Leah Griesmann’s writing leaves an indelible impression–whether you are reading it on the page or watching it performed aloud. We were so excited to perform Leah’s short story, “Slave” at our Play On Words premiere last October, and were delighted when Leah submitted “The Unigirl,” for our Lit Crawl show on October 18. We’ll be reading an excerpt of this memorable piece, originally published in Pif Magazine, in Clarion Alley. Leah is an accomplished fiction writer whose work has taken her around the world. She graciously agreed to speak with us about her literary aesthetic and the experience of hearing her work performed aloud.
POW: What interests you most as a writer of fiction?
LG: I’m definitely interested in character-driven fiction. I like using fiction to explore human beings in all their complexity. I think what I’ve realized most as a writer, and as a person, is that human complexity is boundless. That capacity humans have to be complex, contradictory even, is what interests me, and often what creates interesting fiction. I’m also very interested in place. I’ve written a collection of linked stories set in Las Vegas, a number of stories set in San Francisco (“The Unigirl” is one), and am currently working on a collection of stories set in cities around the world. “The Slave,” which was performed at Play on Words’ inaugural performance, is from this latest collection. “The Unigirl,” however, is a real San Francisco story, so I’m happy to see it performed in San Francisco.
POW: In your experience, what are the ways that a physical environment can play a role in character and story development?
LG: Physical environment is huge. It’s not just the physical environment though, it’s also the social, cultural, and economic environment that has such a big impact on characters. As one example, I set a collection of linked stories in Las Vegas when the city was going through a major growth boom. Not only was the city developing, and seeing an influx of new residents, the major industry was also transitioning from an old business model to near-total corporatization. Many factors unique to Las Vegas—the harsh physical environment of the desert, the unique economic model of gambling with its boom or bust mentality, the ersatz cultural environment of faux Eiffel Towers and Venetian gondolas, and then the rapid shift away from old business models towards corporatization have a major impact on the characters. The fact that the characters, like humans everywhere, continue to search for love and community in a place where all the elements seem to conspire against them, creates some interesting settings (a Karaoke bar at a casino about to be bombed, a low income apartment complex called the Desert Rose) as well as some interesting tension. And in fiction, of course, the more tension, the better. So place has a huge impact on the characters, and on their resulting stories.
POW: What is the experience of seeing your fiction performed?
LG: It’s really wonderful for a few reasons. To begin with, I’m a writer, not an actor, and I’m not at all in my element reading my work on a stage. I think actors have those performance chops which can really bring something to a piece that most writers can’t. It’s also very fulfilling on a personal level. As a writer, you get used to sending your work out into a void. You hear things occasionally, that such and such person “liked” your story, or comments on something fairly specific, but you never have that feeling that I imagine a musician has, for example, of instantaneous reaction to a piece. With a performance you get to see first of all, how the performer has understood the story, based on the choices they are making in reading the piece. Secondly you get the audience’s reaction—whether they are quiet or laughing, or showing interest at certain key moments. That’s very gratifying because in the life of the writer, it’s really rare.
POW: Give us a little backdrop on “The Unigirl,” the story that we’re performing at Litcrawl.
LG: First of all, it’s really exciting that “The Unigirl” is being performed not only in San Francisco, not only in the Mission, but in Clarion Alley, which is one of the alleys that inspired that particular story. It’s very much a San Francisco story in that much of the action is happening on the street, and nearly every encounter the main character has is with a complete stranger. I think that’s a quality unique to pedestrian urban centers–San Francisco especially–because it’s so dense, and because the weather is mostly pleasant—that San Franciscans end up having numerous interactions with all types of people. In addition to being a story very much about a place, it’s also about character. Without giving too much away, a woman gets involved in a line of business many would consider to be extreme, but has a range of experiences beyond just the stereotypes that exist. Her experiences provoke her to question herself, and lead to an insight arrived at in a most unpredictable way.
Leah Griesmann‘s stories have recently appeared in Union Station, The Cortland Review, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, The Weekly Rumpus, and PEN Center USA’s The Rattling Wall. A 2010-2011 Steinbeck Fellow in Fiction, she is the recipient of a 2013 DAAD grant in fiction and a 2014 MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She is currently at work on a collection of stories.
Want to read more of her work? Check out “Desert Rats” on Union Station Mag and “Packing” at The Boiler Journal. Be sure to join us on October 18 from 6-7 in the San Francisco’s Clarion Alley to see her story performed! RSVP here or follow us on Twitter (@PlayOnWords_SJ)and Instagram (@playonwordsanjose) to get show updates.