I first became aware of Tucker Leighty-Phillips in a contributors’ chat for The Hard Times. His satirical headlines, like “When This Child Was Bullied for His Homemade Metallica Shirt, the Band Came to His School With a Cease-and-Desist Letter” and “Heartwarming: When This Man Couldn’t Afford His Medication, All of His Friends Chipped in to Say ‘That Sucks Dude, I’d Help If I Could’” foretold some of the absurd, charming bites of reality I’d find later in his short (often very short) stories. His new book, Maybe This is What I Deserve, was the winner of the 2022 Split/Lip Fiction Chapbook contest. To quote one of TLP’s influences, the collection is a sort of “cosmic gumbo” of funny metafiction, melancholy surrealism, and sly, childlike wonder. Leighty-Phillips’s stories invite as many questions as they give illuminations, so I was excited to sit down with him to learn about his process. After we rescheduled our interview so he could play zombie tag with a bunch of kids, we discussed his Appalachian upbringing, the joys and perils of working in DIY music scenes, melting vs. tearing yourself in half, and the possibility of unconditional love.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
LL: Please take the readers through what zombie tag is.
TLP: My girlfriend, Rachel Reeher, works at this community center and they do this summer childcare educational program. I’d agreed to teach a couple of classes, including today, and I forgot until yesterday. So I was Googling games for kids and I came across zombie tag. Nobody’s allowed to run, one kid is a zombie, and if they get tagged, they become zombies too. And it just goes until the plague is spread throughout the children.
I had to modify it because the kids kept getting behind tables and climbing stairs, and I was realizing that was a liability thing. So I changed the rules to where they could only scoot on their butt. So we were zombies that were scooting on our butt and we were just going like, “Ooooohhhh!”
I got up off the floor and there was a coating of who knows what on my ass. It was like dust and grime and glitter and child stuff all over me, probably boogers. Just boogers out the ass.
LL: I couldn’t think of a more appropriate entryway to talk about your new book, Maybe This is What I Deserve.
TLP: That book is covered in boogers.
LL: With childhood detritus. Because of how well you convey the prickliness and sparkle of childhood, I wanted to ask about your upbringing. I did some digging and I found out that you were raised Southern Baptist, is that correct?
TLP: You’re like the fucking Nardwuar of literature. Yeah, I was half raised Southern Baptist. I don’t actually talk about my parent dynamic a lot. But my stepdad was really Southern Baptist evangelical, and my mom was maybe atheist, maybe agnostic, maybe just generally questioning. But he still pushed us to go to church. And I think because I was a mama’s boy, I was already skeptical from the jump. It was very much what you think of when you think of evangelicalism now: hyper conservative, hellfire and brimstone, which I was surprised by as a kid. I remember from an early age the threat of hell preceding every discussion.
There was one youth group thing I went to where the youth minister told us that no one is capable of unconditional love as a human being. Only Jesus was capable of unconditional love. That felt cynical to me. I think that I really believe in the possibility of loving someone unconditionally, and not just a family member or your partner, but could we love humanity unconditionally? It’s fucking hard. But I don’t like the idea of saying it’s not possible. And when I was a kid, the thing I took away from church was that the church thought it wasn’t possible, even though it felt like scripture was saying it is possible and it’s what you strive for. And I found myself disconnected from that, and it splintered into a ton of my writing. I think it made me want to try to be a community member in the way that I saw fit outside of that space.
LL: Damn. I love so much of what you just said. I cried a little bit for a second. I felt some kind of ghost movement in me.
TLP: (laughing) I’m always crying.
LL: Where do you see that human search for possibility most exemplified in these stories?
TLP: Someone asked me the other day, do I think writers and readers feel undeserving of hope? And I don’t know. I was stressed out by that question, and no disrespect to that person, it’s a good question, but I don’t want to play in generalities. It’s not easy to write hope. Or if you do, it feels like Oscar bait bullshit; that’s not human, it’s created in a lab to make you feel good. And for me, it never works. So I feel like I’ve struggled to write work that feels sad because I don’t want to. But I also think it’s so hard to write good, optimistic shit, and I feel like I want to be a hopeful person.
