Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Dr. Leslie Moïse. Most recently, she is the author of the poetry collection Linked by the Joy of Words. She also writes memoir and fiction, reflective of her Ph.D. that focused nineteenth century women’s fairy tales. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram (where she shares about knitting and equestrian life).
Grab the Lapels: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?
Dr. Leslie Moïse: The first book length manuscript I wrote, a mystery titled Death at the End of the Ride, filled me with such pleasure. “Look at all I’ve written!” I couldn’t understand why publishers kept rejecting it, and with form letters at that. Of course, I was naive to feel so satisfied, even though I had written from my own experience. The mystery drew on my lifetime with horses, since both the murder victim and the protagonist/ detective were horse dealers. And like Sue Grafton, I had chosen to subvert my personal feelings of rage at my ex-husband into this fictional world. But then a friend brought me into a writers group, and before the first meeting ended, I realized why publishers rejected it. I had written a rough draft, not a polished novel.
GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
LM: I always wanted to be a writer when I grew up, aside from early childhood desires to become a horse (or a lion.) I read Little Women, and identified with Jo March from the first page. In fact, partway through that first reading, I went out to the sun porch and wrote a really terrible bit of doggerel! I think that was the only time I paused in my reading except for meals and bedtime. Even then, I snuck a flashlight under the covers and read until my mother caught me. Now I feel like I’m finally making that childhood dream a reality. It only took 50+ years!
GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?
LM: Both my knitting memoir, Love is the Thread, and my poetry chapbook, Linked by the Joy of Words, deal with the deaths of close friends. There are difficult scenes in each of my historical novels. In Judith, which is based on the Biblical the Book of Judith, there is a scene dealing with the terrible cruelty of war. It was so difficult for me to write, I actually got stuck for months. I couldn’t bring myself to write it. Then I read the first Game of Thrones book, and it took four days out of my life. Two to read it, two to sulk. I decided if I was going to invest that much emotion in a book, it had better be my own! So thanks to Martin, I finished Judith.
In Under the Pomegranate Tree, the protagonist is kidnapped and abused by outlaws. And the historical novel I’m drafting now, Julian of Norwich, is about the 14th century mystic and anchoress. She lived through three rounds of Plague, and lived in a small room attached to a church for the last decades of her life. (Ironic that I have drafted it during self-isolation and Covid.). But I never include difficult scenes for the sake of shock value. My novels always move toward redemption.
GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?
LM: After I do my morning chores — let the dog out, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, and dress — I sit down and interview my character. I learned this technique from novelist Louise Hawes. First, I sit down with my eyes shut and nothing crossed, picture myself in a place where my character would come, and wait until she appears. Then I ask, “How do you feel? What do you want? What do you fear? What happens next?” Maybe all those questions, one at a time, or just one of them. Sometimes she answers by showing me, sometimes she tells me in words, and sometimes I feel the feeling inside myself. (I often laugh out loud or cry while I write.). Then, I write the scene the way she has shown it to me.
After lunch, I deal with editing the morning’s work and any writing business, like contacting my publisher, doing interviews, marketing, and so on. I write five or six days a week and take a day off whenever I feel the story slowing down. After I finish the rough draft, which can take one or two years, I revise, edit, and proofread. The whole process can last five years. I love starting, the purity of creation, and the thrill of discovery in research. Revision is hard work.
GTL: How has your writing process evolved?
LM: When I first started writing mysteries in my late teens, I wrote late at night, when I knew I wouldn’t get interrupted. I spewed words, thousands a day. This is when I joined Louisville Writer’s Club, and began to understand revision. Then, I went to a writers conference held at a university and signed up for an appointment with one of the authors on the panel of the conference. Unfortunately, I got assigned to a professor on the literature faculty. He shamed me for writing so much, so fast. I didn’t write anything for a year. Slowly, I got back into gear, but I wrote much slower — not because of the professor, but because I was regaining my confidence.
In my early thirties, I experienced severe abuse that made me unable to write mysteries any more. I just couldn’t cope with writing about violence as the core of my novels. After that, I fumbled around for what I wanted to write for years. I drafted a couple of romance novels, but found the tropes of the genre too restrictive. I tried my hand at picture books, but they are the most difficult thing to write — every word has to develop character and plot. I wrote a few fantasy novels for young adults, and a couple of those are on my agenda to revise and submit for publication.
I never meant to write historical novels. But those are the characters and stories that show up for me now. I had a stroke in the language center of my brain about eight years ago. In the first year of my recovery, drafting Under the Pomegranate Tree was a big part of my recovery. When I reread what I’d written a year later, I cried. One sentence a day, often barely coherent. But that writing has everything to do with my healing and my capacity for writing now. I have drafted 75,000 words during the pandemic, but self-isolation has lots to do with that too. It’s amazing what I can accomplish with zero social life.
GTL: What would you like readers to know about your forthcoming book from Pearlsong Press, Under the Pomegranate Tree?
LM: Thirty years ago, a writer friend and I sat in a coffee shop and idly hoped that, at some point in history, a young woman who was being forced into an unwanted marriage had had the wit to run away instead. When I finished Judith, I conceived of Under the Pomegranate Tree as a prequel, which is why it’s set in the ancient Middle Eastern land of Ammon in 2500 BCE. Horses play a vital part in the story, both to the protagonist, Sarah, and the plot. How she frees herself, from both her father, her captors, and the repercussions of her actions, reflects my own experiences and contemplations about them.
GTL: Thank you so much to Dr. Moïse for sharing her experiences as a writer!