Meet Leopoldine Core, New Literary Cool Girl on the Scene

“When Watched,” her debut short story collection, is not just another book about young people being young. It’s one of the summer’s must reads.

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The writer Leopoldine Core has spent the last 10 years or so immersed in the lives of the characters of her short stories, which are finally seeing the light of day in When Watched, her debut collection published last week by Penguin. But when Core got up to address the crowd of well-wishers and downtown buddies like the artist Mark Gonzales at her book launch at McNally Jackson week, she wasn’t entirely ecstatic: “This is a death,” she said, with a smile.

“I’m a solitary person, and my favorite part of writing is the act of it – the period of producing work and being alone in my room and talking to myself,” she later explained. “And so publishing a book meant letting go of this work. I had to stop writing these stories and adding things to them and engaging with these same characters.”

Each story in the collection of 19 follows a similar cast of downtown types that also appear in Core’s own life: Her friends are mostly artists, thanks mostly to having lived in the East Village her whole life, in the same railroad apartment near Tompkin’s Square Park.

She stuck around the city for school, too, and was studying to be a therapist at Hunter College when “it quickly became clear that I’m too emotional to have that job,” Core, now 31, recalled with a laugh. “I’d be too disturbed by my patients and too moved by them. I’d probably fall in love with them. It wouldn’t be right at all.” Instead, she put that passion for people into writing, at first with poetry, which she released in a collection last year called “Veronica Bench,” and then with stories, which started have appeared in places like Joyland and The Paris Review Daily. Eventually, she landed herself a Whiting Award for fiction in 2015 — not to mention her Penguin book deal.

And if “write what you know” is creative writing’s biggest axiom, Core has become its biggest disciple. She’s the first to admit that though the scenes in her stories closely resemble those in her life, there is quite a degree of literary license taken: “I think that all stories start with feelings that are real, observations that are real, but I really like that moment of pushing the details of my life into another dimension,” she said. “I really want to write the best story, and that story is not contained solely in the details of my life — it just isn’t.”

But unquestionably, life is material. Core is a self-described romantic, and many of the stories revolve around intimacy and relationships. They involve deep friendships and unexpected bonds like the couple with a 30-plus year age difference (one would guess this was inspired by Core’s own relationship with the writer Eileen Myles). At the center of all of the rendered romanticism is unpretentious, strikingly natural dialogue, which often reads like a conversation among friends.

“I don’t prescribe to the theory that every sentence in a story should be beautiful,” Core explained. “If every moment was chiseled down to a shining jewel, you couldn’t take them in. You would feel clobbered. And so I like for the shining moments to be preceded and followed by plainer language. I find that sort of surrounding dullness has a way of holding beauty in place.”

After all, it’s the quotidian that appeals to Core. “That’s sort of my favorite thing is just to do nothing with someone, where you’re not going to a movie, you’re not going to dinner, you’re not going to a party — you’re really just sitting in your apartment talking,” she said. “That situation often arises because people don’t have money, and I certainly have felt that way in my life, that there’s this intimacy that comes out of not having a lot. And it’s really rich, you know?”

It’s a situation perhaps best showcased in “Another Breed,” a story about two friends sitting on the bathroom floor smoking weed, both laughing and agonizing about their future. “It was important for me to read that story at my launch because it was part of my process: not having a lot of money and not having a lot of time to write stories and feeling really terrified about how I was going to survive and what the hell I was going to do,” she said. “And not having any idea that anyone would give a shit about my stories or my poems.”

Even with a book deal and a sign-off from Sheila Heti (who blurbed the book), “that fear probably never ends,” Core admitted. But that funereal mentality likely only drives her work. Her next book will be a novel; she’s keeping the details under wraps for now, though it won’t depart too much from When Watched. “My obsessions wage on,” said Core.

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