What I told that other person was that Marxism is all about critiquing structures of power. And I think that being too steeped in the critical side of things can make you really jaded. And for that to be the apparatus by which you move through the world, you have to have something that exists in possibility.
You have to be hopeful, or you’re going to become a geezer and you’re going to drop out of mutual aid and community organizing, because I don’t know, you canvased for a candidate for 10 weeks and they got 6% of the vote, or you rallied around this issue and nobody showed up. There’s this meme of the guy digging a tunnel and the diamond is just on the other side of the dirt. I feel like that, I’m like, you just have to keep digging. I think something that sits in my work is that even if shit sucks, maybe there’s something good on the other side of it.
LL: Hell yeah. The desire to critique those structures has to be rooted first in the belief that a better world is possible. That is the most optimistic, foolish-feeling, pure distillation of hope that I can think of.
TLP: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a whole proposition.
LL: This is a conversation that I have a lot with musicians; whether you write a song, or it exists already, somewhere in the ether, and you tunnel for it, attempting to recall or interpret it. I guess I’m stuck on the bible metaphors now, the idea of interpreting the word of the universe in some way. Do you think you could say the same for your writing? How do you know what or when to grab?
TLP: Oh, that’s a good question. I feel like it’s hard. Do you ever write something and then you’re like, “Nah, that’s not me. That thing I made is not me”? Even though you made it and it came from your mind. Whether it’s an aesthetic thing or a formal thing, it doesn’t feel like what you want to create.
LL: I have felt that way. And the hard part is you have to create it in order to see and recognize that, right?
TLP: Yeah. I’ve written stories that I feel proud of and have published, and I’ve liked those, but I’m more interested in the ones that I reject. What made me look at a story and say, “I don’t want anything to do with that thing I created”? It feels like those animals that sometimes reject the runt of the litter. What has made me turn away from that? It might feel like every other story if I included it in the collection, and no one would ever think twice. And I have five or six that I needed to get out, that I don’t want and I’m done with.That feels way more like the thing you’re describing. It’s kind of deterministic. It was always there, and that idea needed to exist in something tangible. But then I’m like, nah, I don’t want it to be tangible.
LL: Looking at your book’s title on its face, it might sound like a sad, bitter sentiment. “Maybe this is what I deserve.” But in light of what you just explained, it can be understood as optimistic. It comes from a place of accepting where you are and trying to find meaning in that. It is in fact a starting point, not an end point.
TLP: Which is good. I think that was the goal. I wanted to play with worthiness as a concept. Sometimes I retweet people who have tweeted the title unknowingly. I’ll do 11 of them in a row, and I always lurk to see, is there a context being given for this? And it’s always heartbroken people. Or there’s a spin on the phrase: “You’ll get what you deserve.” That’s always anger. It’s revenge. We don’t really use the idea of being deserving in a positive context.
I wanted the title to feel one way and the stories to play off of that. I keep saying I wanted the story collection to feel like I Think You Should Leave. There’s a title, and everything plays off of that title. And you see how they fall under that umbrella of the thesis of the thing. Tim Robinson’s doing it on levels I’ll never imagine, but I like to think I’m working in a similar vein. Here’s the thesis of the collection, you put together how each piece falls into it.
LL: I was going to ask you what other media, besides books, may have found its way in here. I Think You Should Leave is probably one of ’em.
TLP: Let’s see, it was 2019 to 2021. I was watching a ton of movies, a lot of Abbas Kiarostami, have you watched any of his stuff? So good. I am a sucker for meta fiction. He has this movie Close Up, which I feel like will be your vibe. He’s from Iran, and all of his movies are set in Iran, or most of them. He caught wind that this man had defrauded this family by pretending to be a famous movie director. And he goes to the man and the family and asks them if they’ll recreate the court case, all playing themselves. It becomes this beautiful meditation on art and the need to be someone in the world.
