Leah Vukovich is an actress and performer, both on stage and onscreen. She is also an artist, and a brilliant writer—I’ve co-written two screenplays with her: one that can be viewed here, the other she will be directing late this summer as part of the Grand Rapids film anthology Local, produced by Chris Randall of Fulvew Productions.
Recently, she has been performing with Frivolous Follies Vaudeville, and can be seen on July 15th, 2017, as part of Frivolous Follies Vaudeville presents: Summer Sizzle!
Oh, and full disclosure, she’s my girlfriend. We share a house and cats. We are two passionate artists who sometimes collaborate, but most often do our own thing. And we love to read. Used bookstore visits are our idea of a “date.”
We’ve been together almost 5 years, but I still learned new things about her doing this interview. We had fun with it, and hope you do, too.
Ryan Lieske: What is the first book you remember reading, or having read to you?
Leah Vukovich: The first book I remember reading by myself is One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, but by reading by myself I mean I memorized the whole thing and could recite it out loud.
RL: Can you still?
RL: Lame. What book would you credit with sealing your fate as a lifelong reader?
LV: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass were a big deal for me as a kid. That’s a story with no limits. I still enjoy the surrealism of it, but I think the overwrought “twisted” interpretations of Alice in Wonderland imagery kind of spoiled it for me over the years.
RL: I, too, was (and still am) fond of those books. And, like you, I don’t have much of a taste for the modern, “twisted” interpretations. I always feel like people are trying to out-weird Lewis Carroll, but then completely miss the point. What is it about them you don’t like?
LV: Yeah, I think that’s it. There’s no need to outweird the story and try to be shocking. There is a darkness to the story that’s fun to explore, but I just don’t understand why it has to be Hot Topic looking Wonderland characters on a murder spree every time. It’s just forced and not creative, and it has nothing to do with the actual scary elements of the story, being trapped in a world that doesn’t make sense where nobody understands what you’re talking about. THAT is scary.
Also there was this book called The Egypt Game I read when I was a kid that I loved so much that I made up this elaborate capture-the-flag style game called “Egypt” that me and my friend Jenny would con our siblings into playing (spoiler alert—the game was rigged in our favor).
RL: I’m not familiar with that one. Tell me a little bit more about what the “game” is in the book, and how that mutated into your game.
LV: The kids in the book made up a secret game surrounding ancient Egyptian rituals and I think there was a murderer on the loose? I just remember they made up a secret game and I wanted to have a game too so I called it Egypt. I don’t remember there being much of anything similar to that book, and the rules were different every time.
RL: A lot of people tell me that, even if they were a voracious reader as a child, it was their middle-school and high-school years that had the most impact on the reader they are today. Would you say this is true for you? What were the books from this period that shaped you?
LV: I did not have a great high school experience, so books and movies were kind of a sanctuary for me. I read Carrie by Stephen King my freshmen year, which was satisfying because I was going to a small Lutheran school that year where I was often picked on for being quiet and spending most of my time alone.
One of my critics at that school liked to equate my reading habits with witchcraft, which was a fun parallel…I remember being really into the Hannibal Lecter books back then, too, which probably didn’t help my case too much.
RL: I know you and I have talked about this, but I had similar experiences throughout junior high, and my first couple of years of high school. My Junior and Senior years were great, though. However, I can still relate. My friends and I were what I guess you would call “the alternative kids,” although I much preferred “freaks.” In fact most of them thought we were Satanists (that great catch-all term for anyone who wears black and reads Stephen King.) I had a great moment during one class where the teacher told us all to stand up and dispel a myth that we felt others had about us. When I informed the class that I was not, in fact, a Satanist, but just a dude who loved horror and planned to write it someday, I heard so many audible gasps it was hilarious. A lot of them knew I wasn’t, as I was one of those guys who was friends with lots of people from different “castes,” but those that didn’t know were honest-to-God shocked, and spent the remainder of the class asking me questions. I think they came away with a better understanding of me. Which I thought was good. Hell, I even had a couple of the kids beg me to kill them off in some spectacularly gory way in one of my books, because a lot of them, it turns out, loved King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, etc., as well. Funny how people find out they have more in common than they thought when they get over their preconceived notions. Truthfully, I think it all came down to the fact that black Skinny Puppy t-shirts scared them. Or, at least I like to think so. But I was also an arrogant dick in high school, so I never felt like I had to impress them—no, they had to impress me. Haha.
