On a Personal Note: A Brief Q&A with Joan Leegant
Just exactly where do you live these days?
I'm a native New Yorker, from Westbury, on Long Island, and spent most of my adult life in Massachusetts. That is, until 2007, when I, along with my husband, began what you might call a peripatetic lifestyle: six months in Tel Aviv that segued into a year in California, followed by four more stints in Israel, stopovers in New Hampshire and Florida, an academic year in Oklahoma, and, now, Seattle. I once counted the number of addresses I've had in the last eight years and came up with fifteen. It began with an invitation to be a visiting writer at an Israeli university and just kind of took off from there. You expect this in your twenties - I remember my mother showing me her address book with all the cross-outs next to my name - but in middle age? People want to know: What's it been like? Don't I miss my own living room? Dishes? Friends? Well, yes (friends) and no (the dishes). It's been a pretty amazing odyssey. New languages (and I don't mean only the officially foreign ones). New landscapes. New people. And new, or rediscovered, sides of myself. It's had its challenges. It's also been a great gift.
Rumor is you used to be a lawyer. How'd you get into writing fiction?
The rumor's true. I started writing fiction shortly before I turned forty. It wasn’t a mid-life crisis (what's mid?); I’d always been writing - poetry, songs, essays - but I was occupied with other things. Day jobs. Starting a family. But when I began to write fiction in earnest, it was like falling in love. Not with my writing but with the sheer exhilaration of making things up. Of inventing a situation and following a character around until something happened to him (and usually it was a him; for a long while women were too close for me to write about; now I write about women all the time). Who knew writing could be this way? I was hooked. There are almost always lawyers at my book talks, often waiting on the fringes until everyone else has gone away and then whispering, like criminals, their secret desire to write fiction. I try to warn them. They too could fall in love. Be prepared.
Your neighbors (when you're in one place, anyway) say they can see the lights on at all hours. I'm guessing it's not insomnia.
Correct; I sleep like the dead. Just not when most people sleep. I’m a night person, and my best hours for writing are between midnight and 5 am. When my children were small, they were allowed to come into my study when they woke up with bad dreams as long as I didn't have to talk. For years, every night there'd be a small boy or two dragging in a blanket and falling asleep under my desk. It worked for all of us.
We hear there's a serious literary pedigree in the family.
Yes. Allen Ginsberg was my father's cousin. We had all his books, and his father, Louis Ginsberg's, books. It was a matter of great family pride even when Ginsberg was still considered rather scandalous. Allen's mother's maiden name was Naomi Livergant, from which my father's name, and mine --Leegant--was Anglicized sometime in the 1930s. She was the connection. I met Allen Ginsberg only once. It was in the late 1960s and I was an awestruck teenager when he came to perform Buddhist chants at the Westbury Music Fair. We went to see him backstage after the show. He hugged my father and asked if we could get him a pastrami sandwich. I remember I was surprised. I thought he'd be a vegetarian because of the chanting. One of my greatest regrets is not having sought him out as an adult, not because he was famous or a brilliant poet but because I've heard he was very nice.
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The bare facts
Joan has a B.A. from Harvard, a J.D. from Boston University and an MFA from Vermont College.
From 2007-2013, she was the visiting writer at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. She also lectured on American literature and culture at colleges and communities throughout Israel under the auspices of the U.S. State Department.
While in Israel, Joan taught English to African refugees who'd crossed the border from Egypt fleeing genocide and persecution. As of 2014, there were 55,000 African refugees in Israel, the majority from Eritrea and Sudan.
Joan has taught at Harvard, Oklahoma State, Cornish College of the Arts and elsewhere. She is currently the writer-in--residence at Hugo House in Seattle, WA.
Joan is married and the mother of two sons, a videographer and a stair and furniture designer/builder, who clearly inherited their excellent spatial talents from someone else.