Lesley Wheeler and Edward Hall

Recorded April 22, 2021 Archived April 20, 2021 42:53 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: atl004411


Edward Hall (59) talks with his friend Lesley Wheeler (53) about her new novel, her writing, and the uncanny in life.

Subject Log / Time Code

EH talks about LW's first novel, Unbecoming, and the blood symbolism he saw in it and experienced with it.
LW talks about why she is attracted to weird fiction and her love of the strange.
LW talks about studying English, writing poetry, and how Jane Eyre was an influence on her.
EH and LW talk about weird occurrences and the uncanny in their lives.
LW and EH talk about the connection to race in LW's work and her living in the South.
EH talks about being reassuring and talks about a StoryCorps interview by Samuel Delaney he recently shared.
LW talks about the difference between writing poetry and writing a novel.


  • Lesley Wheeler
  • Edward Hall

Recording Locations

Virtual Recording

Venue / Recording Kit


Partnership Type



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00:06 My name is Edward Austin. Hall. My age is 59. Today's date is April 22nd, 2021 and my partner today is Lesley. Wheeler, my friend.

00:21 Call poet and colleague in world of weird fiction.

00:27 My name is Lesley wheeler. My age is 53. Today's date is April 22nd. 2021. My partner today is Edward OST call, and Ed is my friend, and a writer of weird fiction and poetry whose work. I truly admire tremendously down your volume a little bit that just start.

00:56 Okay, let's do that again.

01:05 Look at me.

01:10 Show Leslie. The damnedest thing happened while I was reading I'm becoming and you can, I'll let you provide your own description, but my shorthand of it is this is about a woman who is entering menopause perimenopause and begins to suspect that she has magical powers. And so course.

01:40 There's a lot of blood involved, and

01:46 Before this thing that happened happens. I was making some pasta dish and skinned. One of these Knuckles and some book and I'm on page 38. And I realized that this little where there's no skin on my finger is fused to the page of your book. Okay, so that would be disturbing enough.

02:26 However,

02:29 It the word, literally the word. I've noticed I was reading what I noticed that I was used to your book.

02:36 Let me make sure I'm in and out here.

02:42 Rusty color and I left out time you little Mark right under the.

02:59 So I literally made I contributed. Blood to your novel and this happens a lot in your book. I should point out at the end of the. I think that uncanny things happen all the time and you know that too. So yeah, I guess the book was responding to you.

03:38 That sounds like the glib East slipperiest rejoinder, from an enchantress. I've ever heard. I'm not going to press you on it. We can we can move on but I expect me to Circle back to this cuz I, all right. I'm going to give you the opportunity to summarize your novel as you see fit since I kind of jumped into did that from my perspective, but please tell us, tell us about Unbecoming and a little bit about how you came to write it and how long it took that kind of thing, please 15. I was at the time, 47 and approaching menopause. My children were leaving for college. I was feeling that this was not a good phase of life to be entering that I was basically on the verge of death.

04:38 Which is ridiculous, but what I needed to do, was find a way to understand the transition as to reframe it, as a power, empowering transition. And I look into Miss. I thought about stories is actually until very recently. There's been very little to read about menopause. So I didn't find enough out there. So I decided to try to write the the book I needed to read and I wasn't at all. Sure, I could do it. I'm a poet. And I've written several books of poetry, but I wasn't sure. I had the stamina for a novel. I wrote the first draft and seven weeks. I just sat down and I went into a kind of dream anymore Feud and just wrote almost around the clock. And then, of course, I spent years revising it because I did not know.

05:38 But the first experiences of writing it was really kind of magical. And even though I did not myself, gain uncanny Powers with menopause. I did gain the power to write a novel which seems kind of strange and unlikely. To me, line Leslie. Seems to be a clean. Maybe when you go back to the headset and just see how that is. I'm sorry.

06:13 Would you just count backwards from 10 once you're all set?

06:20 10 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. I think I was hearing that noise to a little bit of Reverb, sort of. So, thank you, Daniel.

06:46 So and thank you Leslie. That's that's so it's good. Still feel slippery to me. So meet me there are times in your book wear if it feels as if your book is not just recounting the story you describe, but it's also,

07:11 The characters at one point, your protagonist says, what kind of story am I in, and that's

07:21 She she teaches English. Have I got that right? Yes. She does. She's got her own life, but coming in. In your novel. It feels. It has a different feel to me, right? I feel like you're

07:45 There were times. I felt like, I could see you literally casting spells on the page. Well, I really appreciate that and how to spell like quality to me. But I also think you know, that's that's one of the reasons I'm attracted to weird fiction or or fantasy fiction is because I don't know what the boundaries of reality are. They have been, I've had perceived them as slippery, my whole life and life has profoundly strange, weird thing that is full of uncanny powers and forces that I don't always understand and certainly, writing partakes of that, but I certainly think that somebody who reads and writes literature is aware to of how one source of literature's power.