LV: I got “satanist” a lot, too, and I couldn’t tell if they were afraid of me or amused by me or what. I don’t even think I fit in necessarily with the “alternative kids.” I was kind of the misfits’ misfit. For a while I was really concerned about it and tried very hard to fit in but then I just gave up.
Neil Gaiman’s writing was really important to me in high school. Neverwhere, American Gods, and The Sandman series were full on obsessions of mine. Like I was saying about Alice in Wonderland, the worlds in those books are limitless. If a story can still take you places after you’re done reading it, you’re doing something right. I still think about those three books/series a lot. There’s an invitation in there to imagine, interpret, and create myths and folklore there that really vibed with my creative mind at the time. Still does.
RL: Gaiman’s comics and books are, I feel anyway, tailor made for the “outsider.” Immersing yourself in his worlds, which are populated by outsiders, grotesque yet beautiful misfits, and cosmic philosophers, is like finding a world where you, and only you, can belong without judgment or alteration to your personality. You almost don’t want to share it with anybody, because it’s yours, and intruders would somehow spoil it. That’s what I felt, anyway. Did you have similar feelings?
LV: I definitely felt the outsider thing, and the idea of the grotesque being elegant has always been a comforting idea to me. And I feel like you’re touching on the reason why certain artists—me—are scared to show off their work initially. The stuff in those books are great to share and talk about. I love talking about mythology and philosophy and hearing other people’s take on it, but it’s such an inside thing that it doesn’t mesh well with everyday conversation, so yeah, I know what you mean about wanting to keep that world to yourself. I think it would do people a lot of good to share and discuss more often, though.
I read Disco Bloodbath by James St. James (it’s called Party Monster now) at exactly the age you’re supposed to read it and that influenced me in how I dressed and spoke, but I didn’t end up actually going to clubs or parties because I didn’t have friends or a car.
So I just talked like James St. James and very deliberately, almost defiantly dressed like a fucking weirdo, but at least I did it with confidence. That book, the glossy fashion photography books I managed to collect (Fruits and We’re Desperate: The Punk Rock Photography of Jim Jocoy were collection highlights), and the piles of material about Andy Warhol and punk and glam rock I was consuming helped me find myself and embrace my strangeness to a certain level, even if I was just celebrating being strange alone in my basement.
RL: Would you say it was books like Carroll’s and Gaiman’s that somehow drew you to the photography books and the lifestyles and music you became interested in? I can see how they would.
LV: I don’t know if one interest led to another. Maybe it was David Bowie and his influences that came first. That led me to all sorts of books and art, but I also think it’s just all part of my mental fabric. I’ve always been drawn to dark, dramatic, sort of androgynous characters, even in cartoons growing up, and that’s who I wanted to be. I think finding those books just kind of made me feel okay about it since I didn’t have a lot of friends that were like me, and I certainly had trouble discussing things like gender, sexuality, etc., because it just wasn’t something we talked about. So the imagery in the books, music, and art I was into helped me create sort of a mental safe space.
Lastly, I read Fast Food Nation as a sophomore (my first year going to public school) and immediately went vegan and started hating the government. I had always mistrusted the government because of the movie E.T. and two other specific childhood incidents that you—the readers, not Ryan; he’s heard these stories thousands of times—can ask me about later if you’re fascinated and need to know, but that was the first book I read that opened my eyes to how shady everything was. Like this is an embarrassing story honestly, but we’re talking about book related milestones here.
RL: I think the readers would like to know about the other incidents, and how they and that book lead to your distrust for authority. A lot of people that age can relate, I know I can. I grew up as the Cold War was winding down, and I know certain incidents from that period, combined with books I was reading like Farhenheit 451, 1984, and This Perfect Day certainly engendered a distrust in me for the powers-that-be. How much we were taught to fear the Russians, movies like The Day After freaking us out about nuclear war—add to that other things like the Iran/Contra hearings, the PMRC, the Rodney King trial and subsequent riots—and music played a big part in that, too. You can’t listen to The Clash, Ministry, NWA, and Public Enemy and not start to think “authority” isn’t what you’ve been taught to believe it is. Plus, Oliver Stone’s films from that period—JFK, especially. And don’t even get me started on what Whitley Strieber’s Communion did to me.
