Interviewed by Lucia Matuonto
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Roger Leslie. As an accomplished author and inspirational speaker, Dr. Leslie motivates individuals to transform their dreams into reality. His extensive collection of award-winning books serves as a testament to the profound impact of converting inspiration into action. While living his own dream, he also empowers aspiring and established writers to achieve their own success by serving as their writing coach, editor, and publisher.
Hello, Dr. Leslie, when did you realize you wanted to pursue writing as a career?
Life is always benevolent. Before we ever get inspired to fulfill any dream, life has already set up all the opportunities and support we need to make that dream come true. The week I decided that my destiny was to become an author, my 8th grade English teacher gave my class a unique assignment: we were to do any creative project we wanted related to literature. As soon as I received that assignment, I knew I would write my first story. Two weeks later, I turned in a story of more than 50 pages. I suspect my teacher’s excited reaction at seeing that thick block of paper must have felt like a comedian getting his first laugh. Her response, and the generous comments she gave my work, fueled my enthusiasm for my dream career.
I changed high schools when my family moved across the country. Left with plenty of empty evenings, I used that time to set an ambitious goal: I wrote my first book before I graduated. My gracious senior English teacher, Mrs. Collings not only read the novel, but she sacrificed several of her lunch periods to discuss the work with me. I submitted the book to New York publishers but didn’t start getting any of my books published for many years. That first novel remains unpublished. Intriguingly, an interviewer recently asked me about that book. When I told her the premise, she encouraged me to pull it out and start submitting it again.
What has been the most unexpected or surprising reaction you’ve received from a reader or reviewer regarding your writing?
Personally, one of the most surprising responses to my writing is indifference from people I honored in some of the books I wrote. To me, books have always played so important a role in my self-image and my idea of success that the thought of paying homage to someone by dedicating a book to them or highlighting them in the work felt like I was sharing my very soul with them. To my surprise, some of those recipients didn’t respond to the gesture at all. Some didn’t even read the book.
I don’t begrudge them their perspective. But the first time it happened, I really had to dig deep into my own mind to figure out why what I did with such honorable intentions could be left unacknowledged and seemingly unappreciated.
But then I remember my analogy of life as a prism, and everyone is looking at the same idea from a different facet. It also reminded me that we are all mirrors for each other. It led me to explore how people may have done magnanimous gestures for me that I didn’t response as they expected because my context for the gesture wasn’t the same.
I love life. It always invites me to learn, learn, learn.
Do you have a favorite character from your own books, and if so, why is that character special to you?
I love many of my characters, but when I teach writing courses, one character I often use as an illustration of the magic of the creative process is Russell from the novel, Drowning in Secret. I wrote the book more than twenty years ago, so I was still on a high learning curve about writing fiction.
I created Russell as a minor character with one purpose. Early in the novel, he was a foil to Mark, his friend, and one of four main characters in the book. The narration follows each of four characters in the same family: the mom, the dad, the sister, and Mark. They’re all drowning in their own secrets, not realizing how parallel their experiences are with the rest of their family. I wrote Russell’s scene and thought, Okay, he’s gone. I don’t need him anymore.
As I wrote a later chapter in that first draft, Russell came back. I thought that was strange, but he worked well in the scene, so I left him in. A few chapters after that, he came back.
By this time Russell seemed like a defiant child who would not do what I wanted him to: get out of my novel. When he came back again, I wrote one of the pivotal scenes: I actually drowned him. That chapter ends with lifeless Russell lying at the side of the pool. I left my writing desk that evening dusting off my hands thinking, Good, he’s gone.
I couldn’t believe what happened when I started writing the next chapter. Another character ran out to the pool and revived him! That’s when I stopped fighting Russell and began trusting that maybe my characters knew more about what the novel needed than I did.
Russell isn’t in much more of the novel, but he shows up at the end. Turns out, he is the one who articulates the theme of the entire novel. Once I read what he said, I thought, Of course! My four main characters are so steeped in their own troubles and delusions, they would need someone outside their family to see and point out the issue that’s keeping them all adrift. I also realized that this insight had more power coming from a character as young as Russell. His innocence and intelligence make the expression of that theme palatable.
