Interview with Leslie Conzatti
Leslie Conzatti is a blogger, author, and avid enthusiast of all things book-related. Residing in the Pacific Northwest, she currently works as an elementary school paraeducator--leading small groups, supervising children outside the classroom, and providing in-class support for teachers. Since 2013, she has been running a writing/review blog called "The Upstream Writer", where she posts original serials, excerpts from current and past projects, updates on her writing, and featured reviews of independently-published titles. In 2016, she released her first fairy-tale re-telling, Princess of Undersea, a twist on the tale of "The Little Mermaid." Since then, she has had a handful of stories published in various anthologies. Books are Leslie's passion, and she endeavors to use her words to support and inspire children's imaginations, independent creatives, and quality literature wherever it happens.
You have a retelling of The Little Mermaid, was it one of your favorites growing up?
Indeed it was! At least, the Disney movie version, anyway. We had a book of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales that I read--but I really didn't like that morbid version at all! I was more utterly fascinated with mermaids and mer-culture. It's kind of what drove me to re-tell it: there just wasn't a "truly amazing" version of the story out there, and the concept of mermaids was just too good of an opportunity for exploration to pass up! Another honest favorite original fairy tale was Peter Pan--the idea of Neverland, and fairies living in the real world, and the ability to fly... even Peter's obsession with hearing Wendy tell stories really stuck with me!
Have you ever considered writing a children's book?
I have, but the thing about children's books is they tend to be not so wordy and use simpler language, and more pictures, whereas I tend to use more colorful and inventive language, and I have a lot of words when I tell a story!
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
"Don't be afraid to ask your questions!" So much of my writing career could have likely taken off sooner if I had just taken that step of self-advocacy and asked those few authors in my network for tips on how to self-publish, or where to find a good publisher and whatnot. I'm learning that now, as I self-publish for the first time, and I've got a bunch of people who are really great at keeping in touch and offering advice and giving me step-by-step guidance through the process--I might not have waited three years to publish for the first time and another four years before I decided that self-publishing was an avenue worth pursuing, rather than waiting for another publisher to "pick me up", so to speak!
How did you celebrate your first sales?
Umm, by running around the house squealing like a child. My book released around the holidays, so I already knew things were really busy--and the sales were a much bigger deal to me than they were to anyone else, so just being able to deliver the "pre-reserved" copies to those who paid for them was very exciting to me!
What books/magazines or other works have helped you in your writing?
I would say that the thing that I found most helpful was the mere fact of reading broadly and understanding and identifying what I liked and wanted to emulate, and what I didn't like, and how I would go about fixing it or just avoiding it in my own writing. So, nothing in particular in that respect.
The thing that has helped me with re-writing after the fact, however, is discovering "Dan Harmon's Story Circle", or the eight-phase Hero's Journey. It can be really hard, once you finish a first draft, to look at it and know that it needs fixing, but you have no idea where to start or how to make it any better than it already is. I know that's the way I felt--I thought for sure I had everything in just the order I wanted it, and if it didn't feel just right... Tough cookies! There was no way I knew of to turn it into something that resembled the amazing stories I read and loved.
Enter the Story Circle. I watched a YouTube video that sort of broke down the process and explained each "phase" of the journey, and the role it played in developing not just the hero character, but the way it gave purpose and meaning for the roles of side characters as well. Once I understood how the framework built on itself, I could go back through my draft and identify and isolate the different events, decide which phase-aligned best with each point, and all of a sudden, I had a story that was actually taking shape, and feeling like a building and growing adventure, rather than just a string of nearly-unrelated events that go from one end of the story to the other. I highly recommend it to anyone with the wherewithal to plan their story ahead!
Do you prefer to write short stories, novelettes, or novels?
All of the above! Most often if it's going to be a novel, I've got enough material for a series. Sometimes, when it's a stand-alone story, I might start out intending for it to be a short story, it kind of explodes into something big and complex. One thing's for sure: I write where the story takes me!
Tell me a little about The Upstream Writer.