The guy pretended to be this director because he liked the idea of someone appreciating something from his mind. He’s a poor dude from the countryside and he wants to be known for making something beautiful, and you totally sympathize with him. The things you think are real in the movie are the scripted things, and the things you think are scripted are the real things. It’s almost like a murder mystery, trying to figure out what parts had been prepared for the film and what parts were candid. There were things that I didn’t know I was allowed to do that [Kiarostami] gave me permission to do.
You think of meta fiction as reaching through the fourth wall, looking at the audience. But he was able to layer it even further. The audience are all actors, and I’m more concerned with how the audience engages with looking at the other audience. Stacking levels of reality is a thing I’ve never considered. I always thought of meta-fiction as: here’s fiction, and here’s reality. And I mixed ‘em up at the factory. But it’s literally layers on layers. And I am really, really enamored with that as a concept. It’s a thing I’ve wanted to try more in my work, but I don’t even know where to start.
LL: Your story “The Rumpelstiltskin Understudies (play)” exemplifies everything you just talked about. All these pieces defy categorization, especially by virtue of being placed together. The collection feels like a playlist. Maybe it’s because I’m nowhere near as prolific as you, but I get the sense that there was a lot of work involved in how you weeded out and decided what to include here. I’m wondering what that process was like for you.
TLP: The first time I put together what would’ve been the manuscript. I felt like, “I have enough stories, now” and threw ’em all together in a Word doc, and it didn’t make any sense. I was throwing in shit I actually didn’t want published, because I wanted it to be at 40 pages or whatever. And I was just so desperate to have a thing that I tried to force it, and that didn’t work and I didn’t want it to work. I’m glad it didn’t work.
I was sending it out, but I was still writing. I realized that a sort of umbrella theme was coming together, so then I knew what to pull. Once I became aware of the theme, I started writing towards that. I had a couple that were kind of my crux, a few stories I wrote early on that were going to be in there no matter what. And I was writing to create partners for those stories. I’ve never been on this side of things, but it makes me wonder if, I don’t know, Nirvana wrote “On a Plain” and then was like, “okay, cool. What comes before and after that?”
I don’t know how similar building an album is to building a book. And I had it all wrong. Split/Lip accepted the chapbook, and their fiction editor offered a re-sequencing that I really liked. And I was just like, yep, that works. He had pushed the idea of breaking the stories up into ages, going old to young or young to old. And then the play or the Wikipedia article was kind of the talisman in the center. He’d put thought into it in a way that I hadn’t, or I’d maybe overthought it to the point where it was pointless. So I trusted him, maybe tweaked one little tiny thing, and then it came together.
LL: I see these metafiction experiments you do, like “The Rumpelstiltskin Understudies (Play)” or “Tucker Leighty-Phillips 2: The Sequel,” as trying to disturb the folds of reality. I was wondering if any of that has had a rebound effect, or changed the act of writing. Has it affected your perception of yourself, or how you participate in the daily experiment of existence?
TLP: That’s a good question. I think the short answer is probably not, the long answer is a little. There’s a few of them where I was having fun and that was the goal. But with the Wikipedia story, I was trying to work through some actual feelings. I moved away from Kentucky after high school and was kind of a loser. I grew up in a low income community and went to public school. I was fortunate to figure out a track that got me in community college. Then I finished school, and then grad school, and I was applying for jobs in Kentucky. I was really afraid of coming back to this place that I left and, one: people holding a grudge on me for having left; and two: being this sort of uppity, holier than thou person who is coming back and trying to help.
But that’s not helpful because it’s assuming too much about people, and it’s overestimating my own abilities. I was afraid of coming back and doing more harm than good. Would my old friend groups welcome me back? We were proximity friends. Not that our friendship wasn’t real, but it was emboldened by being in the same place. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety about it and wanted a way to explore it, but didn’t know how.
I kept thinking about Rumpelstiltskin for some reason. I was reading fairy tales, thinking about my own experiences with fairy tales. I haven’t told a lot of people this, and I wasn’t a theater kid,but when I was in elementary school, I did some acting. They would sometimes make kids act out plays, just as a thing to do. Maybe an English teacher didn’t know what to do for a week of class or something.
