Leopoldine Core’s strange and special debut fiction, When Watched, focuses in on outsiders.
“I always came back to that title,” says Core, whose collection takes its name from the 13th of 19 short stories therein—the first story she ever wrote. “It encapsulates the world of the book—of being in your own wilderness, being on the outside looking in, and being really kind of desperate to connect with people. I wanted to re-imagine what it was to be an outsider—not necessarily longing to join society, but longing to meet other people who are also outside, who are also different....That’s how I feel in my own life.”
Core’s characters are sex workers and johns, professors and students, struggling artists and recovering addicts: queer and straight, trans and cis, old and young, penniless and privileged. They are “quiet Beatle” George Harrison, who comes to life off an album cover (“George Harrison and the End of the World”), and Theo, a little girl with an atypical fantasy: to enchant a man so deeply he’ll abduct her (“When Watched”).
“Theo would spy on her body from heaven,” Core writes. “And heaven was a great white sea of the similarly beautiful, the unlawfully adored, the stalked. Theo appreciated the promise of death and the dependable traditions that followed it. Everyone she had ever met would be at her funeral, leaning over her pink pleats in prayer.”
Core is the recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award for fiction and fellowships from the Center for Fiction and Fine Arts Work Center of Provincetown, Massachusetts. She is the author of a poetry collection, Veronica Bench, a Hunter College graduate, and a New Yorker.
Growing up in the East Village, she was more watcher than reader.
“I’m dyslexic, so I didn’t enjoy reading until much later in life,” Core says. “I really hated to read, so I would just kind of drown myself in television—that was my childhood—and I credit the format of television, that sort of truncation of narrative, with my sense of what a story is. The way of making something short but also creating this aura of timelessness is something I try to do when I write.”
Another aspect Core’s stories share with television is an emphasis on dialogue. “Historic Tree Nurseries,” the story of Peanut and Frances, a queer couple with a 34-year age gap on a 500-mile road trip to retrieve an adopted dog, is conversation driven:
Peanut pointed to a couple of old women sitting on a stoop across the street. They were staring. “Those two absolutely want to murder you. Look at them.” She chuckled. “It’s like they don’t even care that we can see them.”
“They want us to see. They want us to know what they think of us.”
“Right.” Peanut tipped her head onto Frances’s shoulder. “That I’m some victim.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well you’re the old pervert, right? But I’m considered this, like, idiot child with daddy issues. Even your friends treat me like that.”
“Like you have daddy issues?”
“Like I’m an idiot. They don’t really,” Peanut paused, “engage me. I mean, the level of inquiry is low...”
No matter how seemingly incongruous the match, Core consistently achieves an intimate effect by letting readers hear her couples converse.
“What you would assume their problems were, I wanted to show that actually that’s not true,” Core says of Peanut and Frances. “They have these other weird problems, completely specific to these two individuals. They’re two people who could be very objectified in this relationship, so [I was] trying to constantly fight against that and... also kind of seduce the reader into loving them and loving their relationship and not being revolted.”
Seductive, self-conscious, and shrewd, When Watched is a rare and remarkable collection by an unlikely author.
“Part of my joy with this book is that I don’t totally identify as a writer,” Core says, “but I like to write. I like being in the wrong place and making something there—I’ll probably work in some other medium in my life. My first love is for people, and writing is really just an extension of that love, a place to put it.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.