July 07, 2015

Leah Stewart

Dark pasts collide in a small Southern town
Interview by
An older woman's keen interest in a young mother who recently moved in across the lake slowly morphs into a dark, dangerous fascination that could destroy both of their lives in Leah Stewart's latest novel, The New Neighbor, set in the small college town of Sewanee, Tennessee.
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An older woman's keen interest in a young mother who recently moved in across the lake slowly morphs into a dark, dangerous fascination that could destroy both of their lives in Leah Stewart's latest novel, The New Neighbor, set in the small college town of Sewanee, Tennessee. Stewart (The History of Us, The Myth of You and Me) deftly writes about the nuances of friendship and motherhood, as well as the past's unpleasant ability to take over the present. 

As a recent graduate of Sewanee, I was eager to ask Stewart a few questions about her choice of setting, the complexities of isolation and her impressive ability to write honestly about aging.

Sewanee is a fairly isolated, little-known college town in Tennessee. How did you stumble across it and what inspired you to set your novel there?
I’ve been going up to the Mountain (they capitalize it there) since I was a kid. My grandmother was from Murfreesboro, which is about half an hour from Nashville and an hour from Sewanee, and she and my grandfather retired to a small community called Clifftops between Sewanee and Monteagle. But I don’t remember spending much time in Sewanee until I started working for the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference (as a dorm counselor) and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (as staff) in 1995. I’d been a student at Vanderbilt in Nashville, and my professors there recommended me to the conference directors. I worked for the SWC for 10 years, making drinks and driving visiting writers to the Nashville airport, and I spent a year as a visiting writer at Sewanee and have been back many other times to visit. In the last couple of years I’ve been going to a relatively new writers’ colony there called Rivendell.

I set the novel in Sewanee because The New Neighbor is about isolation. All of my books are set in different places, and when I choose a setting, I’m looking for a place that resonates with the themes, the mood and the emotional states of the characters. Sewanee—in my mind—is both a magical, beautiful, out-of-time retreat and (because it’s so small and because when the fog rolls in you can’t see the road) a kind of confinement.

Both Jennifer and Margaret view Sewanee as a hideaway, but the small-town closeness and isolation of Sewanee is the very thing that threatens to unravel their lives. Do you think isolation is prone to breeding something sinister?
I think it can, but perhaps no more than too much closeness. We used to live in the country in North Carolina, and it felt very safe and pleasantly separate from the world—until I read In Cold Blood, which is about people murdered in an isolated house. For a week or two and on and off afterwards, I found our location unnerving. So I think isolation contains two extremes: the possibility of safety and security, and the possibility of being alone when danger comes. In the case of my novel, the danger is largely emotional, but Margaret is in her 90s and living alone, so there’s a physical danger for her as well.

The men in Jennifer and Margaret’s lives have largely been destructive, and both women seem to long for female companionship. Do you think female friendships are important lifelines?
Absolutely! Which is not to say I don’t think relationships between men and women, including platonic ones, are equally important. But there’s a longstanding tendency in stories to make friendships between women secondary to heterosexual coupling, and I enjoyed keeping the focus on the former.

Ninety-year-old Margaret is incredibly frustrated by the indignities and inconveniences of aging. You are able to capture these feelings so well, that it made me a little terrified of my approaching birthday. How were you able to so accurately write in the voice of a 90-year-old woman?
I’ve spent a great deal of time in the company of elderly people, especially elderly women. I visited the grandparents who lived outside of Sewanee often. My other grandmother lived an hour and a half from us in North Carolina, and she often had to go see a specialist at Duke, so I’d drive to her town, pick her up, take her to appointments and drive her back. My great-aunt, who was a professor of medieval literature at UCLA, retired to Murfreesboro. I stop to see her whenever I’m in the area, and she’s 92. I’ve stolen lines from all of them.

Looking at Milo, Jennifer’s 4-year-old son, Margaret says, "He looked like something that might ruin your life." Why do you think she feels that way?
She never had children, so she never got used to the amount of noise they generate, and now she’s elderly and hyperaware of her own fragility; Milo’s heedless kinetic energy alarms her. Also, as an older person who never raised children, it’s easy for her to judge contemporary parenting as lax: Where are the well-behaved, speak-only-when-spoken-to children of yesteryear? Plus, she wants Jennifer’s attention and can’t compete with Milo for it, and, deeper than that, it has something to do with the wounds of her past.

The well-loved, bubbly Megan—Jennifer’s only friend in Sewanee—is almost the opposite of the guarded, stoic Jennifer. Do you think women, especially mothers, are pressured into presenting a happy face to the world?
I do. Which is one reason I so enjoyed Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, with its female narrator full of unapologetic rage.

In order to keep her identity a secret, Jennifer is cold and distant. Do you admire these qualities as strength, or do you think she should lighten up?
I think she wants to lighten up and is happier when she does, but her circumstances have made that challenging. She’s not cold and distant in the flashbacks to her teenage years, just quiet. I myself like to talk, as my students can attest, so sometimes I struggled with writing her. My husband really helped me with that. He did a line-by-line edit, pointing out where I’d had Jennifer behave in an out-of-character way—which often meant she’d said something I would say, when really, Jennifer would say nothing. I don’t admire coldness, but I do admire reserve. I think because I don’t have it, and so to me it looks like impressive self-control. Also, reserved people intrigue me because I wonder what’s behind the wall.

I thought it was interesting that Jennifer, who is so closed off, is a massage therapist. How did you settle on that career for her?
That was a choice I made instinctively. Looking at it now, I’d say it was because she’d been a dancer, so I wanted her to continue to do something that had to do with the body. She’s capable of offering love and comfort but has been hurt so often that she’s shut that capability down—except with Milo and in massage, which is a way of communicating without words. I’ve written a great many characters whose primary mode is mental (like mine), and I’m curious about people whose primary mode is physical. I had two ballet dancers in my last novel. I didn’t attempt their points of view, but they were in some ways a warm-up for Jennifer.

How did Margaret's time as a nurse in World War II shape her?
It gave her the most intense emotional connection she’s ever had—her friendship with her fellow nurse—but it also brought her up close to terror and horror and grief. It taught her that she’s tough, which is a quality she values and which served her well as a woman in the workplace throughout the rest of the 20th century. But it also taught her to survive by walling off sections of her memory and her personality, and what she’s wrestling with in the novel is what she lost in doing that.

Would you enjoy living in Sewanee? Why or why not? 
I ask myself that question every time I’m there! Based on the year I spent there, I’d say yes and no. When I go there now, I love the beauty of the woods and the mountains, the quiet and the sense of isolation from the rest of the world. But when I lived there that quiet and isolation sometimes made me restless. If I had my wish, I might live there part of the year and in the city the rest. 

Author photo by Jason Sheldon

Get the Book

The New Neighbor

The New Neighbor

By Leah Stewart
Touchstone
ISBN 9781501103513

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