Tucker Leighty-Phillips Discusses "Maybe This is What I Deserve"

TLP: Even when you’re critiquing something, you have to have an element of hope. A yearning for something better being out there, and possible.

Tucker Leighty-Phillips Discusses "Maybe This is What I Deserve"

Maybe This is What I Deserve by Tucker Leighty-Phillips
interview by Ben Shahon for JAKE

JAKE: What drew you to writing about the absurd and surreal for Maybe This is What I Deserve?

Tucker Leighty-Phillips: Well, there’s a twofold answer here. First and foremost, not limiting myself to sheer realism gives me a lot of freedom in telling stories and exploring concepts in unique ways. Sometimes, there’s an event or an idea I want to explore, and I can’t find myself channeling the energy I want the story to channel. I’ve found that leaning into something fantastical gives me the ability to write something fresh. I always mention the story in my collection about the girl who discovers she’s turning into a lightning bug. At its core, it’s a story about puberty and fitting in, which are topics that have been explored at length. I wanted to take an approach that felt a little goofy, a little imaginative. And second, I just really enjoy stories in those genres. Many, if not all, of my favorite authors use fantastical elements in their storytelling, and it always made me feel really invigorated by the worlds they created.

J: That story (“Midge Woke to Discover She’d Become a Lightning Bug”) was one of my favorites of the collection too, for not only the reasons you listed, but also the meta-references to classic films. Maybe This is What I Deserve has a lot of stories that play with other styles of metafiction (“The Rumpelstiltskin Understudies (Play)”, “Tucker Leighty-Phillips 2: The Sequel”) as well. On a process level, what is using metafiction like for you?

TLP:I think it offers really satisfying avenues for storytelling. There are these three films by Abbas Kiarostami, dubbed The Koker Trilogy, that dive layers deep into reality and unreality. The first film is a straightforward fictional film, but the second is a mockumentary about Kiarostami (played by an actor) going to find actors from the first film after the fatal earthquakes in North Iran in 1990. The third film is another mockumentary about a behind-the-scenes story of unrequited love from two of the actors in the second film, acknowledging the previous film was fiction, claiming the third film is “real” although it is scripted as well. His work brings me a lot of joy for how strange and lovely it is.

J: “Togethering” is another story that plays with language in a really beautiful way. Where did the voice of that story come from?

TLP: That story came from a writing exercise in a workshop with Tara Ison. I was interested in exploring the ways language degrades when a relationship is degrading–what is said, what goes unsaid, how we mean so much beyond what we’re actually expressing out loud. I figured I’d tinker with that general loss of language as a concept, and “Togethering” was the result.

J: One of the other stories in the collection, “Stages of Grief,” has a co-writer (Rachel Reeher). How was the process of collaborating/cowriting that piece for the two of you?

TLP: For this specific story, the process was pretty laid back. I think I wrote the beginning, and asked Rachel to write the end. Or maybe it was the opposite. I don’t remember. Including the Big Boss Man was my idea, I know that.

J: Money, and living without much of it, is definitely a recurring theme in Maybe This is What I Deserve that’s immediately striking. What draws you to stories built around these kinds of characters and settings?

TLP: I think it’s just something familiar to me. Living for so long in poverty, you realize all the little ways life is different from those around you who might be more comfortable; how you get by, what you give up. And I’ve often been frustrated by the ways poverty is portrayed in popular media–usually as a device by which people learn what the important things are. You don’t need money when you have each other, etc. It’s construed as some sort of moral lesson rather than an unnecessary, physically and emotionally damaging injustice. Plus, I feel like there are just so many mundane experiences stemming from a low-income lifestyle that deserve further exploration on the page. It imprints on you in bizarre ways; from how you eat, to what you fixate on, to what you do when you actually have a little money. And it’s not the same for everyone, but I spend a lot of time investigating how it has impacted me.

J: A lot of the stories in Maybe This is What I Deserve have a really hopeful tone or resolution to them, in a way that feels pleasantly contrary to a lot of what is expected of literary writing. Do you think it’s hard for writers or for readers to think they deserve hope?

TLP: I don’t want to speak for all writers or readers, I don’t know what they believe. For me, I’m a Marxist at my core, and I think that even when you’re critiquing something, you have to have an element of hope. A yearning for something better being out there, and possible. I try to approach life in this way. It can be hard–the critical elements can make you jaded and cynical; but I think progress requires hope. Many of these stories are very critical–it’s just wearing that hopeful veil. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I’m not sure. You ask a good question.

J: “The Aliens” is a story that feels like both a great conclusion and a summation of all the stories in Maybe This is What I Deserve? How/When did you know this would be the one to close the book?

TLP: I think, on a literal level, there is the repeated line about the children not wanting their game to end, which felt like a place of closure, but the story also kinda sunsets the collection. It feels like it traverses through a full day–and covers many of the collection’s themes in its process. It is also one of the few unpublished stories in the collection, and I liked ending on an unfamiliar note for those who have read my work.

J: My final question for this interview is whether you have anything else you want to shout out related to the collection? (whether that be a reading of the work/other promotional events you're doing, other pieces/people that inspired you in the process, or just something else you're enjoying right now that could use some additional eyes).

TLP: My friend Caitlin Brady has a Substack that I really enjoy, The Wax Poetic Love Letter. It's a great blend of personal essays, niche history and interests, and trivia. I've been digging listening to the new album from Sarah Kate Morgan, who's a rad Eastern Kentuckian who picks a mean dulcimer. One of my closest friends, Travis Geoghegan, is always making weird visual art that is a bizarre blend of retro art styles, commercial marketing, and science fiction aesthetics. He creates under the moniker Trashovision. I've also been listening to a lot of Militarie Gun. I think their new album will be good.

J: Awesome! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me about the book! And congrats on its release!

TLP: Hey thank you so much!

Tucker Leighty-Phillips builds a series of mythologies; of childhood, of Appalachia, of seeing the world through the 3D glasses of poverty. The stories in Maybe This is What I Deserve dip their toes between sentiment and surrealism—a whirlpool swallows a boy in a family swimming pool, a girl befriends the lice her mother can’t afford to eradicate, a group of children form a secret society in the walls of a fast food play place. Using the logic of childhood across kids and adults alike, Leighty-Phillips builds a world filled with wonder and tells a new story of working-class, rural living.

Maybe This is What I Deserve is available now from Split/Lip Press!

Tucker Leighty-Phillips (he/him) is a writer from Southeastern Kentucky. He is a graduate of the MFA in Fiction program at Arizona State University. His work has been published in Booth, Adroit Journal, The Offing, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. He has been anthologized in Best Microfiction and received a Notable Mention in Best American Sports Writing. Tucker writes about poverty, Appalachia, children, and family dynamics. His work has been supported by the Tin House Writers Workshop, Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, Art Farm Nebraska, Craigardan, and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

Ben Shahon is a writer and the EIC of JAKE.