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He knew as a young boy he wanted to escape the working class. His love of books beckoned him to college. “The thing that helped me become a writer was our lack of day care,” he says. “My mom had to work late at the bank on Tuesday and Friday nights because that’s when the factories would issue their checks. My father was always out at the bars, which meant there was nobody home to watch me, so she took me to the library where I’d read books for three hours till the bank closed and then we’d go home.”
Growing up in a struggling working-class family also gave him the toughness to face rejection as a writer. “I studied with some excellent writers in undergraduate and graduate school,” says Leslie. “I thought many of them would go on to publish and make a name for themselves, but most have completely given it up and walked away because they couldn’t take so much rejection. My short story collection was rejected by 90 publishers, and then it went on to win the George Garrett Fiction Award.” The 2001 award, given by the Texas Review Press, was for stories in Leslie’s book, Marconi’s Dream.
Despite his literary success, Leslie’s parents are more impressed that he is a college professor than by anything he’s done in publishing. “My father’s response when I told him I wanted to write fiction was, ‘What’s fiction?’ I told him it was making up stories, and he said, ‘It’s sort of like lying, isn’t it? You were raised better than that.’ ”
To this day he doubts his parents have read anything he’s written. “It bothered me more when I was younger than it does now,” he says. “I’m reconciled to the fact that it’s just outside of who they are. But I don’t write for their approval or for anyone else’s approval. I write because I like getting up in the morning and putting down one sentence after another. If you want to write to become famous or to make lots of money you’ll never survive.”
Leslie’s parents may be more interested in his most recent work, Emma Saves Her Life, his sixth collection of poems. The book, which will be published this month, is based on letters his grandmother wrote him when he was in college at Ohio University.
“It’s a book I’ve been working on for about 12 years,” says Leslie. Emma Margaret Foster, the author’s paternal grandmother, was born in 1907 and lived in the hills and hollows of western Pennsylvania. “She was an Appalachian farm woman, from the generation that if you had a family member who moved away you owed it to them to write letters to stay in touch,” he explains. “Letters were the way to keep families together.” His grandmother’s writing was, he says, “accidentally poetic,” and resonant of history and values he shares. His poems are meant to be “an oral history of her life in her voice.” He is currently in the process of turning her words into a 45-minute, one-woman dramatic monologue.
Among his grandmother’s letters, as with the Japanese saucer and other items he cherishes, Leslie works the familiar territory of things that are old but not used up. “She saved stories by the dozens, and kept them alive by telling them to anyone who would listen,” he writes in Emma Saves Her Life. “[N]ow that I have grown old enough to see the world transformed ... from the days of my youth, I understand some of the urgency she must have felt in wanting to save what she knew, to have her say, as she would put it. Now I know why she put such stock in remembering things. Forgetting is all too easy.”
If you want strong hands,
try wringing out your laundry
until you can’t get another drop.
It’s too long between times when
I see my family. My great-grandson
is growing up and out-of-sight.