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Today we travel to Los Angeles to chat with Cheryl Leutjen about how being an environmental law attorney, writing in nature, trees, blogging, throwing darts, composting, conversations inspired by a dead bush, and a train ride come together as part of Cheryl’s past and current life.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m the author of Love Earth Now, which is essentially a story book, chronicling my struggles to live more eco-conscientiously. I draw from my wide-ranging experiences as a geologist, environmental law attorney, small business owner, spiritual practitioner, and mother to navigate the fine line between eco-mindful and eco-madness.
Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, I now live in Los Angeles, my adopted home for some thirty years now, with my husband, two children (when they are home from college). I founded and host the Natural Muse Meetup for people wanting to write in nature. I serve as Vice-President of the Board of Directors of the North East Trees nonprofit. I also enjoy creating art from natural elements, to showcase nature’s gifts. I’m also the butler and handmaiden to three felines, none of whom care one whit about all my credentials.
In which genre do you write?
That’s an excellent question, one I’ve been pondering for a while. I used to think my genre was “creative non-fiction” because the stories I tell are all rooted in my own experience. Then I did some further investigation and learned that it requires a stricter adherence to facts than I exercise. “Outraged exaggeration” is my personal stock-in-trade. So now I’m going with “fanciful non-fiction-ish” as my genre. Which, until it catches on, makes it difficult to enter book contests.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author’s flame?
I never made a conscious decision to become a writer, even though people had been telling me that is what I “should” be doing all my life. And that’s probably the reason I resisted so long; I tend to flee from whatever it is others think I “should” be doing. Especially if it involves any kind of laundry.
In my prior careers, I’d done a lot of writing for other people’s purposes—and none of it offered opportunities for creativity, nonfiction-ish or otherwise. My creative writing life was inspired by parenthood. I began writing as a way of processing the insanity that only mothers of tantrumming toddlers can know. I started a “mommy blog,” to share my wisest insights with my subscribers—all seven of them. Audience or no, I got hooked on the therapeutic benefits of the writing.
So when I went to a one-day writing workshop, I’d planned to hone my blogging skills. Instead, the environmental themes of my book, Love Earth Now, came pouring out, much to my surprise. Writing is now the essential therapy that keeps me from spontaneously combusting every time I hear more bad news for Life On Earth.
What would you choose as your mascot, spirit animal, or avatar and why?
I was given the coyote as my spirit animal when I completed my spiritual training through the Modern Day Priestess program. How disappointing! I was certain it would be the mighty eagle, a demonstration that I was meant to soar and that I possessed laser focus. Coyote seemed far too common.
A ragtag coyote clan clings to a bare hilltop near my home, a rare speck of open space in our densely-packed Los Angeles. Occasionally, one wanders down, especially in times of drought, looking diseased and bedraggled. Surely this was not the spirit animal guiding me to my noble calling.
Then I studied up on coyote in Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams & David Carson. In many native American traditions, the coyote is known as the great trickster. Coyote lays traps, much like the cartoon Wile E. Coyote, that backfire on himself—and usually forgets to learn from his mistakes. “As coyote moves from one disaster to the next,” they write, “he refines the art of self-sabotage to sheer perfect.”
Welp, I can relate to that. I excel at laying out the best plan for persuading someone to take on a task . . . only to find I’ve convinced myself into doing it. On a tight schedule and with no budget.
Now when I see the bedraggled coyote, I extend some sympathy. Some compassion for a kindred spirit.
What does your ideal writing space look like?
My laptop currently rests on an Army-green picnic table covered in graffiti, some faded and some so recent I had to check for wet paint before sitting. Surrounded by towering trees, the table perches on the hillside wilds of Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Tiny white flowers sprout from the sturdy jade plants at my feet while native oaks sway in the breeze above my head. Noisy blue jays, cawing crows and the occasional hawk circle overhead. Dappled sunshine filters through the leafy canopy, though my fingers cramp in the chilly winter breeze.
This is my ideal writing space. The hard bench offers just enough discomfort to keep me on task, while the natural beauty of this wild, urban garden unlocks the vaults of my imagination. I think of Alice Walker’s quote: “Earth was meant for joy. As an artist, connect with that joy. And you will forever be fed by it.” Steeping here in natural wonder inspires far more creative work than sitting surrounded by four walls.
What do you do when not writing or marketing your books?
When I’m not writing, you’ll find me doing yoga, hiking, bullet journaling, throwing darts, and reading books I wish I’d written, curled up with my cat, Handsome. You might also find me tending my compost bin—which gives me far more pleasure than you might suppose. Diverting my apple cores and banana peels from the methane-producing landfill gives me a solid sense of eco-righteous satisfaction.
