THE AUTHOR BEHIND THE WORDS SERIES: MEET LESLIE SWARTZ
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Leslie Swartz presents herself as a forty-year-old poet turned novelist living in Indianapolis, IN, US with her husband and three daughters. “I draw inspiration from a variety of writers including Shakespeare, Poe, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Freddie Mercury, and Don McLean”, she tells us.
In this series of interviews, Zaftyg will share with you the stories and the people behind the words of talented artists.
What are you currently working on?
I recently finished an outline for a based-on-true-events horror novel and I’m currently halfway done with an outline for a new urban fantasy novel that I’m really excited to start writing. It has psychics and demons, mythology, and religious lore. You know, my usual themes. Lots of fire, angst, and sass.
What’s your career’s highlight until now?
While the awards have been wonderful, what’s meant the most to me has been the outpouring of love from the LGBTQ community. For every person that messages me with death threats or say I’m going to Hell, there are twenty that thank me for making them feel represented. I knew when I wrote the Archangel Gabriel as a Pan woman and included an Ace witch and a Trans vampire that certain religious people would be less than pleased but I didn’t foresee Seventh Day being helpful to anyone. So, that’s been a lovely surprise and I’m incredibly honored to have a tiny part in helping members of the community feel more seen and appreciated.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
When I’m not writing or homeschooling three kids during a pandemic, I’m tired, so I like to zone out with an easy TV show (my favorite is The Challenge on MTV. Team CT for life!) and get as much sleep as I can which is usually about five hours or so a night.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I started writing stories at age four and when I saw Legend for the first time, I decided at five that my goal in life would be to write something Ridley Scott would be proud to direct. That’s still the dream.
When did you write your first book and how old were you?
I wrote two children’s books in second grade that won a few awards. Over the years, I wrote and shelved a dozen or so books that never seemed good enough for me to want to query. It wasn’t until I was thirty-seven that I wrote Seraphim. I published it when I was thirty-nine and have since written and published the next six books in the series.
Where do you get your ideas?
They usually come to me either at that moment just before waking up or falling asleep or when listening to music. I’ve come up with entire subplots based on one line in a song.
What is your writing process like?
I’ll make a playlist of songs that remind me of characters or scenes I have floating around in my head and listen to it while I scribble down in a notebook any ideas I have for the book I’m working on. I’ll then flesh out those ideas and organize them into a chapter-by-chapter outline. Then, I start my first draft. I have to write linearly. Any other way drives me crazy. So, when I get stuck, I listen to particular songs in the book’s playlist and scribble in a notebook again. Sometimes it takes listening to the same song five or six times, but it always works to get me past that writer’s block.
Have you ever considered writing under a pseudonym, and why or why not?
I thought about it before publishing Seraphim but “L. A. Swartz” sounded like a shoe company and “Ann Leslie” was taken, so I decided to put my real name on my work, for better or worse.
What do you think makes a good story?
It’s all subjective, but for me, the most important thing is well-developed characters with personality. A book can have the most beautiful descriptions and imaginative plot, but if the dialogue is flat and the characters are boring, I won’t care about them, and if I don’t care about what happens to the characters, what’s the point?
What difference do you see between a writer and an author?
I was always told that a writer is anyone that writes and an author is someone who gets paid to do it. I think if someone’s published anything, even if it hasn’t sold one copy, they’re an author. Honestly, though, it’s semantics. If you wrote something and put your name on it, you’re the author of it.
What do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?
Noise-canceling headphones and a can of Dr. Pepper.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It depends on the scene. Big battle scenes get me pretty pumped but emotional scenes, especially those involving grief leave me drained.
Do you play music while you write — and, if so, what’s your favorite?
Not during the actual writing. I need silence to concentrate.
What is your schedule like when you’re writing a book?
I normally only write on the weekends, so there will be Saturdays and Sundays where I’ll spend sixteen hours a day writing if I’m feeling up to it. Once the outline for a book is done, it usually takes six or seven weekends to get the book done and edited.
What is your kryptonite as a writer?
