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Debut novel is exploration of love, loss through characters you won't stop thinking about

"Whiskey & Ribbons" by author Leesa Cross-Smith.
"Whiskey & Ribbons" by author Leesa Cross-Smith. Hub City Press

Leesa Cross-Smith’s debut novel, “Whiskey & Ribbons,” was one of the most anticipated novels of 2018. Released in early March, it made the reading list of several magazines, including Southern Living, Book Riot and The Rumpus.

In the novel, the Louisville, Ky., native explores faith, grief and loss when Evangeline Royce becomes a widow. Her husband, Eamon, a police officer, is killed during a domestic violence call. Evangeline, nine months pregnant at the time, navigates raising their son with the help of her brother-in-law.

The book and Cross-Smith have received rave reviews.

“What a gorgeous, warm love story that is also a story about friendship and family and faith,” wrote bestselling author Roxane Gay on GoodReads. "This is a multi-layered, romantic, sexy, sad story. Just one hell of a satisfying read and though, in many ways, this story begins at the end, there are many wonderful, poignant surprises to be found in this novel.”

“'Whiskey & Ribbons' is the kind of book you cancel everything to curl up with,” adds Lindsay Hunter, author of “Eat Only When You’re Hungry.” “Leesa Cross-Smith writes with an open heart and a deft touch, crafting a beautiful meditation on marriage, family, and the hope within loss.”

Cross-Smith, a former newspaper obituary writer, began writing when her children started going to school.

“You can get a lot done from 9 to 3,” she says. She is the author of “Every Kiss a War,” a short story collection that was published in April 2014.

Cross-Smith will be in North Carolina this month — two visits in the Triangle and a stop at the Greensboro Bound Literary Festival — to talk about the book. We spoke with her about the book, faith and some of her favorite women authors.

Having their say

Q: Whiskey & Ribbons was initially a short story. What made you expand it into a novel?

A: I just couldn’t stop thinking about the characters. They had been with me for so long. I just wanted to finish the story. Originally, when I started I was intimidated with the idea of making it a novel. … I kind of half hoped that would be it and I could move on. But I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Years and years later, when I felt confident enough to dig back in, I decided to make it longer.

Characters struggling with faith

Q: You are the daughter of a preacher. How does faith influence these characters?

A: I really wanted to make sure that they were fully-rounded Christians, fully-rounded people of faith. That included their sins, their flaws, and their own grappling with faith. … It was important for me to portray people who were leaning on their faith at such a horrible time but also who were seen struggling with that faith. It wasn’t always, "Sunshine and prayer will make everything OK." They were also trying to deal with the idea of, "Where are you God? And what am I supposed to do now?"

Fatherhood and anxiety

Q: A prominent theme in this book is what it means to be a father and fatherhood. Could you talk about the male characters’ feeling about the role of being a father?

A: In general, I wanted to write about Eamon’s anxiety about becoming a father. He’s a very confident man, who is really not afraid of a lot of things. He’s a police officer. ... But when he falls in love and his wife is pregnant, that’s when we start to see his anxiety. He wants to make sure he is a good provider for them. He wants to make sure he can there for them.

And he has a good father he can look up to. Dalton, of course, being raised primarily by his mother … Eamon’s father steps into the role of surrogacy to Dalton. I wanted to talk about that to model Dalton’s surrogacy later as he steps into the role.

Whiskey and Ribbons, men and women

Q: In the book, you have this quote: “Women, you are sleek and gorgeous. You hold us together, you’re the ribbons. We’re men. Dangerous only if you take us too seriously. We’re the whiskey. To whiskey and ribbons.” Could you talk about that sentiment?

A: Originally, I was considering writing an entire (short story) collection. And it was going to be alternating men and women and their different points of view. I thought of the title of "Whiskey and Ribbons" just to use them as examples of men as whiskey and women as ribbons. They were representing men and women are two halves of a whole, just two different things that work together nicely when they can. A bottle of whiskey wrapped up with a ribbon, something pretty with something hard.

Her writing path

Q: I understand you made a decision not to seek an MFA or live in New York City to become a writer. Describe your path to becoming a writer.

A: I always wanted to be writer, but it didn’t seem like a real option for me. It seemed like something only certain people got to do. I went to college and got my degree in English. I considered teaching for two seconds. But I wanted to put my degree to good use. That’s why I decided to apply to work at a newspaper writing obituaries.

It wasn’t until years later, when both of my children were in school, I started dipping into the online writing world and online literary magazines to see what kinds of things people were writing and what was being published. I took a few creative writing courses in college. I started writing stories and one of them was accepted. I got bit by the bug then. "Okay, let me put these stories together." At first, I wanted to get them published separately, and then it moved on to putting them together in a book…

I’ve always rejected getting an MFA or New York because those things don’t interest me. I don’t need an MFA because I don’t want to teach. So I thought about what do MFA students do? They write a lot. They have assignments. I don’t need assignments because I have the discipline to write on my own. They read a lot of books on craft. I read a lot of those and I read the books by authors I wanted to mimic.

Q: Who were the writers you wanted to mimic?

A: I really looked up to Roxane Gay, Lorrie Moore, Dana Johnson, Mary Gaitskill and Alicia Erian — women who were writing short stories. Women who were writing very openly about female desire and sexuality and love and relationships. I was really interested in how women were able to that. They were almost rebellious, writing whatever they wanted to write, in a style they wanted to write. I would devour those stories.

Bridgette A. Lacy is a freelance writer and the author of “Sunday Dinner: A Savor the South cookbook” by UNC Press of Chapel Hill. Reach her at bridgettelacy@att.net.

Details

Leesa Cross-Smith will talk about her novel, “Whiskey & Ribbons,” (Hub City Press, $27) at the following events.

May 18, 7 p.m. Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, in North Hills Shopping Center in Raleigh. She will be in conversation with Angela Belcher-Epps, author of “Salt in the Sugar Bowl.”

May 19, 2 to 3 p.m. Greensboro Bound Literary Festival at the Greensboro Central Library, Nussbaum Room, and from 3:15 to 4:15 p.m. Greensboro History Museum.

May 21, 7 p.m. Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill. She will be in conversation with Naima Coster, author of “Hasley Street.”

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