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LitLocal: Leah Stewart


Leah Stewart tells some great stories. The daughter of an Air Force officer and an elementary school teacher, she's already called half a dozen cities home. Presently, she's bouncing back and forth between Tennessee and North Carolina, teaching at The University of the South, in Tennessee, and sharing her rural Orange County home with musician and fellow writer Matt O'Keefe.

Her first novel, Body of a Girl, grew out of a short story that she wrote as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University, about a female reporter. She's since been approached to continue the story as a mystery series, to write a screenplay and to develop the book into a thriller movie.

Over an animated dinner-for-three at Elmo's and in a month's worth of phone calls and e-mails, we talked about her writing life and our shared appreciation of Ann Patchett, Kem Nunn and Nick Hornby. (Check out Stewart's Front Porch on page 9 of this week's Independent. )

The Independent: Body of a Girl was the perfect can't-put-it-down book, which attracted great reviews and sold well in both cloth and paperback. Your main character, Olivia Dale, was so real, so accessible. How much of you was in Olivia?

Leah Stewart: What I really connected to emotionally was the fear she felt as a young woman in a city, and the desire to control her world so that she wouldn't have to live with that fear. When I interned at The Commercial Appeal (a newspaper in Memphis, Tenn.), I was 19 and living alone for the first time, and a woman was raped across the street from me. After that I was really scared every time I went in and out of my building after dark. That's really the kernel of the novel. Also, I've sometimes had the feeling that other people are leading a much wilder and more exciting life than I have!

We've heard that Body's been optioned for film. What will be your role in that project?

Kathleen Robertson (Beverly Hills 90210, Scary Movie 2, Beautiful ) optioned it. She wants to make it as an indie film with an emphasis on the character arc over the mystery elements. She was attracted by the idea of leading a controlled life but being drawn to darkness and danger.

I've had other people talk to me about it as a potential basis for a thriller, which interests me less. I've written a few drafts of a script for Kathleen. People have always said, 'Oh, it would make such a good movie,' but it turns out to be difficult to adapt in certain ways, because Olivia is driven by an obsession that there aren't obvious causes for.

There's a rock 'n roll background soundtrack to Body of a Girl, as Olivia's always going in and out of clubs. It sounded a lot like Chapel Hill or Boston. How is music part of your day; your writing life?

For one thing, I always put music on when I write, which other writers think is strange. I usually have a particular album I'll listen to over and over while I'm working on something, so [it] becomes a Pavlov's dog thing; putting it on tells my brain I'm going to work now. When I wrote short stories there would be an album associated with a story, but novels take so much longer to write; the album will change every few weeks. I think also the music I listen to has to have a mood I associate with the work. So with Body, I listened to lots of Memphis music. Elvis, Al Green, Big Star. No wonder if references ended up in there. Also I really associate music with Memphis.

So far, you've already had an eventful fall. How about catching us up on what's been happening in your world?

I'm the Tennessee Williams Fellow at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. --[a] writer-in-residence, in other words--I teach a fiction writing seminar. So I'm going back and forth between there and here. And I just delivered the novel I'm under contract for last week.

Hey, congratulations on book number two! You've said it's different from the first. What can you share about it?

It's called Travels in Your Company. It's about a woman who goes looking for her former best friend, years after their relationship ends over a man. In some ways it's similar [to Body], in being about two young women, one of whom is largely absent and looms large in the other's imagination. So there are some thematic connections--identity, whether you can ever really know another person, etc. And there are some mystery elements, because the friend is missing. So maybe it's not that different after all. There's no murder. I started to say there's no dead body, but actually there is one in there.

Your husband Matt is a published author too. His book, You Think You Hear, was loosely based on his own touring band and roadie experiences. What's it like living with another writer?

People tend to assume it's hard, but I actually think it would be harder to live with someone who had no idea why I needed to spend so much time sitting in my study or roaming around the house, to all appearances doing nothing.

When we can, we set up the same work schedule, get up, have coffee, go for a walk and sometimes talk about what we're going to work on, and then disappear into our separate studies. And we edit each other's work, without the hesitation you sometimes feel about really digging into even your closest friend's work.

When are you having the most fun writing a novel? Do you keep a journal?

When I'm really in a scene, so that I lose all awareness of what's going on around me, and I know exactly what should happen next, that's the most fun. I do carry around a notebook for lines that come to me, or working out difficult scenes, making charts to figure out the timeline of a story. Sometimes doodling.

I know Nick Hornby is one of your favorite writers and his book, High Fidelity, is on your "Essentials" list. Let's close with a "Top Five All Time Readings" list.

This is really hard. I can't even remember them all. Plus you have to weigh both work and performance.

In no particular order, Alan Shapiro, last summer at Sewanee; Barry Hannah reading from Airships; the poet Andrew Hudgins; Margot Livesey, reading from Eva Moves the Furniture; and the playwright Romulus Linney, who acts out all the parts. EndBlock

Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at ajcg@acpub.

Excerpt: Body of a Girl
There are reporters at this newspaper whose whole job it is to interview zoo workers about baby animals. One guy wrote a three-part series about how to avoid the lunch rush at the fast-food drive-thru. I'm the one the cops like to show photographs of raped and beaten women, looking at me out of the corner of their eyes to see if I can take it. "Okay," I always say, when I think I've looked at them long enough. "I see." I work the police beat. Murders are my responsibility.

This is my job, to give you the details up front, what time it was, where and how it happened, so you can use them to determine whether it could have been you. I'd never go there alone at night, you think, putting the paper down beside your cup of coffee after you read the headline and maybe the lead. It's my job to keep you reading past that first paragraph, to make you see it like I do, what it is possible for your body to look like, how easily you could be destroyed.

My roommate, Hannah, says, how can you write about these things?

Verb follows subject, I say. Object follows verb.

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