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Lesléa Newman, 1994

Language Lover: Talking with Lesléa Newman

By Owen Keehnen

Versatile author Lesléa Newman has an astonishing 27 books under contract at age 39. She has written novels, short story collections, poetry books, essays, children's books, and even a young adult novel--all with equal skill. The reviews of this multiple Lambda Literary Award-nominee have been consistently good, and the offers keep coming. Some of the most popular titles by this dynamic woman include A Letter to Harvey Milk (1987), In Every Laugh a Tear (1992), Good Enough To Eat (1986), Secrets (1986), Sweet Dark Places (1991), and Gloria Goes to Gay Pride (1991). Alyson's publication of Heather Has Two Mommies (1989), which she jokingly refers to as her "problem child," catapulted Newman into a maelstrom of controversy that she has weathered quite nicely. She is busier and more determined than ever and just as active in just as many areas. Talking with her, I was in awe of her infectious energy and enthusiasm.

Keehnen: You're in Chicago for Bailiwick Theater's production of A Letter to Harvey Milk. Tell me about the project.

Newman: Ruth Carter read the story, loved it, and wanted to adapt it to the stage. She sent me the script, which is pretty much word for word.

Keehnen: You have such varied writing experience--novels, short stories, poetry, children's books, young adult novels. Were you ever tempted to do an adaptation yourself?

Newman: I've written a one-act play that was produced. It was very exciting. As a writer I'm usually just sitting in a room by myself. There was a cast party and all these great things. I love the theater, but I don't know it as well as I need to be a playwright.

Keehnen: A Letter to Harvey Milk was also made into a Canadian film.

Newman: It's interesting to see the different directions it has gone. It was a film Yariv Kohn did for his BFA, his thesis. It was shown in gay and lesbian film festivals and Jewish film festivals.

Keehnen: The plot concerns the friendship that develops between a young lesbian teacher and an elderly gentleman student after he writes a letter to Harvey Milk as his class assignment. If you were given the same assignment, what dead person would you write to and what would your letter say?

Newman: I would definitely write to my grandmother, whom I write to or about all the time.

Keehnen: A sort of trans-generational understanding is also a recurring theme of yours. Is that the root of it?

Newman: Definitely. Actually, the character of Harry Weinberg is very loosely based on my grandmother. I wanted to trans-gender him into a woman, but it just didn't happen. He was clearly a man as soon as I started writing his diaries. I wrote that story because my grandmother wouldn't tell me her stories because they were too painful. I felt I had to write them down anyway as best I could. At 99, in the last year of her life, she did tell me her stories. It became the backbone of my novel In Every Laugh a Tear.

Keehnen: Other generations also motivate you. Give me your take on the Heather Has Two Mommies story.

Newman: I wrote the book in 1988 because I was walking down the street and a woman I knew stopped me and said, "My lover and I just started a family, and we have no books to read our daughter. We need someone to write one." It made me think about growing up as a Jewish child and having no books about being Jewish. Even though I was in a Jewish neighborhood, I would always read about Santa Claus and the Easter bunny and all of that. All I knew at the time was that I didn't see myself being reflected anywhere. So the request of this woman really resonated with me. I wrote the book and couldn't find a publisher, so I published it along with a friend, wanting only to get back the money I put into the project. Six months later Sasha Alyson of Alyson Publications bought the book out from us. Then things really started going haywire with the Rainbow Curriculum in New York City and the anti-gay movements in Colorado and Oregon where the book was used to depict the degeneration of society. It was good for book sales, but hard for me emotionally. I had never really experienced homophobia directed right at me like that. Had I known better, I wouldn't have gone on talk shows or been on panels where the sponsors felt they had to be "fair" and give air time to bigots.

Keehnen: With Heather do you think most of the controversy arose from the lesbianism or from the inclusion of artificial insemination in the text?

Newman: I've thought about this a lot. If someone had said, "The book is fine; it's just that one page," I would have happily gone to the publisher and see if we couldn't do another Heather without the artificial insemination. That didn't happen. The artificial insemination was not the problem; it was the icing on the cake. The cake was the problem. Most people who had a hard time with the book never read it.

Keehnen: Yeah, I read some of those clippings, and it's obvious they have no idea what they're talking about. Some of your forthcoming books are children's titles from Clarion, a branch of the large publishing house Houghton Mifflin. Are they open to inclusion of gay children's titles?

