Intimacy is Sublime: A Conversation with Leslie Caton & a Folio of New Work – curated by Vi Khi Nao

Leslie Caton lives and writes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her work appears in Wapsipinicon Almanac and others and was a notable in Best American Essays.

VI KHI NAO: Your lover, Adam, and ex-husband had once (or more) noticed in his surprised observation that you are intense. I am not very intense at all so I could not relate to this, but what do you think he meant by this? (Referring to your very romantic published piece here,”Everyone Writes Love to Their Beloved.”)

LESLIE CATON: When I get excited I’m ecstatic; when I’m sad I despair. In between–which is most of the time–I’m fairly chill but when I do have feelings they can be intense and I want to express them with people I’m closest to. I demand honesty, self reflection, and growth from myself and romantic partner when we’ve lounged around for too long. Couple that with my trouble with intimacy, a discomfort understanding boundaries and when to open and when to pull back, and I think that’s why lovers find me intense. Writing is a helpful place to explore the roots of this and how it plays out in life. I like to explore the ways expressions of love (and in some ways our expressions of self) are stunted and held back by ourselves and people around us. The way we see ourselves in relation to others determines how open we are. When we’re in a “safe” love we want to be intimate, to reveal ourselves, and when we’re afraid we want to pull away. How I’m received (or imagine I’m received) changes how intimate I’m willing to be. What’s delightfully intense for me might be unacceptably shallow or a gross trespass for another. I like the ambiguity of perspective–am I intense, is that merely an opinion, and does it matter?

VKN: In this context, how do you define intimacy? Is it being uninhibited and vulnerable with another? Or something deeper or entirely different?

LC: In this piece, love and intimacy are used interchangeably. They are both emotional and physical vulnerability, revealing our true selves fully and with abandon. It’s also something chemical beyond consciousness. There is something unsettling in the idea that something like love could be beyond our control, especially when it goes wrong and we know logically we need to break that bond. But emotionally that can be just as challenging–in all forms, intimacy is sublime in the truest sense, both terrible and beautiful.

VKN: Does everyone write love for their beloved? Will you give me insight to your title? Should it be googleable?

LC: All the love poems and stories I could remember were you you you and as a younger reader I felt left out, like a third wheel. It’s a generic sentiment based on a feeling more than recalling actually poetry or prose. It should be googleable (classic love poems) but in the piece I reckon with the fact that I don’t have a list of authors or titles to prove my point even to myself, and that there are most likely a plentitude of works about love not addressed to the beloved but I haven’t read them or can’t recall. It echoes how I feel about love, like there’s more I should know, like I’m in the dark and trying to figure it out. Love is finally happening to me and I’m ill equipped.

VKN: How long did it take you to write this very intense and vulnerable piece, Leslie?

LC: This was a quick piece to write, it took less than an hour and then a few hours here and there after it had cooled to polish. I’m a little embarrassed about my writing process; I write fast and with as much of my heart as I can access, and then leave it until I can come back and edit with care. There is so much time writing in my head before I put ideas on a page.

VKN: A little embarrassed? Could you expound, please?  I imagine one would feel quite the opposite: to feel proud. To be able to capture the entirety of passion, not just the tail end, in such a meteoric fashion.

LC: That’s quite kind, thank you. I can usually write about things I feel strongly about in short order, thanks to the slurry of chemicals in my brain making me obsessed with the topic until I make something out of it. I will think of these writing spurts as meteoric from here on out.

VKN: Do you think lovemaking and writing share similar deportment or corporeal ontology? Where the passion happens so fast and it has been played out in one’s mind for so long before culmination. And, then the editing part is the snoring and cuddling afterwards where one could “edit” with care: caress the chest hair, head on a pillow called lover’s chest and neck, etc.

LC: I love that and agree except that editing can sometimes feel like having to get up and stretch out limbs sore from exertion and clean the sheets and take a shower. But absolutely lovemaking and writing share more than most other things, in my opinion.

VKN: In your heart’s eyes, what is the most romantic story ever written/lived in literature and coeval culture?

LC: Here is where I need to read more: I can only think of love gone wrong, love unrequited, love denied, love soured. I wonder if I read more now, having experienced love going right, if I could read with a new lens. I would say the ending relationship in Lidia Yuknovitch’s Chronology of Water is lovely and hopeful, and I love Maggie Nelson’s relationship in Argonauts, but I rarely think of relationships as romantic. I need to figure out why!

VKN: Why, Leslie?

LC: I wonder why I fixate on the problems in literary relationships to the point that it clouds my view of the relationship in general; a “romantic” relationship by my definition would be primarily flawless which is boring and unrealistic. Maybe my criteria needs an update.

VKN: Why do you love Nelson’s relationship in Argonauts?

LC: Her portrayal of relationship feels gritty and real and loving, like it’s hard but worth it. There’s a tenderness and care and everyday quality that’s appealing.

VKN: What is your least favorite Halloween costume? You are living your ideal romantic life, yes? Perhaps more stories between you and Adam should be told?

LC: My least favorite but also perversely favorite is the Sexy Crayon (yellow, if I have my pick) because humans are fantastical–a lot of people that made the choice to produce and market the Sexy Crayon costume which is absolutely baffling to me. I think my relationship with Adam would make good stories because we are most certainly not boring, not perfect, but try really hard and care. We’ve been together for over three years and just got married, so that’s hopeful. Also there’s a lot of sex which makes for a good read when done right. It’s hard to imagine my relationship as ideal, even when I’m so completely in love, because a lot of my conceptions of “ideal” are totally impossible. Fictional and bad fiction at that. It’s a good life, certainly, and there are many more good days than bad.

VKN: Have you traveled to North Dakota before, Leslie?

LC: I have, and I loved it! The Badlands are so stark and gorgeous. I’ve only gone there from Iowa on the way to mountains farther west so the landscape changes as I drive through are exciting.

VKN: If two states could fuck each other, which two states in the US would make excellent lovers? And, why? And, which state should be top/bottom?

LC: North Dakota and North Carolina. One is more arid and hard with the Badlands and one is humid and varied, even wet and salty along the coast. I think they’d take turns and be all over the each other in the best ways.

VKN: Leslie! You placed two Republicans together in the same bedsheet! Do you think that is wise?

LC: It’s worth the risk. We just have to wait, the affair may very well turn them blue.

VKN: Your previous lover, your ex-husband of 17 years, is morbidly obese? I am just curious: is it possible to have sexy sex with a morbidly obese lover? Have you experienced it before? If so, what is the lynchpin that makes it so possible?

LC: I think it is possible to have the sexiest sex with an obese lover, but I have not–the things that got in the way of good sex were mostly emotional. I think it’s about loving the person in the body long and well, until that body (no matter what shape) is your definition of sex and your definition of love. It’s the same with stretchmarks and scars and hair or lack thereof and probably injuries and other body parts that don’t conform. When there’s enough endorphins elicited I think our pathways are wired to look for more of the same and whatever gets us there is hot.

VKN: To follow up, what shuts you down? What turns you off?

LC: When I’m not in a good emotional place, when I don’t trust that my lover has my best interest at heart, nothing physical is going to arouse me. And when I’m really bloated I just feel awful.

VKN: Which drummer do you idolize? And, if you were to create a band name....?

LC: I had to Google the name but Gene Hoglan from DethKlok is talented and often overlooked because the band is a mock death metal band. Since we’ve been talking about sex, I’ll add that I’ve found the stereotype of drummers being good lovers to be true and delightful (though the data for that assumption was gathered a long long time ago). I’m terrible at naming things. My stuffed animals were all “Puppy” and “Kitty” so I’ll go with Bandy since more thought would yield an only marginally better result.

VKN: If I were to name your band, I would name it: Yellow Crayon.  In a swimming pool, which area do you feel most at home in? The center? The sides? Underneath it?

LC: I will steal that band name, excellent. This is a moment when I’m not merely excited but ecstatic because that’s the band name I never knew I always wanted. And you can open for the debut performance. I am most at home on the side not in the water, feet dangling in if it’s a hot day, but I feel most alive swimming a foot under the surface with my lungs full of air.

VKN: You also design websites. Do you think your vocational path also shapes your view of romance/love? Or if it doesn’t, how has it not?

LC: I think the web design I usually do is the opposite of romance going well–unless it’s a project with a creative and brilliant person, I’m constrained to very conventional parameters and coding. Very prescribed and restrained and not spontaneous or playful. There’s stability, though, which is helpful in the long haul.

VKN: What is the sweetest thing/gesture your sweetheart, Adam, has performed or given you?

LC: I think the sweetest thing he’s done is taken a deep breath during an argument, apologized, and come back to say he recognizes a thing he does and wants to stop even when it requires immense introspection, humility, and change. That is wonderful to see and inspires me to do the same. It’s a great gift because it means we can live together without murdering each other and that things will continue to be good between us. To be fair, I need to change as often as he does–I just like it better when it’s his turn. In the classically romantic sense I’d say the best gesture was a surprise birthday party where he took me and friends to an escape room and provided a feast with a loose Lord of the Rings theme.

VKN: How many Leslies do you think it will take to ambush heavyweight, husband Adam and make him surrender, martial art-wise?

LC: Well, I can beat him in thumb war if he’s had too much to drink. Otherwise I’d say three of me would do the trick. Two if I’m on point that day.

VKN: What is your advice(s) on writing well, Leslie?  What are you working on right now? And, what are you reading? Would you recommend?

LC: Write from the heart and then turn all the editing power one can summon on those words. Don’t be afraid to rewrite, reorder, and remove. Read it out loud. I’m writing a memoir I started when I went back to school a few years ago about decoding sexualization. I’m not reading anything right now and I need to fix that. I’d like to read Roxanne Gay’s Hunger because I’ve only read essays of hers but never a book. I’d recommend Inara Verzemniek’s Among the Living and the Dead for its lovely prose and haunting story.

