“My hair is frozen — literally,” Leah Stewart says as she sits down at a back-room table at Sidewinder Coffee in Northside. It’s a frigid weekday afternoon in early February, less than three weeks after the publication of Stewart’s fourth novel, The History of Us, a Cincinnati-set coming-of-age tale marked by psychological insight, a sneakily addictive narrative thrust and a deft use of dialogue.
The book opens with an illustrated map that features various local landmarks and locations including the Museum Center, Mount Adams, Music Hall, Cheviot, the Cincinnati Ballet, Over-the-Rhine, Eden Park and, of course, Northside, the neighborhood where Stewart and her family have lived since she moved here in 2007 to take a teaching position within the University of Cincinnati’s esteemed creative writing program.
“I grew up loving fantasy novels, and for whatever reason I don’t write them, so having that little map in the front is as close as I’m going to come to writing a fantasy novel,” Stewart says, laughing and then taking a sip from her freshly retrieved coffee.
The map, which was rendered by local artist Alice Pixley Young, is just the first sign that the Queen City will play a prominent role in a story that rotates around a family led by Eloise Hempel, a 45-year-old history professor whose acclaimed first book is rapidly becoming a distant memory and whose personal life is kept secret from even those closest to her. The History of Us opens as, 17 years earlier, Eloise is forced to leave her teaching gig at Harvard to return to her hometown — Cincinnati, a place she thought she left behind for a seemingly bigger and more satisfying life — in order to take care of her sister’s three young children following a fatal accident. The narrative then jumps to the present day, centering on Eloise’s increasingly strained interactions with the now-grown Theodora, Josh and Claire, all of whom are dealing with their own issues, all of whom have complicated relationships with the city and the Victorian Clifton Avenue house they’ve long called home.
Stewart uses this setup to investigate the peculiar pull Cincinnati has on its citizens, a place where, as she writes in the book, “you could make a virtue of grittiness, take pride in not living in some cleaner, wealthier, wussier city.”
“This book really grew out of my observations about people’s relationship to the city,” Stewart says when asked why she set it in Cincinnati, a place known for its sometimes questionable self-esteem. “I moved around a lot growing up. My dad was military, and even though we were in North Carolina for eight years, there was always the possibility that we were going to move, which we ultimately did. It never felt permanent, so to be here and be tenured (at UC) and own a house and have two kids who don’t remember living anywhere else, it just makes it seem like a place where I’m going to stay.
“I think that made me pay particular attention to what the city was like and what other people’s relationships to it were,” she continues. “People have a complicated relationship to a place like this, where they may have grown up or they may have strong ties and have moved here without ever thinking they would live in Cincinnati, but then come to like it, while at the same time they feel that they should somehow be on the coasts leading a more exciting life.”
It’s the first time Stewart has set a book in a place in which she was currently living, a challenge that was both daunting and intriguing.
“I was a little nervous about getting particular details right,” she says. “Nobody’s called me out on anything yet, but I’m sure there are some things I got wrong. Mostly I worried because Eloise has some very strong negative feelings about the city, and I wondered if anyone would be offended by that, but so far no.”
The setting wasn’t her only shift in approach: While Stewart’s previous novels — Body of a Girl (2001), The Myth of You and Me (2006) and Husband and Wife (2011) — were all written from a first-person perspective, The History of Us is presented from a third-person point of view, alternating chapters between multiple characters.
“One of the things I really like about certain canonical writers like (Jane) Austen and (George) Eliot is the way you get to see characters — especially in Eliot — intimately from both the outside and the inside and the way that she keeps forcing you to reconsider your stance on that character,” Stewart says. “She’ll present a negative character to you but then she’ll give you access to that character’s mind in a way that insists on greater sympathy for even an unlikable character. That was something I wanted to try to do: give that complete picture that you can get really only in a novel.”
Stewart is an open and warm conversationalist, as interested in discussing literary theory as she is the finer points of a TV show like How I Met Your Mother or how her old friends in the Indie Pop band Papas Fritas influenced The History of Us’ portrayal of what it means to be a Rock star — Josh is a lapsed musician — in today’s fractured cultural landscape. And, after an hour-long conversation that touches on everything from the enrichment she gets from teaching to the unfortunate marginalization of so-called “women’s literature” by some, it’s clear she’s committed to this literary thing for the long haul.
“I think it is just hardwired into me,” she says of her lifelong interest in the written word. “I started writing poems when I was 4 or 5 years old. I love to read, but many people love to read and then don’t go on to become writers. It’s a compulsion for me. In some ways it’s necessary to have that compulsion, because the world doesn’t really give a crap if you write or not. The world does everything it can to make it difficult to find the time and money to do it. You have to be driven to do it.”
LEAH STEWARTwill appear at a book signing with fellow Cincinnati-based author
4 p.m. March 3 at The Bookshelf, 7754 Camargo Road, Madeira.