LV: I’ll include these incidents as a footnote*. Yeah, my first year of high school was the year after Columbine and the year before 9/11, and those were such emotional events that, as a teenager, if you questioned things to your parents/teachers/pastors, you would be told you were being disrespectful. But the narrative I was seeing on TV and the things I was told to believe about it seemed counterproductive to me. I know Fast Food Nation is no 1984, but I picked it up for a book report and that drew me to more journalism pieces and nonfiction that offered a different perspective than the conservative one I grew up with. Sometimes books that are not necessarily essential can serve as a gateway to things you didn’t know you were interested in. I think I have to thank it for making me a more responsible reader of the news. In this current political climate, fact checking and always having three sources before you believe something is so important. Critical thinking when it comes to politics is so, so important.
RL: Speaking of this time period, were you one of those kids who went rogue from the curriculum and read whatever you wanted, sometimes even ignoring what was assigned to read altogether?
LV: I hated any book automatically if a teacher made me read it. I might not feel that way if I read some of those books now, but when I was at school I didn’t have time for Catcher in the Rye or whatever. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have done that, but I was a major brat to teachers I didn’t like.
RL: I was going to say, high school is just about the perfect time to read Catcher in the Rye, especially given what you said about being an outsider. You would’ve loved it. I mean, we all did, let’s face it.
LV: I think I’m well past the age where it would be satisfying to me.
RL: Reading is inherently a solitary activity, so did your reading life ever supersede or cause conflict with your social life growing up? Were you more apt to hide out in the library at school, or stay home on a Saturday night to read a book?
LV: I had almost no social life for the most part in high school, and when I manage to be slightly social it was an awkward mess. And yeah, there are instances I remember when I told someone I “had sooo much homework,” but really I just wanted to stay home and read or rent movies. The local library was probably my favorite place to hang out. And by “hang out” I mean sit by myself in the art section.
RL: Yeah, well, speaking personally here, from all you’ve just told me, I would’ve had such a crush on you had we gone to highschool together. I was totally the kid that thought Carrie White was hot (no pun intended), not too mention Lydia from Beetlejuice. Even when I watch Carrie now, I’m like, “Man, I totally would’ve asked her to Prom, and no one would’ve gotten hurt.” I guess it’s not too late. Will you go out with me?
LV: Sure, I’ll go to prom with you.
RL: Cool. What time do you need to be home by? Your dad scares me. I’m kidding. I love your dad.
RL: And then comes college. What new books, literary styles, or genres were you exposed to in college?
LV: Remember how I said I “found myself” through books in high school? Well, I went to college and promptly lost myself. I wasn’t reading that much because I was very busy ruining my own life and watching Rock of Love. I’ll spare you the full gory details but I’ll try to recount the literary memories.
For a brief minute I was trying to be one of those people who claim to be able to derive meaning out of Naked Lunch. But I quickly snapped out of it. You’re lying if you say you can.
RL: I actually have read all of Naked Lunch, and, yeah, it’s practically unreadable. However, I will say this: If you read it after seeing the David Cronenberg film, it does make a bit more sense. The film and book compliment each other perfectly. But Cronenberg is a master at that. Crash, Spider, Cosmopolis—if you read the books after seeing the movies (or vice versa) they form a weird symbiosis that almost makes them a single work. He’s one of the few directors who truly gets what I like to call “literary filmmaking.” The books and films are stronger as one than they are as individual pieces. Like, if he made a film of House of Leaves, I might actually bother reading the whole thing.
LV: I agree about Cronenberg’s adaptations. Crash is one of my favorite films of all time. I read the book long after seeing the movie, and it made me love the movie even more. I can see where Naked Lunch would make visual sense, especially through his lens. But I feel like most people say they get it because they want to prove they’re more poetic than ordinary people.
