How Nathan Leslie Became a Writer

October 28, 2012 — 3 Comments
I’d say most writers and artists and musicians are inspirational. They all fight loneliness and self-doubts and usually the shrugging apathy of the general public.
Nathan Leslie’s six books of fiction include Madre, Believers and Drivers. He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection. His first novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, will be published by Atticus Books later this year. His short stories, essays and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, and Cimarron Review. He was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for five years.

Read more by and about Nathan:

Novel: The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice

Story Collection: Drivers

Story Collection: Believers

Story: Gatekeeping

Story: Attending

How Nathan Leslie Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Nathan for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I didn’t consciously choose writing–it chose me.  Writing has always been more of a compulsion for me than something I feel like I want to do.  I’ve always felt that I had things to say and stories to tell and then I’m drawn to the page to get it all down.  Why?  I have zero musical talent and can barely draw a stick figure, but I’ve always felt somewhat skilled with words at least.  Writing has struck me as something useful I can do, something to make sense of disorder I suppose.  When I was in high school writing bad poetry I probably thought of this as “expression,” but as I matured I thought more and more about what I was doing and how I’m doing it.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

When I began seriously studying the craft I realized that writing books is what I wanted to do.  I also realized that I didn’t want to limit myself to one means of expression really.  In undergrad I studied with Steve Watkins then I studied fiction at the University of Maryland where Reginald McKnight was a very helpful mentor for me.  The mentorship model is, in my view, the most useful component of MFA programs.  Yes, it’s great to find inspiration in your peers.  But Steve and Reg were very helpful in guiding me towards finding my voice, my aesthetic interests and my material.  After that I lived in Maryland for a number of years, working and writing as much as I could.  I rented an efficiency apartment in Sykesville, Maryland for a while and then lived in a fairly squalid apartment in Columbia, Maryland.  Rent was $400 a month and though the apartment didn’t have working A/C it gave me the chance to live inexpensively and do a literary apprenticeship of sorts.


I started finding some small success publishing short stories around 1997 and then my first book in 2002.  What I discovered is that I was attracted to the notion of exploring a subject deeply:  my book of stories, Drivers, for instance, which focuses thematically on cars and the whole network of experiences that comes along with driving and driving culture.  The more I investigated the subject (observationally, in terms of research), the more I discovered I had to say.  The subject generated its own material.  In terms of my fiction I’ve never been particularly interested in confessional writing.  I basically proceed journalistically.  Sometimes I might base a story on some tangential experience I’ve had, but usually it’s divorced from my own personal experiences (I’m a fairly private person when the chips are down).  I usually try to depersonalize, step outside of my own experience and into the psychic shoes of my characters.

Since that time I’ve found some measure of success in publishing fiction, some poetry, and doing some editing.  It gained its own momentum.  The more I published and “networked” (a word and concept I loathe–though I understand its practical necessity), the more I found readers and editors who were interested in what I had to say.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Aside from my mentors I’ve found a lot of support editorially–editors don’t get the credit they deserve for helping writers find their way.  I also took some classes before my MFA at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland–where I met Richard Peabody and others (Richard has been another wonderful mentor).  That’s a great resource for writers in the D.C. area.  I met John Amen through Uccelli Press (who published my book A Cold Glass of Milk).  John brought be on board as fiction editor of Pedestal Magazine.  This was a great experience for me and John was very helpful in a number of ways.  Of course, my friends and family and colleagues at NOVA (where I teach) were helpful.  I truly didn’t build this.

Chet Baker

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Of course, any artist or writer who has something to overcome is always inspirational–whether its Chet Baker fighting addiction while still making incredible music or Flannery O’Connor battling Lupus.  But more commonly I’d say most writers and artists and musicians are inspirational.  They all fight loneliness and self-doubts and usually the shrugging apathy of the general public.  Writing is a lonely craft and most writers have to navigate the accompanying terrain.  Sometimes I don’t feel like writing.  Sometimes I wonder:  What’s the point?  Writer’s have to muddle through and find a way to say something interesting despite the fairly monastic quality of the literary life.  Let’s just put it this way:  I’ve always been able to relate to Emily Dickinson holed away in Amherst.  This is what makes readings both enjoyable and shocking for writers–suddenly we are confronted by an audience!  99.9% of the time all that we have is the blank page.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Be patient and don’t give up.  This is basically what I tell my students all the time.  Writing takes a leap of faith and the results sometimes aren’t always tangible; it’s different than the experience of being a student in a classroom where you receive a pat on the back after a job well done.  As a writer you don’t often get that and even if and when you do it may take years and years for it to come.  So you have to muddle through and focus on one word at a time.  That’s all there really is–you have to enjoy the experience of words.

3 responses to How Nathan Leslie Became a Writer


    “the shrugging apathy of the general public” – I love that line, I’ve been writing a blog as a fictional vampire for two years now and I’m lucky if I get one reader a day

    Stephen W. Leslie March 24, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Since Nathan is my son I have to confess that I am not neutral about his accomplishments. He has been a tremendous inspiration to me personally. When he was first learning to write and expressed the aspiration of becoming a writer I had some doubts whether this would work out….but I held my tongue and did not make any negative or doubtful comments. I watched him work low level substitute teacher jobs, live in a run down, but cheap apartment and write night and day for five summers. In the end I feel his refusal to give up was the key to his success. I watched him struggle with getting his first book published, then watched with pride as he was hired as a writing professor at NOVA. In the end he made it all work….by hard work. As a result of watching him I became interesting in writing poetry and went through the same struggles to get published…..but I saw by his example that it was possible. I know this is reversed from normal but Nathans success has been inspirational to me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s