Because I’m a big believer in discovering the hidden treasures of our own beautiful town (particularly the literary ones!), I’ve started interviewing the local authors of New Bern and the surrounding areas. First up on my list is a local author who is almost always on the bestseller table at The Next Chapter Books & Art, Leslie Tall Manning.
If you haven’t met Leslie or read any of her books, you should definitely make the effort. Here’s a little background information:
Leslie Tall Manning is an award-winning novelist who writes about adults and teenagers craving independence and often stumbling into it headfirst. She especially loves digging into universal themes such as friendship, bravery, and self-forgiveness. Her previously published books have received 5-star reviews from Publishers Weekly; Prairies Book Reviews; Midwest Book Reviews; Netgalley; Novel Gossip; YA Books Central; Readers’ Favorite; and Indie Brag; Pickled Thoughts and Pinot; and the Story Circle Network. Manning’s awards include the Sarton Women’s Literary Award; North Carolina Author Project Award; Self-e Library Journal Selection; International Book Award Finalist; Taleflick Road to Development Finalist; Indie Brag Medallion; Story Monsters Certificate of Excellence; and the Firebird Literary Fiction Award. She spends her days writing furiously and her evenings tutoring young adults. Always wanting to connect with readers, she loves guest speaking at local book clubs and libraries. When she isn’t crafting books, plays, or musicals, she enjoys taking care of her Victorian home and traveling with her artist husband. She is proudly represented by Uwe Stender at the TriadaUS Literary Agency.
Her books include Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town, Knock on Wood, GAGA, Maggie’s Dream, and i am Elephant, i am Butterfly.
- You have an interesting background that ranges from the stage to teaching. How does this influence your writing?
While some might not think there is a connection between theater, teaching, and writing, I see them all as cogs in the same wheel of communication. Performing in plays during much of my youth, as well as playing violin, and later working in the film industry, I learned how to perform in front of an audience; how to build a fourth wall; how to think subjectively versus objectively. As an actress, I not only learned how to interpret dialogue and stage directions, but how to get into the mind of a particular character. An actor must know intimate details about the role she plays, even if those details don’t appear on stage. It’s about digging as deep into a character’s psyche as possible. It seems like a natural progression, going from acting to writing because they are forms of communication. Even as a teacher, I am able to take what I’ve learned from acting coaches, writing professors, and directors, and use those tools in the classroom. Now, as a private tutor, I utilize those same tools in order to engage with my students. As far as writing fiction goes, everything I’ve done, seen, learned, etc., goes into my stories. I think the added bonus is that I can literally see the story “on stage” before I ever put my fingers to the keyboard. I am the writer, the stage manager, and the director of the stories in my head!
- You write a wide variety of genres from magical realism to young adult. Do you have a favorite genre?
Ha! I wish I did. I am the genre-less writer! Perhaps if I only wrote in one vein, it would help me become a bestselling author in romance, or mystery, or sci-fi. Some of those authors spit out five books a year, all formatted to fit a specific genre. And those books often sell well. But I put a LOT of time into my stories. I mull a story over sometimes for years. I really do wish I had what it takes to write in one specific genre, because there is a certain talent to that, but, alas, my road is to be a bit bumpier. If I HAD to choose one genre as a fave, I suppose it would be historical fiction. I love getting rid of modern tech so a story is solely based on the characters, without constant interruption from text updates, Facebook dings, Instagram chimes…
- You deal with a lot of serious issues in your books. Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town dealt with teenage drug and alcohol abuse and the death of a parent. i am Elephant, i am Butterfly dealt with body image. Knock on Wood had a brain damaged hero. And your newest, Rules of Falling (fall, 2021), will feature a heroine with syncope. How do you get in the heads of your characters?
I guess it goes back to that theatre training: getting to know each character intimately, even if those details aren’t ever seen by a reader. I know what my characters had for breakfast. I know their religion, their hopes and dreams, the fears that drag them down. Knowing these details helps a writer go deep into a character’s psyche. I also love watching people of all ages and backgrounds, so I’m sure my observations help to some degree.
