Lena, your writing career had it's earliest beginnings with an elementary school essay contest, which you won! What was your essay about? What was that experience like for you?
What fond memories. My essay was about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the many ways kids like myself could make a difference in the world. It was one of my favorite highlights as a child. I knew then I had a voice.
Did you continue writing throughout your childhood? When did you really know that writing was your calling?
I continued to write throughout my childhood. I knew writing was my gift in the 11th grade. I had to write an autobiography and my English teacher gave me an "A," but she asked to speak with me after class. She said she was very moved by my honesty and my writing style. She was the first person to tell me I had a talent for writing.
Who are some of the authors that have most inspired you? Who have most influenced you or shaped you as a writer and a poet?
Bernice L. McFadden, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin [have most inspired me]. I would say Bernice L. McFadden and James Baldwin influenced me the most. I once copied the entire book Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin completely by hand on yellow legal pads. His book is poetic, almost lyrical in tone. It is honest and authentic, and the first book I read that was categorized as gay lit. I consider it to be great literature, period. But I remember wanting to be as authentic as James Baldwin in my own writing. I also wanted to know what it felt like to write what I considered a masterpiece. Now, I can say I wrote one. Maybe not my own, but I did write it.
What are your all-time top three favorite books?
Oh that's easy, but I wish I could list more books. Sugar by Bernice L. McFadden - I have purchased that book so many times. I would lend it out and never receive it back and so I would have to purchase another copy. Then I started purchasing extra copies so I could give it away freely. The next book would be Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin and my other choice is I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
Can you tell us a little bit about the beginnings of If I Had My Way? Was there one story, or one character that really hooked you, that got you writing, or with whom you knew you had found your direction?
I started If I Had My Way with the story "5 Minutes." The main character Niceta has been with me for some time. She is part me, I would say 1/4 Lena Sledge in spirit and 3/4 fiction. Then I begin to write stories that revolved around the theme of what would you do differently if you had your way to change it. And the stories began to flow from there.
Most of your stories are told from the point of view of women, and among the many things I liked about If I Had My Way was that your characters find ways to be honest, strong and resourceful in the face of adversity - when they don't have their way. Was that a conscious choice when you were writing, or is that just how your characters come to you? How are your characters like you? How are they different?
It was deliberate to write strong characters with flaws. I wrote with that theme in mind. But I didn't set out to write from the view point of women. It just happened that way.
So many of the characters are like me and yet completely different than me. Some of the choices I would never make, yet I can empathize with having to make certain choices in certain situations. For instance with Sunshine, she is self-conscious about who she thinks she is because of one aspect in her life. Yet she finds out later that one person, one moment, doesn't define you. You define who you are. I would like to believe I would make better choices than the characters in my stories from the start. But people are human and it isn't always cut and dry. I am no different than my characters in regards that my family is my strength, but I wholeheartedly believe I would make better choices early on.
A few of your stories are told from a man's point of view - I thought "Substitute" was especially moving, and "Journey." The characters in these two stories ultimately consider family, responsibility, and choices. Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for those stories?
In "Substitute" there are two brothers who are both alive but not truly living the life they would like to have. I have three sisters and I would like to think I would behave differently to them if I were in the same situation as the brothers in "Substitute," yet I can relate to the struggles of both brothers because they are ultimately putting their life and their dreams on hold for someone they love. How many people do that in everyday life as mothers, wives, friends, etc? There's nothing wrong with being selfless, but at some point you have to be good to yourself to be any good to anyone else.
What aspects of writing these characters challenged you?
"Journey" challenged me the most because I felt for Raru. I wanted him to win. But Raru wasn't destined to win in this story, perhaps later in life I imagine, but everything doesn't end with a big red bow. I wanted Raru to grow, and he does. I knew a lot of Rarus growing up in Detroit, and a couple of them never made it in life as far as Raru does. As long as there is breath in you, it's never too late to make better choices.
The whole time I was reading "If I Had My Way," the song was humming in the back of my mind. Was it there for you as well? Just for fun: If you could make a playlist for the collection, what songs or types of music would be on it?
It would be R&B and jazz. I love to hear a saxophone playing and I love listening to violins. I honestly listen to all of Jill Scott's albums on my iPod when I write. I probably listen to her album The Real Thing: Words and Sounds more than any other album. Her music inspires and relaxes me. I got the title for If I Had My Way from the song If I Have My Way by Chrisette Michele. She has a powerful and soulful voice. I was riding in the car one day and it just clicked.
Please tell us a little bit about your novel Waiting on Heaven.
Waiting on Heaven is my first novel. It's a family drama filled with growing pains, tragedy, love and some very funny moments. It's about a mother who is terminally ill and disappears without telling her adult children. She only tells one person, her sister, and between the two of them they misdirect and deceive the siblings, but her youngest daughter doesn't believe the lies and gets closer to finding her mother and the real reasons she has left them to go die alone. I am excited about Waiting on Heaven and it will be released June 5, 2012.
Thanks so much to Lena for being a guest on the blog, and for a complimentary review copy of her lovely collection If I Had My Way. You can learn more about Lena on her blog, and follow her on twitter and Facebook. You can also purchase If I Had My Way on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Lena has also very generously offered a free e-copy of If I Had My Way to one lucky reader! Leave a comment telling us one thing you might do or change if you had your way on or before Thursday, February 23rd. Please enter only once, and
Update: Congratulations to Sidne, our winner! Thank you, everyone, for checking out the interview and for your great thoughts on "If I Had My Way."