing with ten major characters. Some of my last cleanup efforts were spent fixing it. Until a timeline is clearly established, it is easy to have things happening before they should to people they shouldn't. This part of the process takes patience, research, and copious notes about the time period and the events, large and small, in the lives of each character.

What is the one thing you know now that you wish you had known at the start of your writing career?

I wish I'd known I had to start at the beginning as a writer. Wishful thinking and my love for pretty words didn't give me a shortcut to success. For a while, my ego held me back because I wanted to believe that what fell naturally on the page was good enough. It was when I took down that defensive wall and committed myself to learning this craft from the ground up that progress was made. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache if I'd just enrolled in Writing Kindergarten 101 and started, In the beginning— which is the place all good stories start, right?

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Take to heart the confession above, and believe the world always has room for another good book.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

Books by Leah Weiss at BookBrowse
All the Little Hopes jacket If the Creek Don't Rise jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Leah Weiss but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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  • Linda Scott DeRosier

    Linda Scott DeRosier

    Linda Scott DeRosier has published two memoirs of her life growing up in Appalachia, Creeker and Songs of Life and Grace. She received the Appalachian Writers Association Awared for non-ficition and the Thomas D. Clark Award... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    If the Creek Don't Rise

    by Linda Scott DeRosier

  • Amy Greene

    Amy Greene

    Amy Greene was born and raised in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where she lives with her husband and two children. Her second novel Long Man will be published by Alfred A. Knopf February 25, 2014. Her first novel ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    If the Creek Don't Rise

    by Amy Greene

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