Joan Leotta has been playing with words on page and stage since childhood in Pittsburgh. She is a writer, story performer and lifelong beachcomber whose own dad got up early to hunt shells with her.
Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome, Joan. You seem to be a rather eclectic author, romance, mystery, essay, poems, short stories, and children’s books. Do you have a favorite type of writing?
Joan Leotta: My favorite kind of writing is the one I am doing at the time. That’s not very informative, except to say I simply love to write. However, I write for children as a high calling—what is done for children, lasts. Poetry, the same. Touches the heart. I also read just as widely as I write—more so. I write non-fiction in the form of journalism (health and food) though I have , in the past, written a travel book and many travel articles as well.
Ferrante: How do you decide what type of writing you going to do next? Does the topic choose the style or vice versa?
Leotta: The topic and the style need to be on the same track. I look at a topic and say—wow! Then my head begins to shape that WOW into a story or a poem, or perhaps I want to track it as an article. The idea is that WOW is something I want to share with others.
Ferrante: This blog focuses on children’s books so let’s talk a little about your picture books, Whoosh!, Summer in a Bowl, Rosa and the Red Apron, and Rosa’s Shell, which celebrate food and family. Why did you decided to focus on that topic? What do you hope to get across to your readers?
Leotta: I want readers to see that ordinary family moments bring great joy. Of course, with my own background (Italian-American) food is often a part of that. My dad is the dad in stories, my Aunt Mary, the Aunt in Summer, a version of my Mom (she was a bit complex) is the Mom in Rosa and the Red Apron and while my Grandma could not sew, she gave me many intangible gifts, including a love of story, that have enriched my entire life.
Ferrante: The family in Rosa and the Red Apron are of African descent but you don’t seem to be. Did you choose this or did the illustrator? Do you try to include diversity in all of your books?
Leotta: Actually, they are not supposed to be of African descent in particular—the idea was to make them ethnically ambiguous. They could be anyone whose coloring is deep olive or brown: Some Hispanics, some East Asians, some African-Americans, some Middle Eastern folks and some Italian-Americans(old family photos of mine show people of that coloring ). I am often asked, “What are you?” and I occasionally answer, “human, how about you?”
These ordinary experiences are not the particular “property” of any one ethnic group—all want, need and take joy in loving families. Yet, there are not many books out there showing such for anyone not blonde unless the characters are animals. I hoped Rosa would fill that gap. As a story performer, I often tell tales from many ethnicities, but on the same topic, subtly showing my audiences that each group has an interest in same basic things and each has value.
Ferrante: Your Legacy of Honor for book romance/mystery series features strong Italian-American women during the time of war. Tell us a little about the series. Why did you choose this topic?
Leotta: I grew up hearing stories of things my family did during wartime to support the efforts of the USA—both in combat (my father and uncles) and on the home front. I wanted to tell the stories of the valiant women. Desert Breeze wanted a set of four stories, so I started with WWII, then Korea, then Vietnam (where the woman serves in the war zone as a nurse!) and then Desert Storm (where women hold several roles, Journalists, home support and more). These stories are very close to home for me.
Ferrante: What kind of research did you to in order to write the books with authenticity?
Leotta: Research, research, research! I love research. As I shaped each story, I combed through books, newspaper articles, and sought first person accounts from people who lived through the eras in question so that details of things going on, places, would be accurate. For the first one, Giulia is the Italian spelling of a friend, named “Julia” who told me her story of leaving home and marrying a man who was not Italian-American. The research on the Wilmington shipyards—well, that was a lot of fun and I was already familiar with the resources. I had written several short stories about Wilmington history that took prizes from the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. An elder in my church provided me with his slides of Korea from when he was stationed there and a lot of anecdotes that appear in the book as things that happen to my main characters. For A Bowl of Rice, the Vietnam tale, I drew on the experiences of my former roommate, who was a nurse in Vietnam. I read about the ways in which women journalists were working during the 90s and then also drew on Civil War history for the last book as well as lots of maps and a couple of recent visits to Rome to craft that tale.
Ferrante: What type of essays do you write? Are they about personal experiences or current events?
Leotta: I write personal experience essays. My work has been published by Chicken Soup for the Soul, Sassee magazine and SKIRT.
Ferrante: Are you working on more than one thing at a time? Or do you like to focus intently on a single piece of writing?
Leotta: I have a short attention span so I am always working on more than one thing. Often I am preparing something for a performance while writing as well. I used to write a lot of business articles. I kept only one client when we moved to North Carolina (that was my version of retirement) and now fill my time with poems (am revising at least one or starting one or both at all times). I am deadline driven (journalist habit) so my large projects are spaced out. When I get “stuck” I take a walk and tackle something in another genre.
Ferrante: You identify as a “story performer.” Tell us a little about what you do.
Leotta: I go to schools, libraries, and festivals and perform stories (often folk tales, sometimes notable women from history) as one woman shows. I love interaction, so I try to include my audience as much as possible. Even if the main stories are serious, I try to find places for humor too.
Ferrante: What is your latest publication and why do you think it’s worth buying?
Leotta: Rosa’s Shell is the latest—buy it for a good beach week tale for little ones. Great father-child bonding too.
Ferrante: What is the best advice you could give to a beginning writer based on your own experiences?
Leotta: Pay attention to craft, look at rejections as stepping stones, and persist.
CLICK ON THE BOOK COVERS FOR MORE INFORMATION OR TO BUY THE BOOK.
Ferrante: If you could invent a brand-new flavor of ice cream or sorbet, what would you choose?
Leotta: Lime vanilla swirl
Ferrante: If you could learn any dance perfectly, traditional or ethnic, which one would you choose?
Leotta: I can’t do any dance at all—I am without rhythm. Hmm, that makes this one soooooo tough. Anything I can dance with my husband maybe just the simple waltz so I wouldn’t step on him. (He is a good dancer)
Ferrante: If you were a colour what colour would you be? Why?
Leotta: I like blue the best, it’s my favorite. So I guess the blue of the sky so I could bask in the love of the sun and make my lap a play space for clouds
Ferrante: Thank you for participating in this interview series. Good luck with your new publications.
Joan Leotta’s Social Media links.
www.joanleotta.wordpress.com (A series there on the birth of a picture book and photos of the real Aunt Mary)
@beachwriter12 , Joan’s twitter handle