Author interview 135 – Leslie Conzatti


Leslie Conzatti

Washington, United States

Age 30

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.

Her first fairy-tale re-telling, Princess of Undersea, was originally released in 2016, putting an original spin on The Little Mermaid. In 2020, Leslie re-published an updated version of Princess of Undersea as the first book in a series of re-tellings known as The Undersea Saga. She has also published a handful of short stories 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.

Mermaid princess Ylaine has only ever wanted one thing: her father’s recognition and approval. King Davor of Undersea, however, is obsessed with launching a war against the ignorant, pact-breaking humans. Ylaine believes that if she can convince her father that not all humans are evil, he might listen to her, and call off his plans for war. Such an outcome seems so far out of reach, till the day she willingly trades a most precious gift to have the thing that she hopes will help her make peace between the realms: magic that transforms her into a human.

Safe in the palace of Overcliff, Prince Nathan seeks his own comfort, and dreads the day when the people of his failing kingdom will depend on him for their well-being. His father, King Theodore, remains distant and forgetful, while the Royal Council runs things–and as far as the Prince is concerned, he is free to continue doing as he likes. When a mysterious young woman arrives on the island, he begins to realize that all is not as it seems–and threats can come just as easily from across the sea as under it.

Romelia: WHAT IS A SIGNIFICANT WAY YOUR BOOK HAS CHANGED SINCE THE FIRST DRAFT?

Leslie Conzatti: This is a great question to answer because I recently updated and then self-published my novel, Princess of Undersea. It began as a fanfiction, with all kinds of pre-existing character names and references–names like „Princess Ariel” and „Prince Eric”, and the like! I had to change quite a bit in particular because the character that would have the most influence on my mermaid princess was a copyrighted character, so I had to come up with a whole new, original character to fill the role.

A second way it changed between the first draft and the final draft is that I could not skip through the plot the way I could when serializing it for the fanfiction–so I had to explain a lot more about the world, add in my own plot devices, and connect all the transitions. Writing a novel is much different than writing a fanfiction!

Romelia: WHAT PERSPECTIVES OR BELIEFS HAVE YOU CHALLENGED WITH THIS WORK?

Leslie Conzatti: I think one of the more common themes of the „Little Mermaid” story that gets played over and over again, in just about every iteration is that of a deeply creative, talented young female who gives up everything to escape an overbearing parent, in pursuit of achieving her heart’s desire. In just about every story, the girl is rewarded for her sacrifice, she is heralded for her defiance against an irascible antagonist who largely represents the trope of „maintaining status quo” and „opposing any idea that does not agree with the established narrative.”

With my story, I flip that trope by introducing a dynamic that isn’t merely „rebellion against an authority figure”, but „a desire to communicate with those of opposing ideas, and demonstrate a reasonable alternative solution.” In Princess of Undersea, we see that King Davor is an overbearing father and a lot of his insecurity comes from being very much alone and unopposed in his decision-making–but Ylaine still factors him into her end goal. She doesn’t just want to be right, she wants him to see another side to the situation.

I’d like to think that it also carries a tone reminiscent of a cautionary tale and the warning is this: who are you listening to in regards to the relationships in your life? Who is your influence, and what effect does it have for you? Both Ylaine and Nathan are experiencing a breach in the relationship with their fathers, due to personal tragedy in regard to the absence of their mothers. But watch what happens when Ylaine talks with Nayidia about it–what is Nayidia telling her, and what effect does that have on Ylaine’s view of her father and her relationship with him. In the same way, Nathan has Giles giving him advice and input, which he values as much as Ylaine values Nayidia’s words–but what does Giles say about Nathan’s father? What effect does Giles’ influence have on Nathan’s character arc? I don’t want to give any more hints than that, since this is a crucial spoiler for the book, but yeah, a YA novel where the adults aren’t completely useless except to suppress and oppose the young protagonists, and where the protagonists are themselves intent on improving their interactions with the previous generation is pretty much „challenging the norm”, I think!

Romelia: WHAT INSPIRED THE IDEA FOR YOUR BOOK?

Leslie Conzatti: The inspiration for Princess of Undersea began, as I mentioned before, as a fanfiction–so the first source of inspiration for even attempting my own version of a fairy tale, I owe in large part to the TV series Once Upon A Time. I really enjoyed the way the writers of that show found new ways to present the „beats” of an old familiar tale in a new way.

