Leslea Newman shot to fame in 1990 when her children's book, Heather Has Two Mommies, was celebrated in some circles as the first book to show a positive reflection of a child living happily with her two mothers, and banned in other circles who were less than pleased by the existence of the book.
In the ensuing years, Newman has written or edited more than 60 books, including A Letter to Harvey Milk, The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, The Reluctant Daughter, Nobody's Mother and Write from the Heart. Her most recent book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick Press), is a moving and evocative response to Shepard's death, and was more than 11 years in the making.
Newman will be in Chicago Tuesday, March 12 at 7 p.m. for a reading and booksigning at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark St.
Joan: You have a special connection to Matthew Shepard and Wyoming. Can you tell us how you nearly crossed paths right before he died?
Leslea: I had been asked months before Matthew Shepard's murder to be the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming, which was put together by the University of Wyoming's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Association. One of the last things Matt did on the Tuesday night of his attack was attend a meeting of the LGBT Association to go over the plans for Gay Awareness Week. That weekend, Jim Osborn, president of the LGBT Association called to tell me what had happened to his friend, Matt. Jim asked if I wanted to cancel my appearance. I said absolutely not, and arrived on campus the day that Matt died. I met some of his friends and teachers. When I gave my talk, the students from the LGBT Association were sitting in the front row. There was one empty seat among them and I kept looking at it, and thinking, "Matthew Shepard should be sitting there."
Joan: That must have been really eerie. Is that what inspired you to write this collection?
Lesea: On October 12, 2009 The Maramie Project, Part II: The Epilogue was performed in 150 cities including Northampton, Mass., which is where I saw it. That night, I couldn't sleep. The play brought everything back to me in a flash, and I got out of bed in the middle of the night and wrote the poem, "Wounded" which is part of the collection. At this time, I was the poet laureate of Northampton, and I created a project called "30 Poems in 30 Days." I organized 75 poets to write a poem a day during the month of November, and collect monetary pledges per poem (a "poem-a-thon" similar to a "walkathon") to raise money for a literacy organization. After I wrote the first poem, I knew my 30 poems would be an exploration of the aftermath of this hate crime. And when the 30 days were over, I kept writing.
Joan: You have published it 14 years after his death. How and why did it come together now?
Leslea: I think it took me over a decade to truly absorb how horrific this hate crime was. I also think I had to grow as a writer, an activist, and a human being in order to have the confidence to take on this project. That's one answer. The other answer is, I never know what I am going to write when I sit down and pick up my pen (yes, I still write with a pen!). And these are the poems that came pouring out of me. Some books have longer gestation periods than others. And this book was one of them.
Joan: You use many different poetic forms in the book. What are some of these forms and why did you select them?
Lesea: I kept thinking about all the empty space surrounding this hate crime. Matt being alone on the prairie, which is very spacious, for 18 hours. The huge space he left in the lives of the people who knew him and loved him. In Japanese poetry, which I have studied, there is a quality called "yohaku" which means the empty space in a poem or a painting. I wanted to capture this emptiness by keeping the poems very sparse.
Some of the forms I used are the villanelle and the pantoum both of which use repetition, as well as haiku, alphabet poem, acrostic, and several imitations. Many of the poems that were not written in a specific form use formal poetic devices such as rhyme and repetition. Because the poems contain such intense emotion, writing them in form was a way to contain that emotion, and to make the process of diving into this intense material more bearable.
Joan: You also tell the story from the point of view of the fence Matt was tied to. And the truck Matt was kidnapped in, and the starswhich is very intriguing. Can you tell us more about those choices?
Lesea: When I began to write the collection, I had to ask myself, what did I have to say that could possibly add to the many accounts that have already been written about Matt's murder? The facts were known (as much as we will ever know them). I kept thinking how we will never really know the truth about what happened at the fence that night. Matt can't tell us, and in my opinion, his murderers can't be trusted to tell the truth about what happened. I kept wishing there had been witnesses, and then I realized that there were witnesses: the fence, the moon, the stars, a deer that kept Matt company. As a poet, I used my imagination to create monologues from these points of view to learn something new about the story. The book is not THE truth; rather it is MY truth, my take on this murder and its aftermath.
Joan: What has the response to the book been? Have you heard from the Shepard family?
Leslea: The book has gotten a tremendous response, both from adults who remember vividly where they were, what they were doing, and how they responded when Matt was murdered, and from teenagers who were only 2 or 3 years old or not even born when these events took place. It is a very moving experience for me to give a reading from the book and look up and see a row of high school students, both male and female, wiping tears from their eyes.
I hope that Matt's story inspires people to work harder to erase hate from our damaged world. I am a member of the Matthew Shepard Foundation speaker's bureau and have their full support for the work that I am doing. I recently spent some time with Judy Shepard in Brooklyn, NY, where we saw the Tectonic Theater Project perform both parts of The Laramie Project. I thanked Judy for allowing me to tell her son's story and she thanked me for telling it and told me she had heard many good things about the book. She is an amazing person and her dedication to human rights for all inspires me on a daily basis.
Joan: I understand that October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard has been recommended by many teachers and Children's Library groups, and given several young adult book awards, including:
American Library Association Stonewall Honor, 2013
American Library Association LGBT Round Table Rainbow Book, 2013
Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, 2013
Young Adult Library Services Association Best Fiction Book for Young Adults, 2012
Poetry Foundation Children's Poet Laureate Pick, November 2012
Nerdy Poetry Book Award, 2012
This is not a typical choice of literature for children or young adults. Can you say more about this?
Leslea: I don't think we give teens enough credit. They are passionate about injustice and are hungry for true stories that will inspire them to make the world a better place. I think teens deserve to know the truth about the world they are inheriting.
I have been very inspired by their reactions to the book, and to the presentation I give, "He Continues to Make a Difference: The Story of Matthew Shepard." At the end of that presentation, I ask the audience to make a commitment to do one specific thing to make the world a safer place for the LGBTQA community. So many teens have said things like, "I'm not going to use the word 'fag' anymore" or "The next time I hear someone say, 'That's so gay' I'm going to call them out on it." It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of your whole school and make a statement like that.
Joan: What are your current and upcoming projects?
Leslea: I'm very happy to say that I have a few children's books coming out in the near future: Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed which is based on the true story of a cat whose piano solo composition won honorable mention in a contest (really!) and Here is the World: A Year of Jewish Holidays. Also I am thrilled that Heather Has Two Mommies, which is currently out of print, is going to be reissued with brand new fabulous illustrations. And currently, I am working on an adult poetry collection about my mother's recent death, with all the poems being written in form.
Joan: Anything else you would like to share about your life?
Leslea: For any reader who is struggling, I'd like to say, it does get better! I am proud to be happily and legally (in Massachusetts) married to my beloved and we are about to celebrate our 25th anniversary! And I fully expect that the federal government will recognize our marriage in our lifetime. And also, never underestimate your own power. One simple act of kindness can save a life and make all the difference in the world.
Joan: Absolutely. So would you say there is life after Heather Has Two Mommies?
Leslea: Heather Has Two Mommies is almost 25 years old (!) so there is definitely life after Heather!
Joan Lipkin is the artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company. A playwright, director and social activist, she divides her time between St Louis, NYC and other parts of the country.