Oscar Wilde said, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
The way we keep secrets and tell lies is at the heart of Leah Stewart’s latest novel, The New Neighbor. It tells the story of two women — a frail and bitter 90-year-old, Margaret Riley, and a single mother named Jennifer Young, who is running away from a hidden, traumatic past. Jennifer’s relocation to the secluded home across from Margaret in the misty mountains of Tennessee sets into motion the slow unveiling of the womens’ secret histories, which both binds and threatens to destroy them. The novel is a gripping meditation on the nature of truth, love and identity.
Leah Stewart lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children. She’s the author of four previous novels — all vivid, poignant and compelling psychological ruminations. The recipient of a Sachs Fund Prize and an NEA Literature Fellowship, Stewart also teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati. CityBeat recently caught up with her to discuss the risks of trusting others and the art of writing fiction.
CityBeat: What interests you in creating psychologically complex characters?
Leah Stewart: I’m fascinated by the differences in how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us, and equally fascinated by the differences in how two people perceive the same events. I write over and over again about how we construct our identities.
CB: Do you believe that truth is essentially a subjective reality?
LS: I don’t think all truth is subjective, but a great deal of it is, and the subjectivity of experience is one of my abiding preoccupations. So I’m drawn to characters and situations that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
CB: Why did you set this novel in such a remote area?
LS: Because the isolation of the place suits the characters, who are torn between an impulse to withdraw and an impulse to connect. There’s a beauty in solitude that’s in that landscape — the quiet woods, the fog. But there’s also the possibility of the intimacy of small-town life, where everyone knows everyone, and essentially both characters are asking, “Do I want to be known?”
CB: It seems obvious there is more to Margaret’s endless curiosity about her new neighbor than just ‘snooping.’
LS: Yes, absolutely. Her desire to know Jennifer’s secrets is really a desire for someone to know hers.
CB: How did you go about researching Margaret’s experience as a nurse in World War II?
LS: It started with interviewing my grandmother about her childhood and later life as well as her experiences with a field hospital in Europe. After she died, we found the letters she’d written home from the war to her mother, as well as scrapbooks and a map on which she’d traced the route her unit took from France into Germany. I read a great many published books about nurses, largely memoirs or oral histories.
CB: Are you suggesting that it’s part of the human condition to constantly pull toward and push away from connecting with others?
LS: I think everybody experiences some tension between the impulse toward self-protection and the impulse toward intimacy. But the intensity of that tension varies from person to person. Both Margaret and Jennifer have withdrawn in part because they fear judgment and rejection and so, for them, opening up feels like an enormous risk.
CB: Has writing about the psychology of your characters transformed you?
LS: If writing changes me, I’m not aware of it, except that I’m far more cheerful when it’s going well. I’d say it’s the other way around — as I get older and encounter different people and experiences, that changes the writing.
CB: What are the most essential lessons you stress as a professor of creative writing?
LS: Part of what makes a piece of fiction good is the writer’s sensibility. The writer makes the world new for the reader. This is as true of realism as it is of fantasy, and it’s as important to talk about as it is hard to teach. So I also emphasize technical facility. Not only is technique teachable; as students increase in skill, they often gain the confidence to express what’s most interesting in their worldview.
LEAH STEWART will read from The New Neighbor at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Rookwood Commons at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 8. More info: josephbeth.com.