By Hannah Schwab
Torrid love affairs, heartfelt father-son moments, slightly erotic scenes – Christopher T. Leland’s new book, “Love/Imperfect,” has it all.
The recently released work is the first collection of short stories from Leland, a veteran writer and doctorate professor of creative writing at Wayne State University. For Leland, this collection is 40 years in the making, with stories that date back to his college days in Los Angeles and new ones from the past few years.
The local author has produced novels and non-fiction about the writing process, but when the university encouraged him to release this collection he figured, as he approaches 60, “maybe I better get them out now while I still can.”
The book is part of the “Made in Michigan Writers Series,” which began in 2006 and currently contains 18 titles of fiction, poetry and essays, all written by authors who live in Michigan or have some strong connection to the state. Leland’s stories in “Love/Imperfect” bounce around in content and setting, but all come back to love. How the “Coe Boys Got Their Names” showcases love in the time of war, “Reprise” reunites former lovers, and “Fellatio” features a gay couple and their open conversations about sex.
“Whether you are gay or straight, man or woman, we can all relate to imperfect love,” Leland says. “Many times, imperfect love is a series of regrets or near misses, and I think these stories show that.”
Leland credits his desire to tell stories from his family. His maternal grandmother and mother’s cousin were both storytellers and eccentric characters in the family. Both women had exciting lives and many stories to share. In fact, “Wonderful Town” was a true story passed down from Leland’s mother.
“We have a generational tradition of unconventional characters in my family, and I also fit that mold,” Leland says.
Leland pulls inspiration from a variety of places. Stories like “In Conclusion” and “Memento Mori” are somewhat autobiographical. “A Mother’s Love” was indirectly based on an acquaintance and “Swim” was an actual event that happened in St. Clair Shores, Mich., in the 1950s.
Leland’s main inspiration comes from his life experiences. Although he is originally from Tulsa, Okla., Leland spent his childhood in North Carolina, Boston, California, Madrid and Buenos Aires. Living in different areas and experiencing different cultures helps him create his characters.
“Over the years I have met many amazing people who share their stories and their histories with me,” Leland says. “In ‘The Woman Who Loved Claude Rains,’ I based those characters on people I knew and people I indirectly knew of. Other people’s stories helped me become a part of different worlds that I was never a part of and will never be a part of again.”
Leland said his unconventional process of writing comes from within himself. The stories “just show up and they say to me, ‘This is how you are going to write me.’
“The story knows itself better than I do, so I just go with it,” Leland says. “The characters tell me where they want to go and I let them. I tell my students, ‘The story pulls the writer in a specific direction and they should follow that pull. A story wants to be told and we shouldn’t fight it.'”
Leland’s growing interest in poetry during the past 10 years helped him become a concise writer and create short stories. “‘Traveler’ could have easily been a 250-page novel, Leland says, but it has a different affect on the reader in short story form.
An ongoing detail in Leland’s stories is the hardships that men deal with when they are in love. Leland believes, in general, that men love more imperfectly. He said men don’t realize how profoundly they love until it is gone, and because they don’t know how to show it, they react with fear or aggression. In “Momento Mori,” the friends never admit to themselves or each other that they have feelings that go beyond a platonic relationship.
While many of his characters are gay, Leland does not think of himself as a gay writer. “I prefer to think of myself as a writer who happens to be gay,” Leland says. “I create a wide range of characters and sometimes they happen to be gay and sometimes they happen to be straight. It’s never a conscious thought when I write them.”
Leland said the world calls for standards and expectations, even in the creative world of writing. The default race is white. The default character gender is male. The default orientation is straight. He said some publications pass on a story because of its gay element, saying, “That might be interesting, but who wants to read about gay people?” Leland’s response: “That might be interesting, but who wants to read about straight people?”
“Homosexuals read about heterosexual couples the same way that heterosexuals read about heterosexual couples,” Leland says. “I hope to see heterosexuals read stories about homosexuals with the same amount of involvement in the characters that homosexuals have when they read about heterosexual relationships.”