Q&A with Leesa Cross-Smith

From now until May 15, we’ll be catching up with previous Raymond Carver contest prizewinners to find out what they’ve been up to since winning. First up is Leesa Cross-Smith, a self-professed Kentucky girl, homemaker, writer, and reader. Her story, Whiskey & Ribbons, won Editor’s Choice in 2011.

Carve: Can you tell us what inspired “Whiskey & Ribbons?”

Leesa Cross-Smith: Some years ago a local police officer was killed in the line of duty. Just the saddest story. That, thankfully, doesn’t happen all too often around here. My daughter was only a couple months old and I remember rocking her to sleep, watching the live feed of the funeral and just crying and crying. I couldn’t stop thinking about the officer’s wife and family. Their grief. I had another part of a story/play about a couple who was snowed in and forced to work out their issues because of the weather. So I just kinda combined those two stories and added some other images that had been rolling around in my brain, just waiting for a proper story to call home. Like, the last line about putting her ear down to the railroad tracks…I grew up near a railroad track and was told over and over again not to play on it but as a kid, you learn how to put pennies down and run away and come back to find them warm and flat. And I saw a scene from a beautiful movie where the guy puts his ear down to the track to listen for a train. And it came together for me. I carefully measured out my metaphors in this story and ended up using two train metaphors because I wanted one to be used in the beginning and one in the end. A lot of other things went into it, inspiration-wise, but those things are the easiest for me to explain.

C: What was your reaction like when you found out “Whiskey & Ribbons” won Editor’s Choice for the 2011 Carver contest?

LC: I was shy to enter the contest because I felt like it was for “real” writers and I didn’t consider myself one back then. (I do now!) So I was super-excited and surprised to get the news that my story had won Editor’s Choice. 

(To learn more about Cross-Smith’s experiences with being contacted by a literary agency, read “Editor’s Inbox - 2011 Editor’s Choice Winner Leesa Cross-Smith Talks Lit Agents and Carve”). 

C: Has the contest affected your writing or the direction of your writing career in any way? If so, how?

LC: Mostly, the contest really inspired me to keep on keeping on. I’d had a couple of things published when I won Editor’s Choice, but it was the very first time I’d ever received money for anything I’d written and it was the first contest where I’d been mentioned at all. So it was a nice confidence boost since I hadn’t shown a lot of people my stories at that point. I was very private with my stories and slow about showing them to anyone outside my husband and my writing group girlfriends.

C: Might you tell us a little bit about the lit mag you’d started, and how you came about starting it?

LC: My husband and I started a lit mag called WhiskeyPaper. I’d always wanted to run one of my own because I love lit mags and I love stories and I wanted to get under the hood of all of that. Our favorite writers and stories are simple. We love minimalism and linear stories with heart—like Carve! We are southern and sentimental. I also really love to work with writers on their stories when and if I feel like the story is almost there and just needs a little extra love. We have been lucky enough to get some lovely little stories and we have met all kinds of talented writers who we’re glad to have in the WhiskeyPaper family.

C: Can you give us an update on your writing since the contest? Any recent or forthcoming publications or projects we should be on the lookout for?

LC: “Whiskey & Ribbons” is the lead-off story in my short story collection manuscript called “Everyone Breaks Everyone’s Heart.” Last year, “Everyone Breaks Everyone’s Heart” was a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award and a semifinalist for the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award. I’m still working on getting it published as a collection, but have received nothing but encouragement and sweetness while I’m waiting. I’ve also got some new stories forthcoming in Spartan Lit, Sundog Lit, Fiction Southeast, Gigantic Sequins and Little Fiction. Most of those stories are from the new short story collection I’m putting together. I’m also working on a novel and a young adult series. I have enough story ideas to keep my brain happy for a good long while!

For more information on Leesa Cross-Smith, visit her website,

The 14th annual Raymond Carver Contest is now open until May 15th.