Stress. If I’m particularly stressed out, I won’t have it in me to be creative.
What is the most difficult part of your writing process?
Mom guilt. My husband works twelve hours a day through the week sometimes, so the kids are used to me being with them all the time. So, when I go into my office and lock them out to write on the weekends, they bang on the door and cry and say things like, “Mommy, don’t leave me!” and that breaks my heart so completely that some days, I just don’t do it. My husband’s good about planning fun activities to do with them and letting them pick movies to watch with him while I’m working, but some days it doesn’t matter how many stories he reads or games he plays, they want Mommy, especially my four-year-old. I imagine it’s the struggle for any working mom, right? We’re caught between providing for our children and showing them by example that they can grow up to be anything they want to be and spending as much time with them as we can.
What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?
The characters. Once I know who they are, I know how they would or wouldn’t react to things, what they would or wouldn’t say. It makes writing them so much easier and the plot develops from there.
How do you develop your plot and characters?
Basic ideas will come to me in dreams or just out of nowhere and I’ll brainstorm, talking things over with my husband or sitting with a notebook listening to music, writing down any ideas that come up.
How do you select the names of your characters?
“Wyatt” comes from Weird Science, a movie (and later TV series) that I loved as a kid. In the Seventh Day, every book has a quote from a famous author and I’ll use things associated with them for names. “Will” is obviously a Shakespeare reference, as is “Dr Stratford” and “Annie” (Anne Hathaway).
Are there therapeutic benefits to modeling a character after someone you know?
I haven’t modeled a character after someone else but “Gabriel” is basically me with superpowers. I didn’t mean to make her that way, I just wanted her to be funny but it was pointed out to me early on that I had given her my entire personality. Writing her sometimes walked a fine line between catharsis and torture. Certain scenes were overwhelming. I cried a lot writing book three. But, ultimately it ended up helping me work through some of my issues and I think the character is better for the emotional upheaval she caused me.
How did you come up with the title for your first book?
Seraphim comes from religious lore that the main characters are based on. “The Choir of the Seraphim”. “Gabriel” tells the others just before going to wake “Lucifer” up from his coma that they need to “Get the band back together”. It just made sense to me.
What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
I read somewhere recently that the author of The Vampire Diaries was kicked off of her book and it was finished by a ghostwriter. I don’t know what the circumstances of that were or if it’s even true, but that broke my heart. When a network or studio buys the rights to a book to turn it into a show or movie, it completely makes sense to me that all kinds of things would potentially need to be changed and that they would have their own writers to handle it. What works in a book may not work on screen and a novelist is a totally different kind of writer than a screenwriter. But, not allowing an author to finish their own book? That feels wrong to me.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Self-publishing before a book is ready. I’ve read a lot of indie books that still have editor’s marks on them or look like they haven’t been edited at all. I understand the excitement of wanting to get your work out there, but good editing is invaluable. Believe me.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Alainna MacPherson (The Hunt Series) is one of my favorite author friends. She made my covers before I could afford to have a professional redo them and has given me a lot of great advice about publishing, marketing, and managing my expectations. Abdur Mohammed (The Anuk Chronicles) has also been a wonderful friend. He made my first book trailer and warned me of the pitfalls of adapting books for television. They’ve both given me a ton of support and I’m so grateful to have them in my life.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I remember being very small, maybe five, and listening to Love of my Life by Queen and crying. I was so moved and I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. It hurt me in the most beautiful way and I thought that’s how I want to write. I want my readers to feel something.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Edit like your career depends on it because it does and trust that you’re good at this.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Nine. I’ll get to finishing them, eventually.
If you could meet your characters, what would you say to them?
I’d apologize for making their lives so intense.
How do you want to help moving humanity forward?
I will continue to write LGBTQ and POC characters as whole people with full personalities and lives. I’ll support companies (and political candidates) that put people above profits and I’ll raise my daughters to be thoughtful and kind. At the end of the day, kindness is what the world is lacking. Injustice, greed, cruelty. It all boils down to people not being raised to be kind. That’s probably a wild oversimplification but I stand by it.
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