“Nothing’ll ever fix what’s broken in this town, but it would be nice if they’d at least get the dead bear out of the parking lot of Food Country,” writes author Leah Hampton in the opening line of her debut collection, F*ckface: And Other Stories, which hits bookstores Tuesday, July 14. To celebrate the release, Malaprop’s will host a virtual author event on Wednesday, July 15, at 6 p.m.
Death and loss permeate the book’s 12 tales — be it the passing of a mother or the disappearance of an industry or, well, a giant dead bear laid out in a grocery store parking lot. “I wanted a corpse in every story,” Hampton says with a laugh. “Literal or figurative.”
For readers dying to know, Hampton accomplishes her lethal mission in spades. But along with an impressive body count, the former Western Carolina University instructor and longtime Waynesville resident also succeeds in revealing the complexities of life in South and South-Central Appalachia, including Asheville.
Her stories’ characters are cashiers, firefighters, park rangers and GameStop managers. They’re grappling with individual devastation like divorce and sexual trauma, as well as collective tragedies, including wildfires and the health repercussions faced by communities living near chemical plants.
Many of Hampton’s characters share underlying traits of loneliness and isolation. They are strangers in familiar lands, individuals who feel unwelcome at home but trapped by their circumstances.
In the collection’s opening title story, its narrator, Pretty, explains one of several misconceptions people have about her job as a cashier in Robbinsville: “People think I’m the express lane, but Food Country doesn’t have express lanes. Nothing in this town does; the mountains stop everything from moving.”
Meanwhile, those who have escaped their childhood towns often look back on them with a mixed sense of sadness and disdain. “For all that I pined about it, my home county didn’t have anything to stay for or go back to,” ruminates “Mingo” narrator Tina. “The mining reclaim sites, scarred like they were, couldn’t imitate old ground. Suits and invaders had dumped toxic dirt onto what they blasted out, leaving the hillsides false, silent slumps. The curving bulge and teem, the mountains we used to stare off to as kids, were now corpses stuffed with dirty packing foam.”
A self-described Army brat, Hampton relocated to Western North Carolina as a teenager in the early ’90s. The move brought her family closer to her father’s kin, who live in Harlan County, Ky. It also exposed Hampton to an area of the country that proved endlessly fascinating and inspiring. But whereas many writers are tempted to look back on or romanticize the region’s past, Hampton’s interest has always been to look ahead, especially as it relates to environmental issues.
“I’ve really been focused on asking: ‘What is the future? What are we going to be? And is there a way to preserve things but also progress?’” she says.
The same issues she tackles in her fiction are also what led Hampton to recently file for political office. This November, she’s running as a Democrat for one of two open seats on the Haywood County Board of Commissioners. Initially, she admits, her interest wasn’t to seek office; instead, she wanted to volunteer for the upcoming election. But after meeting with the Democratic county leadership, she was encouraged to run. Before accepting the role, however, she reminded her supporters of one potential controversy: “I was like, ‘You all are aware that my book is called F*ckface, right?’”
But like her New York City publisher, local leadership was undeterred by the collection’s title. And like her book deal, Hampton’s decision to run for office predated COVID-19. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, as well as a growing demand for racial justice, life is surreal for the debut author.
“It’s complicated,” she says. “Because it’s also this really joyous time, and I’m superhappy to finally have my book out in the world, but at the same time there’s so many things happening now that worry me. I’m worried for people’s health and I want justice and I want these protests [sparked by the killing of George Floyd] to continue.”
Consistent with many of the characters in F*ckface, Hampton is grappling with today’s uncertainties. “I feel connected to the world, but in an isolated way,” she says. “I’m running for office and I’m writing about this area and I care about this area, but at the same time, I feel like I’m a little bit lost in it all.”
Instead of pretending to have the answers, Hampton offers a series of stories unafraid to examine the many flaws and quiet triumphs of being human. “In this country, we want to simplify problems,” she says. “We want to simplify environmental problems, we want to simplify racism. But these things are complicated. We have to really sit with it.”
Overlooking it all
And it’s this message — that life is forever demanding, baffling and bewildering, with moments of beauty in between — that Hampton shares with readers throughout F*ckface.
In her short story “Parkway,” the narrator, Priscilla, recalls her first month on the job as a park ranger. She is winding through the Blue Ridge Mountains with her colleague and mentor Coralis when they stumble upon a dead body — one of many Priscilla will encounter throughout her career.
Later in the story, after the police have arrived, Priscilla and Coralis head back to the ranger station. On the drive, Coralis shares insights about the work. Then, without explanation, he pulls into an overlook and offers his final bit of advice that day, which Priscilla relays to the reader:
“‘Four hundred miles of parkway through some of the prettiest country there is, and everybody brings their shit.’ He leaned forward and shook his head. ‘There’s more murders, starved dogs, more toddlers slipping off cliffs, more sadness than anybody knows.’ He glanced at me, then at the road behind us, and shrugged. ‘We clean it up. Then maybe we give a tour, hand out some brochures. Almost nobody knows where they’re going. Maintain order, even when there isn’t any. That’s all.’”
To register for the free Malaprop’s virtual book event, visit avl.mx/7gf.