Kentucky author Leesa Cross-Smith | Courtesy of Leesa Cross-Smith

Kentucky author Leesa Cross-Smith’s first novel, “Whiskey and Ribbons,” is already getting advance buzz in the literary community. It’ll be released Thursday, March 8, and the author is celebrating the big day with a reading at Carmichael’s Bookstore.

In an interview with Insider Louisville, Cross-Smith talked about beginning her professional writing life post-motherhood, how we need different Kentucky stories, and the variety of life experiences African-Americans can reflect in their writing.

Cross-Smith admitted a certain discomfort with interviews.

“I make myself do it. I don’t know if that’s rare, but I really don’t like talking about it that much,” she said. “I just have to. I’m private, and it’s hard for me to do it.”

Despite her discomfort, she spoke easily, insightfully and sometimes humorously about her writing and her life. Like many authors, even those who go pro a little later in their careers, Cross-Smith began writing for herself much earlier.

“When I was a little girl, I would cut pictures out of my mom’s catalogues and just make up stories about them. So I’ve just always done it — it’s always been a part of my life,” she explained. “It wasn’t until I started talking about it more that other writers were like, ‘Oh, I used to do that, too.’”

Cross-Smith didn’t start focusing on her writing until about 2011, after her two kids were ready to start school.

“When I started to take it seriously and start focusing on it was when both my kids went to school for the first time,” she recalled. “I started to get a little more time to myself, and just reclaiming my time.”

She started with short stories, gaining some success, getting published in Oxford American, Best Small Fictions 2015, The Rumpus, and SmokeLong Quarterly.

“I just kind of wanted to do it,” she said. “I started out with baby steps. Can I write a short story and get it accepted? And then when that happened, I was like, well can I write a collection of short stories, and then I was like, can I get it published. And it grew from there.”

Cross-Smith started to focus on her writing when her kids were old enough for school. | Courtesy of Leesa Cross-Smith

Part of that growth included reading other writers and trying to understand what other stories were out there.

“I started reading a lot, seeing what people were getting published, and then I was like, can I do this, too? I just wanted to join that community,” said Cross-Smith.

After successfully publishing her short stories in a variety of publications and publishing books of short stories, she was ready to move up again. So he decided to take the next step and work on a novel. Plot isn’t a driving factor for Cross-Smith, instead she tries to find the stories in the interactions between real people.

“I like simple, minimalist things, the iceberg theory,” she said. “I really like plain things, simple writing. Just writing a good story. Some people even call those things ‘plotless.’ I just love beautiful language — I was reading Sylvia Plath’s journals and a lot of poetry.” 

In addition to simple stories, Cross-Smith sometimes starts with a feeling or emotion she wants to invoke.

“I’m always like, I’d like this to feel comfy, I’d like this to feel sexy or have sexual tension. This is about hope, this is about danger … and then all the other stuff starts to fall into place after that,” she said.

One of Cross-Smith’s goals as a writer is to explore the African-American experience from a view that is often underrepresented.

“Stories that include women and men of color, but it’s not focused on race — because black people are out here just falling in love and going to baseball games and living completely normal lives, too. They’re not constantly thinking about the fact that their skin is brown,” she said. “I’m black every day.”

As a writer from Kentucky, Cross-Smith said there are certain recurring tropes she tries to push back against.

“So often, when people are writing about Kentucky, they are writing about the grotesque. We’re only writing about Appalachia, we’re only writing about the country. And we’re missing out on the fact that there’s all kinds of people who live here. There’s art, there’s culture, there’s all kinds of things.” 

On Thursday, Cross-Smith will read from “Whiskey and Ribbons” for about 20 minutes.

“This will actually be my first time reading from my novel, out in the world,” she said. “I’m really excited.”

Cross-Smith will be joined by two other Kentucky writers, poet Sarah Jarboe and fiction and creative non-fiction writer Robyn Ryle. The free event will start at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, at Carmichael’s, 2720 Frankfort Ave. 

Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.