Last Wednesday evening, I had the privilege of introducing Ella Leffland as the winner of the 2014 Gina Berriault Award. If you don’t know who she is, “Ella Leffland is a novelist of remarkable strength and breadth,” “a strong-minded writer with a genius for portraying characters in conflict with both society and themselves,” who reminds us of the power of “old-fashioned stories with old-fashioned virtues and pleasures” (The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Studies in Short Fiction). And if you still need more convincing, here’s what The New York Times has to say: “Ms. Leffland at her best is extraordinarily good; indeed, there is not a contemporary writer of short stories from whom truth of feeling, splendidness of insight, and a human beauty both aching and real, can more confidently be expected.” I will add that she is a charming, intelligent woman who not only responded to my letter of inquiry but also sent a handwritten letter, which included an invitation to chat on the telephone.
Over the course of several conversations, I learned that at 82 years old, she still dedicates herself to her craft (she is at work on a novel that has occupied her time for many years,) and understands how important expert guidance and opinion are to an emerging writer like myself: she not only willingly offered information about herself, but also asked me questions about my work, life, and goals. Above all, Ella Leffland is a writer of exceptional talent, living and writing in my city, and deserving of our esteem and continued attention. She is the type of writer that makes you want to be a writer and is nothing short of a force.
Below is an excerpt from my introduction. I include it in the hope that you will come to love and admire her as I now do, and prop up her books on your shelf or whip them out of your shoulder bag at gatherings when you are supposed to be discussing other matters (the Nevada cattle rancher standoff, net neutrality, normcore?) as I have done.
Within Ella Leffland’s tightly woven sentences, we find worlds where good and evil exist but not so far apart. In fact, the subject of evil is ever-present in the stories of her collection, at the periphery and within. Like our world, evil (its cruelty, insatiable drive, and hostility), is the central preoccupation of some characters. For others, evil worms its way inside, nestling within the mind, isolating and driving one mad. But, these stories together say, we are not to be without hope. Certain characters, despite their very human flaws, are able to reject evil, thus making them stronger.
Even if some of her stories have “the dread power of nightmares,” as Stephen Goodwin of The Washington Post puts it, I believe we are meant to see the level of humanity in these characters’ fears, horrors, dreadful acts, and isolations. Like Romano of The New York Times, I view Leffland’s authorial presence as “distinctly caring,” intimate to her characters’ fears and horrors. In the end, the business of these stories is not shock and nightmare but sympathy and understanding, even and maybe especially for characters that are ugly and hateful on the surface.
Through the act of reading her stories, we confront evil, true, but also befriend and become intimate to her lonely, sometimes deeply troubled, characters.
Some are very easy to empathize with. For example, Jeppe of “The Forest,” whose story begins:
“Jeppe’s first memory was of a little alcove with tumbled bedclothes where he leaned against the boxes his mother stacked against his intrusion and, sucking his fist, watched her. She lay on her bed, sleeping, her clothes flung around the dim room in vivid splashes. His eyes wandered from one bright article to another and then back to her face, pale and secret as the moon. Having learned not to howl, he would move away from the boxes and poke around the cold alcove, his diapers hanging wet and heavy below his naked belly. When the room was filled with noon light his mother would wake and have a cup of coffee and a cigarette; then, dropping the butt into the cup where it went out with a hiss, she changed Jeppe and gave him something to eat. Dry and no longer hungry, he forgot all but the present moment and gazed at her with gratitude.”
Others make it distinctly harder, perhaps impossible, to like them, like Rudy in “Glad Offerings,” a selfish, stubborn, and stupid American traveling abroad in Spain with his new wife. As the real Spain, unpleasant, muggy, and full of Walt Disney decals, becomes increasingly at odds with his picture book fantasies, he becomes increasingly hostile. Until finally, “One night, having visited the outhouse and walking back across the patio, Rudy noticed Contento [the caretaker’s decrepit old cat whom the caretaker adores] lying there. He remembered that Senora Ciervas said it sometimes slept outside on a pillow when it found her room too stuffy for its sinuses. It lay so still that he wondered, hopefully, that it was dead. He went over to it and, crouching, touched its shabby flank. It gave a characteristic wheeze and flicked its tail. Rudy sat motionless for a moment; then he slipped one hand around the thin neck and gave a massive squeeze. The cat struggled for an instant, then went limp. Rudy stood up, brushing his hand off on his pajamas, and went back into the fonda.”
And, finally, there are those in the middle, like the middle-aged Lillian in the prize-winning “Last Courtesies,” who is hopelessly at odds with the new generation around her. She cannot seem to escape the bad day, which seems to never end. “Then, reflectively, still in her raincoat, she walked to the end of the hall where an oval mirror hung, and studied her face. It was haggard, flinty, stripped of faith, scraped down to the cold atavistic bones of retaliation. She had almost walked off her job, almost struck an old man, almost smiled at murder.”
Like the short stories, we find characters in her novels that are similarly at odds with the world, unable to find a permanent home or comfort in it. However, within the novel’s longer form, the questions presented in the exquisitely rendered sentences of her short stories are permitted to bloom. We see these trends in her earliest novels: Mrs. Munck (1970), Love Out of Season (1974), and Rumors of Peace (1979), which only gain momentum and complexity in her historical biographical novel of Hermann Göring, The Knight, Death and the Devil (1990) and Breath and Shadows (1999).
Yes, even in a novel about Göring, which interweaves narrative with ten years of research into the history of Germany as well as letters and personal accounts of Third Reich officials and their friends, the attempt to showcase not evildoers but the effects of evil on human life holds true. This work is troubling for some readers, I am sure, and therefore, the more important and essential to the work of fiction.
To me, to read Ella Leffland is to confront characters that we sometimes do not wish to admit are just like us, to become familiar to those who struggle with the same darkness, and to ask the big questions that offer few simple answers.
Born in Martinez, California and current resident of San Francisco, Ella Leffland is perhaps best known for her semi-autobiographical novel about a girl coming of age during World War II, Rumors of Peace, published in 1974 and reprinted as a “rediscovered classic” in 2011. She is also the author of the novels Mrs. Munck (1970), Love Out of Season (1974), The Knight, Death and the Devil (1990), and Breath and Shadows (1999) along with a collection of short stories, Last Courtesies and Other Stories (1980).
Her story, “Last Courtesies,” appeared in Harper’s Magazine and won First Prize in the O. Henry Award in 1977. Other short stories may be found in such prestigious magazines as The New Yorker, Quarterly Review of Literature, and The Atlantic. In 1990, she won the Bay Area Book Reviewers’ Award for her historical biographical novel The Knight, Death and the Devil. Leffland has also written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review.