Another series that really inspired my motivation to turn a stand-alone book into a series is The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer. I love the way she pulled from every fairy tale, incorporating aspects into the world she crafted for the series, and how each individual book moved through the individual stories, while also contributing to the broader series arc that kept me wanting to know what would happen in the next book! That’s the kind of feeling that I want to evoke with my series: it’s not just a self-contained story anymore, but there are other characters and other places to explore.

Romelia: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BOOK’S IDEAL READER?

Leslie Conzatti: The ideal reader for Princess of Undersea would be anyone middle-grade level (nine or ten years old) and up who enjoys fairy tales, finds mermaids fascinating, and likes taking adventures in their imagination!

Romelia: HOW MUCH RESEARCH DID YOU NEED TO DO FOR YOUR BOOK?

Leslie Conzatti: Full disclosure: not a whole lot of super-intense research went into the writing of this book. I relied heavily on the general knowledge of things that I had, and made use of trivia I picked up from various sources over my years of reading mermaid-related stories. I’m the sort of person who would rather state something in my story and be able to logic it out based on my narrative, than go through the work of actually knowing enough facts about enough topics to make the statements „airtight”!

Romelia: HOW IMPORTANT WAS PROFESSIONAL EDITING TO YOUR BOOK’S DEVELOPMENT?

Leslie Conzatti: Very important! Just in the process of converting a fanfiction into a stand-alone narrative, I had to be very careful about my grammar and spelling, to say nothing of ensuring that there weren’t continuity errors, or details out of place. The editor and I went back and forth for about a year and a half (while I was also working full-time) each time finding more little errors or pieces of the story that didn’t quite fit. And yet, even so, there were printing errors in the proof that had to be corrected before I signed off on it.

The second time around, when I went back to self-publish it, I didn’t exactly have that professional editing, just me and the formatter picking up errors–a few do still slip through the cracks, but I think that only goes to show that hiring a professional editor–especially one that can do all sorts of different editing styles, from line editing to developmental and proofreading–is your best chance at turning out a truly professional-looking product!

Romelia: WHAT WAS YOUR HARDEST SCENE TO WRITE, AND WHY?

Leslie Conzatti: I would have to say that the hardest scene for me to write would be the conversation between Nayidia and Ylaine, near the beginning of the book. It was the moment to introduce the character of Nayidia, and establish Ylaine’s personality apart from the way she behaves in front of her father, which was the scene prior to that, and I wanted to give a sense that they’d had a lot of these discussions before–but that this particular time, there would be important bits of information that Ylaine hadn’t heard before, hinted at among the parts she knew by heart. Getting everything timed just right so that it wasn’t too much of an info dump, and yet it flowed naturally and didn’t feel forced was definitely a more complex challenge than I ever anticipated!

Romelia: WHAT CHARACTERS IN YOUR BOOK ARE MOST SIMILAR TO YOU OR TO PEOPLE YOU KNOW?

Leslie Conzatti: Ylaine, I kind of patterned after myself: curious about things that sometimes the people closest to me don’t find interesting at all, imaginative, and finding myself in situations where I have important things to say, but I can’t find the words to adequately express how I feel, sometimes! Also the idea to give her a stutter in lieu of taking away her voice (or her tongue!) completely–as most re-tellings would do–came from my own experience with a stutter that comes out mostly when I’m anxious, nervous, overtired, or just speaking for longer than my brain can process the words I’m saying!

As for the other characters, Nayidia and Davor are definitely based on people I’ve encountered in my real life, and Giles also–but the others are more or less invented solely for the purposes of the story I wanted to tell!

Romelia: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE THIS BOOK?

Leslie Conzatti: That’s a pretty tricky question! The original fanfiction–where I first came up with the bulk of the ways I would attempt to change and tweak the story of The Little Mermaid–took me about three to six months to write, since I could arrange the story in a series of individual scenes, like an episode in a series, and I could jump my way through the story and tell only the parts I wanted to tell.

Turning it from a fanfiction into a novella took quite a bit longer, I would say an additional six months, at least, since I had to not only take out all the copyrighted references I’d used, but come up with original material, characters, and dialogue to replace that, and work out my own transitions between scenes. Still, with most of the plot already thought up ahead of time, it went pretty smoothly, akin to building a wall with stones: the bulk of the structure was there, all I had to do was make the „mortar” that would turn a „pile of rocks” into a „stable structure.”

