Aura, Hillary Leftwich’s latest novel, is many things: a mother’s relationship with her son, a writer’s genesis story, and an at times heartbreaking narrative of abuse. It retains the same formal originality and structural complexities as Leftwich’s prior work while also providing a frank look back at its author’s life. Leftwich and I talked about the process of producing Aura and revisiting the personal history it contains.
The text of Aura abounds with spells for a variety of purposes. Is there a similar sense of ritual when it comes to your writing practice?
Definitely. Writing is a ritual for me in many ways—researching, preparing my workspace, being in the correct attitude (emotionally and physically), and truly appreciating the subject matter. All of these qualities are required for me to be able to write something that I am serious about pursuing.
Throughout Aura, you allude to other writing that you did on the same events in your life that inspired the memoir. What has shifted, in terms of how you write about this period of your life?
I believe what changed was a more confident tone of speaking. During the times in Aura when I was really struggling as a single mom and my son was having a lot of neurological issues involving his epilepsy—(which made it difficult to have any kind of social life or free time at all, let alone write), I thought no one would want to read about being the outcast single mom or all of the jobs I had to work to pay bills, or even shitty apartments because it was the only place we could afford. All of the real-life issues I was dealing with did not fit into the criteria of what I believed was considered writing in the literary community, which is dominated by white cis males.
Both Aura and Ghosts Are Just Strangers Who Know How to Knock make use of hybrid structures. What attracts you to this as a form?
I love this question because it allows me to take up the entire conversation talking about my fascination with hybrid forms. I’m not a lover of rules—forms, maybe; rules, no. Never have been, even as a child and into my adolescence. So it’s no surprise that I fell in love with it while writing. I was never content with a single style of writing, whether it was prose poetry, lyric essays, or flash fiction. The restriction. Coming from a DV relationship where your entire world is constrained inside spaces—you are made smaller and smaller by someone else’s force, and especially when the person assaulting you has a mental condition, there is a strong desire to get out from the situation.
For years, I was known as a “flash fiction writer,” and that’s all people recognized me for when I first started writing nonfiction. I grow tired of writing in the same genre and want to continuously surprise myself, explore, and see what other hybrid authors are up to. Reading Monster by Walter Dean Meyers blew my friggin mind wide open. Writing in the style of a screenplay? It really blew my mind, and I lapped up every word. Reading Meyers helped me realize that in the hybrid form, you can accomplish whatever you want. This is the only place where I wish to write.
Did you plan to include found documents in Aura from the initial stages onward?
I had no intention of including any images or finding papers until Kevin Sampsell, my publisher at Future Tense, suggested it. Then I felt it could be useful to offer documentation of my son’s hospital stays and the legal nonsense I had to go through with his biological father. But, most importantly, the drawings my son created when he was tiny during that period make it feel, as a reader recently pointed out, like a baby book in many respects, which I like.
Were there any ways in which writing about your life changed the way that you viewed certain past experiences?
Because this is a book written for my kid from my perspective as a recall of his trip, my answer would be that it’s almost like being hypnotized and narrating a narrative from the point of view of a shared experience with someone who was there, but their memory was completely obliterated. So it was terrible for me to relive everything, knowing that my kid might read it one day and potentially doubt my decisions. This was the entire reason Aura was created. So that my son understands why I did what I did and what he went through (since his epilepsy erased almost all of his memory of the events).
What was the most challenging aspect of your past to write about?
When people ask me this question, I tell them I’m writing about my upbringing, but it’s actually about the decisions I made as a mother that were blatantly negligent and downright dangerous. Admitting frankly, writing about my faults, knowing I would be judged—especially as a mother—made writing about these circumstances exceedingly difficult. But my son must know the truth, and I cannot keep it from him. Aura tells the story of who he was and how he became the man he is now. To refrain from writing about this would be like to lying to him about a significant portion of his early existence. That would never happen to me.
Do you find that you approach writing fiction and writing nonfiction differently?
No. Because there is a highly dominating voice in both genres that takes over and is comparable in both circumstances. Consider Lidia Yuknavitch, who works in a variety of genres yet whose style is instantly recognizable. Every work of fiction contains aspects of nonfiction, and every work of nonfiction contains elements of fiction. I believe that if we feel comfortable utilizing our voice in writing, it’s difficult to not branch out into new genres while we’re writing the same thing.
What’s next for you?
I’m torn between writing a collection of hybrid and poetic works incorporating brain waves, music, and other e-forms to explore epilepsy and its history, and writing a literary fiction novel based on my experiences cleaning pay-by-the-hour motels. Alternatively, both. I’m still undecided. I’m always torn between what I want to accomplish because the marketing voice inside me won’t stop whispering, but is it marketable? When, in reality (and certainly based on my writing history), I couldn’t care less. So, most likely, both.