Leslie Gentile: Novel Writing with Music – the Unexpected Connection

November 10, 2023

Leslie Gentile performing one of her songs.Welcome to Cantastic Authorpalooza, featuring posts by and about great Canadian children’s book creators! Today’s guest: Leslie Gentle. Take it away, Leslie!

It started with a boring writers’ bio. When my first book, a middle grade novel called Elvis, Me, and the Lemonade Stand Summer, was published (Cormorant/Dancing Cat Books 2021), my writing accomplishments were pretty slim, so in my bio I included the fact that I was also a song writer. When I began to get asked to do readings for kids, teachers and librarians would ask, “Hey, can you do some songs with your readings?”

Which I was happy to do. But I found it hard to find songs to fit the readings (and I wasn’t about to embark on a new career as an Elvis impersonator!), so I wrote some songs to go with my book. As I did, I discovered something fascinating. When I began to write the sequel, called Elvis, Me, and the Postcard Winter (to be released in 2024), I revisited some of the original characters. I discovered that writing while playing these songs gave me a deeper insight into my characters, and I know that it helped make the story stronger.

For example, the main character’s mother, Clarice, is an alcoholic, single parent always on the lookout for the next Mr. Wrong. At the end of the first book (Spoiler alert!) she abandons her daughter, Truly. In the sequel, Clarice returns, and I explore redemption, second chances, and an attempt to heal old wounds. Writing the song ‘I Just Want to Dance’, which is Clarice’s lament, I wanted to explore empathy with the listener, to hopefully explain but not excuse the roots of her behaviour. But I found that this song in particular had an unexpected benefit —it gave me a much richer understanding of the character’s background, and why she ended up where she is. Whenever I hit a roadblock in my writing, I would pull out my guitar, and play Clarice’s song to get me back on track. This meant that in my writing, I delved deeper into Clarice’s past so that the reader can clearly see why she ended up making the choices that she made in her life, and why she ended up feeling trapped:

I used to be the one they all envied,
I used to be the one they idolized,
And now my future looks so empty,
It feels like life has passed me by

I always felt like I was looking in a window,
Standing on the outside looking in
I never knew real love or approval,
 I never felt good in my own skin.

I just want to dance like I used to do,
It was the only time that I could breathe,
I just want to dance just like I used to do.
And one more time I could feel free.

I’m stuck in a prison of my own making,
I’m trapped in a life that I don’t like.
It’s like a bad dream and I’m not waking,
Stuck in a long and endless night.

My second book, Shamus the Urban Rez Dog, P.I., is a completely different animal — the story is told by Shamus the happy-go-lucky dog, as he helps his kids solve a mystery. This time, I wrote the songs as I wrote the book and found once again that it helped me dig deeper into my characters and as well as the storyline.

The song ‘Free Wheelin, Fun Loving Urban Rez Dog On the Loose” helped me capture the sheer joy Shamus feels as he chases Mr. Tibbles the cat, with lines like:

I’ve got the wind in my fur and my paws are a blur,
I’ve got a cat in my sights, it’s one of life’s delights,
I’m hot on the tail of that annoying tabby,
Let me tell you, he doesn’t look happy.

Cuz I’m a free wheelin, fun lovin, urban rez dog on the loose.

Later, when Shamus finds himself in trouble at the townhouse complex where the family lives, and faces the unthinkable fate of being sent away, the blues song ‘Bad Dawg Blues’ helped me capture his feelings of anguish and grief:

You can’t stop a dawg from scratching at a flea,
You can’t stop the buzzing of a bumbling bumble bee,
You can’t stop a birdy from sleeping in his nest,
And you can’t stop a dawg from doin what he does best,

I’m just a bad dawg, with the bad dawg blues,
Just a bad dawg, who was born to lose.

So, while writing songs to accompany my middle grade books began with an innocent request to pair music with my readings, it’s now become an integral part of my writing strategy. When I’m stuck on a plot point, I just pick up my guitar and sing!

As part of a nomadic navy family, Leslie Gentile grew up singing and telling stories in the back seat of the car with her siblings, so it was only natural that she became a musician and author.

Her debut middle-grade novel Elvis, Me and The Lemonade Stand Summer won the Victoria Children’s Book Award, the Jean Little First-Novel Award, and was shortlisted for BC’s Red Cedar Award among several other awards. Her second novel, Shamus, The Urban Rez Dog, P.I. was released in September 2023.

Leslie has written songs to go with her readings and performs them across Canada and places as far away as Hong Kong. Leslie is of Salish, Tuscarora and Scottish heritage and lives on the traditional territory of the W̱SÁNEĆ people.


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