Linda Legters: An Interview
Daniel M. Jaffe
Linda Legters is a fiction writer whose work I’ve admired for years, ever since we studied together for our MFA degrees at Vermont College. Linda always brings a deadpan honesty to the page together with a rare sensitivity to life’s absurdities. No wonder her short stories have appeared in such prestigious literary journals as StoryQuarterly, Other Voices, and High Plains Literary Review. Her novel, As She Appears, is currently represented by Inkwell Management of New York City. Believing that writing can be life-changing, Linda has shared her skills in a broad range of teaching positions at Western Connecticut State University, Antioch College, Norwalk Community College, Westchester Community College, and most recently, the University of Connecticut/Stamford.
In discussing her beginnings as a writer, Linda explained, “I was an adult before I saw writing as an art form available to me. As a child, it was only a very private way out of my extremely sheltering family—a silent shout—and as a young adult, a source of income. I wrote marketing plans and press releases and copy for advertising agencies. The writers I loved were overwhelming. Obviously I wasn’t going to be able to write like Alice Munro or Ian McEwan, but it never occurred to me that ordinary people wrote fiction at all. By contrast, after visits to art galleries and museums to see paintings I loved, I would come home to draw and dabble. I had no plans whatsoever for my artwork, no illusions, but trying it didn’t feel like overstepping my bounds. Writing—language, the manipulation of words, the power—was something I worshipped. Then one day I was reading an Edith Wharton novella and found myself thinking ‘I can do this.’ I felt some sort of affinity with the length and structure, and with the degree to which the characters were developed. I also felt longing. I wanted, needed, to do it.”
Some writers look back at their work and are reminded of personal issues they were wrestling with at various times in their lives as reflected in their fiction from a particular period. Is that true for Linda? “I believe,” she said, “many writers start out with stories of catharsis, even if these stories are autobiographical in only the broadest sense. My stories were also a way to discover the writing self, and to attempt to make sense of life’s complications and confusions. As Joan Didion wrote, ‘I write to find out what I think.’ And feel. And have seen. Now my stories are more, shall we say, observational. I like to watch. My sister gave me a t-shirt which reads ‘Careful, or I’ll put you in my novel.’ Unfortunately, this is true. I see everything as material—all the absurdity, all the pain, all the humor.”
I asked Linda to comment on her writing process, to discuss how it is she knows when her characters are leading her into a short story as opposed to a novel, and to talk about finding a novel’s voice. “My novel and the two I have in the works started as short stories. Then a friend would read one and say, ‘This is a novel.’ Curious, I would go in and start to break it apart, see what scenes could be bigger, what subplots might be hiding. Taking a ‘finished’ short story—if any story is ever finished—and attempting a novel is very, very scary. You have to be prepared to live with those people for a long time. And you have to be prepared to love them and hate them equally.
“In 1992, I was taking a summer seminar at an Iowa Writing Festival with Gordon Mennenga. I wrote As She Appears as a short story called ‘Afterwards’ there. Gordon said, ‘This is a novel.’ But, I said, I’m not a novelist. Years later, working on the same story with Pamela Painter at Vermont College and she said, ‘This is your novel.’ I said, I’m not a novelist. Because writing is often seen as an easy pursuit by those who are not writers, at every gathering there is someone who is writing a novel or about to write a novel or dreaming of taking time off to write a novel. I did not want to be one of those people. Even though I had published a short story or two, I did not have the confidence to say I was working on a novel. I did not want to seem silly. For years I called it my novelly thing to keep me from feeling, again, that I was overstepping my bounds, or that I was taking myself too seriously. But that fourteen-page short story turned into an 80-page novella, and those 80 pages turned into 150, then 300. I began to realize what I had was ‘not bad.’ Nevertheless, I did nothing with it. Finally last spring, on something of a whim, I started sending it out to agents. And now I’m working with Inkwell.
“I never knew where the story was heading. The plot came as a surprise to me. The characters kept their secrets from each other and often from me. They wrote their own stories and made their own mistakes, their own decisions. Until the end. I tried many, many last chapters. Then, after a writing seminar in Vermont one summer, where I’d discussed my dilemma with a number of people, the ending popped into my head as I was driving home. I kept pulling over to write. That four-hour trip turned into six, and by the time I got home the last chapter was written.
“As far as finding the voice, or knowing when something is working, I get a physical sensation that resembles pain. I’m not kidding. It’s dreadful, but also what I have to work for.”
After hearing so much about how her novel came into being, I was anxious to learn what As She Appears is about. “This is a hard one. Most stories become banal when summarized. Who said recently about Romeo and Juliet ‘Boy meets girl, girl meets boy; they immediately commit suicide’? Driving on a back road near here one day, I saw an unusual chap, unusual for this town because he was on foot, and seemed shabbily dressed, with long, pale hair and a slouchy hat and a backpack. He turned into the impetus for the whole story. My main character, Angela, opens her door to him. And that changes everything. The story is about people. And sex. And traps. And masks.”
Linda also has much experience reading for literary journals—as reader for StoryQuarterly and as Associate Editor for Crescent Review. What makes a short story stand out for her as publishable? “I thoroughly enjoyed reading for the journals, but haven’t been able to for the last year or so because of time spent teaching. For several reading seasons, more than half of the stories coming in were about incest and abuse. It was hard to stand out. The stories that I did promote always had an honest voice—such s hard quality to quantify—and strong characters, characters who weren’t afraid of themselves.”
Why does Linda devote so much of her time to teaching? “I love teaching. Part of this is entirely selfish. Cursed with that Protestant work ethic, I feel guilty when I read just for myself. While teaching, I get to read anything I want entirely free of guilt.
“But not all of it is selfish. I like sharing what my best teachers have given me. My first great teacher taught literature in my high school. She opened doors to language. Even though I was already a reader, my world tripled in size that semester. If I can offer my students one fraction of that sense . . .
“Thinking is something of a lost art. Students rarely know what they honestly think or like or want or need. It is increasingly difficult in a world where everything is decided for us, by way of pre-programmed radio shows, and fast food news. I start with that, then move on to the joy of curiosity. And sometimes I see the lights come on.”
Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at
and his web site is here.