I was also reading Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk and anything angry and aggressive like that for a while. Some of those books wound up being favorites, some were just gross things that appealed to my attitude at the time. Early on in college, that was the type of shit I was writing as well. Now I look back at that stuff I wrote and I hate it, though, so I kind of roll my eyes when I think about the books that influenced that type of writing, even if they are actually good books.
The most clear memory of a specific book I read during that time was one summer when I lived by myself, had literally nobody to talk to, was at the lowest point in my life, and I had only one class I was taking, remedial Algebra for adult failures or something. At that time I picked up The Star Rover, by Jack London, and read it like three times cover to cover. That was like one level above the level of isolation I felt that summer, so I read it obsessively.
RL: I’m not familiar with that book. Can you talk a little more about it and why it spoke to you so profoundly?
LV: It’s about a prisoner being kept in a sensory deprivation jacket, and he endures it by journeying through his past lives. I think there was a mediocre Adrian Brody film adaptation of it that I didn’t see. I can’t even imagine anymore the level of loneliness I felt at the time. I was just completely disconnected for a number of reasons probably too personal to discuss, so this idea of a journey within oneself was very comforting to me. It was an escape through the perspective of another prisoner, if that makes sense. I’m not sure if it would have the same affect on me now, and I’m not even sure why I had the book to begin with, but it kind of got me back on track for a while after a long depression, so…thanks, Jack London.
RL: What were your favorite bookstores growing up?
LV: My local comic store was a favorite spot. I think it was called Comic City? It’s definitely not there anymore. I’ve never been able to resist a used book store or the book sections at thrift/antique stores. Other than that, I went to the library because it’s free.
RL: Did you find, as you grew older, that the books of your youth began to mean less to you? Or do you still enjoy all the types of books you’ve been exposed to throughout your life?
LV: I’ve loved mythology and surrealism since I learned to read, and I still love it now. I’ve been told I’m picky, but it’s because I know exactly what I love, and I’ll probably love those things forever.
I have been re-reading Teenager Leah’s comic collection lately, though, and there are some over-emotional, mopey, “creepy,” and/or pretentious selections that I probably wouldn’t give the time of day to now. Nothing that I’m willing to name, because I still have a soft spot for all of it and I don’t want to publicly drag it. Like I’ll pick up one of those old books and know exactly how I felt or where I was when I was reading it, so they’re still pleasant to remember, generally, but I’ve definitely outgrown certain things.
RL: How has your reading life survived adulthood?
LV: I read more now than ever before since I’m not as focused on self destruction as I was in my twenties. I’m definitely making up for lost time. My morning routine, if I’m not busy with a project, is a few cups of coffee and some time with several books. And if I have time to kill while I’m out shopping, or I need to regroup, I’ll buy a cup of coffee and sit with a book for a while. Basically, if I have nothing else to do, I’ll find time to read.
RL: Again, will you go out with me?
LV: I mean you live in my house and we have several cats together, so I was wondering when you were gonna ask.
RL: Currently, what types of books are you mostly drawn to?
LV: I’ve been reading more murder stories that I should lately, which is bad news because I am very paranoid about that kind of danger most of the time, but I get obsessed with freaking myself out. I know a lot of people with anxiety are drawn to stories that make them nervous because it creates a framework to deal with whatever’s scaring them, so yeah.
RL: It explains why I spent two years reading every Robin Cook novel. However, I do not recommend anybody do likewise. Not because it will make you even more paranoid, but because your brain will melt when you realize you’ve just reread Coma about 40 times. Seriously, though, I too read a lot of books and watch a lot movies that deal with things that make me nervous, disturbed, or paranoid. Although I’m still leery about watching Still Alice. I haven’t made peace with my fear of Alzheimer’s yet, so I may need awhile to work up to that one.
LV: I think maybe reading or seeing it might help you confront it, but yeah there are some anxieties I will not immerse myself in. Pets dying, absolutely not. I can’t even look at the cover of books about animals in trouble.
For a while I was reading a lot of nonfiction about foreign politics, but I’ve kind of stopped reading that stuff since [Trump’s] inauguration.
