Hillary Leftwich on Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock

Hillary Leftwich debuts her new collection of flash fiction and poetry at BookBar on October 18.
Hillary Leftwich debuts her new collection of flash fiction and poetry at BookBar on October 18. Jay Halsey

Hillary Leftwich, an indisputable force in Denver’s literary scene, programs the At the Inkwell reading series and edits the local lit magazine Heavy Feather Review. Meanwhile, she writes her own stuff, too. Her work has been seen in an impressive list of flash-fiction-friendly outlets like Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Monkeybicycle and others with names that inspire devotion in the flash-faithful.

Leftwich, a product of both Regis’s Mile High MFA and Nancy Stohlman’s FBomb reading series at the Mercury Cafe, will debut her new collection of flash fiction and poetry, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, at BookBar on October 18. We sat down to talk with her about her writing, her work, and spirits both metaphoric and real.

Westword: You're launching your new collection at BookBar, and you have some special guests you’re including in the reading. What do you have planned?

Leftwich: Cake and alcohol, Teague — that’s all you need for a great book release launch. In addition, I have featured readers Nancy Stohlman (FBomb creator/host), Charly “The City Mouse” Fasano, and Jane Keir. Nancy and Charly have been supporting me since the beginning. Charly reached out to me and was the first to invite me to read at Mutiny Info Cafe with him, Ken Arkind and Brian Polk about five years ago. I’ll never forget it. Nancy has been supportive of my writing since I started showing up at the open mic at the FBomb. It’s the most supportive open mic in this town. Jane Keir is an up-and-coming writer and has become a dear friend. I invited her to read, because it’s important to support writers who aren’t well known in the literary community. But she will be — oh, she will be. Her novel is going to be fantastic.

Talk a little about your book. It’s a multi-genre work, yeah? So of what exact goodness is this book chock-full?

You have a little bit of flash fiction mixed in with some prose poetry, a few nonfiction pieces, straight-up hard-core poetry, and some micro-fiction and nonfiction pieces. Look, I’ve never been one to stick with one genre, and as a writer, you should be building upon genres. I always want to be learning and pushing myself to stay outside of what is considered normal, standard or expected. The best way to do that is to read and write outside your comfort levels, right?

True, true. And where did that great title come from?

Ha! The title is getting some pretty amazing attention, which I’m loving. It’s the title of one of the prose pieces in the book. I wrote it for who, at the time, was a friend, who has since become my partner. It was a way to share words and comfort him during a rough time. I wanted to play with words and meaning involving what we think the definition of strangers and ghosts are. I felt it represented the collection well.

Civil Coping Mechanisms

The cover is pretty striking, too. Can you talk about how you found it and why you chose it?

The cover photo is by my partner, Jay Halsey, who has done numerous other book covers, including one for Steven Dunn’s most recent novel, water & power. It was also a collaboration between me and Michael Seidlinger from Civil Coping Mechanisms, who did the design. He’s a great human and has an artistic eye of which I’m in awe.

It makes sense that you’re debuting your collection at BookBar, given your longstanding relationship with them and the monthly At the Inkwell events you host. What’s it like to be able to launch the book at a store that’s been so supportive of your work in the past?

I feel very lucky to be able to have my book release party at BookBar. It’s been, oh, three years in partnership with them involving At the Inkwell. Nicole Han Sullivan, the owner, is wonderful, and the staff is incredible. I’m grateful to them for allowing me the space to support and host writers. I’ve been hosting readings and fundraisers for almost four years now, starting out hosting and organizing on my own and with At the Inkwell Denver. It’s been amazing to be a part of the literary community and host writers from across the country. I love it, and it’s something that you really have to go into with zero selfish motivation. People want their voices heard, and they need a safe space to do so. My goal was to create this. I feel At the Inkwell and BookBar provide that.

BookBar is becoming quite the literary institution in Denver, isn’t it?

They are! It’s been wonderful watching them grow, and now Nicole is launching her book bank. I only see big success for her and BookBar in the future.

You have your hands in a lot of literary pies around town, from the aforementioned At the Inkwell readings to your work with the lit mag Heavy Feather Review to your work publishing prose of all sorts. This is a little like asking who your favorite child is, but do you have a favorite pursuit? Or do you love all of your work equally? And how do you keep it all balanced?

I don’t really have a favorite pursuit. I started volunteering as a reader at literary journals six years ago and publishing pieces occasionally. It took a lot of time and learning, and it didn’t happen overnight. I was a single mom — just the two of us. I was working full-time and trying to raise him and write. It was a slow process. It was frustrating. But reading and learning have always been my motivation. So, for me, it’s always about learning.

I’m lucky to be a freelance editor now, and Jason Teal at Heavy Feather has been so kind to me. But out of everything, I have to say, hosting At the Inkwell is my proudest endeavor. Nancy Stohlman and Charly Fasano taught me if someone supports you, you turn right around and do the same, though I doubt they truly know the influence they’ve had on me. I know as writers we are constantly pushing our names and trying to get a piece of the pie, but for me, it’s what you’re doing to support others. As far as balance, well, there is no balance. I’m all in or I’m out. I try my best to separate the pieces of everything into manageable loads, but honestly, it doesn’t always work. And that’s okay.

Speaking of work, you just had a piece placed in New Skin magazine, about “being your own sexual advocate.” Seems like a timely subject. Can you talk about that piece and what you set out to do in writing it?

I honestly didn’t know what to say when I started writing it. There’s so much more to that essay than what is published. I grew up in Colorado Springs under the influence of James Dobson and New Life Church — a big military town with a lot of Christian influence. During my high school years, I was constantly being assaulted by pro-life protesters at my school. This was during a time when I was just figuring out my sexuality and experiencing sex for the first time. It was a confusing few years for me, and Planned Parenthood was a safe place for me as well as my friends. There’s a lot of Planned Parenthood’s history in the essay as well, which some may find the information surprising. There were a lot of people my age in my school that were trying to find their place as LGBTQ and being verbally assaulted by NLC and Dobson’s followers. It was hard, and not something they talked about or counseled anyone on. So, the essay is really all about the importance of being your own sexual advocate and knowing where to go for the right information and who will help you.

Do you consider yourself one type of writer who branches out, or are you more a generalist in your work overall? Do you find labels too limiting?

I do find labels limiting. And, really, we shouldn’t be using labels at all in the writing world. That’s an editor’s job. I started out writing nonfiction, then moved to flash fiction and studied under Kathy Fish. I was scared and intimidated to write poetry, so I studied poetry under Khadijah Queen, Chip Livingston and Eric Baus. I found a beautiful connection with prose writers like Zack Schomburg and especially Mathias Svalina, who blurbed my book. Now I find myself going full-circle again and back to writing nonfiction and implementing a hybrid influence as well with a poetic influence. I become bored and want to try new things and push myself constantly.

How has the city of Denver played a role in your artistic development?

I moved from Colorado Springs, my home town, to Denver in 2006. You know how much things have changed in the last thirteen years. Denver has been a muse for me, yes, but the people have, as well. I love Denver. It’s my home, as much as anyone can have a home. From Colfax to South Broadway, all the places around town I’ve lived and every neighborhood, I’ve always found inspiration in the people, the streets and the community.

Given the title of your book, do you believe in ghosts? Have any knocking on your own doors, metaphor aside?

Ha! Great question for Halloween! I do believe in ghosts. I recently moved from an apartment building known as "The Murder House." It's a protected historic building and extremely haunted. I had several incidents with the resident ghosts while living there. Clairsentience mediumship is also something I've dealt with beginning in my early teenage years. It's taking on the physical pain or illness a spirit has before their death. Trust me, I had no idea what was happening to me until adulthood. You don't hear about or meet many people who have this. So, you can say I'm fairly familiar with ghosts.

Hillary Leftwich debuts her new collection, Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock, at 7 p.m. Friday, October 18, at BookBar, 4280 Tennyson Street.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen