Talking with Author Leslie J. Sherrod about Writing, Faith and her latest book, Secret Place

Leslie Sherrod

As if recently receiving her masters degree in social work, and balancing the demands of being a wife and mother were not enough, Leslie J. Sherrod is an accomplished author with two published books; she contributes to A Cup of Comfort, a devotional series (Adams Media). Sherrod is also co-owner of  Paintbrush Poetry a home-based business she runs with her husband which combines both their talents in visual and literary art.

Her first novel, Like Sheep Gone Astray, chronicled the life of a minister whose own greed presents two choices – succumb to temptation or resist it furiously. Secret Place, Sherrod’s latest offering is a dramatic departure from that subject matter, and deals with mental illness, and its impact on us.
The book’s central character, Charisma Joel, is a Sunday school teacher desperate to conceal an uncomfortable truth – mental illness is wrecking havoc within her family. Dr. Miles Logan becomes a confidant, but his penchant for chasing women is a distraction. All the while, a murder occurs and more deception comes to light.
Ultimately, Secret Place is a story that reveals the devastation mental illness can cause within families, while offering hope for change along the way. I chatted recently with Sherrod about writing, faith, this gripping work, mental health issues, and how education can help us change things.
LALIC: When did you realize you were a writer?  
LS: I’ve always loved to write. I know people say that but it’s true [for me]. I remember being in 2nd grade and having a project where we had to write a report about one of our friends, and I just loved it. In 6th grade, I fell in love with adjectives. During high school I always wrote poems.

I never pictured myself being a novelist. If anything, I thought I would keep writing poetry. I felt like no matter what else I did in life, I would just be writing in some capacity.

LALIC:There is a powerful phrase on your website –“Writing to inspire, writing to transform.”  Break this down for us. In what ways does your work both inspire and transform?                                                                                                     
LS: Writing for me is more than outlet, for me it’s like a ministry. I feel like I actually prefer writing over talking a lot of times. It’s the vehicle that I am the most comfortable with [using]. My hope and continual prayer with writing is that it entertains, but I really want it to serve a bigger purpose and inspire hope in people.

People are going through so many things across the board. I just want it to be something that gives a positive message – especially as a Christian author. [It should] really uplift Christ as an answer to everything. Jesus spoke in parables. I like the idea of having a plot and storyline [with] a nugget of wisdom or truth.

LALIC: Faith is obviously a central piece of your life. How long have you been a Christian?       
LS: I accepted Christ as my savior at five or six years old in my mother’s Sunday school class. I came to the realization that he really did die for my sins. I remember as a child having this strong and intense desire to live a life that pleased him [God] in every capacity.

Not to say that I have been perfect, but that is my heart’s desire. Writing for me is a big part of that. I believe it’s something he’s called me to do. I believe everyone has a purpose and calling in life. I think you are happiest when you are doing that.                                                                                   

LALIC: Does your study of social work have an impact on your writing? If so, how?                           
LS: For me, social work and writing in some ways kind of go hand and hand. (Sherrod has a similar phrase in mind when thinking about the connection of the two: Writing for reason, working for a cause.).

I want to be able to use social work, and the creative arts. I have an interest in exploring the creative art therapies as well. There are a lot of social issues that I think about, and that comes out in my writing. [It’s] just another platform.

LALIC:You share something in common with your husband Brian. You are both creative spirits and have even founded a business together, Paintbrush Poetry.  How do you all push one another creatively?                                                                                          LS: Well, Paintbrush Poetry is still very much a work in progress. I am continually having new ideas and old ideas, and trying to figure out what way to go with it. My husband Brian and I have been together since our freshman year of college. From the get go, we always felt like we complimented each other. I think that sense of [being connected] carries over into the creative realm as well.  We have worked on a lot of projects together throughout the years.
He actually helped design the cover of  my novel, Secret Place. He has done most of the marketing materials that I have. I can just give him the words, and he will come up with an amazing piece. 

We also have a goal to eventually do some children’s book together. I feel like I have a built in artist helping me with projects and vice versa. It gets interesting, too. There are times when he is completely focused on finishing a piece of artwork. He’ll be up for two or three days, barely sleeping. I think because I am an artist, I don’t get upset. He gives me that space too. It balances out.

