Toby LeBlanc is a mental health therapist in Austin, TX. Writing is a way his own tales can have life alongside the countless stories of courage and strength of his clients. While he and his family sleep under the Texas stars, he will always say he's from Louisiana. He enjoys wearing period-specific pirate costumes and fishing. His dream is to one day do both at the same time.
If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
I know this is a little on the nose, but I’d make chicken and sausage gumbo. And I would make it for Toni Morrison.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
It’s important to me to include many different identities and voices in my stories. I live with fear that I will write in a way that leads to silencing someone with an identity different from my own. I combat it by reading other authors with the identity of the character I want to portray and talking to friends with that identity. I’ve learned if I broaden my own understanding and continually chip away at my biases, my characters become more authentic and realistic. I get to be a better person in the process.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
My literary crush is Jesmin Ward. How she is able to create so much life, loving, and sadness wrapped in earth shattering metaphors is beyond my comprehension (but not my awe).
What books are on your nightstand?
So… I’m not going to tell you all of them. And not because I’m ashamed or anything. There’s just too many to name and you have a life to live. I’m currently reading New World Coming from Torrey House Press. Also adorning my obscene stack is Whiteness of a Different Color, Native Son, and Where All the Light Tends to Go.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
Semi-colon. It’s so rogue.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
The Great Gatsby. Never read it after high school either. And from what I’ve heard, I didn’t miss much.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
I’d like to thank trees for always listening to me when I was a lonely kid. Oh, and thanks for the oxygen and shade, too.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
I’d say the same thing I tell my kids in the acknowledgments of Dark Roux: Lache pas la patate. Never give up.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Most days it energizes me. When I treat writing as the joy it is (the way it is supposed to be treated, my wife reminds me) it is wonderful.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I think “aspiring” is a trap. As I write this I am still aspiring. On one hand it keeps me in this insecure place, believing I will always be becoming and will never arrive. On the other hand it keeps me growing, improving, and digging deeper until I reach my truth and the words in which to dress it. To me that is a trap because one inevitably and endlessly leads to the other and I stay stuck in that cycle. As I see-saw between them I can lose track of the “writer” in me.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
I overthink things way too much. I lose the story, the characters, everything.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yes. I didn’t know that’s what it was (and am now so glad there is a term for it). It happened recently. In hindsight it always happens to me when I’m doing a lot of living but not enough processing.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
My therapist self says this is not possible. I think how we’ve been taught to treat our emotions determines how/how much we express and understand that emotion. Writing is one of the best ways I’ve found to access those feelings. The more I write, the more I feel, and the more I understand. So I guess I’m saying writing is one of the keys to accessing the power of our emotions and to feel them more fully.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Maria Timm (another “aspiring” writer) is a constant source of inspiration. She does so naturally what I have to work for. Her writing is a constant inspiration and challenge to improve my work. I got to meet Johnnie Bernard early in this process. She, too, inspires me to push harder and make good work. Johnnie has also made what all goes into being an author much clearer. Lastly, Aurora Whittet has been such a wonderful beta reader and critique partner. Our writing and our audiences are so different that it always makes me look at characters and scenes in a completely different light.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Both? I have thoughts for a follow up to Dark Roux. I have a finished short story collection based in the future after climate change intensifies that I’ve also been considering expanding on in a whole other collection. However, I have a couple of other novels cooking that are definitely standalone.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Before publishing my audience was very much myself. I’ve heard some writers say that is who you’re supposed to write for. But publishing made writing much more of a relationship with a reader. It feels like a conversation now.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I joined the Writer’s League of Texas ten years ago. They offer amazing classes that might make some MFA programs blush (or at least I imagine so since I don’t have a MFA). It is my pleasure to renew my membership every year.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Eudora Welty and Cormac McCarthy. Though I’ve fallen a bit out of love with the latter.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I remember saying certain things in Cajun French as a kid that would hit completely different than the English translation. One conveyed meaning. While the other conveyed meaning and feeling.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I recently read Songlines by Bruce Chatwin. It intertwined anthropology with philosophy, all laid over a story. I love books that do many things like that.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I choose a vulture. First, I was obsessed with them as a kid and would watch a recorded nature special about them over and over. Second, I think they live a writer’s life. They are always riding above things, taking in the whole picture. They are the first to see where something has happened; something most people are afraid of and don’t want to touch. The role they play is to digest it so it does not spoil the community and instead restores it. On my best day I think I am a writing vulture.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Surely everything. I owe them my respect and abiding love. I owe them my sense of justice, but also my anger because of it. I owe them continued curiosity. Then there is the disappointment they’ve left me with. Their legacy creates many contradictions, but the turbulence of those always facilitates depth in me as well as my characters.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
What does literary success look like to you?
I love this question. In my wildest dreams literary success looks like conversations with readers who are as excited about these stories as I am. Then we’d have coffee. Or whiskey. Or coffee and whiskey. It would make us talk a lot about the stories but our conversations would make less and less sense.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
There are always the different large life experiences between genders: childbirth, prostate problems, discrimation from sexism, toxic masculinity (even though they are part of their respective coins), etc. With enough imagination, propped up by lots of very vulnerable conversations with people of a differing gender identity and reading writers with that identity, I think those experiences can be written about respectfully and realistically. But it’s the little things that are harder to get. Or the things we do in secret. I’ve never had to think deeply about what I would wear based on how people with power might perceive me, except for the very occasional suit. I’ve never soaked my feet after hours in heels (though I think I may have just created a challenge for myself). On the flip side, I’ve never been a woman expressing negative emotion to other women without the fear they would not think I’m man enough.
What did you edit out of this book?”
I may have edited out an entire book’s worth. There were several scenes which did not serve the plot despite how they were representative of the characters or the culture they are a part of. I edited out speech which was superfluous or perhaps too painful. Because the book is in very close first person, the characters would often get lost in their head and lose their purpose and reasoning. All of that had to be taken out.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
If we are taking my current work as a Licensed Professional Counselor off of the table, I think I’d end up a farmer. My internal clock gets me up early every day. The satisfaction I feel from working outside is pretty epic. That gene from my ancestors doesn’t go away easily, I guess.
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