Today, I will be interviewing Lesléa Newman, a guest lecturer and the author of 60 adult, young adult, and children’s books. She has received many literary awards including Poetry Fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Fellowship Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Highlights for Children Fiction Writing Award, the James Baldwin Award for Cultural Achievement, the Stonewall Book Award, Dog Writers Association of America’s Best Book of Fiction Award, a Parents’ Choice Silver Medal and three Pushcart Prize Nominations. Nine of her books have been Lambda Literary Award finalists. If you want to learn more Lesléa, take a few moments to read through the interview.
I am certain, you will be able to find something of interest on her Amazon page.
I received complimentary copies of Lesléa’s two Passover picture books prior to this interview. Commenters to this blog will be eligible for a book giveaway. See Below.
After graduating with an education degree from the University of Vermont in 1977, you headed in a new direction by attending Naropa Institute in Boulder. What prompted you to pursue a Certificate in Poetics? Does your poetry expertise affect the way you write children’s books? How did your apprenticeship with Allen Ginsberg influence your writing?
Actually I had been writing poetry since I was a small child and studied creative writing at the University of Vermont, so it wasn’t a change in direction. My self-designed major at UVM was creative writing and social services. I was enamored of the Beat poets ever since high school, so when I heard that Allen Ginsberg was teaching at Naropa, I knew I had to go out there and study with him. My poetry affects all the writing that I do; it has taught mer economy of language. And Allen’s voice is never far from my ear as I sit and write. His mantra was: “First thought, best thought” which doesn’t mean there is no re-writing involved. It means that one must try to stay in touch with the aha! moment that sparked the creation of any piece one is working on.
Your successful and prolific writing career has lasted for decades. How does your early writing compare to the books that you have published in the last decade?
I sincerely hope that my writing has improved since my first book came out in 1980. I hope I’ve learned a thing or two along the way!
Your website showcases an impressive list of award-winning books. Your audience includes people who enjoy reading novels, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, humor, anthologies, and children’s books- picture books, chapter books, and young adult. Do you write in multiple genres simultaneously? Which is your favorite format?
To me, writing is writing. But if I was forced to pick my favorite genre, it would be poetry, my first love. If I am writing a novel, I can’t really work on anything else. If I am writing a picture book, I can also write poetry, and the occasional essay.
Authors oftentimes rely on their past experiences for writing ideas. How does your background as a Lesbian feminist affect your writing?
Being a feminist and being a lesbian, and being a Jew, and being a daughter, and being a spouse, and being a human being affects everything I do, including my writing.
In 1989, you took the bold step of publishing Heather Has Two Mommies. This controversial book was attacked by conservatives and banned in many places. What did you learn from this experience?
I learned that when one releases a book into the world, the book takes on a life of its own and different people will use any given book for their own agendas. I simply wrote a story for kids with two moms so that they would be able to see a family like theirs portrayed in a picture book. I did not mean to start a riot!
To date you have published two children’s picture books for Passover. (Matzo Ball Moon (Clarion Books, 1998) and A Sweet Passover (Abrams, 2012). Did any of your childhood experiences influence these Passover picture books or any of your other Jewish related picture books?
My childhood has definitely influenced my Jewish children’s books. Passover was a very big deal in my house, and my dad is very pleased that his recipe appears in the back of A SWEET PASSOVER!
Both Passover books focus on traditional foods. Did you purposely choose food as a way to engage your readers?
Food was very important in my house, and my maternal grandmother was an amazing cook. I still have her soup pot, and I am now known for my chicken soup (which she taught me how to make). I think many people feel that food is an important part of their heritage, and eating a certain food can bring back childhood memories.
By including an intergenerational component (grandparents & grandchildren) in the two Passover books, you are highlighting Jewish family life. Is there a particular message about Jewish families that you are conveying to your readers?
I don’t really write with a message in mind; I write to tell a story. But I do hope that readers of my books will realize how precious family members are, and how important it is for us to treasure one another.
In 1998, you were the keynote speaker at a Gay Awareness Event at the University of Wyoming. Your talk coincided with the barbaric beating of a young gay man named Matthew Shepard. Over a decade later, you published an award-winning tribute to Matthew. In October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, you use a creative poetic style to retell this unspeakable story. Can you explain how poetry enhances your message?
Many nonfiction articles and books have been written about Matthew Shepard’s murder. I wanted to do something different. As a poet, I look at the world in a different way. I thought about the night he was killed and wondered what the silent witnesses—the stars, the moon, the truck he was kidnapped in, the fence he was tied to—could tell me. By speaking in these various voices, my book asks the reader to witness the crime in a unique way, and hopefully will inspire the reader to do something to make the world a safer place in honor of Matt’s memory.
You have been a faculty member and workshop leader for several notable writing programs. Can you provide 3 tips for people who are interested in writing children’s books?
Write something every day.
Read something every day.
Do something to further your career every day (business-wise).
After consulting with countless writing students, what is the biggest mistake that novice writers make when writing their first book?
Many writers are too easily satisfied and don’t realize how important it is to rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite). Writing a book takes a very long time. Most of my books go through between 10 and 25 drafts.
Are you currently writing a book? If so, can you provide a brief overview and an anticipated publication date?
I have several picture books coming out in 2014 and 2015. HERE IS THE WORLD: A YEAR OF JEWISH HOLDAYS (Abrams, 2014) takes the reader through the first year of a Jewish child’s life and includes an explanation of all the holidays plus a craft or recipe for each. KETZEL THE CAT WHO COMPOSED (Candlewick, 2015) is the true story of a cat whose piano composition received an honorable mention in a contest (really!). HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES is being reissued by Candlewick Press in 2015 with brand new illustrations. And I have just completed a poetry collection called I CARRY MY MOTHER which is all written in form and explores my mother’s illness and death and my grief. The manuscript is currently looking for a home.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with my audience?
I thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you!
Thank you Lesléa for taking time to visit my website.
Anyone who leaves a comment on this blog by Sunday, April 20 will be eligible for a book giveaway. The randomly selected winner will be sent an autographed copy of one of these Passover books from the author.