After I had the first draft of the novella, it was quite another process to then edit the draft to ensure that the story was communicated well enough, and to get rid of the small spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes I’d left throughout! Back and forth through nine more drafts with the editor, over the course of about a year and a half, (while working full-time, I might add!), each time catching a small slip-up that had escaped my notice all the times before! Every time, I would think „Now we’ve caught everything!” but there it would be once again, with another mistake or two that needed fixing!

Four years later, I went at it again, updating and adjusting scenes that I hadn’t quite nailed four years ago, changing interactions and adding references to make it feel more like a series and not like the stand-alone that it was originally–but this time, I spent about four months in all, polishing and adding and adjusting things, catching new mistakes that I’d made in the updated sections (and still working full-time!), until finally it was ready! So, without having the luxury of being able to work on it all the time, interspersed with my job, my life, and my other writing projects I was also maintaining in the interim, it took about two and a half years to „finish” Princess of Undersea, and make it what it is today!

Romelia: HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THE TITLE FOR YOUR BOOK?

Leslie Conzatti: The title Princess of Undersea was fairly straightforward: the story centers around Ylaine, the Mermaid Crown Princess of the Kingdom of Undersea. (which was itself a very un-creative placeholder since the fanfiction version; I didn’t see any reason why the kingdom under the sea wouldn’t be called „Undersea”, any more than the human kingdom situated on a cliff-covered island over the water would be known as „Overcliff”–I fully intended to come up with something more original when I went to turn it into my own original work… but I never did!)

The fun part of turning it into a series is that I can use that same „linguistic convention” to craft titles for each of the other books: Fugitive of Crossway; Fury of Outwest; and the last one, Queen of Overcliff.

Romelia: WOULD YOU AND YOUR MAIN CHARACTER GET ALONG?

Leslie Conzatti: I would like to think Ylaine and I would get along. Particularly in her stuttering state, as that would be a time in her experience when she would find most other people more apt to ignore her or be annoyed every time she tried to speak. I have had plenty of experience interacting with kids who do have speech impediments of varying degrees, and yet I have learned to listen well, respond with support and encouragement, and take the time to allow the other person to feel heard. This is how I would treat Ylaine if I met her–and I think we have enough shared interests that we’d get along just fine!

Romelia: IF YOU COULD MEET YOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THEM?

Leslie Conzatti: I’d probably love to meet Ylaine and her father! I’d be fascinated, asking Ylaine all sorts of questions about the world of Merfolk! Giles, I’d talk about the last days of the Mer-Human Trade Pact–after all, he was a young boy when that was still going on, and he had just taken the post of King’s Steward when the Queen died, leaving the King and her young son alone, and prompting the King to blame the fairies for the mysterious disease beyond all reach of modern medicine, thereby banishing them from the land. A man like that has plenty of intriguing stories to tell, I’m sure!

Romelia: WHAT IS YOUR WRITING PROCESS LIKE? ARE YOU MORE OF A PLOTTER OR A PANTSER?

Leslie Conzatti: I’m really kind of a mix of both. I start out as a planner, for sure. I can’t just start in on an idea with the first inclination I have–when I first get an idea, I need to write it down, and take notes for a whole plot, from start to finish. That could take a while, but the thing I like about having a plan ahead of time is that once I do start writing, I can let it go and let the story flow out of the ideas that I had, shifting details and moving beats around, as needed. It could be that I might have a certain idea for the characters at the very start, but once I introduce them into the scene in the first draft, things might change, or I might come up with a new aspect to their personality I hadn’t realized before–and so it goes, through the whole thing. Some scenes might end up a lot shorter or longer than anticipated, or some topics that I refer to later in the „outline” might actually fit better into an earlier conversation, so that the planned interaction is no longer needed. I’ve even had the experience of a draft completely changing to a different outcome than what I originally intended!

I am by no means a „pantser”, able to tap out a whole short draft on pure whim, nor am I someone who plans so meticulously that I stick to it without deviating all the way through. In that way, I kind of „pants” my way through a „plan”–so I guess you’d call me a „plantser”?

Romelia: WHAT DO YOU NEED IN YOUR WRITING SPACE TO HELP YOU STAY FOCUSED?

Leslie Conzatti: I think the most important thing that keeps me focused is a notebook, colored gel pens (to take notes and keep track of the story–sometimes I find that there is a different level of concentration and tactile engagement when I’m writing things by hand as opposed to typing them up), and a chair with good back support. I divide my time writing between my computer desk, with a high-backed and cushioned chair, and a smaller swivel armchair–depending on how I’m feeling.