When I was serial-reading those kinds of books, one of them was a “food memoir” called Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, and I loved the concept of that book, telling this oftentimes heartbreaking personal history, but grounding it around her family recipes and memories of food. Taste and smell are the senses that bring back memories to me the most. I find eating kind of tedious, but I love books with excellent descriptions of food, good food and bad food, so if anyone has any recommendations please let me know.
And, as a general rule I’ll at least leaf through any book about the occult.
RL: Now, I’m not a big fan of the term “guilty pleasure.” However, for want of a better term, what are your literary guilty pleasures?
LV: Vampire books. Fiction and nonfiction. I just like vampires, even the cringey ones. They’re always made up to be these elegant monsters but really they’re kind of gross and sad. I love anything about sordid Hollywood scandals, too, which I’m told one should feel guilty about. Oh, and I read fan fiction…that I actually do feel guilty about because I read it for the hilarity and absurdity of it and I know people sincerely work hard on it and probably wouldn’t like it that someone was making fun.
RL: Well, now we need to know: what fan fiction are you particularly drawn to?
LV: I don’t think anyone needs to know that. It’s all garbage. But I admire their passion.
RL: Fair enough. Now, this one could apply to all art, really, but in terms of writing, what are your thoughts on “genre?”
LV: It does matter to me because I have really specific taste, or I always want a very specific thing, so having genres helps me at least narrow it down. I’m not one of those people who will read or watch just anything. Of course there aren’t going to be sections as specific as like “stories about World War I or II where there is at least one hospital scene,” but you get what I mean.
RL: Are you a physical copy person, or do you prefer other ways of “reading” books, such as ebooks or audio? Does the “delivery system,” as King calls it, matter to you?
LV: For novels or books I’m reading for leisure, ebooks are not an option for me. It’s not relaxing to read off of a screen, and I have a hard time focusing. I still use the library or my own personal collection for research. The only thing the internet has on books for research are the Youtube tutorial and community aspect, but I prefer to have physical copies of everything. It’s just how my brain works. If there weren’t any physical books anymore I probably would have a hard time getting through a book, and that’s why I buy so many, so I never run out of books to read. It’s definitely like a neurosis, though. I hate thinking of books just ending. It’s like when I was a kid my favorite candy was Good ‘N Plenty and everyone around me hated them so I was terrified they were going to stop making them because nobody wanted them. That’s how I feel about books now.
As far as audio books go, I have to know what the person sounds like first because if someone has an annoying voice chances are I won’t pay attention to them. And second I can definitely get into a nonfiction audiobook in the car because it’s like listening to NPR, basically, but novels are a little trickier because the way a person sounds affects how I’m interpreting the material. It’s gotta be a goddamn excellent voice actor.
RL: I highly recommend listening to Stephen King read his book On Writing. He’s very conversational, and you basically feel like you’re listening to a really cool college prof talk to you about writing. Plus, his tips and advice are spot on and will make you a better writer.
LV: I’ve been meaning to check that one out because my writing skills are kind of dull right now. And I love it when authors do their own audio books if they have the presence.
RL: Do you take a book with you wherever you go?
LV: Absolutely. There’s always two books in my purse.
RL: What are your favorite books of all time?
LV: That I haven’t mentioned already—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Out by Natsuo Kirino (the finest, most chilling crime novel I’ve ever read), Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I could probably think of more, but “favorite of all time” is such a hard question.
RL: Talk to me a bit more about Out. Many have recommended it to me, but I have yet to read it.
LV: I could not stop reading Out. After I finished it I wanted to read it again. That’s kind of my standard for “favorite of all time.” Do you want to read this again right away? It’s such a bleak story but it grabs you and pulls you down with it. Like all the horrible situations the characters find themselves in, you’re there too now. Deal with it. I was so grossed out and stressed the whole time but I could not stop reading it or thinking about it. Natsuo Kirino’s other books have that quality too, but Out is the best.
RL: What books―and they don’t have to necessarily have to be “all-time favorites”―do you feel have influenced you and shaped you the most: as a human being, as an artist, etc.?
