Under Black Leaves
In his novella Under Black Leaves, midwest author Doug Ramspeck delves into mental health, the interplay between love and loss, and the arts through the eyes of an art professor (Luke) and a Dance major (Hannah).
Memories flood Professor Luke Horn as he returns to the Chicago College of the Arts campus for the new semester. After losing a charismatic student, Luke wonders if he should confess what he knows or keep it hidden. He quickly learns that you can’t always hide your past. When the sister of the late student registers for his design and color course, will he be able to keep his composure and his secret? Will his guilt drive him to insanity?
With a mix of romantic passion and realism, Under Black Leaves invites readers to ponder how grief and mental health affect human emotion.
“Doug Ramspeck brings passion and raw emotion as he shares letters between two past lovers. We see two different sides of the relationship unfold through tales of suspense, secrecy, love, and overwhelming guilt and grief. Under Black Leaves was a novella that as a staff we could not put down.”
– Riley Childers and MacKenzie Estrada, Etchings Staff
Interview with the Author
How long have you been writing?
I began writing poetry in high school. In college, I wrote short stories. At the University of California at Irvine, I received an MFA in fiction. Then came decades (this is not an exaggeration) of writer’s block. Sixteen years ago, I returned to writing poetry, and since then I have published eight books and maybe a thousand poems and short stories.
What is your writing routine?
I try to write every day, mostly first thing in the morning. When my daughter was younger, she would tell me that I wasn’t allowed to write on certain days like Christmas. What she didn’t know was that I got up far earlier on those days than she did.
Do you write in any other genre, like nonfiction essays or poems?
I have written more poetry than fiction, and my last book of poems—Distant Fires—includes short fiction pieces and also a brief play. More recently, I have begun focusing on short stories and longer fictional pieces.
What’s one piece of advice you would give a prospective writer?
Enjoy it. It’s hard to get yourself to write if you dread sitting down at the computer. Writing should be one of your favorite times of the day. Write something that gives you pleasure. I know a lot of people who say they want to be writers but spend very little time writing. That won’t work if you want to be good at tennis, and it won’t work if you want to be good at writing. You have to put in the time.
About the book as a whole:
What was your inspiration for Under Black Leaves?
Much of my professional life has been focused on teaching writing. With Under Black Leaves, I wanted to write about creativity and craft, but I didn’t want to write about writing. Art and dance seemed a perfect substitute. As for the plot of the story, I once heard a colleague say that male professors in MFA programs hit on grad students with discouraging frequency. I was stunned when all the women around the table nodded at once in agreement. I wanted to write about this form of sexual harassment and its potential for psychological harm.
How long did it take you to write this novella? How many drafts?
In my first draft of Under Black Leaves, the project was novel length. By the time I completed a couple more drafts, it was a novella. Cutting is often my favorite form of revision.
Did you outline the whole novella before you wrote it or did it develop over time?
At AWP in Tampa a couple of years ago, I attended a session about the importance of outlining novels before the writing begins. The presenters made a strong case, but I don’t, in fact, do this myself. I like to know what sets the work in motion, but beyond that I want to discover the story as I write. My goal, often, is to let the story tell me where it wants to go. I am not “deciding” the direction of the piece; it decides.
Were there any major changes to the plot or the characters that you made as you wrote the story?
In the first draft, I imagined that there was some great mystery behind Hannah’s death, that perhaps, even, she had been murdered by Luke or someone else. As I revised, though, I became more interested in the dysfunction of the relationship between Hannah and Luke, and how that dysfunction was reflected later with Hannah’s sister. I wanted to show how these characters crafted their own undoing.
About the Arts:
There are many elements of the Arts throughout Under Black Leaves, what made you decide to choose these collegiate majors compared to others?
Art and dance seemed perfect because both are visual representations, which meant I could describe them in images. Music, for example, would be harder to describe in active ways, though I have tried that in other projects.
Was it difficult to understand the ballet and art terms and what they represent? How did you go about learning about these terms and ensuring they were correctly represented?
I completed a good deal of research for the ballet and dance elements of the novella. As for the art elements, I am a great fan of art and art museums, and most of the artists I mention are my own personal favorites, but I know next to nothing about creating art. That, too, required research.
Do you find that arts majors (dance, art, English, etc.) are underappreciated and unrepresented in universities and colleges? Can there be success in life with a creative degree?
There seems a general assumption that English and the arts are impractical, that graduates in these fields are doomed to lives of poverty. The facts don’t bear this out. English majors, for example, do quite well financially. They may start a little behind a few other majors in terms of salaries, but they catch up quickly. Communication skills are important in a great many fields. Plus, spending a professional life focusing on English and the arts sounds a lot more gratifying to me than laboring at some other professions that might yield higher incomes. We spend an enormous part of our lives working. Shouldn’t it be personally rewarding?
About mental health:
The novella brings up the conversation of how grief and mental health affects a person. How did you go about writing these difficult topics and what was that process for you?
As much as we might want our lives to be full of wonderful vacations and happy times with family and laughter over great meals, we want our stories to be about problems and suffering and challenges. Being a writer means torturing your characters. And once you have tortured them for a while, torture them some more. Maybe your characters can come out all right in the end, but it has to be a trial to get there.
Why did you decide to include the topic of mental health?
I didn’t make a conscious decision to explore mental health as an issue. I saw the story as about our universal struggle to cope. Of course, there have been a lot of artists and writers who have had notable struggles with mental and emotional issues, so perhaps that was also at the back of my mind.
What research did you have to do to learn about mental health and grief to write this novella?
I did some research on opioid use, but I did not look into grief itself or the challenges associated with mental health issues. Grief is a part of all our lives. We can extrapolate from our own experiences.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the topic of mental health and grief?
In writing the novella, I wanted to achieve in words the same types of effects that Luke attempts to achieve in his art. In addition, I wanted Luke’s mental and emotional woes to be reflected in the impressionistic style. I didn’t think, in other words, that an orderly and rational narration would reflect his mental state; I wanted to establish a more chaotic and dreamlike style.