Monday, June 26, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Tucker Leighty-Phillips

Tucker Leighty-Phillips is the author of Maybe This Is What I Deserve (Split/Lip Press, 2023). He lives in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Learn more at

1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It’s difficult to answer this question in past-tense, because it continues to change my life. It has been a comfort to hold it and know that I created it. I used to work with a lot of musicians–I was a show promoter, a booking agent, a tour manager and merch guy. But I was never an artist myself, and I envied that a lot. I wanted something to call my own. I wanted it to be music, but I could never play. Releasing my first chapbook feels like releasing my first EP. It’s something I can point to and feel good about.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

I think it’s just the form that interests me the most. When I was a kid, I read Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories From Wayside School over and over. It contained everything I could ever want in a book–humor, invention, brilliant callbacks and lively storytelling. Something about the possibilities contained within that book made me want to contribute to the world in a similar way.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Every draft is different, which is a boring answer, but it’s true. Some of my favorite stories are ones I’ve hammered out in one sitting, or thought about in my head for a long time before committing it to the page. I’m also not a very good editor, so if it doesn’t work early on in the process, I may lose interest. Pitiful, I know.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’ve always wanted to be a “project” writer, because some of my favorite books are projects. I love the long-form exploration of an idea. I’m reading Joe Brainard’s I Remember right now, and his approach is so fascinating. It’s a true honeycomb of a novel. I’d like to commit to doing something similar at some point. I typically just write short stories and see what they do when placed in close proximity, rather than thinking about an umbrella theme from the jump.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I think readings are fun, but I wish they were more fun. I want to be more deliberate about creating an atmosphere when I read, being a performer. There are some authors whose readings I’ve really loved, because they know how to perform. Danez Smith comes to mind. I’m also a longtime fan of Scott McClanahan’s boombox readings, where he would read a story with music playing on a boombox in the background, and in a climactic moment would destroy the boombox, hold a lull in the room, and then pull out another boombox playing the same song, picking up where the last boombox left off.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I was doing a bunch of applications a year or two ago, and I always led with a mission statement: Tucker’s work celebrates the lives of the impoverished, but never romanticizes their poverty. I wanted to create work that felt true to a lived experience, without doing the hokey “everything’s okay and we don’t actually require material needs because we have each other.” We can still have each other, even if nothing is okay.

I think that continues to be a major theme in my work, but it’s also evolved. I’ve been writing a lot about nostalgia, a concept I’m skeptical of, but love to play with in my work. Nostalgia feels conservative in a lot of ways. It yearns for a previous time. It glorifies individual experience. But it can also be a tool of connection–to find our similarities, to understand the ways we think alike. I’m trying to use it as a critical tool in my work, to reexamine the past and imagine a collective, more communal future.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Oh man, that’s a much bigger question than I can wrap my brain around. I think they should punch up, for sure, and be willing to call out those punching down. I think they should continue to find possibility and explore it, even in places where it seems there is none.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve never had a problem with them. Sometimes, a difficult editor is one who cares a lot, and wants to tighten your work. It has done me good to fight to defend my prose.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Well, I don’t think it works anymore, but I once read that you should sign up for AAA Membership from your cell phone after you’ve broken down. But now I think they make you wait a week for your membership to kick in. I used it once and it saved me a ton of money.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to plays to essays/reviews)? What do you see as the appeal?
The ease fluctuates! There are months where I can’t envision anything beyond a single medium. And then there are days where I am working on three at the same time. I am also always interested in blurring the lines between genre distinctions and toying with what’s possible. I remember there being an old Reddit thread about what Major League Baseball would be like if games were only played once a week, and the post turned into this heartbreaking, harrowing account of love, artistic success, and loneliness. It was deleted a while back, but I think about it often, because it was one of the first times I was genuinely surprised by a piece of writing on the internet.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I have absolutely zero routine. I am very flighty and cannot commit to any kind of schedule. When it hits, it hits. When it isn’t hitting, I don’t bother.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I like attending readings. There aren’t a ton where I live, but I always come away with new ideas and enthusiasm. I think that’s important, trying to be in a shared space with people who are excited about art. We’re communal creatures.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Grippo’s potato chips and compost.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Oh absolutely. I would say I’m arguably more inspired from non-books than I am books. Nickelodeon shows like Hey Arnold, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and Rugrats play a huge role in my work. Old Looney Tunes cartoons; their internal logic and engines especially. The films of Abbas Kiarostami have been massively important to my progression as an artist. I’m also heavily influenced by gossip–I try to write stories that feel like anecdotes from within a community.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are a few writers or books who I’ve read and found something unlock within me–the most notable being Deb Olin Unferth, Scott McClanahan, Shivani Mehta, Renee Gladman, Michael Martone, and Lucy Corin. When I was a teenager, I read Vonnegut and Brautigan, and I think they helped attract me to the short-form.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I really want to get into mudlarking. I watch lots of videos of people in England doing it.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, when I first went to school, I thought I wanted to go into PR. I don’t think I ever wanted to do it, but it felt like a good use of my skills. I really like cooking, and felt like working in kitchens gave me a lot of tangible skills. It’s important to know how to use a kitchen knife.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Honestly, I have no idea. I didn’t really write until my mid-twenties, and it felt like something clicked. Like I mentioned, I always wanted to be a musician, but could never get it right in lessons. I started writing, and felt like I was always steadily improving, which was motivating. It feels good to progress in something.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last book I loved was Lindy Biller’s Love at the End of the World, which is a chapbook story collection about climate change, motherhood, and the experience of trying to be a kind person even amidst an apocalypse. I haven’t watched a movie in a hot minute, because I’ve gotten really into Columbo, but I did recently rewatch Ozu’s Good Morning, which is one of my favorites.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m mostly sending emails to promote MTIWID, but I’m still kicking around a couple projects. I’m superstitious, but I’ll say one of them is a novel-length quasi-historical Appalachian fairy tale. Someone referred to it as “Evil E.T.”

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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