An Interview with Leopoldine Core
Leopoldine Core can’t stop looking atpeople’s faces. Her new story collection, When Watched, for which she received the Whiting Award, pays extensive attention to visages, countenances, and the like. In her stories, nothing is ever “written all over your face”—rather, faces themselves speak loudly, and almost in a language of their own. A friend’s casually disheveled face can enable one’s own ugliness, otherwise hidden, to shine through; a lover’s charming expression can take on sinister undertones in the right lighting; and a face on an album cover, when stared at hard enough, can become unusually expressive—or sentient.
Core and I spoke on the phone about insecurity, voyeurism, and unguessed similarities between dogs and drunk college kids.
I. IF ANYTHING I WISH IT WAS BIGGER
THE BELIEVER: One of the things I noticed in your book was the fascination, maybe obsession, with looking. It struck me that we’re kind of eliding the whole visual aspect by talking on the phone. I figured maybe I’d ask you to describe your face for me, and we can try to recreate it a little bit.
LC: [Laughs] That’s funny. Let me look in the mirror.
BLVR: Yeah, go ahead.
LC: I’m wearing my dog walking outfit, which is these black and white striped pants and a red button down shirt. I’m not wearing make-up or anything. I’m not wearing my glasses.
BLVR: You’re allowed to be a bit blurry then, I suppose.
LC: The first thing I notice is my eyes, or my eyelids rather. I have the sort of eyes that are especially hooded, just like my uncle’s. And I have these caves around my eyes where shadows pool. I used to hate my eyes. They are brown but seem to change. Right now they have an amber light in them but sometimes they look almost black. They burn when I look at people, I think they do. I can’t hide my interest in someone, or my scorn. When I’m dating someone, their parents are often suspicious of me, and I used to think it was because of my eyes. Now I don’t know.
My two front teeth are starting to buck out subtly—years ago I threw my retainer out a window. My mouth is open a bit with the teeth showing. When I shut my mouth, the chin dimples. I used to have a rounder face but the bones are starting to jut. My eyebrows are dark brown. My lips are pink. I have seven small zits. My hair is thick and orange with a slight wave. It is parted down the middle, Manson-like. I have a long neck and little shoulders. If a celebrity had my face they would probably get a nose job but I like my nose. If anything I wish it was bigger. I love big noses.
BLVR: Having one myself, I’m inclined to agree. I think probably part of the reason you spend so much time on faces is that you’ve got a knack for describing them. I don’t think I could describe mine in much more detail than, like, the shape of my eyes.
LC: Yeah, it’s hard to describe your own face. I think I have a weird idea of what I look like. I’ll get convinced sometimes that I look like someone. I’ll be like, “There’s this girl who looks exactly like me.” And then I’ll show my friends the photo and they’re like “You’re out of your mind.”
II. LITTLE WITNESSES
BLVR: Did you say you’re wearing your dog-walking outfit?
LC: Yeah, I have to take my dogs out right away, first thing in the morning. So I usually walk them in what I slept in. I own a lot of pajamas that can be worn out into the world. I like stripes. You can wear them anywhere. When I was in my early twenties and really poor I had three striped shirts and that was all I needed.
BLVR: How many dogs do you have?
LC: Two. Hank and Ringo. They are both Chihuahua Cattle Dog mixes. Hank is a small, penny-colored, fox-ish looking dog. Ringo is sort of champagne colored with little white spots. He looks like a coyote. His legs are longer than Hank’s, and he’s more of a goofy, sensitive character. Hank is a tyrant.
BLVR: You think they have distinctive personalities?
LC: Absolutely. Ringo is a sensualist. He would like to be massaged at all times. I bring him to a dog park, and he goes up to one person after another, demanding to be stroked. He’s very beautiful and soft like a bunny. He seems destined to be touched.
Hank needs space and doesn’t like to be objectified in any way. But if you give him the space he needs, he will come over and make eye contact and want to cuddle. He likes to choose you, never the other way around. He sleeps in a little orange fist right next to me, whereas Ringo wanders off the moment I stop petting him. They’re very different.
BLVR: I have a dog back home, and I think her defining personality trait is manic. There are a ton of mentions of animals in your stories. Some of the stories are kind of explicitly about animals—“Historic Tree Nurseries,” for example, where the couple goes across the country to adopt a dog. But even apart from subject matter, people keep finding ways to describe themselves like animals.
What do you think makes animals special? A lot of the time when they come up, it’s in relation to the problem of watching, or self-consciousness, or maybe like an alternative to the human fascination with it.
