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.

—Elliott Eglash


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

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.”


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

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

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

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

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

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.


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

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.

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