LV: I kind of already went over “influences” earlier in the interview, but inspiration as an artist…that’s a hard question, honestly, because inspiration to me is a very “of the moment” thing and I mostly find it in complete garbage. Like I watch The Real Housewives because it helps me think. But I’ll list a few constant sources of inspiration and a few recents. I mentioned the three Neil Gaiman works. Those continue to be inspiring to me. Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung are definitely there. The Transmetropolitan series. I have a love/hate thing about Anne Rice but I’d be lying if I said all that Vampire Chronicles shit did not have an influence on me.
RL: Geek Love is one of those books that I want to give to everybody I know, even though it’s not really a book “for everybody.” I know some who would be appalled by it, and others, like yourself, who find it grotesquely beautiful. What is it about it that appealed to you, and has been influencing you, so much?
LV: I’ve been working on a lot of pieces lately where I use special effects to manipulate my limbs or body parts in ways that are scary but attractive, where you kind of make the audience feel like this is gross but in this space it’s totally normal and we’re having a good time. That was inspired by that book. And I’ve read reviews where people have been just offended by how “unlikeable” the characters were, and that’s something I don’t get, that a character has to be “likeable.” The main character Oly is not perfect, not the strongest, fully immersed in this totally bizarre, difficult world, but to her, that’s normal, so if you connect with her, the book is so stunning and so moving. I had like audible reactions to some parts. Why would you want to read that story from the perspective of a perfect person you can’t relate to? Where is the drama in that?
RL: Lastly, just for fun, what is the one book―be it a widely lauded classic, or bestselling popular phenom―do you find absolutely unreadable?
LV: I love talking about stuff I don’t like!
RL: Oh, I know you do.
LV: I’m sure I’m supposed to say 50 Shades or Twilight, but I actually enjoy disliking/making fun of them, so I’m just gonna be honest. I have to call myself a fan. If you get some sort of satisfaction out of disliking a book/movie/whatever, you’re probably into it just a little bit.
A recent unpleasant reading experience I had was this book about organ harvesting or something. Like the real “undead,” beating heart corpses, dead bodies that could still have babies and shit. Terrifying stuff. But the author was such a dick about it. Like he tried to have a sense of humor about death but he really just came across as this totally disrespectful prick, and for a good month I was shaking in fear about, like, a doctor coming into my house and stealing my brain stem in my sleep and that guy somewhere just laughing about it. There’s a fine line between having a sense of humor and being an asshole for no reason.
Things I actually dislike—I can’t get through much of the Lord of the Rings series. I get why people like them, but I just can’t get into all the hobbit stuff. I’ve never been into Jack Kerouac. There’s some recordings of his poetry I like listening to, but I hate his writing generally. I don’t like the whole *thing* people have about him. I just don’t find it as romantic as it’s made out to be. I think I don’t like Charles Bukowski, but I think it’s mostly that I’m not into the people who are into Charles Bukowski.
Also, there are these books written by rich hippies out there that suggest pseudo intellectual methods of making art. Like there are dozens of them, with all these stupid self-indulgent exercises and journal prompts, and it’s just cobbled together bits from a philosophy 101 textbook, the back of a box of herbal tea, and shit they heard their yoga teacher say. I will not entertain that nonsense for a second.
RL: So, not a fan of Eat, Pray, Love I take it?
LV: Fuck Eat, Pray, Love.
RL: Okay, so what about that asterisk up there? You promised us some stories.
LV: *Okay, so one time my mom and dad took me to a museum when I was a child and there was this anatomy display. There was some kind of jar with like a foam that represented like the mass of a human body with no water in it or something? I don’t remember. I just remember asking my dad what it was and he said “If they take you, and then they take all the water out of you, that’s what’s left of you.” I know my dad didn’t mean it this way, but my child brain translated this to “The government takes children away to turn them into anatomy displays at the museum.”
RL: I love your dad.
LV: Then when I was a little bit older, I was staying with my great aunt and grandparents. She had a beautiful house by the lake, and very limited TV stations. Usually something pleasant was on, like an old variety show or something, but ONE NIGHT they were all watching this graphic documentary about government experiments during World War II. I was shocked. This could happen anywhere, anytime. Eight-year-old me had accepted that the government is not trustworthy, it is terrifying. Power is terrifying—I understood about 30% of the words that were being said in that documentary, but I understood that.
FOLLOW LEAH ON HER INSTAGRAM