The other aspect I need is quiet. A lot of people write well along to music, but I tend to get distracted by the music and it takes my focus off of the words when I listen to it!

Romelia: IF YOU WERE TO WRITE A SPIN-OFF ABOUT A SIDE CHARACTER, WHICH WOULD YOU PICK?

Leslie Conzatti: As a matter of fact, that is precisely how the books of this series are connecting with one another!

Simon is a side character in Princess of Undersea–there for a few scenes, but not really involved much in the central plot. He becomes the main character of Fugitive of Crossway. Then, a side character from Fugitive of Crossway is sort of the secondary main character (antagonist-turned-ally character, actually) in book 3, Fury of Outwest. Finally, in the fourth book, Queen of Overcliff, all these characters come back together to combat an enemy that was there from the very start!

The great thing about the way that I’m writing this series is that each story will come with a few short stories that tend to do exactly that, explore further into the narratives of a couple characters, delve further into the backstories that are alluded to in the book itself, but there wasn’t room to include it in the plot itself. So I’ll get the opportunity each time to pick a couple characters to spin-off, at least a little!

Romelia: IF YOU COULD SPEND A DAY WITH ANOTHER POPULAR AUTHOR, WHOM WOULD YOU CHOOSE?

Leslie Conzatti: Oh, there are so many authors I’ve enjoyed over the years, I’d just want to pick their brains and ask them all about their inspiration, any suggestions and habits they’ve developed to hone their craft, and I would just want to hear more about their views on the world around them in general!

Authors like Cornelia Funke, Brandon Sanderson, Naomi Novik, Marissa Meyer, and Anthony Horowitz come to mind. But then there’s also the vast numbers of indie authors I’d love to meet in person someday, such as R. R. Virdi, Patricia Loofbourrow, Amy Hopkins, Kelly Blanchard, and Kimberly Rogers–that would be such fun!

Romelia: WHAT IS YOUR SCHEDULE LIKE WHEN YOU’RE WRITING A BOOK?

Leslie Conzatti: My schedule during an average day is pretty sparse-looking. I wake up at 6 AM and get ready to leave for work, where I am on-duty till 3 PM. Once I get home, I might have an hour or so to catch up on emails, tap out an idea or two that I came up with while at work, or add to/publish a blog post if I had one prepared the night before. Most of the time I also have housework to do, so I get that done before dinner between 5 and 6. From about 7 until I go to bed, that is the time I have for getting any writing done, if I’m not too worn out to focus! My prime concentration time during a non-work day is between the hours of 11 AM and 2 PM, so if I can get writing done in that space of time, it’s pretty productive. The trouble about writing so late in the evening is that I’m usually more tired than focused, so if the words I want or need to write are not in the forefront of my brain, then it probably isn’t going to happen, and I am better off just reading another chapter or two in one of the many books I have on my nightstand, and going to bed. I used to average more like 900-1000 or more words a day, but for some reason, this year I’ve been struggling to get up to the 800-900 range. Spring break is coming up, and I’m hoping to at least get this draft of Fugitive of Crossway finished up over the course of that week, but we’ll see!

Romelia: HAVE YOU EVER TRAVELED AS RESEARCH FOR YOUR BOOK?

Leslie Conzatti: I have not traveled, but for sure I have ideas that I would very much like to travel, as I enjoy putting real-life experience into my stories!

Romelia: WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE WRITING SNACK OR DRINK?

Leslie Conzatti: While I’m writing, I like to have something sweet and fizzy to drink, and something crunchy or chocolatey to snack on. In the mornings, I have my cup of coffee sweetened with monkfruit and a dash of cream–but in the afternoons, I like a ginger ale or a flavored sparkling water to keep me refreshed. Snacks with a crunch, like pretzels or Sun chips are my favorite salty go-to, and chocolate candies like M&Ms or chocolate-covered dried fruits are my favorite sugar-boosters.

Romelia: HOW DO YOU CELEBRATE WHEN YOU FINISH YOUR BOOK?

Leslie Conzatti: Having only finished essentially one book (twice) I can say for certainty that I celebrated by setting aside my laptop for a while and just reading for a week or two! Normally when I’m actively writing, I have to choose between reading and writing, and the struggle to balance the two habits is difficult indeed, but once I finish a draft, I like to just pull away from writing altogether and allow that part of my creative side to re-charge with some binge-watching a series or reading a couple of those books that have been sitting on my nightstand for quite some time!

