Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Indie Spotlight: Nathan Leslie

I always find it interesting to hear what goes into a particular story collection.

Are they stories that were written over a long period of time and pieced together into themed groupings after the fact or did the theme come to them first and then they wrote the stories around it, with specific purpose?

Are the stories based on personal experience and fictionalized to protect the innocent (or not-so-innocent) or are they based completely in the author's head?

Today, Author Nathan Leslie shares an essay on just that topic, how his story collections come together and how this one, in particular, came into being. Read on and enjoy getting to know a little bit about his latest collection Sibs:


Having written several thematically connected story collections before (Drivers, Believers, Madre, etc.), I thought I would turn my attention to brothers and sisters.  I’ve been writing a lot about family over the last five or six years, for a variety of reasons.  One of the main reasons probably has to do with the fact that I find family so central to good story telling.  Unless you are a hermit living in a mossy cave somewhere,  you probably have a family of some shape and size and you have complex and nuanced relationships with your family members which go back to your childhood.  I’m no different. 

With Sibs I wasn’t as interested in probing autobiographically, however; rather, I was fascinated by exploring the broad array of sibling relationships and how those relationships might spur on a compelling story.  Of course many components of sibling dynamics play out in real life:  age difference; rivalry—for one reason or another; personality.  I was driven to see how these relationships between brothers and sisters panned out on the page.

Let me make mention some particular stories in the collection that I find interesting to discuss or noteworthy, and then I’ll make mention of my writing process at large.  Two of the first stories I wrote were “The Bed” and “Preservation,” which I see as companion pieces—both revolve around a bed—as a piece of furniture.  Those stories were fun to write—to see how completely different stories could spin out of a somewhat similar initial conflict (though in one story the bed is a shambles; in the other it is a work of high art).  I also tried my hand at some flash fiction with this collection; or if they aren’t condensed enough to be considered flash fiction, then certainly shorter stories.  I particularly enjoyed writing “Just Cheese,” “Burlap,” and “A Day in the Park,” all of which revolve around children.  At readings recently I’ve been reading “Just Cheese” and “A Day in the Park” frequently.  The story “A Day in the Park” was also perhaps behind the wonderful cover which Ryan Bradley concocted for Sibs. Yes, I like to play chess—a lot—mostly online with strangers in some far flung part of the world, in a sort of pact of overly competitive shame.  It’s weird.

I wanted a sense of menace reverberating throughout most of these stories, so a few stories entail physical conflict, danger, or violence.  Thinking all the way back to Cain and Abel, siblings (especially when they are young) seem often to jockey for status, vying for the attention of their parents.  With “Olives” and “The Good Man” I was trying to tap into this wobbly territory.  With others, such as “Backsliding” and “Attending,” I wanted to tap into a kind of verbal intimidation—the kind that siblings sometimes (often?) unleash upon each other.  The two wildest stories in the collection are perhaps “The Mellow” and “Joy Pasture.”  The former involved a lot of linguistic restraint on my part, as I was going for a certain kind of craggy, pinched voice; for the latter, I did some research at the local library, which helped immensely with the hippie commune language involved.

My writing process is rather simple but methodical.  I do most of my initial writing by hand in ordinary composition books.  In Fairfax, Virginia where I live with my wife, Julie, we have a nice sunroom surrounded by trees and this particular place brings the best out in my writing.  I spend much of my summers out there scribbling away, napping, then scribbling away some more.  Later I’ll transcribe the first draft into the computer and use that transcription as a chance to make some initial changes in the story.  Then I revise in fits and starts during the school year when I’m consumed with teaching and grading.  Many people are surprised I write by hand first (perhaps also because my handwriting is atrocious), but I find that it slows down my eye, gives me entry into the written word and characterization that Microsoft Word does not, and maybe the slower process allows for additional layering somehow.

I enjoy writing these thematically connected collections most of all because the connection inspires me to be inventive and use a variety of methods, and frankly, the theme helps me arrive at more material.  The theme is almost like a dare I give myself:  Leslie, I bet you can’t write another story about siblings in a different way—and then I have to defy myself.  The challenge somehow keeps me sane. 

It took many years for Sibs to finally appear in book form, and I’m glad that it’s now available to readers.  I can relax for a few days before I unleash myself upon the next project.


Nathan Leslie’s seven books of short fiction include Madre, Believers, Drivers, and Sibs (just out from Aqueous Books).  He is also the author of Night Sweat, a poetry collection.  His first novel, The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, was published by Atticus Books in 2012.  Nathan's short stories, essays and poems have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, South Dakota 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 many years.  His website is

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