Gladly! I started the blog in 2013 at the suggestion of my family, who saw that I was constantly writing stories anyway, and figured I could use blogging as a platform for sharing all these ideas that I had with an audience who was looking for just such information and would appreciate the things I produced.
The name "Upstream Writer" comes from an idea I had when I was first developing what the main goal of my blog would be, tied into my main motivation for writing in general: to make good art that was worthwhile and that would stand the test of time in the manner of the classics I enjoy so much. I heard a motivational speaker give the object lesson of a man viewing a dirty river. At first, he tried just pulling out the trash as it came along, but for every piece he pulled, three more floated by, and there was always more coming because there were others around him that didn't care about the quality of the river--they just kept dumping their refuse, letting it float away downstream. The man learned that in order to truly make a difference, he needed to travel upstream, to where the cleanest part of the river began, and use that clean water to wash away all the trash that was further down.
It struck me, noticing the way that there is so much that we still study and read and enjoy, a hundred years after it was first published--and yet how much of the literature published today will be so revered and cherished a hundred years from now? Will future generations analyze and respect early copies of Twilight and Captain Underpants the same way we analyze and respect books like Journey to the Center of The Earth and Pride and Prejudice? Or is the literary market of today saturated in books that won't last more than a few decades--like the trash in the story?
I knew that I wanted to make a difference, like that man who saw the river. I purposed to use my blog as a chronicle of the ways I was trying to go "upstream", to improve literature at its source: the writers themselves. By describing the ways I endeavored to produce good writing, I was becoming like the man, traveling "upstream" to the water's source, to bring clean water down to the people who needed it most. I also started featuring reviews of quality indie works, inviting attention and focus on the good and worthwhile stories for people to read, and in that way, spreading the influence of these authors to a much wider audience, giving them a wider reach than just themselves.
Seven years later, and I'm still posting serials and project updates, as well as adding to my stock of more than 100 indie book reviews--and I have no intention of slowing down anytime soon! As long as there are books to review and stories for me to write, I'm going to keep doing it!
What are you working on right now that excites you the most?
Pretty much everything I'm working on right now is exciting to me!
First of all (and closest to being finished) I have a serial that I've been posting on my blog since about January, titled Priscilla Sum. It's about a college girl in Chicago studying archaeology whose life starts falling apart when she discovers several things all one right after the other: her friend since grade school is actually dying of a terminal disease he's been diagnosed with since a very young age, so he always knew he didn't have much time left; in a desperate bid to save his life, she ends up stealing a ceremonial "healing stone" that may or may not have been connected to his "miraculous recovery", while at the same time she can't shake the feeling that something is different about him; she gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to an actual dig site on a random Mediterranean island she never knew existed--but it turns out that said dig is probably sponsored by followers of an actual demon who is the sworn enemy of two minor gods who imprisoned him in a supposed "healing stone" and gave up their divine natures to live in hiding as mortals until they could find a way to defeat him... and it just so happens that those minor gods the demon is hunting are in fact her adoptive parents. So basically, she has to figure out where her parents hid their divine essences millennia ago, and claim it before the demon does, or he can basically take over the pantheon of minor gods and rule the mortal world as we know it. Fun times!
Second, I'm working through the third draft of a full-length fantasy novel I've rewritten twice in the past seven years. It's called The Last Inkweaver, and it deals with the journey of a girl who's grown up in a world that essentially banned storytelling and storybooks and anything to do with "speculation and fantastical situations", instead training children in Academies to rely on science, logic, rationale, and proven facts. The only trouble is, she's been subject to some pretty strange visions that just kind of pop into her head at random moments: sometimes it's a voice telling her a story she's unfamiliar with, sometimes it's actual visuals that she experiences like a memory--but the things that happen never happened to her, nor could they ever happen in real life! Just when she's going to leave all this behind to be trained at a big new school in the capital city, she finds a half-finished Tapestry supposedly left behind by someone known as an Inkweaver--part of a guild of crafters called Wordspinners, who made high-quality wares imbued with specific stories that they would tell, stories that were only discernible to the person they were intended for. She's drawn into a journey to find this Inkweaver, and in the process, she meets more Wordspinners, learns about their heritage in the kingdom long before the land was settled, and discovers more about her role in the larger narrative going on around her.