VKN: What is the best way to enter this nonfiction piece, this beautiful love letter? Should one eat a small meal with appetizers? Drink a cup of tea or water? Go skydiving? Take an Uber to Milwaukee?  Where should one be in order to get the most out of your raw piece?

LC: The best preparation for this piece is to fix a small dish of whatever you love to eat, something small that melts in your mouth and brings pleasure, but not too much of it at once. Like the corner of a good dark chocolate bar. When we’re in the throes of love we don’t have much room for food, just for things that feed our other hungers.

VKN: And, what is the least romantic story you experienced/ witnessed/ encountered?

LC: My parents. They had a third person in their relationship, a woman my mom befriended and my dad took as lover, who lived with them under the guise (not a convincing one) of a roommate. My mom hated it and my dad basically said you don’t have a choice and she accepted it. She was not kind to him before that, either... I had so many examples of what not to do with someone you supposedly love.

VKN: That must have been so difficult for you to witness, Leslie. Why didn’t your mother bring home a male lover to equalize? Or she loved him so much she couldn’t imagine being with another as well?

LC: I’m guessing here, but I believe she loved him that much and at the same time was afraid to be on her own. They were together since the two of them were fourteen–kind of tragic. The dynamic wouldn’t allow a male lover, my father was a rigid patriarch in liberal trappings.

VKN: Your father sounds like a a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Is he?

LC: No, just enjoyed the trappings of bigamy without much of the responsibility the Mormon framework applies to those relationships. I have to give him credit, though, when my son was little I joked about how attractive I thought a guy on a show called Merlin was (the actor who played Arthur) and my son said (in front of my dad) I should have two husbands. My dad said, yes, your mom should have whatever makes her happy, which I’ll always remember as funny, weird, and kind of sweet. My ex-husband didn’t think it was so funny.

VKN: I have seen some episodes of Merlin. He has a haircut that looks like a rice bowl? When I eat rice, I really do think he is handsome. Your son has a great sense of humor! To transition from that, you define yourself as bi, yes, Leslie? How do you know bisexuality isn’t just a phrase? If there is a female version of Adam and they are both competing for your love – the male Adam and female Adam(a), who will ultimately win or conquer your heart? Are there aesthetic, ontological differences between binary lovers? Or, in your eyes, love is just love?

LC: The idea of Adam and Adama competing for my favor is a really hot fantasy, so thanks for that. Every relationship brings privilege or challenge which shadows things, I think, but in the quiet, when it’s just lovers and their issues and gifts, it’s all the same. I think bisexuality is a phrase: I’m not attracted to all men or women, and I’m not attracted to gender conforming or non-gender conforming people, just humans who I feel a spark with–ones my body responds to on that chemical and emotional level. Speaking for myself only, the aesthetic differences come from expectations and norms celebrated or subverted. I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to shake those but I hope so.

VKN: And, what do you think the best gift a writer could offer a reader? And, vice versa?

LC: The best gift a writer can offer a reader is to leave them feeling valued and not alone because their humanity is echoed or mirrored in the writer’s work. I get the same gift when a reader reads my work and says it resonated with them or helped them–if my human experience is enough to make them feel a commonality, then my experience is valuable and I’m not alone, either.

VKN: What do you think is the beauty of nonfiction? When compared with other genres such as poetry or fiction? What do you think it does so well that nonfiction has to be nonfiction regardless of what other literary experts might want to coin otherwise and on the contrary in this current genre-bending coeval field?

LC: I love nonfiction for the restraints. I am terrible with names, as we discussed, and although I think of myself as creative there are certainly limits. The heart of fiction–any idea in the universe is yours–is overwhelming to me. With nonfiction, my responsibility is to curate from what exists, which is manageable. Any experience, though, is fictional to an extent once it’s turned into art. We can never portray it fully or provide enough context to bring to reader to our perspective fully. Memory is fallible. The old truth/Truth (factual vs. emotional truth) debate is important when we’re digesting news but when it’s literature, I want readers to know I do my best to tell the truth but it’s never enough. It’s never full or complete; it can’t be. So when essay bleeds into fiction into poetry, I see very little problem with that. I say my work is nonfiction because I did my best to portray it truthfully and Truthfully, but I know novels that get to an emotional truth faster and better than many essays.

VKN: Last question, Leslie! Which do you prefer more or think is sexier: your lover in an apron or in a diaper?

LC: Oh Vi, there’s no question! I cannot wrap my head around the adult baby thing. Maybe because I had a couple babies and changed diapers or something else but I talk about how much I dislike it enough Adam jokes it must be a secret thing. Apron, yes. Make me something delicious!


A Folio of New Work by Leslie Caton




Vi Khi Nao is the author of Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) and Umbilical Hospital (Press 1913, 2017), and of the short stories collection A Brief Alphabet of Torture, which won FC2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Prize in 2016; the novel, Fish in Exile (Coffee House Press, 2016); and the poetry collection The Old Philosopher, which won the Nightboat Books Prize for Poetry in 2014. Her work includes poetry, fiction, film and cross-genre collaboration. Her stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in NOON, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review and BOMB, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brown University.