Spotlight image: Mitu Malhotra and Lesléa Newman with Lesléa’s books.
Today we welcome Lesléa Newman to share her writing process. I have long admired Lesléa’s lyrical works for children. Her YA novel October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012) was a mentor text for me during my MFA journey. Luckily, this summer I got an opportunity to meet Lesléa in person and chat about her new book,
Always Matt: A Tribute to Matthew Shepard, illustrated by Brian Britigan (Abrams ComicArts, September 26, 2023).
In the verse novel October Mourning you used different first person POV’s including that of the Fence that bookended the story so effectively. Could you tell us a little about the process of writing the story then, your choice of point of view characters, and the emotions you drew from as you wrote?
The book started with a question: what happened at the fence that night? Obviously, Matt can’t tell us what happened. His killers—well, it’s hard for me to believe anything they say, plus parts of their stories contradict each other. I kept thinking, if only there were witnesses. And then I had that aha! kind of moment that poets dream of, and realized there were witnesses: the fence was there, the moon was there, the stars were there, animals were there…. I decided to write from those perspectives to see what I could learn.
As I wrote, more and more points of view occurred to me, such as the truck Matt was kidnapped in, his shoes which were stolen from him, his cat who was waiting at home for him and others. Emotionally I had to be immersed in this tragedy in order to put my heart and soul into the poems, and at the same time, I had to be removed from the events that occurred in order to concentrate on form, rhythm, repetition, and other poetic techniques.
What inspired you to create Always Matt?
Jason Marsden, a former Executive Director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, asked me to write a book about Matt for younger readers. We all know that bullying can start very young, and it is important to teach children to be kind and that bullying is not okay. It was very challenging to figure out a way to approach this material for a very young audience. I thought I had written a picture book, but my editor, Howard Reeves, who is wise and brilliant, had a vision to use the text to create what he calls a “family book.” Our hope is that the book will be read and discussed by families who will be moved to take action to make the world a safer place for the LGBTQ+ community and all of us.
How did you begin the process of drafting Matthew’s story for younger audiences, especially toning down the tragic elements? Did any of the images from your earlier poems from October Mourning trickle into this new telling?
I just started writing, which is how I start everything, with no idea what I’m doing. Eventually, something emerges on the page that I can work with. I was very inspired by Judy Shepard’s memoir, The Meaning of Matthew: My Son’s Murder in Laramie and a World Transformed (Penguin Random House, September 3, 2009). I was also inspired by Michele Josue’s film, Matt Shepard Is A Friend Of Mine. Reading Judy’s memoir and watching Michele’s film introduced me to Matt, as opposed to Matthew Shepard.
So that was my focus, writing more about Matt’s life and who he was as a person rather than writing about his death and what happened to him. Writing about the violence was tricky. It has to be in there of course, and at the same time, it had to be described in an age-appropriate way. I settled on the phrases “after they hurt him” and “they left him alone, bruised and bleeding” which leaves room for each reader to fill in what they can emotionally handle.
In terms of images, the fence Matt was tied to has become an iconic symbol so it appears in both books, along with the deer that kept Matt company for part of the time he was out there in the cold dark night. I learned about the deer from Judy’s book and the thought of that beautiful animal curling up to Matt as he lay there suffering has always stayed with me.
I believe you wrote this entire book Always Matt as one poem. From a craft perspective, what was your inspiration/reason to use the same stanza for the opening and ending?
For me, the point of Always Matt is to show people that Matt was a person with a family and friends who loved him, with his own likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams and plans. The book begins:
“He was a grandson, a son, and a brother.
To the world, he was Matthew Shepard.
To his family, he was always Matt.”
The first stanza introduces the reader to Matt, the person, as opposed to “Matthew Shepard” the headline. There is a subtle, but important difference in the final stanza:
“He was a grandson, a son, and a brother.
To the world, he is Matthew Shepard.
To his family, he will always be Matt.”
The first stanza says, “he was always Matt” and the last stanza says, “he will always be Matt.” Long after the reader closes the book, Matt’s family will still be missing him. It’s important to remember that.