LALIC: How do you balance motherhood, academics, writing and Paintbrush Poetry? 
LS: [I] have a really good support system. My husband not only gives me space to do things, but he helps a lot with the kids. Faith and prayer [are essential]. There have been times – especially over this past year – which have been extremely stressful. I really questioned if I would have my sanity come graduation. It’s been challenging, but the grace of God is good. 
We talk a lot in social work about self care, and learning how, even in the midst of a lot of responsibilties, you still have to take time to exhale – even if it’s a short time doing something that you love. For me, writing is something I love to do. Anytime I get to write, it helps. It’s the one thing that doesn’t feel like work.
LALIC: What is your writing process like?
LS: I am not a morning person. My brain really won’t click in until the afternoon or early morning. It’s easier for me to stay up late and write. There is a balance between when you feel like you have this big inspiration and just writing, regardless of how you feel. The times that I have completed a novel, I decided that regardless of how I felt, I would  write every single day. ________________________________________________________________________
Cover artwork by Brian Sherrod

LALIC: In terms of subject matter, Secret Place is a big departure from Like Sheep Gone Astray. What inspired you to the write it?
LS: One day I was extremely mad about something. I got in my car, and started driving. I did not know where I was driving, and then realized I was in a neighborhood that I associate with my childhood. I just got this sense that you have to write what you know.

For me, something that has really affected my family in many ways is the issue of mental illness. When I started writing that story, I did not even know that’s what [it] was going to be about. I saw this character in my head who was heavy with the burden of a family member. As I began to write, I realized I was tackling that issue.

I have seen it [mental illness] affect so many people – family and friends. I wrote it because I don’t think we realize how significantly it affects families – especially in the black community. I recently read a statistic that Afro-Americans are more likely to have a mental [health] disorder than Cacuasians, but Afro-Americans are less likely to seek treatment. It is something that’s there but we don’t neccesarily talk about it. When we do talk about it there are a lot of misunderstandings and myths.

LALIC: Why do you think people of color (in some instances Christians) are reluctant to talk about mental health issues?
LS: I think there are several [reasons]. You have the whole stigma with it. As soon as you say something about mental health,  it [becomes]:”Oh. I am not crazy!”There is a lot of misunderstanding – especially when you look at the ties of the black community to the church.

I remember learning in one of my classes that a lot of people will turn immediately to their pastor, but won’t really seek help anywhere else. I think people need to know it’s ok to get professional help. If someone has a sickness you can see – a broken bone – they will go to the hospital or a doctor.

Mental illness doesn’t have the same physical symptoms, but it can be just as if not more devastating than physical illnesses. I think that cripples people and families more, because [they] are not getting help, and it can get worse.

My goal in Secret Place is to show that if it’s [mental illness] not addressed or acknowledged things can get out of control. Mental illness can have emotional wear and tear on not just the individual experiencing it, but family members.  The book is not supposed to be the answer, but is written with the hope of provoking discussion on the topic, and bringing awareness.

LALIC: Without giving too much of the book away, what are some key elements the audience will find when reading the work?
LS: My goal was not just to expose the issue, but to really tap into some of the real emotions and feelings of the main character who has been trying to hide a lot of things going on [with] her family, husband, along with other characters such as the next door neighbor who thinks she has it all together.

What happens if you are praying to God about something that is devastating your family, and you don’t see him moving in the way that you think he should. How do you handle having that feeling of desperation where nothing is changing, and things are getting worse. What do you do with that feeling? What happens when you really are just angry with God?

Hopefully the book takes readers beyond the surface of the issue, and gets underneath and [helps them] feel some of those emotions.  I didn’t want to just write a story where you get to the end of it and just feel devastated. Still, at the same time I know there are not always these neat tied up endings either. It’s important to have balance.

LALIC: In closing, might you have some advice for aspiring writers?                        
1. Keep writing. A lot of people say I am going to write a novel or I thought about it. There is no magic formula. You do just have to sit down and write it.  2. Do a lot of research. The publishing world is an interesting place, and the more you know about it, the better off you will be with that knowledge. 3. Network as much as possible – whether it is attending conferences or finding like-minded writers. Writing can be very isolating.

Networking and staying connected with other writers or authors who are where you are trying to go, or you are [both] going there together is important.  Stay encouraged.

LALIC: What is the best way for folks to stay in contact with you?  Join the email list, your website, Facebook?  Can they also follow you on Twitter?
LS: I am on Facebook (but do not live on it – sometimes I am on more than others), email (, and I do have a mailing list on my website

Periodically, I send out eblasts (when I feel that I have somthing to say).  My biggest fear is to start annoying people with emails.
Note: Sherrod does not get on Twitter too much. This blogger understands! 🙂 

Emelda De Coteau
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