Chloe Alberta’s “Leap Year” was chosen by guest judge Chelsea Bieker as the second place finalist in our ’22 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, and we were honored to publish her story on Monday. First, read this terrific piece, then check out our interview with the winner below!
This voice! All of us editors, and Chelsea Bieker, too, in her introduction for “Leap Year,” pointed to the voice as one of the key features in this piece that piqued our interest in our first reads. Is this a familiar voice for you?
“Leap Year” is really special to me because I feel like it was one of the first stories I wrote where I was actually finding my authentic voice as a writer. In the first draft I remember just trying to spew onto the page and not think about it too much, and this is the voice that came out. So, familiar, yes, but newly so—there’s definitely a before and after “Leap Year,” tonally, in my writing. After is a lot weirder, less filtered, and I’m having so much more fun.
Something else that has stood out to me as I’ve been reading and rereading this story is the humor. It’s so effortless, off-handed in a way that fits Hollis’s personality perfectly. There’s a great specificity in the absurdity, too, which recalled Patrick DeWitt for me, especially The Sisters Brothers. Do you often use humor in your fiction?
Thank you! I like to think I do! Life is very sad and weird, it’s nice to find levity in it. That feels like a natural mode when I’m writing, as opposed to leaning into a more lyrical melancholy. I like the contrast and contradiction it creates, the humor and silliness pushing up against darker aspects of a story. Hollis is not a happy person. But it’s hard to tell, because she’s also like, “What if I were a beaver?”
How long have you been working with Hollis—is this the only story she appears in, or is she someone who’s been living in your head for a while?
This is the only Hollis story, and I imagine it will stay that way. I’m skeptical of sequels. I wrote “Leap Year” in the early months of 2021, when a cocktail of Covid isolation, the Michigan cold, and some health issues had been doing funny things to my brain. I think Hollis was a manifestation of that particular stuck feeling, or maybe an antidote. Probably both. There were so many things I wanted to do but couldn’t, because of both external and internal factors. I was like, “What if this character acts on every impulse? What if she doesn’t care about the consequences? That would be fun.” But of course, as Hollis became real to me, it became clear that most of this is just avoidance—pain relief, symptom management. She was definitely fun to write, but it’s that complicated layer underneath the fun stuff that makes her so special to me.
I love the way the leap year is utilized in this story. There’s a kind of liminal sensation permeating the story: The Trunk House feels just removed from Hollis’s daily life; her job exists only over the phone; Hollis and Graham break up again and again (again) in different ways throughout; and even when she tries to leave herself behind in Scrabble tiles, she’s only partly there–and L is missing. In the guest book, where Rhonda wuz there, Hollis only wuz. And the date just adds to this: an extra day in the year, outside of time in a sense, forgotten on their schedule book. I guess this is a long way of asking for the origin of the story: Did you always know you were going to write about a leap year, or did it emerge through the writing?
I honestly don’t think I ever know what I’m going to write about until I’ve already written it. Even then, sometimes, I’m like…who put these words here? But I guess the idea of the leap year fell in naturally with Hollis’s desire to exist in her own version of the world, outside of the structures of reality—money, relationships, caffeine dependency, days of the week—that are consistently bumming her out. I’d say that escapist desire was the origin of the story, and the rest of the details fell into place as I tried to make the feeling tangible.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s name came up during the discussion of “Leap Year,” for good reason. You both have such a distinct style, and voice, and your protagonist here in Hollis recalls for me many of the female protagonists in Moshfegh’s short fiction in particular. Is it safe to assume that you’re a fan of Moshfegh’s work?
Oh, yes, absolutely, I adore her! This question makes me so happy. A while ago I bought a pair of earrings she was selling on Depop—I can’t even wear them, they make my ears bleed. Which seems fitting. I love her unflinching eye for how bizarre and brutal people can be, and how she can make disgust exist in the same breath as gut-wrenching vulnerability. I actually wrote “Leap Year” while I was reading Moshfegh for the first time, on recommendation from a few different friends. I was in a cabin in northern Michigan and I cracked open Homesick for Another World, got about three pages into “Bettering Myself,” then closed the book and started writing this story. I was so inspired.
Who are the (other) writers you’ve been loving recently? Who’s been on your reading list this year?
I’m late to the game on Mary Robison, but she’s my latest obsession. Also Elif Batuman, Elissa Washuta, Katie Kitamura. Next up is Rebecca K. Reilly’s Greta and Valdin, which I’ve been really excited to get into. And I guess I should read Patrick DeWitt now! I’ve actually been feeling more inspired by poetry lately than I ever have in the past. Chelsey Minnis, Ariana Reines, Diane Seuss. Jordan Hamel’s Everyone is Everyone Except You is endlessly hilarious and moving. I guess that’s a long list. Honestly, I’m usually just on Twitter.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer