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Waynesville Author Leah Hampton A Rural Activist, One Story At A Time

Carrie Hachadurian

In her debut collection of short stories, Waynesville author Leah Hampton makes sure to grab readers from her first sentences.

The story “Parkway” begins with, “We find bodies all the time. Lots of folks come up here to die or kill or get killed."

The story “Saint” opens this way: “Your brother is going to die in twelve years.”

And in “F*ckface,” the title story opening the book, Hampton begins with “Nothing’ll ever fix what’s broken in this town, but it would be nice if they’d at least get the dead bear out of the parking lot at Food Country.”

“I think I read a lot of contemporary fiction where the writer just expects me to pay attention for three pages before something interesting happens,” Hampton said. “I’m a busy woman, and I’m going to tell you upfront that something dirty might happen.”

Hampton’s published debut, with a title that can’t be said over public radio, opens windows into regional environmental issues through the lens and lives of everyday Appalachians, even if some of their circumstances are a little out of the ordinary.

Hampton’s debut is among the finalists for the 2020 Thomas Wolfe Literary Memorial Literary Award. The winner is announced Dec. 16.

“What I’m really writing about, and what the book is really doing, is it’s looking at the interdependency between people and the land,” she said. “There are realities that are inescapable about the way we treat rural landscapes and rural people, particularly rural people who are marginalized in some way. We do get cancer from the way we pollute our rivers and our trees get mad at us for the way we cut them down. A lot of these things are very personal, and one of the things fiction does is it allows you to tell a story that has a lesson without being preachy.”

Hampton, who is 47, describes herself as being a bright kid who knew four languages by the time she followed in the steps of both parents and left high school at age 16. But she earned her master’s degree, made key contacts through the North Carolina Writers Network and the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Kentucky, and she won a three-year fellowship to the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, effectively launching her career and the stories that would fill her debut.

“That’s part of the process of writing a book is, like, you start out thinking ‘I can’t do this,’ and you have to become the person, the artist, who’s capable of making that thing,” she said. “All of us are writing books where we’ve had this very deeply personal internal conversations with ourselves, and the result, along with that craft work, is a series of stories, in my case, so there’s an undersong to it that’s about the writer learning who they are or what they believe.”

Hampton’s conversational writing won’t compel you to find a dictionary or thesaurus, and a common trait, at least as manifest in her debut collection, is a penchant for dropping readers into the middle of stories. There’s no on-ramp or semblance of clean conclusions to her stories, and she sees her collection much like an album of songs.

“These are people who are struggling with a lot of unsolvable problems with rurality and environmental crisis. So if the problem’s not fixable, I don’t need to stick around with this lady,” Hampton said, explaining her quick-hitting approach. “We kinda know she has cancer, so let’s go on to the next story. If I’ve done my job right, you should get to the end of each story and imagine for yourself an ending for this person.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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