The controversial author of “Heather Has Two Mommies” comes to Virginia Beach.
Lesléa Newman is the author of 55 books for adults and children, including the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk; and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. Her literary awards include creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the James Baldwin Award for Cultural Achievement, and a Parents ‘Choice Silver Medal. She is the Poet Laureate of Northampton, Mass. Her most recent books include a poetry collection entitled Nobody’s Mother (Orchard House Press, Fall, 2008), a novel entitled The Reluctant Daughter (Bold Strokes Books, Fall 2009), the first board books for kids with two moms or two dads, entitled Mommy, Mama, and Me, and Daddy, Papa, and Me (Tricycle Press, Spring 2009), and the picture book, Little Miss Tutu (Abrams, Spring 2010).
We chatted by phone on Friday about her writings.
ODU’s Jewish Women Writers book club read your book of short stories last month. They were amazed by the fact that you weave humor in the fabric of sad stories such as A Letter to Harvey Milk. How do you mix the two?
Writing for me works on many levels. It is often intuitive, subconscious; that’s just the way it comes through. Maybe it is a coping mechanism that takes the sting out of life. To analyze my own writing, when readers laugh, they are very open to new ideas, which, I think, is more powerful and effective than being very serious. I try to show parallel life experiences.
I am teaching Mothers of Invention this semester. (This is a short story about two female life-partners. One dreams of having a baby, but is not able to conceive after repeated attempts at artificial insemination. Her partner, who has never wanted a child, who only wishes she could have a big dog, decides to try for her partner’s sake, and, of course, she becomes pregnant on her first try.) How did you come up with the idea? What did inspire you? This is yet another story that is very serious, yet very funny.
It is not about anyone in particular, but I had heard similar stories before. Lesbian and gay couples do not have too many options for having children. Adoption is difficult. “What if,” I asked myself, as I usually do. I think that is the most important question anyone can ask before writing, “What would happen if…?” I never had a baby. I vicariously enjoyed the pregnancy in this story—the morning sickness, the birthing, etc. If I couldn’t experience it myself, then I could through the character’s pregnancy. I enjoy experiencing other people’s lives through fiction. Details are the life of the story; tiny details give the stories their depth.
In the Women Writers’ class, we are reading Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Many students find the information outdated and even insulting—especially the idea of a woman not necessarily being in love or even happy with a fetus inside her; that a woman does not necessarily fall in love with her baby; that the baby can be a stranger, even a foreign being? Do you agree with Rich’s view of motherhood?
I would say that women can be ambivalent about having babies. Some of my stories are more autobiographical than others. The question for me was to have or not to have a baby, and then time flew by, and it was all too late. In “The woman like me,” I write about not being a mother.
How do you make time for writing? Does a writer need to be financially independent, as Virginia Woolf asserted, to be able to write, to devote herself to her words?
Ironically, as I have become more successful, I find less time to write. I really made a conscious decision to be a writer and to do whatever I had to do to achieve it. To make money, I was a secretary for a while; I wrote workshops, gave lectures about the book, prepared lectures for universities; I did one to one mentoring. It is a dream, of course, to live off of one’s book loyalties and just write—but that’s just a dream for most of us.
However, I try to carve out time to write everyday for at least a short period of time. I often write a lot, and then I have to stop and catch up with life. It is a balancing act for me. Once I get an idea, I write quickly; I am obsessed and don’t stop, can’t rest until it has come to fruition. I often have a hard time coming with ideas. After each story, I think that I don’t have any more ideas, but then it comes. I write and rewrite. I have many many drafts.
When did you know that you were a writer, that you had to write?
Since childhood I have been a ferocious reader. I first wrote articles as a teenager for Seventeen Magazine . I worked hard to make it happen. I wanted to be a writer.
Who was your inspiration? What did motivate you to write?
Wonderful teachers. For example, Ms. Stern, my high school teacher. When I was inducted into my high school’s Hall of Fame in 1999, she was there with all my writings that she had kept in a folder. That meant a lot to me. I worked with Allen Ginsberg and Grace Paley. I had a week long workshop with Paley and we stayed connected after that.
Do you have any advice for students who would like to become writers?
Read as much as possible. I also read a lot, poetry, novels, young adult novels. I just read Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, a novel in a convent in Italy in 1500 and Emil & Karl about two boys growing up in pre World War II Vienna.
I say read poems if you are a poet, fiction if you are a fiction writer. You absorb the technique. It is better than reading books about writing. Cultivate a regular writing habit, a certain place and time, find peers and writing groups. I have a group of people I trust to be honest with me and keep me company. Otherwise, writing is a lonely endeavor.
Leslea Newman will be reading on Friday @ 4pm @ The University Village Bookstore. To learn more about her, visit her website. For a complete Lit Fest schedule, click here.