Romelia: WHAT RISKS HAVE YOU TAKEN WITH YOUR WRITING THAT HAVE PAID OFF?

Leslie Conzatti: Good question! Nothing really comes to mind offhand, except the fact that re-telling a fairy tale that has been re-told dozens of times before does carry some level of risk: will it succeed in its own right, or will it end up displeasing someone because it is too predictable? Will it stand out among all the other choices in its category, or will it blend in and get lost in the shuffle?

At this point, I can say that the reviews seem to agree that I’ve done my job well enough! Readers notice that I’ve kept a sense of the original, a feeling of familiarity carried through the story, but they also appreciate the new twists and the shift in focus that I’ve put into my version. The tale itself is timeless in its own right, but you won’t see alterations like mine anywhere else!

Romelia: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU GOOGLED YOURSELF AND WHAT DID YOU FIND?

Leslie Conzatti: You know, I haven’t really thought to Google myself ever, so I just did… and what I found was all my social media presences: my author pages on Facebook and Amazon, my blog, and quite a number of the recent interviews I’ve participated in–much like this one! It helps to have a pretty unique surname, I think–it’s not like there’s another „Leslie Conzatti” that has some kind of criminal record somewhere!

Romelia: WHAT IS YOUR KRYPTONITE AS A WRITER?

Leslie Conzatti: The thing that can totally kill my writing vibe, the one thing that tends to spell the kiss of death for more stories than ever would probably be „the plot that takes too long to navigate.” Either I’m running into a plot hole that I just can’t fill, no matter how hard I try, or I have a point in the story that I’m really excited about… I just have to write my way up to it and it’s taking a really long time, and my interest drops precipitously. I’m well-aware that if the writer is bored, it means the story is boring, and the reader will be bored as well. I do my best to try and shrink those „boring parts” to almost nothing, and when the plot hits a snag, sometimes my best shot is to just re-start the thing at the last interesting part, and see if I can’t get from Point A to Point B (the next big moment) from another direction. If it’s too complicated and there’s just too much going wrong, I may even take the story all the way back to the outline and re-work that to something more solid and achievable, but that only happens on those things that I’m dead-set on getting published. If it comes to that point and I haven’t gotten back to it, I metaphysically „shelve” it and move on. Part of me wonders if I’ll ever reach a point where I could come back to those „shelved” projects and give them the work-over that they so badly need!

Romelia: TELL US SOMETHING FUNNY FROM YOUR ADULT LIFE.

Leslie Conzatti: Something funny, eh? I’ve laughed over plenty of things in my adult life.

There was the time where I was „hired” by a friend to play background music during a romantic dinner during which her brother was planning on proposing to his fiancee. I didn’t know a whole lot of sweet, romantic songs, and I was extremely nervous about playing for an indefinite amount of time, but I gave it my best shot.

Halfway through the meal, I see what I think is the signal for me to stop playing and leave the room (because he’s going to propose), so I do… leaving my instrument behind. By then it was very late, and pouring down rain outside, so there wasn’t a whole lot of room for me to stand under the tiny eave along with my friend and some of her friends (who were helping with set up/serving/and clean up. The proposal comes off well, I go back in to pack up and take my leave… and I discover, as the last couple people are packing up and clearing out, that I’ve gone and locked my keys in the car. I had to go back into the building where the whole proposal had just taken place and call a family member to bring an extra key so I can drive home. Adulting fail! Needless to say, I’ve been pretty obsessive about checking for my keys before I leave the car after that!

Romelia: DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN A FEW SENTENCES. TELL US SOMETHING WE DO NOT KNOW ABOUT YOU AND SOMETHING YOU HATE ABOUT THE WORLD.

Leslie Conzatti: I am an avid writer and a voracious reader. I am deeply passionate about literature and creative storytelling. I observe a lot about the world around me before I jump in and participate, and most often, my perspective on the world is quite different than the commonly-accepted one!

What you might not know about me is that I come from a large family, yet I’m extremely introverted and I like to spend time by myself.

Something I hate about the world is when people don’t communicate well with each other–either they don’t say what they need to be saying, or what they are saying isn’t actually true! So much of the issues would at least be solved, or the process of finding a workable solution could begin, if people would only put in the effort to communicate with one another!

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