LC: Well, we are animals. And the animals that we call “animals” are treated as property. We own dogs, we own horses. It’s vile. I’m always trying—and failing—to find ways to make it up to my dogs. Their situation of being owned.
They hate it when I sit down to write. Ringo sets his paw on the keyboard. Hank stares in his burning way. I am so aware of their desires, and yet they contain these realities I’ll never know. A dog I think is trying always to speak. Every day, I half expect my dogs to start talking. And there’s something compelling about that in the context of a story—this deep intimacy that is also a permanent mystery.
Dogs are these little witnesses. They observe the insanity of humans. I really feel that way about my dogs, that they are watching always, clocking each thing. I write about what’s around, and they’re always around. And I will always have dogs so there will always be dogs in my stories.
BLVR: To me almost it’s more like a defining characteristic of animals is that they aren’t witnesses, or they can’t be witnesses in the sense that we would think about. You know, they’re doers. I feel like witnesses, to me at least, implies some sort of consciousness, some sort of spectatorship. Whereas animals are, you know, they’re living in the moment, they’re doing their thing. I wonder to what extent, maybe in your stories, in real life, whatever, we’re the witnesses. You said it yourself, we’re just animals too. We’re trying to express ourselves even though we maybe don’t have the language for it.
LC: It’s true that dogs are completely present in a way that people can’t be, or certainly that I can’t be. They’re always riding the wave of the moment… but who knows. Some dogs could be intensely nostalgic.
BLVR: Even now we’re projecting on them.
LC: They do seem present though. Right away they can see when something is a little off. They get a knowing look—a look that says No.
BLVR: You mentioned the animal as a metaphor for the other, or something that we can’t relate to. My favorite story of the whole collection was “Historic Tree Nurseries.“ There’s this lesbian couple—one’s younger and one’s older, and they have a relationship that’s a little bit on the rocks. They decide to drive cross-country and get this dog. And maybe the defining characteristic of their relationship before had been that people always gawk at them. But now that they have this dog, this adorable little spectacle, people want to come over and hang out with them, pet the dog, and they’re suddenly normal.
There’s a line about how they don’t feel queer anymore. In some ways that could be read as a little bit of a victory, like they’re part of society. But, part of me felt a little pained about it, like they were losing something that made them special or unique. I’m curious to hear what you have to think about that relationship between the self and the other. Are you going for some sort of connection or community in these stories? Is there anything to be said for staying weird, and staying queer?
LC: I don’t see the end of that story as the absolute end—it keeps going in the mind of the reader, or that is my hope. Adopting a puppy is not the last experience Peanut and Frances will have so I don’t see their queerness as erased. It’s just a moment. The attention is diverted from their relationship, to this creature. And it’s a triumphant moment that is tinged with sadness—a moment that highlights both the ugliness and the beauty of the culture. Everyone can agree that a dog is beautiful. But everyone can not agree that the love between two women is beautiful—especially two women with so many years between them.
Ultimately, the couple can’t escape their queerness—it doesn’t vanish in the presence of this shining pup, people simply aren’t looking at it. And that interests me—the things that distract from queerness or soften the blow of it. I mean, I’ve experienced it in my daily life with the dogs. I’ll be walking down the street, and I’ll look really gnarly, and some supermodel wants get down on her knees to, like, touch my dog’s face.
And I like that about having dogs—that you talk to people you wouldn’t otherwise and that people, their hearts soften to you. They’re more open, they can’t help it. And in those moments it isn’t just me who loses my queerness, it’s these other people, these strangers, they lose their queerness too.
BLVR: Loving animals is kind of universal. You’d sort of want to think that someone who’s hateful or something would even hate the cute little puppies that you love, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
LC: No! In fact, sociopaths love puppies. [Laughs] Because a puppy can’t call you out on your shit. And they can’t leave you. And to look into their eyes is to feel loved.
BLVR: Sometimes when I’m home I’ll try to, you know, make eye contact with my dog or something. I can see her looking at me but, you know, at the same time it’s not the same—you don’t get the same feeling that you get when you make eye contact with someone you’re close with, and you understand that there’s mutual study going on. I wonder if there’s something about having a sort of half-present, half-not-present participant in this watching that maybe opens up possibilities we can’t get with other humans.
LC: On the one hand it’s the deepest connection, but its also one you can never quite understand. I really don’t know what they’re seeing when they look me, but I know they see something, and somehow I trust what they see without knowing what it is. One of my dogs has kind of human-ish eyes. He looks like Joan of Arc when he stares into my eyes. So sad and tough and burning and gorgeous.
My other dog isn’t so interested in making eye contact. He’s a creature of the body. They’re such individuals, all of them. The dog’s mind can’t be explained because it is many minds.
BLVR: You read someone like Cormac McCarthy or something and you get to sections where he’s, you know, talking about the essence of horses, or things like that, which I always thought was a little questionable. But it’s interesting, you’re right, I mean they totally do have their own personalities and all that.
LC: No one is like anyone else.
III. I DON’T WANT TO HURT ANYBODY WITH MY INTEREST
BLVR: In your stories, there’s such a wide range of characters who do all kinds of unusual jobs, and have these sort of weird, beautifully awkward experiences. What makes you want to write about someone?
LC: Sometimes it’s the face. It could be one I encountered in life or a dream, or one I constructed for the purposes of the story. I’m so turned on by faces, they’re really rooted in my sexuality—this area of the body that is so naked, so lit with a person’s thoughts and feelings. I guess I want to write about something when I can’t get it out of my head, when I’m obsessed. Its almost as if the story is happening on its own, generating itself. And I’m simply obeying the creature when I write it down.
Reading was really difficult for me, growing up. I didn’t read many books. I watched a lot of television and it informed my sense of what a story was—like wanting never to be bored, not even for a second. Wanting always to be surprised, or for the burn of what I didn’t yet know about a character to keep me watching greedily.
BLVR: Not to harp on the same point, but even though these are “literary stories,” they do keep coming back to the theme of looking, or watching—not always TV, usually other people I feel like. But that does feel like sort of a central concern that maybe got carried over from your childhood spent on the couch, watching TV, which I can totally sympathize with.
LC: I associate watching with the feeling of being outside of things, and I did feel that way growing up. I felt that I made no sense. People looked at me strangely when I shared my ideas. They still do. It’s part of my impulse to write. I want to make sense.
I write in the third person because I want to depict the feeling of being an outsider—and because I want the reader to also be forced into that position, of peering from a distance. I also write in the third person because I like describing the body and the looks on people’s faces, which you can’t do in the first person—a character can’t describe their own face.
BLVR: Do you feel like you prefer watching people, or being watched by other people?
LC: It makes me uncomfortable when people look at me. It makes me really shy, like I want to get away. Even if I’m enjoying it, I wanna bolt.
BLVR: I feel the same way.
LC: But I love to be the one watching. And there are rules about how to behave when it comes to staring, which is hard for me. I’ll stare at someone on a subway and they’ll get the wrong idea. They’ll think I want to have sex with them, or that I’m threatening them, or that I’m mad. And then they’ll change their seat. And I don’t want to violate people, I don’t want to hurt anybody with my interest. So now I just look for a moment and take a photo of the person with my mind. Then I look away but I’m still looking—I’m looking at the photo.
BLVR: It’s almost verbal, in its way, this intense communication with your eyes. And I think it doesn’t always say what you want it to.
LC: Yes, and that danger of giving off the wrong vibe frightens people. Though it depends what country you’re in. There’s something about being American—people don’t want to admit their appetites when they look at you. When I was in Italy, it was very different, walking down the street. People would really let you know that they were looking at you. There was a vanity about desire that I really liked. Men would look at me and they didn’t look away when I returned their stare. It was almost like they were gloating about their ability to look, you know? And it wasn’t just these invitations to be fucked. It was all sorts of people who would look at me.
BLVR: You have to wonder too if people were more open or unashamed about looking, if maybe we’d be less ashamed about being looked at too.
LC: Yeah, totally.
BLVR: In your stories there’s this pervasive feeling of not only being watched, but maybe almost being surveilled. Not necessarily by the NSA, but there’s a sense that everyone is observing you. I’m curious if you feel watched in your day to day life.
LC: I’m aware of being watched when I’m outside, and I’m aware of how I manage the looks of others, straining to determine what they might mean. Being female, it can be scary. To be small and walking down a street. Someone could hurt me if they wanted to. I’m very aware of that.
I live in the East Village, in the apartment I was raised in, and since childhood the neighborhood has changed radically. It’s a lot of drunk people now—drunk, white, college guys, mostly. And it’s scary. You can’t see what’s going on in the mind of a drunk person who’s careening down the street.
BLVR: You can’t really tell what’s going on in a drunk person’s head. I guess they’re like dogs in that way.
LC: Well, I don’t know…
BLVR: Maybe in that one specific way
LC: But these people are deranged, you know? They’re out of control. They’re not themselves. And dogs, I think, are always themselves.
Collage by Leopoldine Core.
Elliott Eglash is a senior at Princeton University, where he writes for the Nassau Weekly and the Nassau Literary Review. He co-edited the LA Review of Books 2015 Intern Edition, and recently worked for McSweeney’s.