One of those roles I played was Rumpelstiltskin, and we performed it for kindergartners, on the carpet in the library. And at the end of the play, I melted like the Wicked Witch of the West. So I went back to Rumpelstiltskin because I wanted a thing to channel this story through. I didn’t realize that Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t melt; he tears himself in half. I thought he melted. I took creative…what’s that called?
LL: License? Liberty?
TLP: Creative liberty with Rumpelstiltskin as a 10 year old. And it felt metaphorical that this character tears himself in half because I was like, I don’t know, torn up about shit. That one was very much a therapeutic type thing, and I think I took a lot of anxiety and nerves out on that story. So it was helpful.
LL: Now I’m thinking about what that means. What does that mean for somebody to tear themself in half?
TLP: Also, how’s it possible? I mean, it’s a fairy tale, but…
LL: And your name being secret. There’s so much mysticism in that and it’s all somehow about writing. Okay, total left turn now. We’re about the same age. We had a very similar trajectory of fucking around and being a little aimless, especially with music. Could you speak to your early music days, and just aimlessness in general, as part of your creative process?
TLP: It’s weird because I think my weakness was my strength, kind of. And then vice versa, because when I was in high school, I was really into ska and all the shows that were in my area were Christian metal and Christian metalcore. I really wanted there to be an extra thing. And I wanted it to feel more secular.
So I started booking shows, and it’s a small town in Appalachia. The opioid epidemic has ravaged our area. So I wanted to make a kind of a safe space, too. I didn’t know what “safe space” meant back then. If you had told me that phrase, I wouldn’t have understood it. But I wanted a space where kids could go and hang out and not feel tempted by booze and drugs. I wanted them to have a space where they had a social event that felt protective of them. And I wasn’t the best at it because I was a 17 year old kid, too. I was falling into the same traps. But I booked a lot of ska shows, a lot of pop punk, tried to bring different stuff. Rejected booking Twenty One Pilots for $200.
I was already doing bad at school. And then I started doing worse at school because I cared more about booking shows. So I was failing and sleeping through my classes, but also had $2,000 guarantees to book Terror and had never seen $2,000 in my life. I was just like, please God, let people come to this show. Cause I’m in a ton of trouble if not.
I shouldn’t have graduated. And I did. Then one of the bands that I’d booked a couple of times offered to let me come on tour with them. It was a thing to do, and it was my thing to do. I was obsessed with being my own valedictorian, the person from my school that did this thing that no one else did. We were working for a record label on the Warped Tour so we could get bracelets, but we weren’t officially on Warped Tour. We did that for four weeks, slinging CDs and driving 11 hours a night. I just kind of got pulled into that world. It’s a very mercenary world. If you get one job, you can get five or six more.
I did it for a few years and I liked it, but there was a point where I was trying to sustain the lifestyle doing that, and also working whatever jobs I could get when I was home. Then having to quit that job to go do something else. I finally just needed to get control of my life. I applied for community college in September, hoping to go in January, knowing full well that I would drop out before then. But they pushed me to take late start classes, which started the week after I applied. I got talked into it by an advisor, stayed, and I’m so glad I did. The timing literally changed my life. If I had had a different advisor who hadn’t pushed me, I know I would’ve dropped out of school.
I loved touring. But it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
LL: It sounds like a door opened to you and you were like, well, let’s fucking go through this door and see what happens.
TLP: Absolutely. And I made a lot of friends that I would’ve never met under any other circumstance. Lifelong friends, friends I still see, and that means a lot to me. It means literally everything to me.
LL: That is the sensation I get when I open up a TLP story for the first time: here’s a door, I have no clue where it’s going to lead, but it’s open in front of me. What I would call this unexpected quality. “Unexpected” is a weak word. Probably the word that I’m looking for is “sublime,” right?
TLP: Oh yeah.