What do you find most challenging about the writing process, and how do you overcome those challenges?
I love a challenge. Recently I was working on my fourteenth revision of my YA novel, No Stranger Christmas, and was exhausted! Sometimes my brain would flash some very unhelpful thoughts. One was, I must be getting older because this revision has been very difficult. Since my first draft of over 600 pages, I had honed and tweaked, and pared it down to less than half that total. When I stepped back to see what I had accomplished, I realized I was running a metaphoric marathon, and was actually using creative muscles and sustaining momentum in ways I never had before. In that moment of realization, the challenge shifted from wearing me out to invigorating me. As if getting my second wind with the finish line in sight, I sped through the rest of that revision (and one more after that). It has resulted in what I hope is one of the strongest books of my career.
Thanks to this lesson, I don’t recommend overcoming challenges. I invite people to dive into them and stay the course until they build new muscle and learn who they really can be. We’re always capable of doing more and being more than we believe about ourselves before we accept the challenge.
Can you describe your typical writing process? Do you have any specific routines or habits that help you write?
I just write. As a former literature teacher and professor, and now writing coach, I tell students and clients that the biggest obstacles to completing any draft are planning too much and revising too soon. For many aspiring authors, too much planning is simply a way of delaying that courageous leap into starting the first draft. Editing while writing the first draft is fatal. Writers don’t know what to edit until they’ve completed the first draft because—for fiction and nonfiction—every element of the work has to build toward a satisfying conclusion. It usually takes writing the first draft to discover what your characters in fiction and your ideas in nonfiction really want to convey. At first, a book is as much of a mysterious journey for the writer as it is for the reader.
Do you have a favorite book or author who has had a significant influence on your writing?
When I was a student and then a literature teacher, certain classics inspired me so much I would reread them regularly for pleasure, or I might pick one up and read a passage to inspire me to strive for excellence in my own writing. I still marvel at the excellence of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. But those novels are so universally adored, they don’t seem to offer a very original answer.
Themes of isolation and inner growth fascinate me. For that reason, I love Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Beautiful writing also touches me. Passages from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, and Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin stay with me and draw me back to those books again and again.
Are there any recurring themes or messages you try to convey in your writing?
I am clear on my mission in life, which is the same as my mission as an author: I inspire people to live the life they dream, and I empower them to follow their own unique spiritual path. That vision for my life guides me through every decision I make.
I strive to never preach in my writing, especially in my spiritual books such as My First Last Year and Divine Destiny. But always, and even in my fiction, that hopeful, encouraging, faith-filled perspective reveals itself. I believe it does mostly because I live the one bit of advice I give to all writers: in your first draft, bare your soul. The most exciting and enlightening passages to write, and the ones that resonate most with readers, are those that force us to push through fear to reach. The most resonant writing results when authors explore emotional, intellectual, or spiritual territory that terrifies them because it might feel too raw and too vulnerable to explore in private, let alone publish for the world to see. Great writers are courageous, indeed.
My message is always to live the life you dream. That concept demands, of course, that you have a dream. Many people don’t have one or are so vague about it they don’t know what action to take to achieve it. Other people have a dream but are too afraid to explore it. How do we pursue a dream and fulfill our destiny? We must have the courage to follow our own unique spiritual path. In that way, but aspects of my mission are related and reveal themselves in the plots, conflicts, and themes of my books.
Could you share a bit about your latest work? What was the inspiration behind it, and what do you hope readers will take away from it?
My heart goes out to those LGBTQ teens who feel isolated and lonely, or whose focus on figuring out their soul or just surviving in environments hostile to them keeps them from utilizing their natural talents. Those hostile environments include school, church, and sometimes their own home. I explored my unique journey out of that environment in my latest book, Light Come Out of the Closet. Now I’ve written No Stranger Christmas to shine a light of hope for those readers in any such environment. I also wrote it in such a way that, I hope, adults who want to better understand how difficult it is to navigate those struggles can. Even more ambitiously, I hope adults who have negative religious preconceptions about gender or sexuality will discover that, as one character says in the novel, “God doesn’t make mistakes. You know that, don’t you?”
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