Newman: The first of my children's books that they took, Too Far Away To Touch (1998), is about a little girl whose favorite uncle is a man with AIDS. It's a picture book for children 4 to 8. My editor fell in love with the story and didn't back down on anything, even the inclusion of the man's lover. I was more nervous than the publishers. They had never heard of Heather Has Two Mommies; and it got to the point where I was almost talking them out of it, saying, "I'm a really controversial writer; you may be firebombed; are you sure you want me?" The other two Clarion books aren't gay; they're Jewish picture books. One is called Remember That (1996), and it is about a little girl and her Bubbe. The other is Matzo Ball Moon (1998), and it's a Passover story.

Keehnen: You also have a young adult novel coming out called Fat Chance (1994). Is that a difficult age group to write for?

Newman: It was actually the easiest book I've ever written, which was a little frightening because it's told in diary form. I became a thirteen-year-old keeping a diary. It came so naturally to me that I began to wonder about my own emotional state.

Keehnen: Besides all of this, you also conduct writing workshops and have written the nonfiction book Writing from the Heart (1993) as well. What's the most essential thing to remember when sitting down to write?

Newman: Believe in yourself. Take yourself seriously. Make a commitment to yourself. Write every day. And don't expect anything from anyone.

Keehnen: Do you have a strong sense of operating within a gay and lesbian writing community?

Newman: Absolutely.

Keehnen: Given your many titles, is there a message that transcends it all, the sort of essence of your work?

Newman: There are definitely themes I write about a lot--sexuality and Jewish identity. I think mostly I write about self-identity. Because the message in my books is pretty much what I said to you, "Believe in yourself; your voice has power."

Keehnen: Going back to your mention of Jewish identity. What do you see as common in both the Jewish and the lesbian experience?

Newman: Well, in my own upbringing my grandmothers were the backbone of my family. It was very clear that the matriarchal lineage is important. There were strong women everywhere. My mother and my aunts, biological and chosen, had the most intense relationships. It was clearly the most important thing to them. I was raised to question things, to educate myself, and to go for what I wanted. So I did that, but not in a way my parents expected me to, so at some point it wasn't a good thing anymore.

Keehnen: You've also written extensively on women's body perception, namely with your book SomeBody to Love: A Guide to Loving the Body You Have (1991).Why is dieting the most difficult thing you've ever given up?

Newman: When I talk about identity, my first, aside from being female, was of being fat. It's something I had as a defining fact of existence. When I picture myself as a little girl, I have no idea what I looked like, but I do know being fat was the image that I carried with me. It defined everything I did, not only what I ate, but who I hung out with, what I wore, what activities I participated in. Everything came from that one fact. I developed an eating disorder, which I had for fifteen years and haven't had now for twelve years. Our culture just infuses girls from pretty much day one with "You have to be thin." When I stopped dieting, I said, "I refuse to accept this message. I refuse to accept this fact about my existence." It was a rebellion on many levels for me. I would still say it's definitely the hardest thing I've ever done.

Keehnen: Tell me about the projects you have forthcoming.

Newman: This fall I have Fat Chance (1994), my young adult novel, coming from Putnam. I have a book of short stories called Every Woman's Dreams from New Victoria. In 1995 I have two children's books Too Far Away to Touch from Clarion, and Felicia's Favorite Story, which is about an interracial lesbian couple who adopt a little girl, from Alyson. I also have two books I've edited coming out. One is called The Femme Mystique, and it's about femmes. The other is Bearing the Unbearable, and it's about losing loved ones to AIDS. In 1996 I have two more books lined up from Clarion, Remember That and Matzo Ball Moon.

Keehnen: You are so productive and in so many branches of writing, you must really love it a lot.

Newman: I do. Before you came over, I was sitting here writing this book review thinking, "It doesn't even matter what it is. I just love using words." That's the other bit of advice I'd give someone who wants to write: fall in love with language.

About Owen Keehnen
Owen Keehnen has worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which celebrates independent horror films,
Related Pages

Newman, Lesléa

American Literature: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall

Children's Literature

Jewish-American Literature

Young Adult Literature

Interview Sasha Alyson, 1992

Artificial Insemination

Milk, Harvey



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