One particular group of writers has always especially interested me: Those with full time careers revolving around a constantly changing combination of writing, teaching, and editing projects. In other words, those who make a living with words, but are not on staff full time at a university or media enterprise. The ultimate freelancer, if you will. It is the writers who write and publish, teach and give seminars, edit and consult with other writers, whose careers I study and try to learn from.
An excellent example is Leslea Newman, who has published nearly 60 books -- children's books, poetry, personal essay, short stories, novels, young adult fiction, middle grade novels, and books on writing craft. During my MFA program, I was fortunate enough to participate in a writing workshop under Leslea's direction, and to attend many of her presentations on writing craft and publishing. I'm so pleased that she agreed to a rather lengthy question-and-answer interview.
Lisa Romeo: When you wrote Heather Has Two Mommies in 1988, you co-published it with a friend who owned a small desktop publishing business. Now here you are on the eve of the 20th anniversary edition. Can you talk about your original decision and the journey you've been on with that book ever since?
Leslea Newman: Heather Has Two Mommies started as a grass roots project. I was asked by a woman to write a children’s book that showed a family like hers (two moms and their daughter). No established publisher would touch the book, so a friend of mine, Tzivia Gover, who at the time was a lesbian mom with a small desktop publishing business, and I decided to publish the book together. We raised $4,000 in $10 donations, found an illustrator, and printed the book. Six months later, Alyson Books took over. And the rest is history! I’m very proud of the fact that the book is still in print 20 years later (and the new edition has wonderful illustrations in full color). It’s been challenged many times, but the message of the book remains the same: the most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other.
LR: You work in many genres and forms. How do your varied endeavors nurture one another?
LN: Each genre informs the others. For example, I believe that being a poet has made my fiction more lyrical; being a fiction writer has helped me write narrative poems. I always encourage writers to think of themselves expansively—there’s no limit to one’s imagination!
LR: How do you approach your work time and make decisions about what to work on next? Do you make long-range plans, or do you tend to respond more or less organically to the material which is calling out to you most strongly?
LN: I try to write every morning, though sometimes that is not possible because of travel plans, deadlines, and other responsibilities. I never plan ahead; when I sit down to write, I stare at a blank page and pray some words will come along to fill it. If I see a trend develop, for example, if I seem to be working on poems over a period of time, I’ll consciously say, “Oh, I’m working on a new poetry collection.” But the work is the boss; it tells me what to do, not the other way around.
LR: What about saleability and concerns of the literary marketplace?
LN: I never write to sell. Well, I take that back. Once I wrote a romance novel with the intent of selling it and perhaps making some money. It is the only book I have never been able to sell (though it did come close at several presses). Oh well. You can’t blame a girl for trying.
LR: I know you are a big believer in writing every day. Can you explain why you feel that way, how it fits in to your own writing regimen, and make suggestions for others who may be finding it challenging to find either the time or the mental commitment to write every single day?
LN: I do think one gets better the more one writes. It’s like anything else, playing an instrument, playing a sport. And you never know what you’re going to write on any given day. The only thing that’s a guarantee is that if you don’t pick up your pen (or turn on your computer) nothing will happen on the page that day. Often—more often than I’d care to admit—I scribble and scribble and nothing interesting happens on the page. This can go on for days, sometimes weeks. Then one day something interesting will emerge. If that happens on day #42, I know the 41 days that preceded that writing were absolutely necessary. It’s all part of the process.
LR: You are one of the most hard-working writers I've ever met, and yet I don't think I'd call you a workaholic; it's more that I get the feeling you both treat writing as a job, and yet also retain all the joy and love of writing that occasionally gets lost over a long writing career. What do you think helps you achieve this kind of love/work relationship with your writing career?
LN: All I know is that I’m happier writing than not writing (even when the work isn’t going well). I think the reason I still love writing and being a writer is that I’m really in love with language. Nothing pleases me more than coming up with a phrase or image that moves me in some way, whether it makes me laugh, cry, or just impresses me with its rhyme, meter, or originality. This is what I live for, the joy of discovery, or what a writer friend of mine calls the daily miracle.
LR: In one memorable seminar, you brought in a stack of manila envelopes which contained the 17 drafts of Jailbait, the young adult novel you published in 2005. You went on to trace the changes, share your reactions to the editorial suggestions of your agent and publishing house editor, and emphasize the importance of being willing to try new things on the page. You even agreed to refocus the original novel manuscript into a young adult novel – a huge shift. I was so impressed with your professionalism (and willingness to let others inside the process). What do you want not-yet-published writers to take from your experience?
LN: It’s important to realize that more often than not you are not the best judge of your own work. You have a whole head full of other information about your book—information about the characters, the setting, the plot—that is not on the page. Your reader does not have that. Your reader only has the words that appear on the page. That’s important to remember. Also, you have to realize that you and your editor want the same thing: to make your book the best it can be, both for artistic merit and for success in the marketplace. Editors edit—that’s their job. Your relationship with your editor is like any other relationship; it demands mutual respect, an open mind, the ability to listen, and the willingness to compromise. When an editor makes a suggestion, I’m always willing to try it. I may not always do what my editor says, but I am always willing to consider her or his suggestions and see what happens.