LL: But not the way people use it, like, “that dessert was sublime” or whatever. It’s when you’re standing on the edge of the ocean and you look out and think, it’s so big and I’m so small, I could just go in there and die. It’s difficult to conjure, but I think you do it naturally, because of your ability to hone in on the perspective of children. Maybe that’s all the sublime is; the young feeling of being awed by things. There are so many instances in MTIWID of terror and beauty in unexpected places. “The Whirlpool” fucked me up. “Toddy’s Got Lice Again,” and “Clem’s Second Refrigerator.” Where do you find those moments in your life?
TLP: Of the sublime? Yeah, it’s a good question. Let me think about that. One of my friends has pushed me to appreciate silence, and I’m not someone who does.
LL: Word. Let’s sit with it for a second.
TLP: While I’m thinking, if you want to do a metafictional story, you could do a story that’s Lauren Lavín with Rome and explore what it means to be replaced by someone as yourself.
LL: I lived in Long Beach for a while. I’m going to rewrite it as me being the person who replaced Bradley.
TLP: Let me think. I think this is in the book somewhere, I don’t remember. But I am so scared of eternity. This is one of the things that I felt but didn’t know how to put into words when I was a kid going to church, that heaven was just as scary to me as hell because it was pitched as this thing that never ends. The fear to me is not in the eternity that you’re being given, it’s the eternity itself. My brain can’t comprehend that, which feels like the most sublime, when it’s something so vast that you can’t even comprehend it. I used to fall asleep thinking about this, and I would cry. I cried a ton. I was nine or 10 thinking about this, and crying.
I remember laying down and forcing myself to try to go to sleep while thinking through those feelings. It’s a weird irony because I was trying to put an end to that. I wanted to put a cap on that day. And still, if I get too deep in my thoughts about that, about having to exist beyond myself forever, it will ruin my day. I can’t. So I think that, and it’s there. I can’t even get to the beauty part of that. I’ve never thought about what a heavenly space could offer in terms of benefits, because I can’t bring myself to go into the room.
LL: That door should remain closed, basically.
TLP: That door stays closed.
LL: When we were kids and the internet was here to stay, adults said that kids weren’t reading books anymore. “Your attention span is ruined by the internet.” But then a teacher told us, “Your generation reads a volume of words every day that nobody could have conceived.” We are bathed in content. Have you had this experience, faced with the deluge that we are every day, of these small moments that grab and surprise you, the way I think your stories do?
TLP: Sometimes I seek it out. I love that. Rachel and I are constantly looking for found storytelling. We just had one fall out of a book we bought. It was a note from a dentist’s office, shaped like a tooth. It just said, I think it’s pronounced “shammy”? It’s like a type of leather. The note said, “Does Dad have any chamois shirts?” And we both had so many questions about it.
The big thing where I experience this constantly is our local newspaper. They have this opinion section called Speak Your Peace, where people call in and anonymously leave comments. I will just say outright, a lot of it is really awful. But there are so many little snippets of life in this area that are hilarious. My favorite one ever was from this woman who was the caller. “Someone at the local food city needs to do something about the dogs. This lady had her dog in her cart and it was peeing all over the cabbage.” It originally started as this sort of worker solidarity thing, where maybe the newspaper wouldn’t report on unfair labor practices, but people could call in and they would print that. And they had plausible deniability. But now it’s kind of become neighborhood watch.
TLP: Yeah, it’s print Nextdoor. A lot of politics, and some gross stuff that they probably shouldn’t print. But there’s also really, really good neighborhood hijinks. And I find a lot of joy from that. Some of them build on each other and it’s hard to tell if it’s the same caller or different callers. I like the idea of it truly being the death of the author. They’re all kind of the same author. It’s the town speaking. I rush to read it every single week.
LL: Okay, final question. What is the summer beverage that TLP recommends for 2023?
TLP: Finally, someone’s asking. Kranch, which is the combination of ketchup and ranch. I think you got to be drinking your Kranch every day.
LL: How do you prepare it?
TLP: I don’t want to mandate anything. I don’t think I’m in the position to be telling people how to live.