What’s more, I like to imagine that I’m working in partnership with all the critters in heap, doing the hard work of converting our food waste into black gold. I used to feel guilty for the waste when some once-delicious dish turned moldy or, horrors, a bottle of wine was left open too long. Now, it’s cause for excitement, like finding the perfect gift for your hard-to-shop-for friend. “The compost critters are gonna love this,” I think. “Hang on, fellas, here comes HAPPY HOUR”!
What’s the strangest thing you’ve experienced in the process of your writing?
Writing outdoors produces some surprising experiences. Ducks inching closer, eyeing my trail mix. The dead bush that inspired a conversation. A wide-eyed, nose-wriggling mole popping out of the green grass next to me.
The strangest, though, was the day I was writing in a neighborhood park, my back against a stately oak. Engrossed in my own world, I suddenly felt a moist bit of something land on my arm. I brushed it off, but the wet bits kept coming, landing on my keyboard, my shoes and then my face (ugh). I looked up and discovered a squirrel on the branch overhead, spitting bits of green walnut flesh on me. I swear he was laughing.
These things just don’t happen when I’m writing in my local coffee shop.
Do you believe things happen for a reason? Do you have an example from your own life to share why you believe this?
Not only do I believe that things happen for a reason, I cling to that belief like the personal preserver it is. To maintain my tenuous hold on something like sanity, I need to know that there’s redeeming value in even the worst experiences. Not just that there’s “a” reason but a Hoover dam good reason why a precious keepsake was lost. Why the cat I rescued sees fit to shred me on a daily basis. Why my beloved mom passed away too soon.
The best example I can recall right now is the time when I got fired from my dream job. I’d slaved over my studies through law school, just for the opportunity to work for a top-notch, environmental law firm in downtown Los Angeles. I’d devoted two years to hammering my square peg into the round hole the firm assigned to me, trying to shoehorn myself into the culture of the firm. I’d asked for guidance and assistance when my reviews were discouraging. And still, I found myself out on the curb one day. Less than a month later, I began a new position in a law department where I fit in and excelled. I would never have given up on my so-called “dream job,” if I hadn’t been fired from it.
Describe the perfect solo date you’d take yourself on … where, time of day, weather, place, etc.
My idea of the perfect solo date is a train ride. Like that song from The Commitments movie, “destination anywhere, east or west, I don’t care.” I’ll bring too many books, journals, and magazines, so I can catch up on a year’s worth of reading. I’ll pack a lunch bag with cheese, crackers, olives, basil, grapes and dark chocolate—which may be consumed with a glass of Chardonnay from the café. I’ll intend to get some serious writing done . . . and end up staring out the window, bobbing my head to the chug-a-chug until I doze off.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a companion to my book, Love Earth Now, for people wanting more guidance in discovering their own eco-contributions. So many people who’ve read my book or hear me speak say, “just tell me what I should be DOING” about X, Y or Z eco-calamity. As much as I wish I could offer a simple prescription—”buy LED lightbulbs and all will be well”—it’s not that simple. Unfortunately.
Nor is it for me to dictate anyone’s eco-contribution. I believe that each of us, all seven-plus billion humans, come to this Earth with our own calls to action to satisfy, our “soul work,” I call it. How do your heart and soul call for you to contribute, to live, to be? Only you can know. That’s why I include a “Love Earth Invitation” at the end of each chapter in the book, a simple exercise for each reader to pause and reflect for themselves. The companion workbook will offer more in-depth exercises in eco-mindfulness, opportunities to discover what each of us can do right now that will mean more to the world than all that power and influence can buy.
Tell us about your most recent book.
Love Earth Now is a deeply thoughtful, often neurotic, and sometimes comedic exploration of my own efforts to make an eco-contribution. Hailed an “ode to our planet,” it’s both a tribute to the beauty of Earth, as well as a call for us each to honor our unique calls to action.
It was wonderful having you be a part of MTA, Cheryl. The Natural Muse Meetup sounds great!! I enjoy creating art from nature elements, too, so I know what you mean about showcasing nature’s gifts. Wishing you all the best! –Camilla
Where to buy the book:
I urge readers to shop local bookstores, if there’s one nearby. If Love Earth Now isn’t on the shelf there, request it. “Shop local” isn’t just a trendy catch-phrase; it’s one simple way that any one of us can vote for change with our dollars. Shopping local not only keeps our hard-earned dollars in our neighborhoods; it also fosters stronger communities.
If you’re not fortunate enough to have a local bookstore nearby, you can purchase Love Earth Now, both the paperback and the eBook, through all the usual etailers and through my Etsy shop. You can find links to them on my website at LoveEarthNow.us.