The third thing I'm working on is a third "season" of a serial I wrote and ran on my blog a year or so back, called The Clan of Outcasts. It started from a bunch of "character inspiration" photos an author page I follow (on Facebook) shared over the course of a few weeks, of people with mysterious magical powers of some sort. I made a story for these characters, about a fantasy-ish kingdom known as "The Realm", where some of the people possessed superhuman abilities known as Gifts. Of course, those in charge soon decided that these "Gifted" people should be feared and controlled, or banished, and so they became the "outcasts"--including the Prince of The Realm who should have been the ruler when both his parents died. By the start of the narrative, a dramatic shift occurs, and circumstances throw various characters together, and some of them decide that it's time to rise up against the established authority and seek out the true Prince, to storm the castle and reinstate him on the throne. Of course, the story isn't all that straightforward, and although this was the goal of the first "season", the second "season" introduced some celestial characters into the mix: namely, an Angel named Jade and a Shadow named Troy, two beings known collectively as Abnormals, who were responsible for distributing the Gifts in The Realm. The mortal "Gifted" ones are caught in a bid for power and control between these two, with some choosing one side or the other--and even setting up their own "side" to try and take advantage of the unrest! I had thought it ended some time ago, but recently, the same Facebook page started sharing more pictures along those same lines, and I got inspired to revisit these characters for another adventure--and this time, I'm adding pirates, elves, and a dark villain who wants to be the one to control the ancient gate that was once a direct access to Justicia, the realm of the Abnormals, so that they will be under her control. It's going to be great!!
Will you write another retelling of another fairytale?
I've actually done a few already!
Three are available on my blog: I have The Dragon's Mark, a serial that is basically "Cinderella" but with dragons! A young woman is despised by the mother and daughter she works for because of a curious malady that creates dry, hard patches of scar tissue like dragon scales on her skin. She begins to notice a change when a mysterious merchant gives her a ring with incredible properties--little does she know that her supposed "curse" extends back in history many centuries, and she is part of a legacy bigger than anyone ever imagined! It's also set in 1920's Italy, which was kind of an unorthodox setting for a fairy tale re-telling, yet absolutely fun to do!
A second, shorter serial, The Prince and The Rose started out as a kind of "fix-fic" to fill in the plot holes left in the narration at the opening of Disney's Beauty and The Beast--but then when it came down to continuing it, I wondered what could be possible if instead of a "gentle, selfless Beauty" thrown in with an "ugly, self-absorbed Beast"--the archetypes were switched, and the Beast-prince actually learned his lesson from the curse, while the "beauty" is a vain, shallow, selfish girl who cannot stand to be around him, much less allow herself to be willing to break his curse!
I also serialized Red, The Wolf, which is a twist inspired by "Little Red Riding Hood", but the titular character is a lycanthrope guardian of this small mountain village--until the day she gets stuck in wolf-form, wounded and taken in by an unwitting passerby, and so she's got to figure out what's keeping her stuck, and how to get back to her village, without the stranger knowing that she's a shifter!
Finally, published in the anthology Dreamtime Dragons, I have a short story called "Arthur and The Egg", which is a dragon-themed take on the tale of "Jack and The Beanstalk."
In addition to all that, I have great news: Princess of Undersea is going to be the first in a series I'm calling "The Undersea Saga", and each book is going to draw on a different fairy tale! Book 2's plot is largely inspired by the original tale of "Pinocchio"--no whales this time, but at least one mermaid makes an appearance, and the main character does make rather a "donkey" of himself! Book 3 has no mermaids, but it focuses on another character from Book 2, and is more of a steampunk/Wild West take on the story of "Aladdin"! And Book 4 will round everything out, coming back to the original characters from Book 1 plus the additional characters from elsewhere in the series, for a mermaid-themed take on the story of "Snow White"!
I have so much fun twisting fairy tales--taking common tropes that everybody's seen before, and spinning them in new and unexpected ways!
You can follow Leslie's journey at these links:
SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS: