Leslie Tall Manning, who won the 2016 Sarton Award for her young adult fiction book, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town, was in college before the writing bug bit her. Needing a few elective credits, she took a play-writing class. She liked it so much that she then snuck into a novelwriting class without the proper prerequisites.
“The professor let me stay, and I was hooked,” Leslie says. “I started my first novel in that class in 1998, and completed it in 1999. That first book, which no editor has ever seen, opened the flood gates, and ideas have been pouring into my overtaxed brain ever since.”
Leslie was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but raised in a rural area of the state that was full of cornfields, dirt roads and more cows than people. She moved herself to California when she was 19, and put herself through college, earning a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from the University of Southern California, Long Beach.
Instead of an acting career, however, Leslie became an English teacher, a job she loved and found exciting. But fifteen years ago, she decided to focus on writing, and she and her husband moved to a tiny Norman Rockwell kind of town in eastern North Carolina.
“It was the best inspiration in the world for a writer,” she said. As for her theater arts major, Leslie says it taught her to speak with confidence in front of a crowd. “So even though I am not an actress today, I am grateful this was my major. Hopefully, I will get to use some of that training on future book tours and interviews.”
Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town is about a rebellious 16-year-old who participates in a television reality show that takes her back to 1861, and requires her to trade in her Victoria’s Secret bra for a rib-cracking corset, her comfy jeans for an ugly farm dress, and her private bathroom for an outhouse.
Leslie says she writes stories about ordinary people falling into extraordinary circumstances, and that while she doesn’t know exactly where the inspiration for Upside Down came from, it fits the pattern.
“Growing up in the country gave me an edge, since I could somewhat relate to the pioneer life. But I still did two years of intense research, including visiting a tonsorial parlor and watching cow-milking videos. And who doesn’t love the Laura Ingalls’ stories? She was a simple girl living an extraordinary life, even if she didn’t know it at the time. I deliberately gave the book a contemporary slant in order to gain readers outside the classroom setting.”
Although not all published, Upside Down in a Laura Ingalls Town is Leslie’s 12th book. How does she do it is the question—and Leslie is happy to answer it.
“So many writers find that between their real job, kids, house, relationships and life in general, it is often hard to find the time not only to write, but to write well. That said, I quit teaching 15 years ago to pursue my career choice. I am an English tutor by night, which affords me some time and money to write,” she explains, then goes on to provide her weekly schedule.
“I am up at 7:30, hit the gym, then home for coffee clutch with my supportive hubby. I get in my office around 11 a.m. I do a little marketing, then start writing by noon. I write like a madwoman until 3 p.m., when I get ready for my students. I do this Monday through Thursday. Fridays, I get caught up on all my errands and household junk, and Saturdays and Sundays are mine to do whatever I please, sometimes pertaining to my books, sometimes not. I have had this schedule for years and it works for me. Without this schedule, chiseled in granite, I would not have had the time and energy to write 12 novels…nor would I have had the gumption to keep going. My daily mantra: butt in chair,” she says.
Leslie believes diligence, perseverance and belief in self pave the road to being a good writer. And she thinks of herself as the tortoise, and not the hare when it comes to reaching goals. “You not only have to work hard, and work smart, but work for a long, long time. Years. And maybe more years.”
Leslie says she loves writing both adult and young adult novels, “and play writing, and screenplay writing, and hopefully one day a musical. But there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all… I am a slave to all the adult and teenage characters in my head, and they fight for visibility… When I am not writing, I am thinking about writing.”
Writer’s block is something Leslie has never had, and she admits she doesn’t know why. “It’s a blessing and a curse. At least 10 new story ideas come to me each week… The voices want to be heard, and I am the conduit. The day they stop vying for attention is the day I switch to another career.”
Meanwhile, Leslie does find time for things besides writing and her tutoring job. She decorates her Victorian home, hangs with friends and hubby, hits the gym, sails on the river, and travels when she can.
“Always,” she says, “with a book in my backpack… I am not a reader who finds an author she likes and then devours everything he or she has written. I dabble when I read, as well as when I write. My tastes vary according to my mood… I inhale gobs of classics with students I tutor, and at night before bed I read for fun. But there are a handful of books that changed me in some way or another: The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Dandelion Wine, Chew on This, Outliers, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Giving Tree, To Kill a Mockingbird, Speak, The Fault in our Stars, Out of the Dust, Too See Every Bird on Earth, anything by Doctor Seuss… OMG! I could be here all day.”
Winning the Sarton Award, says Leslie, is one of those defining moments that can change one’s life. “Not only do I use the award to pick myself up when my confidence is shaky, but also to show others that my writing is worthy of readers. There are a lot of writing competitions out there, but I chose to enter the Story Circle Network competition because it supports women specifically, and the winners from past years show such amazing talent. I feel honored to be in such a revered company of women.”
As for the best writing advice she has received over the years, Leslie says, it came from a quote by playwright Anton Chekhov, who said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
“All of my writing teachers and mentors kept saying ‘show not tell’ when it came to writing, but it was a concept I had difficult with. Then I found this quote, and it clicked!”