December 13, 2022

Interview with Nathan Leslie

Leslie talks about his latest book, The Invisible Hand, and shares insights into his writing and editing.

Nathan LeslieValerie Fox: Thank you for sharing your insights with NFFR. Can you tell us about your new book, The Invisible Hand?

Nathan Leslie: This collection is the last of my thematically-connected short story collections focused on family (Madre and Sibs preceded it). This particular collection has a focus on fathers. The stories are not optimistic, so in case you are thinking about this book as a potential Father’s Day gift–we can dispense with that thought right now. The mood is not akin to “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath either–the stories have their own peculiarity, I suppose. They investigate the characters in question. Also, there is a bit of a listing and modular aesthetic at work here. It is an odd little collection, really–and one that I really honed a lot.

I also have a new book of stories coming out later in 2023–A Fly in the Ointment (Apprentice House). This anthology is much longer and much more ambitious in scope.

VF: The wonderful story that opens up The Invisible Hand, “Baby Carrots in Two Hundred and Forty-Four,” has a distinctive rhythmic quality, almost like a piece of theater. It got me wondering about how you create such distinctive-sounding characters. And how the story appears on the page really encourages us to read it not too quickly, to (for me at least) try to hear it “aloud” in my head. So I’m wondering about how you accomplish that. Do you hear the voices, read the stories aloud? Do you have strategies for that?

NL: This particular story was inspired by a specific person I met at a reading in Baltimore years ago. Sometimes I like to picture someone specific. It helps me conceptualize a plot and determine the voice of a piece. So once I had the entry-point I just ran with it. This story, as you noticed, is written as an extended list–and for me that just created the structure and the plot of the story. It is an unusual one for me.

Mentorship is of supreme importance in the arts–as a good mentor can provide a sense of hope and opportunity and kinship, most importantly.

-Nathan Leslie

VF: Did you have any specific encounters with writers or artists when you were just starting out who had a particular positive influence on you? If so, we’d love to hear about one or more of these encounters.

NL: This is a great question, really–and I think of mentorship right away. Mentorship is of supreme importance in the arts–as a good mentor can provide a sense of hope and opportunity and kinship, most importantly. When I was in my “apprenticeship stage” I was fortunate enough to take classes with Steve Watkins and Vanessa Haley at Mary Washington and then later with Liz Poliner, Richard Peabody and Reg McKnight at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland and University of Maryland, where I received my MFA. I had many other helpful peers and mentors during this era (the 1990s). Social media didn’t exist and I was barely fluent with e-mail or the Internet so face-to-face connections were everything. These writers were and are great teachers of writing, an unheralded aspect of our field. I do believe writing can be taught–the notion that some are just born with a gift may or may not be true, but whether or not one is so blessed they can still be taught the craft of writing.

VF: I appreciate your words about teaching of writing and your inclusiveness. Could you share one or two specific strategies for writers for when they feel in a bit of a rut? Where to begin? What’s a good form or approach?

NL: I teach mostly beginning writers and I always advise them to keep an idea notebook—whether it is a physical composition book or just something on their phone or some other device. For me this is essential because when I get stuck I can go back to my little collection of premises and work from there—or even marry two or three ideas together. As for revision—which, for most writers, is more difficult–I suggest letting their work marinate for a few weeks or months. Often if beginning writers do this they return to the original draft with fresh eyes (and perhaps new ideas).

VF:  You edit as well as write. Could you tell us a little about your editing and Best Small Fictions?

NL: I was tapped as series editor for Best Small Fictions in 2018 and the 2022 anthology is now my fourth in a row, so I suppose I am a grizzled veteran at this now. I love reading and considering the thousands upon thousands of flash fiction works published and nominated each year. I feel as though it is a small service that the writers appreciate—just bringing their work to a greater audience and giving them a bit more of a spotlight. I started the biannual online Maryland Literary Review a few years ago—and this has really grown, also. I like staying very active with the reading side of the literary world rather than just holing away in an insular bubble—which, for me, can become a bit suffocating.

VF: Can you talk about your evolution in terms of style?

NL: I am mostly drawn to what is real and happening right now in front of us. However, this is also the terrain of journalism. Before the demise of newspapers it felt as though print journalists and fiction writers had a healthy rivalry. Now, however, I am also drawn to the surreal, the weird, the off kilter. When I was in my early 20s I was fascinated by Kafka, Fuentes, Cortazar, Marquez and the lot, and also by filmmakers and poets and musicians who had something interesting to say. I tend to get quickly bored by those who tell familiar-seeming stories. I am interested in what is new, what is fresh–even if that newness is only an illusion or a retelling of something familiar.

VF: What’s your writing routine like? Has it changed over time? And, lastly, could you tell us about a current project or two?

NL: As an educator I have summers off–so I mostly compose new work then. I do write a bit during the semesters and during breaks, but not as much. I do edit and revise all year long–that is a constant. I find that I need a larger block of time to write something new. Not much has changed with this routine. I did have a bit more time during the pandemic, during which I revised several manuscripts–including The Invisible Hand and A Fly in the Ointment.

Well, I seem to juggle several projects at the same time. Last summer I wrote a number of death-oriented flashes and I have also been working on a series of flashes focused on a character by the name of Wayne–sort of growing up flashes, in part. I also have been at work on flashes about a fictional archipelago, which are very different than anything else I have written. Over the past couple of years I have also been at work on two novels, one about an outsider-artist living in the mountains told via a variety of points-of-view. He attempts a very ambitious project involving a turret and the novel mostly focuses on this.

VF: Your fictional archipelago sounds quite intriguing. Thank you again for talking with NFFR.

Nathan Leslie’s eleven books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs and Drivers, among others. His latest books are The Invisible Hand (Hamilton Stone Editions) and the forthcoming A Fly in the Ointment (Apprentice House). He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and the poetry collection Night Sweat. His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including Boulevard, Shenandoah, North American Review, Hotel Amerika, and Cimarron Review. Leslie was series editor for Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years. He currently serves as the series editor for Best Small Fictions and edits Maryland Literary Review, which he founded.

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