08:45 Is that strange sense of strange connection that you feel when you read as if you're eavesdropping on somebody else's thoughts? And that this person made out of words of my comes to life for you? And was interesting to experience that much more as a writer than I had previously, is that sense of the characters all taking off like taking on lies that their own and I would be in the shower and they would say things in my mind, I'd get out. And I knew what the next thing next paragraph Was it just wasn't something that I felt totally in charge of

09:22 Could you turn down your volume? And if you have it also kind of stick and a headset. I'm still getting a Lil Bit of feedback. I'm worried. It's coming in on your line. Can you just can't help me later, but I can lower the volume please on your computer.

09:53 How's that sounds now? Now, now now okay.

10:03 So,

10:08 Characters talking to you in the shower that I'm not unfamiliar with that phenomenon. Although mine came in a rather different,. I'll tell you that story. It's it's not so it's not a cheery story, but that happened with my first novel. But yeah, it was it was, it was genuinely scary. So give it here and ask, how many languages do you speak, or read? Or are you burst in and and have you ever lived abroad Leslie?

10:46 I studied abroad in England. When I was an undergraduate and I had a Fulbright to New Zealand in 2011. And those were the only times that I've lived out of the country for an extended. I studied French and Latin in school. I went back to France for a vacation, a few years ago and discovered almost none of it is left. I can point to a class on it and ask for one, but that's about it. So, early in the book, The the figure of hanako, manifests, the toilet, the toilet stall ghost of of Japanese. I gather modern Japanese folklore.

11:41 And the reason I asked about this, is there something we look it up because again, paint back to page 39. So, how'd it go is Invokana, call Sean. And then in a very next paragraph, remember to check on feet? I needed to thank her for the flowers. Do you know the roots of the name hanako? No, actually means flower in Japanese, just because I was creating a Japanese carrier for years ago. And I thought about naming the character hung up that here to remains unnamed to this day. But h, a n, a is flower in Japanese finding more uncanny coincidence. Is in the book, things I do.

12:41 Folklore Japanese Tales. I thought Leslie, wouldn't do that. That's probably right. I tend to attend to get writer's cramp when they do that. Right? What does look to the Bookshelf and and name somebody in the first draft of a novel? He changed it later, but he named the character Octavia Butler.

13:17 So yeah, she would do that. It's just too easy. So

13:30 Where, where did you study English? I studied in an undergraduate degree at Rutgers and a graduate degree at Princeton.

13:41 And when did you start writing poetry versus when did you start publishing? Poetry when I was a kid? And I had I went to a Catholic all girls high school and I had a very strict English teacher who was a Nun? Sister Ignatius, demanded that I enter a literary, prize, a poetry prize for area, students, and I won first prize and I decided, oh, maybe I'm not so bad at this done and college, you know, that a big state school and poetry classes were smaller than Fiction classes and I loved to be able to participate. And so I started, I love sound of a very sound oriented writer. So poetry is very appealing for that reason, but I also think that there were those bits of luck and Circumstance that sent me down that path.

14:41 Was always a really Avid fiction reader to I was somebody who read all through every spare minute growing up, but

14:50 Poetry kind of became the focus and partly because of those accidents and partly because of the chest that love for his qualities of sound quality.

15:00 Do you work of fiction by chance?

15:05 Well, I can't say that I do but I can say that the book that's probably shape. My imagination. Most is Jane Eyre. That I that's a novel. My mother is British. And so she as when I was a child she just gave me all the novel. She read growing up. And so she handed me Jane Eyre when I was nine and I read it first then when I was the age that Jane Eyre was and that Red Room seeing at the beginning and I read it very much as a sort of adventure story of the suffering of the young woman who didn't try ups and just kept rereading it. As I got older and my sense of the steaks and the concerns of the novel kept changing. I would say that

15:56 That that novel, print more than anything else has inflected my sense of what a story can do. You, mentioned Octavia Butler. I'm a huge fan of hers as well. In probably 25 million other fiction writers. I could name if I could pick up.