- Do you find that world events influence your writing?
While my writing is rarely influenced by modern-day world events, my stories are all relevant, even the ones that are set back in time. Take Knock on Wood for example, which begins in 1978 but ends in the mid 1990s. The main character, William, suffers brain damage in a near-drowning incident at fourteen, changing the course of his life. While specific world events did not jumpstart this book, personal events did have an influence. My mother was a special education teacher and I once met a young man in her classroom who was a bit like William. Even though what this person went through would not be considered a world event, it’s important to remember we are all surrounded by personal events, and those events are what make up our world. Sure, the news can show us what is happening across the globe, but what really matters to us in real time is what happens in our own backyards. I also dig into universal themes understood by most cultures, like bravery, independence, self-forgiveness, and friendship. These themes are what help a book feel relevant no matter what our world is going through at the moment.
- Do you have a favorite character?
I hate to say it, but yes, I do! (Just don’t tell my other characters.) And she is about to find her way into a musical version of the novel! My favorite character is Brooke Decker, the teen star of my award-winning novel Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town. I have no children of my own, and I rarely visited with my stepdaughter when she was little, so Brooke became the daughter I never raised—with a tiny bit of my dramatic teenaged self thrown in for good measure. Brooke starts out as an angry young girl who feels screwed over by the universe, and she is spiraling out of control. By the story’s end four months later, after she has lived through the struggles of a pioneer, she not only learns to play well with others, but allows herself space in which to grieve and, eventually, move on. Brooke discovers that we can’t live a happy life if we spend our time blaming others for the way we feel.
- What writing rituals do you have, if any?
So…twenty years, fourteen novels, and six published books later, yes, I do! Or, at least, I guess one could call it a ritual. Really though, it’s just a good habit. I write Monday through Thursday, from 11 to 3, only wavering if I’m out of town or between projects. Because I tutor in the evenings, I only have this window of opportunity to write, so this is what works for me. I wake up, have breakfast, work out, have coffee clutch with my husband, and begin writing. My characters are ready to speak, and they never let me down. I do chores on Fridays, whatever I want on Saturdays, and market my books on Sundays. Having a routine (aka ritual) is important for any artist to stay balanced so we can enjoy other parts of our lives, like family, friends, Netflix binging, and antiquing! It’s also important to stay consistent as a writer.
- What’s your biggest distraction from writing?
Nothing. I mean, seriously, nothing. I am married to an artist, and he understands my need for space, just as I understand his. We support each other immensely this way. I tuck myself away in my home office, put in ear plugs if necessary, ignore the doorbell, and turn down my phone. No midday social media for this girl! Even if a student texts me with an emergency, I can quickly answer the text and slip right back into whatever scene I’m working on. I will add that I am one of the rare writers who has never suffered from writer’s block. I don’t even know what that feels like, because the characters never leave my mind and the stories never stop coming. I hear people say things like, “I don’t like writing—I like having written.” But I don’t understand this at all. I need to write. I love to write. I love every second of the process: pre-writing, researching, starting the first page, editing, all of it. I would never let anything distract me from something I love this much. Writing is a choice, but it is also a gift. I recognize how fortunate I am to receive this gift.
- What do you feel is your primary responsibility as a writer?
I’ve gone back and forth with this question over the years. For a while I thought my responsibility was to write what my agent wants. Then what I want. Then what publishers want. Then what society wants. Honestly, I don’t have any more or less responsibility to my writing than someone who believes in the value of hard work. I show up each day, do my absolute best, and eventually send my creation out into the world. Those are my responsibilities.
- Which of your novels would you say is your most under-appreciated?
The other nine that aren’t yet published! LOL. But seriously, I guess out of the five books that are currently out in the world, the most under-appreciated would be i am Elephant, i am Butterfly. It was initially picked up by Harper Collins, but the editor left that house for another and could not take the book with her. Before she left, she helped me turn my YA novel into a multi-leveled story. I learned so much from this editor. Many years of sweat and heart went into the writing—interviews with doctors and nutritionists and camp counselors, speaking with students about body image—but a few readers were ultimately offended. The book is about an overweight teen girl who befriends a skinny girl from the camp across the lake, and the unlikely friendship that develops. It includes a mystery and offers a theme of self-forgiveness. We are living in an age of cancel culture and some people have a difficult time with anything they deem as a personal attack. I write to affect others and to make them think. I write to entertain. I write from the heart and take time and care with my work. I never write a book to hurt a person or a group of people. When I was a young girl and devoured all kinds of books, it never crossed my mind to tell an author what they should or shouldn’t write, or to offer my opinion in an angry manner. If I didn’t like the book, I just tossed it to the side and went to the next one. Like a painting in an art gallery: If you like it, take it in for a few moments. If not, move on. Sadly, today, the world is one big bathroom wall where some feel they can spray paint in huge letters anything they like, especially with regards to books. These reviews used to upset me, but not anymore. Now I understand that some people are incredibly sensitive. Just like some authors are sensitive. Really, though, nothing is personal. Not the stories, not the reviews. I suppose it comes with the territory, incidentally upsetting someone, when the writer’s goal is for others to enjoy, escape, and learn. My advice to potential readers: Read the back matter or inside jacket. Read the book’s reviews. If it still sounds like something up your alley, then go for it. Don’t read a book because you plan from the beginning to find fault with it or you want to create unnecessary drama. Read because you want to be entertained or to learn something new. As an aside, i am Elephant, i am Butterfly has 4.5 stars on Amazon, so these under-appreciators are few and far between, thankfully!
- How will you know when you’ve “made it” as a writer?
This is such a loaded question! If you asked my agent, he’d tell you that “making it” is when one of the BIG 5 publishers (Simon & Schuster, Penguin/Random House, etc) signs an author for a two or three-book deal, followed by a Netflix option. I won’t disagree! But there are definitely upsides to independent publishing: I get to make all the decisions, from font style to cover to the date the book goes live. I set the price, distribute it in any way I deem fit, and enter as many award contests as I like. Some days, when sales are steady and reviews are good, or I meet a teenager who loved one of my books, I feel I’ve made it. It doesn’t matter anyway, because no matter what happens, I will keep writing until my brain fizzles. My books are as much a part of me as my appendages. I guess that’s as good as making it!
Leslie’s books are all available online and signed copies can be found at The Next Chapter Books & Art in downtown New Bern. Her upcoming release, Rules of Falling, an edgy new Young Adult, will be on the shelves November 15, 2021.
Here is a summary for Rules of Falling:
Feel for a pulse. Count the seconds…
Erica O’Donnell is hardly the quintessential high school senior. She doesn’t have a driver’s license. She’s never been to a concert. Sports are out of the question. She doesn’t own a pair of heels. No boy has ever asked her out. All of this for good reason: Erica faints. A lot. And at the most inconvenient times.
Chronic fainting, also known as syncope, keeps Erica on the sidelines as the odd-girl out. Luckily, Lindsay Bennett hovers nearby to catch Erica each time she nose-dives to the floor. Lindsay isn’t only Erica’s best friend—for four years she’s been her savior.
But things are about to change.
When Lindsay breaks up with her boyfriend Adam to pursue a married man, Erica is intrigued. But as Lindsay’s relationship intensifies, Erica finds her own world spinning out of control: from covering up her friend’s affair, to hiding her feelings for Adam, to casting suspicion when a string of arson fires sweeps through the town.
Gradually peeling away layers of deception from those she trusts the most, Erica must decide how far she is willing to go to uncover truths—and how many people will get burned in the process.
By Author Michelle Garren Flye