An interview with Catholic author Leslea Wahl about ministry through mystery
By Lori Ann Watson
Sometimes we run across an author whose story and mission are so inspirational and relatable that we just have to share them with you. This month, we found those elements in Catholic author Leslea Wahl. Her story will encourage you in many ways, but it’s especially powerful for teachers and students who have writing aspirations, as well as anyone who sets out on a path toward a dream and finds that there are a few obstacles along the way. Learn more about Leslea’s books, her heart for service, and her work in the world.
In your first young-adult novel, The Perfect Blindside, readers will find a mystery, adventure, and clean romance, all in one. It tells the story of a handsome and egotistical teen snowboarding phenom and a devout, down-to-earth girl who find themselves with a shared mission. When did you actually write this novel, and what was it like to get published for the first time?
When my journey to become an author of Catholic teen fiction began, I had no plans or thoughts of writing a novel. My oldest son was in fifth grade and an excellent reader. He was always searching for YA novels to read, but I was having a really hard time finding any that would be fun, adventurous, and also reflect the values we were trying to instill in him. I remember wondering why no one was writing the kinds of books I was searching for, not knowing that I would eventually become that person. But one day I woke up and the story of The Perfect Blindside popped into my head. Ideas and characters just kept flooding my brain until I finally had to start writing them down.
Because of the way the story came to me, I always felt like God was leading on this path. However, my writing was really rough. I worked with a mentor for months getting the manuscript ready to send out. I then began the long process of sending queries to publishers and agents. Because I believed this was a calling from God, I didn’t give up, despite the growing collection of rejections. I just knew there had to be a plan. That plan finally came to fruition when Pauline Books and Media liked the story and wanted to publish it.
I, of course, was thrilled but didn’t realize how many more months the editing process would take. All in all, it took 6 ½ years from the time I first got the idea for the story to the book’s release.
The Perfect Blindside has been out since August of 2015 and has done well. It received a Catholic Press Association First Place Book Award and a Gold Medal at the Readers Favorite Awards. Pauline Books and Media has recently agreed to publish the sequel, as well, which I am extremely excited about. Hopefully that will be coming out sometime next year.
In An Unexpected Role, your main character is Josie, whose mom is an author. Her mom’s latest novel is interpreted by Josie’s school peers to be about Josie, it ruins Josie’s reputation, and she suffers cruelty at their hands.
One of the central themes in Josie’s story seems to be perspective—keeping the smallness of our problems in mind. Why do you think this is such an important lesson to pass on to teens today?
We have a tendency in our culture to live in what I’ve heard referred to as a bubble. Our world often consists of our small community. This is especially true for teens. They become so wrapped up in their world of school and activities and can easily lose perspective. That world and those friends can become the only things that matter. This is why peer pressure is so strong; they just want to fit into this small community.
In An Unexpected Role, I explored that idea, and, as I was writing, came upon the idea that if we expand that bubble and help others, our own problems may seem less important. Josie goes to this small island to get away from her problems, but when she becomes exposed to immigrants, veterans, and hospital patients, she realizes her problems are not so important. She also begins to see who God wants her to be.
When I talk at schools, I try to help kids think of ways they might be able to use their talents to help those in need. This can be overwhelming to think about, but there are so many small ways to reach people: sitting with someone at lunch, walking a neighbor’s dog, helping at a homeless shelter, and so on. It’s fun and so encouraging when the students come up with some ways they can make a difference.
This month, your newest novel, Where You Lead, was released. What excites you most about this project?
Where You Lead actually begins with a scene that popped into my head nearly 25 years ago that I thought would make an intriguing beginning to a book. After my writing career began growing, I kept wondering how this idea could fit in to a YA novel. Eventually this spark grew into a book about saying “yes” to God’s calling.
This book was so much fun to write because it is mostly set in Washington, D.C., where my husband and I lived for the first few years of our marriage. Writing about all the places that I loved visiting while we were there was a walk down memory lane. Several of the little interactions and incidents we encountered during those years also made it into the story.
You’re one of several authors who collaborate on the Catholic Teen Books website and who contributed to the teen anthology Secrets: Visible and Invisible. Many think of writing as a solo effort. How important are joint efforts and networking for authors today?
CatholicTeenBooks.com came about after a visit I did to a homeschool group with another author. One of the parents made the comment that it would be wonderful if similar books could be found all in one spot. After this event, we contacted several other authors who all write Catholic teen fiction, and soon the idea for the joint website was created. We have 13 authors represented on the website, with books in multiple genres. There is a teacher tab that has a great printout with brief descriptions of all our books, grouped by age level. This is a great resource for teachers and librarians looking for more Catholic novels for their students.
Working with all these authors has been such a joy. We’ve found working together and promoting each other’s works helps everyone. The anthology Secrets: Visible and Invisible includes short stories from seven authors. My short story is actually a mini-adventure combining the main characters from my first two novels. This anthology is a great way to get a taste of several different authors and their writing styles.
Your mission is to use your gifts to glorify God, help others to find Him, and encourage them to use their gifts for Him, too. Have you always had a sense of this mission, or did it evolve?
It did evolve over time. In fact, I didn’t even include faith in my first draft of The Perfect Blindside. I wrote it as a clean teen novel with good positive messages. But again through some divine intervention, I came across a book that included all the same elements as my book – adventure, mystery, humor, and innocent romance. But this book also had an element of faith, and that’s when I knew what my writing needed to focus on – encouraging faith.
Her website, where you can check out the Writing on the Wahl blog, download discussion questions and other resources, and get a snapshot of her work and mission
The Perfect Blindside book trailer
An Unexpected Role book trailer (teachers should preview )
The Catholic Teen Books website
Her contact page, where you can reach out to her with questions or a class response — or request a school visit
Lori Ann Watson is a Teacher of the Year turned stay-at-home mom and blogger who writes from Florida. Her pro-life picture book, Beginnings, was the fruit of reading Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.
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