Was this book a collaborative project with the illustrator Brian Britigan? Or did you offer the writing and let him decide the color palette, page breaks, and visual elements on his own?
After the text was in its final form, I let go and let my editor, illustrator, and art director work their magic. I did provide Brian with images I had on hand from all the research I did both for October Mourning and Always Matt. And I did see his sketches and was able to give him some feedback, which I hope was helpful.
After the text is finalized, my job is to get out of the way. I have worked with my editor, Howard Reeves, on many picture books, so I knew him and trusted him. And the book is stunning! The emotional tone of the artwork perfectly matches the text. It turned out more beautifully than I could have possibly imagined.
“Wide Wyoming Sky” is one refrain that stayed in my brain as I read Always Matt. Are there any lines that hold a special place in your heart in this new book?
“Matt promised to make the world/a better place, a kinder place,/a peaceful place for everyone.” This is the heart of the book.
These lines are so important to me that they appear in the book twice. Matt was a compassionate person who wanted to work for social justice. Hopefully readers of Always Matt will be inspired to carry on the work that he set out to do.
What do you hope young readers will take away from Always Matt?
I hope that after reading Always Matt, young readers will think about ways they can spread kindness and love throughout the world, so that together we can erase violence and hate.
There is a concept in Jewish tradition known as “tikkun olam” which means repairing the world. It is the responsibility of all of us to do our part in small and large ways, to mend our broken world.
In the two decades that spanned the publishing of October Mourning and Always Matt, how has your own writing for children evolved?
I hope it has improved! I think and hope I have learned a lot about writing sparse text that leaves room for an illustrator to add visual storytelling. I think and hope my ear for musicality has developed. Most importantly, I have learned to trust myself, and believe that if I work hard and revise, revise, revise, eventually I will get it right.
Do you have any craft advice for writers penning their first verse novel for children?
- Ask yourself: why am I telling this story in verse? How does writing in verse serve this narrative?
- Remember always, that you are in service to the text, the text is not in service to you.
- Pay attention to sound. Read your work out loud as you write; better yet, have someone else read it back to you. You know how you want your words to sound, so you might “cheat” to make the words fit. But an outside reader won’t do that. Pay attention to the places where they falter. That’s where you need to go in and revise.
- Study poetic form. Even if you don’t write in form, being familiar with forms such as the villanelle, pantoum, sestina, triolet, will inform your writing.
- Lastly, make sure every word earns its space on the page.
Do you have a daily poetry practice? What do you do when you have a mental block and you are unable to write?
I try to write every day but that is not always possible. I’ve stopped beating myself up when I miss a day though I do feel “off” when this happens. My goal is to write first thing in the morning (before checking email!) because that’s when my brain is at its best. When I can’t write, I read poetry.
Also, I pick a poetic form and just write in it for practice. It’s like a musician playing scales or a basketball player shooting hoops. I have to exercise those writing muscles so they don’t get rusty. I don’t know what will happen when I pick up my pen. I do know what will happen if I don’t pick up my pen: nothing.
The cellist Pablo Casals was once asked, when he was well into his 90’s, why he kept practicing. He said, “I think I may be improving.” I, too, hope I am improving. He also said, “My cello is my oldest friend, my dearest friend.” I feel that way about my pen. I am very lucky to have such a loyal, devoted, kind, and generous lifelong friend.
Lesléa Newman has created more than 80 books for readers of all ages including the dual memoir-in-verse, I Carry My Mother and I Wish My Father and the picture books, Sparkle Boy, The Fairest in the Land, Alicia and the Hurricane: A Story of Puerto Rico and Heather Has Two Mommies.
Her literary awards include two National Jewish Book Awards, two Stonewall Honors, the Sydney Taylor Award and the Massachusetts Book Award. A past poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she currently teaches at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing.
Mitu Malhotra holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the 2021 winner of the Katherine Paterson Prize for Literature for Young Adults and Children. Her short story Toxins is part of ELA curriculum. In previous avatars, she was a textile and fashion designer. When she is not writing, Mitu paints, sews, and builds miniature dollhouses out of recycled materials. She is an active member of SCBWI. More on www.mitumalhotra.com or Instagram @mituart.