16:15 So,

16:19 What were your parents names, please? Before I get Patricia and William Cain and Abel Cain was the original vampire vampire vampire. So

17:00 And where did you grow up? So my mother and migrated to the states in 1962, met my father on a blind date and they married in 65 and they lived in Long Island at the time. So I grew up partly there and partly in New Jersey moved there when I was

17:25 10 9 or 10, Jenn-Air, reading age.

17:29 Your siblings on the eldest and I have a sister, a few years younger. And a brother is almost 10 years younger than I am. Alright, 10 years behind. Wow. Wow, so you're supposed to be the creative one is the youngest child. I'm just supposed to be bossy.

18:03 And of course, yeah. So now when you say control freak is that are you catching any rooms to do that? I try to show you. What, what's the lawn? There's a, there's an exchange that I think the characters fee and Cynthia, York your ex, right that they have where I think, Cynthia, scissor or is everybody are all women? Casting spells are all women working magic. And what's the response please?

18:48 The Smart Ones like damn. I think she knows that we do have influences that were not always completely consciously in charge of four or that and certainly there are a million terrible things that we could fix about the world. If we had those magic cards, right, like too bad we don't but yeah going back to what I said before about the weirdness of the world and my sense of uncanny permeated uncanniness, permeating it, you know, I don't I can't influence reality to the extensive any of those characters in the book and I don't know any recipes for magic spells, but I do think it's important to to discover what kind of power you have and use it for the betterment of the world.

19:47 There's another Rider. I want to ask if you're familiar with, there's something that fee says, at one point. She talks about that. She prefers to travel why I wondered if you were purposely referencing the nominee magician novel by that.

20:14 What's it called travel light from the world? It's only like half a magical, a fantasy novel, very much, very Monday, extraordinary Monday, because it's about what John Cooper, but you will recall. I know, you'll recall, this. My novel has a quote from her brother from The Magician's brother haole.

21:05 Can't remember his initials JBS. JBS. Haldane is now he misses his brother and I think they were both. I didn't realize this the last time I named checked him, but I think they were both eugenicists. Ono, Ono, but

21:22 That's my version, the quote from housing is my version of what you talk about, what the world is genuinely uncanny, write who wrote universe is not only queerer than we supposed. But we were supposed to go. That's an epigraph to your book is not with you. I've never seen a ghost but at this stage and I had to tell this story to a friend recently, who accuse me of of craziness and, and it in. And also, I think, when I emailed you about preparing for this, I don't want to give you too many details. Lest you think me insane? Because again, I had this thing with your book craft, you know, of your, your book like Alex, get a blood sample from this guy.

22:15 But I did have this episode a couple years back where I was having the stabbing pain in the side of my neck.

22:25 Just bitten, meralgia. But when you start having stabbing, pains in the side of your neck.

22:32 And you are a student of voodoo and somebody's like, poking up and an effigy of you somewhere else in the world right now. As it happens. I know somebody that could be really pissed off at me. Who happened to be in the inner part of the world where they might have come by this.

22:52 And this happens only when I was asleep.

22:58 In the middle of the night and I mean just excruciating pain. And so, it happened over a couple of night. And I think two or three nights in not necessarily successive night. I feel something grasp one of the thumbs on one of my hands, but literally, I feel another hand pinched, my thumb and drag between my index and middle fingers. And I wake up with my hand in that position.

23:31 Which is really creepy because as you probably know, the thumb between those two thinkers, that's a mystical gesture in a lot of cultures. It's also and if she want him anymore, but it's mellow Kio.

23:47 In one of my ancestral cultures in Italy, it's literally the, it's what you do to ward off the evil eye, that are not always things that we see they receive them by other means. And the way I described hearing characters voices, particularly the voice of the most uncanny character in the novel fee. To talk to me all the time. I hear voices, occasionally, especially when I'm waking up or falling asleep. I'll hear a funny little message or maybe just somebody calling my name and I don't know what that is, but another weird thing that's happened to me is some, I live in a town. When I first moved there. I used to hear a train whistle in the middle of the night.

24:36 And I used to take walks in the area, looking for where the train tracks are like what what am I hearing and could never find it? And eventually I learned that I do live around the block from where the train used to run and the rail were pulled up in the forties when the train service stops, but there had been a train right there. Just around the blocks and here is a vedek is so yeah. That was BS. So, I thought I remembered that collection of poems. By the way. Thank you. And you like, poetry, you should invest in that book, but stays at the same time. I was writing the novel Unbecoming. So there is definitely the

25:36 Sing back and forth between thinking, about the territory of Virginia, where I live and thinking about the territory of middle age.