LR: When writing across genres, writers often wonder how and when to best showcase the material. Do you ever rewrite a published poem as a piece of nonfiction or use it as a basis for a short story or novel – or vice versa? For example, the poem, “When My Father Stopped Tucking Me” In, from your latest poetry book, Nobody's Mother, has all the markings of morphing into a compelling personal essay or short memoir piece. (And there are so many other examples.) How do you know if that is do-able? Is it a matter of forging ahead and seeing what eventually works out? Or do you try to always begin fresh with each new project?
LN: It is sometimes said that writers really only have two or three stories to tell. I’m not sure if that’s true, but there are definitely themes that come up in my work over and over again. For example, I’ve written so much about mothers and daughters, and do so again in a forthcoming children’s book called Just Like Mama (Abrams, spring 2010), in many poems in both Signs of Love and Nobody's Mother, and in my latest novel, The Reluctant Daughter. When I had various friends dying of AIDS, I wrote the poetry book, Still Live with Buddy, the children’s book, Too Far Away to Touch, and the short story, “What Ever Happened to Baby Fane?” (in Girls Will be Girls) etc. I write whatever compels me, whatever I care passionately about, in whatever form it takes.
LR: Your middle grade novel, Hachiko Waits, based on the legendary dog who waited 10 years for the return of his deceased Japanese owner – will likely get new attention once the Richard Gere film of the story is released. Are you doing anything to prepare for that?
LN: You bet! I have been contacted by several bookstores and organizations, including the Animal Cancer Foundation to do booksignings once the movie is released. I’m very eager to see this new reinterpretation of Hachiko’s story. The new movie is based on the Japanese film which was made in the 1980’s and was very beautiful.
LR: As a writing teacher, what big mistakes do you see not-yet-published writers making, not in terms of technical writing issues, but in terms of the trajectory of their writing careers and development?
LN: Many beginning writers don’t understand that writing is a business, as well as an art, and one has to treat it like any other business. One has to be professional. One has to network. One has to be willing to take risks. One has to give one’s all, 100% of the time. One has to accept failure as well as success. One has to be in it for the long haul. One must be humble. And of course, one has to do one’s best writing. One has to, as Jerry Garcia famously said, “Accept every assignment. Build your fan base one person at a time.” At least that is my philosophy.
I find, much to my surprise, that many writers who have yet to publish have an attitude of arrogance, and only want to be published in the most prestigious publications around. For example, I know a poet who will not send his work anywhere except The New Yorker. And he has yet to be published. I have made a career of publishing with small presses, many of whom published my work when they were just starting out. And it has not hurt me. I still publish with small, as well as large presses. A friend of mine who is a folk singer has a motto: Go where you’re wanted. I think that’s solid advice.
LR: I've used your craft book, Write From the Heart, when teaching, especially the writing exercises. Are there other books on writing craft do you recommend?
LN: To tell you the truth, I find reading beautifully written books of fiction and poetry a lot more useful than reading books on writing. One learns about craft by reading well-crafted books and absorbing technique on a cellular level. However there is one book I absolutely love: The Art of Writing by Lu Chi, translated by Sam Hamill. It was written in the third century, and it is still relevant today. I also like If You Want to Write by Barbara Ueland. And On Writer's Block by Victoria Nelson.
LR: Tell us a little about your newest novel, The Reluctant Daughter.
LN: The Reluctant Daughter is a novel about a woman who can’t decide whether or not she wants to be a mother until she decides whether or not she wants to be a daughter. Lydia Pinkowitz seemingly has it all: a successful career as a Professor of Women’s Studies, a loving spouse named Ali, and many friends. What she doesn’t have is a close relationship with her mother, which is what she yearns for. Lydia and her mother are at constant odds with one another; after a particularly painful encounter, Lydia decides to cut off communication with her family of origin. Then she gets a call from her father: her mother is in intensive care. Will Lydia fly 3,000 miles cross country to try and make peace with her mother, or simply let the woman go? I’ve gotten many letters from women who say the book has moved them enormously and that has been very gratifying. I haven’t met a woman yet who doesn’t have a complicated relationship with her mother!
LR: What's on tap for you next?
LN: I am very excited to have four children’s books coming out in the next two years. Just Like Mama is a sweet book about the special relationship between a mother daughter, which is being released for Mother’s Day 2010. Miss Tutu's Star is a book about a clumsy little girl who wants to be a ballerina, and will be published in fall 2010.
I will be the keynote speaker at the Write Angles Conference in Amherst, Massachusetts on November 21st, and teaching at The Frost Place in June 2010. I’m also participating in the 30 poems in 30 days project that I initiated as poet laureate in Northampton, Mass., to raise money for the Family Literacy Project of the Center for New Americans. And I continue to work as a mentor with private students in all genres -- fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s books.