25:45 Well, I like to talk about both of those things, beyond the

25:59 I've heard a lot of people use the phrase. I feel like I can breathe again in the aftermath of the conviction of Derek Chauvin for now. We can, we can leave now say the murder of George. Floyd and so there's a boat, the state she's in, which is multivalent title. And in Unbecoming, there's a lot of stuff about race and how you as a white woman with a black music, black man, and a reader of your work, you know, I appreciate it and found very thoughtful and in so talk about that, some talk about the role of race and living in the South and living in the former.

26:51 Yes, I live in capital of the Confederacy but it's a really important site for it. I live in Lexington, Virginia. I teach type with that is still very unfortunately names Washington and Lee University. Robert E. Lee is buried on campus and is a namesake. He was president of the school for a while and Stonewall Jackson is also buried a few blocks from my house. So if it was a very strange place to move from New Jersey and 1994. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was profoundly weird to, to see, Confederate re-enactors marching up and down Main Street once a year and Swagger's Confederate flag as they call them all over the place. And

27:43 So, you know, it was a distressing move and I think for a long time, my feeling was I am not from here. I am not complicit in this and I was looking down my nose and especially in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. It became clear to me that that was not a tenable position that I was complicit. That I had to that. I was being paid a salary by an institution that had been bequeathed a large group of enslaved people and then sold them down the river to improve its operating budget. And that I needed to own up to that. And I think everything I started writing from then on, I was both trying to come to terms with the place. I lived in a natural way, and in what the ground

28:43 Turn around feels like and and what it means to live on it as gently as I can. But also coming to terms with a really brutal, brutal history, not only of the enslavement and Jim Crow but also of the genocide of Native American population that wants to use that area is underground. And it seems really dishonest to me to write about place in the South as a lot of white Riders do without acknowledging the complexity of race and what it means it's intimidating. It's hard. I know that as a white woman, I'm down to be stupid about so many things that I have not been forced to think about in my life, but you do your research and you try like you

29:43 You acknowledge the complexity of the world just as you acknowledge the strangeness of the world in a slightly Supernatural way, you acknowledged that strangeness the political strangeness and the and the awfulness of what has enabled the way that you live now you just have to do is just not you.

30:10 Also, what what this felt like given that you were also menopausal. Premenopausal is all this is happening. What that

30:29 Yeah, I mean, I think that there was a sense.

30:33 You know, I was, I had to hit middle-aged, I couldn't deny it anymore. And that meant that I had done at that point. Lived more than half my life in the South without thinking of myself as a southerner and and also was just depressed like, you know, so I am this is not where I expected to be. I did not expect to spend most of my life in the small town south next to the ghost of Stonewall Jackson. Like this was not what I had wanted for myself and there's a poem in the Poetry collection called turning 50 in the Confederacy. And that's what I felt that I was facing, you know, and that I don't think that that is a gozar exactly. The concerns are warriors of the character in the novel, but that sense of of beings

31:33 And being a wash and powers that you don't want to acknowledge that. You have like those those flowers for the character in the book are also the powers to improve the racism or admit gate it at her, the institution for which she works. You know, she has not been acknowledged during those hours either part of what how she needs to change over. The course of the novel, is to recognize that if she refuses to own up to the privilege of the power that she has. She's doing more harm. So yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

32:21 Thank you. That's, that's all good to hear. And, and, and honestly, deeply reassuring.

32:37 On one level it is that it is, it is, it's great. Particularly. I think in the Realms of weird fiction, I mean, aye, aye. Aye aye,. I expect this in the precincts of literary. Fiction. I got in

32:57 I think I was at the point of watching a fight break out on the state of black science fiction website, which helped administer on Facebook. I posted a picture of Samuel Delany and this is actually a storycorps story. Daniel. I posted a picture of Lauren, mcalpin and Samuel Delany. So a white man, Delaney identified as a wife, gay man, and then Delaney is famous. Science-fiction writer African-American from a long line of Delaney's born in Harlem, grew up in Harlem live, in New York for many many years. Now. Listen for the vehicle. Incidentally what chip is very light skinned and now he looks like Santa Claus now and so there's a picture of this guy who looks alarmingly like Woody Harrelson,

33:57 And this other large man who looks like Santa Claus on this.

34:03 Now, private group for black science fiction, writing and futurism all that stuff. And one of the other black members want to ask me like why are you putting this here? And and I thought because my my comment was it was in this storycorps interview cuz this storycorps interview, but I've been looking for 4 years and never heard it. And I found it in the archives and I went into it and member of the group wanted to know why I had put it there.

34:34 And I thought I'm going to presume. He knows that chick is black because what I wrote was Chip Delaney reveals the the the the biggest Open Secret about New York City.

34:49 In the story for interview. And so I explain that remark and what it was this is it was talking about in the 60s when he spent

34:59 Somebody essentially dared him to spend 24 hours at a stretch in Grand Central Station which he did. He's like, he was there for 28 hours and realized, remember the 1960s not like homelessness is now in the United States, it was largely invisible. And so he realized there were people who lived in Grand Central Station. And so, I watched a lot of people basically Dogpile. This, this person who asked this question, like, don't you know, Samuel Delany is black and I just kind of went on for a little while to starting to get out of hand. So I said, first loss of y'all need to modulate your tone and I am in the with the Commodore said, you don't know why I knew this race was. I said and I and I took that comment as sincere.

35:57 Oh, and I presume it to be about the New York part of it. And so I explained the New York part of it and I I never addressed chips race at all. But that's kind of my habit, right?

36:10 You read my novel, you know that I like the omniscient narrator in my book, never identified as the characters racially. You don't have that luxury and so for you to be there for me. There's a certain amount of white person.

36:31 Wrestle with the issue of race in the United States on the page and thank you. Thank you. Although I feel like my courage is nothing compared to the courage of people who are facing up to the Daily experience of violence in the US that's based on race. So,, don't think I can do is I'm sure they're people who will be unhappy with me saying this but on the page. And I know this, I've seen this happen in Loris long as I run.

37:20 Everybody gets racial stuff wrong in the United States. Everybody is capable of it.

37:26 It, and it's not that black people are not immune to doing that, but I'm sure that I will be. There will be people who will, Who will help me for my handling of race, which is not strictly about black and white. I should say in my right, right? We don't know everything about our characters, right? Only when the characters talk about it and it's right now. Was much more impressed than yours. I thought about how many about how long does it take to unfold as it? It's about seventy thousand words, so it's still fairly short.

38:32 You know what? I want. The old series 24 comes to mind when I think about my book, but I haven't really time that I doubt. There's a, there's a trip and I don't, I don't need to know how long that trip takes. I just know. It. Takes some it. It it, there's something. I'd stuff that happens. I think we are very close to time at the stage. Are we?

39:01 Is there anything that I have not asked you that?

39:04 You'd like to just say really quickly, Leslie potential readers to know, is that I really did my best to write a novel, that deeply absorbing that moves fast, and that moves in an empowering direction, that certainly helps people who are in a position similar to mine to see that. That power can flow back into your life and be used for your own good and the good for other people. And I really wanted to write a book that would

39:49 Make the world, just a notch better and I hope that it's a pleasure to read. I'm I'm trying to make a spell that is Pleasant to be in.

39:59 I can say that that spell was cast impeccably, thank you, as you already know. It is Far and Away the best 2020. I didn't read many novels from 2020, but it was way way better than any other one that I read in and the one that I published was magnificent and you know, I can't thank you enough for saying that because this isn't, yeah, I think it was a pretty good year for books with you. It was beyond what what I did there. They're both first novels and and it's an extraordinary accomplishment my hat's off to you and I will have I won't accept anything else on that front or so. Thank you for everything that that that you do, all that you've done. Keep up the good work and thank you so much for me.

40:59 Talk with me today. Thank you so much. It has been a pleasure to be here about the difference between poetry and writing a novel. And mostly, I think what I'm talkin about. His poetry is really talked about his being so audio. All right, or right? You just when you're writing a lot of folks, say when you're editing speaking loud, so I'm wondering, like I did, you find with more protection than you initially thought? Or are they just two different animals?

41:35 I found them to be deeply different animals. I found that writing a novel. I thought I knew how to write good sentences until I started to practice fiction to me. The main difference is time that in poetry, you're creating maybe a single moment or a very short narrative and lingering in it and endlessly, trying to expand it. And that's why funds are sort of meditative pleasure to read. Write your lingering in that moment was a writer writing a novel. It needs to move. You need to get the extraneous details out. You need to pair away the adjectives and adverbs you need to, to make the pros tight, so that you're leaping from moment to moment in a way that there's enough detail for a reader to make those lips with you. But not a distraction.

42:35 Writing about them down, just enough detail to create the world so that you can keep everybody moving through it with suspense. Yeah. It was for me really, really