Author Interview & Giveaway: Martine Leavitt on My Book of Life by Angel

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Martine Leavitt has written several award-winning novels for young adults, including Keturah and Lord Death (Front Street, 2006, Boyds Mills, 2012), a finalist for the National Book Award, and Heck Superhero (Front Street, 2004), a finalist for the Governor General’s Award.

Martine holds an honors B.A. in English from the University of Calgary and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also is a mother of seven and grandmother of 12. She lives in Alberta, Canada. Sources: IndieBound and VCFA.

Welcome to Cynsations, Martine! What’s new in your writing life?

My Book of Life by Angel (FSG, 2012) is coming out in September, and I harbor a secret wish that this book will change the world.

What are your typical sources of inspiration?

I don’t know. God. When I was writing Tom Finder (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2003) and Heck Superhero, both novels about homeless boys, I knew I would, and that I must, someday write about a homeless girl.

I knew it was unlikely that I could write that book honestly without touching on the topic of prostitution. I put this book off as long as I could, and then she wouldn’t wait any longer.

Why did you choose to write the novel in verse?

M.T. Anderson, Martine & Nancy Werlin (photo via Nancy)

I intended to write poetry for a workshop submission, but every poem was about Angel.

When I saw how the poetry and the content were informing one another, I let it be. I had to mess up the poetic form in order not to distract from the story, but the two had to be together.

My Angel does not think in a straight line, logical and linear. She is erratic and mercurial and in withdrawal, and the poetry complemented that. I wanted the punctuation to be visibly and noticeably absent, and the line breaks to serve as big punctuation when I needed it. I wanted the lack of quotation marks to indicate airlessness and voicelessness, the lack of italicized titles to mean a rejection of convention, the lack of capitals to reflect a questioning of what is proper in a proper noun. None of this would have worked as well in prose.

In addition, I needed the elevated form of poetry to reflect the beautiful souls of these girls I was writing about.

Please describe your usual writing day.

If I don’t do it at 5 a.m., it may not get done. Six of my seven children are adults now, but I pour all of my fierce maternal instincts into the unfortunate one still at home.

Also, I am a neat freak, and a faithful church-goer, which can be ever-so-brilliantly time-consuming. I can’t work in the evenings ever since my husband bought a big-screen TV and I became addicted to CNN and HGTV. I watch CNN and get sad, and then I watch HGTV and fantasize that all the world’s problems could be solved if only everyone could get a simple kitchen makeover.

Martine’s family, minus the newest grandbaby (and there’s another one on the way)!

Did you have an unhappy childhood?

Yes, which explains my chosen vocation. Oddly, my brothers and sisters, raised the same way I was, and by the same wonderful parents, had remarkably happy childhoods. Interpret this how you will.

What is your writing process like?

Each book has its own variation on the following theme:

  • I get an idea.
  • I am happy. This will be my best book ever.
  • I begin to write. I am still happy, but surprised that having the best idea ever does not mean the writing is easy.
  • I continue writing. Now it’s hard. I tell myself not to edit myself.
  • I continue writing. I acknowledge that this will probably not be my best book ever.
  • I continue writing. I tell myself no one but me ever has to see this book.
  • I get about a hundred pages and I figure out what the real story is. I am happy again.
  • I throw away most of the hundred pages, calling it “the experimental draft” and begin again with what I call “the first draft.”
  • I begin to write. I am still happy, but surprised that knowing the real story does not mean the writing is any easier.
  • I continue writing. Now it’s really hard. I tell myself not to edit myself.
  • I continue writing, telling myself no one has to ever see this book.
  • I finish a draft. I decide to call it “the experimental draft.”
  • I begin to write what I call “the real first draft.” I am happy. Sort of.
  • I get to the end again, keeping some of the experimental draft, but cutting and rewriting until it is beyond recognition.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat.
  • Repeat. (number of repetitions depends on book)
  • I begin to pray that I won’t die until the book is done because so much work has gone into it.
  • I despise the book.
  • I adore the book.
  • I rewrite some more.
  • I allow kids and my two first-reader friends to read the book.
  • I tinker.
  • I send it to the agent/editor.
  • I rewrite.
  • I rewrite a bit more.
  • Repeat. (number of repetitions depends on book)
  • It is published.
  • I see it in a store. It is like an abandoned child. I feel in equal parts:

I should have done better by you.

Who are you anyway?

Yes, I gave birth to you, but now it is up to others to love you.

I wish I could have edited you one more time.

Why don’t you give me money?

Who is your agent?

Brenda Bowen at Sanford J. Greenburger. She was an editor for twenty years before she went to the dark side. She is smart, perceptive, enthusiastic, understanding and well-connected.

You’re a Canadian, yes?

I am. I am also a U.S. citizen. I am immensely proud of both of my countries and refuse to observe the 49th parallel.

How would you describe yourself as a writer?

I am a fantasy writer. I also write contemporary realism, magic realism and, most recently, an animal story. I do not observe genre borders very well, either.

As a mother of seven children, how did you balance your writing career and motherhood?

Badly. That’s the short answer. The long answer is that for many years it was a juggling act of great consequence and often I dropped balls and flaming batons.

One evidence of the existence of God is that none of my children grew up to be axe murderers, although some are young and still have time.

My family is and has always been the most important part of my life, but I always knew I could be a better mother if I could get away and battle dragons of one sort or another and be back by the end of nap time. Giving up my writing would not have made me a better mother. Not having children would have taken away any reason I had to write.

I wasn’t the best at balancing, but I did need them both and love them both and so I had to neglect one or the other of them by turns.

What advice do you have for novice writers?

Read every day. Write every day, even if it’s just a sentence or two. Chip away, chip away, chip away. Don’t give up.

Do not even mildly concern yourself with money, what’s popular, what’s selling, what you think kids like, and especially do not concern yourself with reviews or awards.

Write the story for the child in you, and in the most beautiful and imaginative way you can. You will have done your job and pleased God.

Do you have another job?

Yes, I am on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier in Vermont. It is a short-residency MFA program that has a remarkable reputation for turning out some of the best writers for children and young adults in the business. It is Brigadoon for writers for young people.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win one of five copies of My Book of Life by Angel by Martine Leavitt (FSG, 2012). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: North America (U.S./Canada).

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20 thoughts on “Author Interview & Giveaway: Martine Leavitt on My Book of Life by Angel

  1. This was a great interview. My daughter whos dream is to write a book, and she is trying, the advice is simple. I look forward to reading this book, and i hope my daughter will as well.

  2. I enjoyed this interview. I have read most of her other books and look forward to reading this one.

  3. I really enjoyed hearing the process of how one author battles the writing process. I have read a lot of Martine's books and love them. She is so talented. I'm not big into poetry but would love to see how she ties this all together.

  4. This was such a great interview. It was nice to see a process that is so similar to my own back-and-forth feelings about my manuscripts and writing. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Oh, how I love Martine! That description of the writing process is the best ever. Thanks for the interview, Cyn!

  6. I know Martine will be too modest ever to read this, but I will say anyway, to get it out in the world, that I adored this interview more than a typed comment can express. Martine's humility in sharing her difficulties and the strength of her brief sentences provides such a role model. I'm so glad you lured her over here, Cyn!

  7. Martine is one of the reasons I love teaching at VCFA. What a breath of fresh air she is! And if anyone can write a verse novel that honors the special idiosyncrasies and joys of poetry, Martine can. I can't wait to read this book.

  8. This interview resounded for me, and now I'm up in my garret (wishing I could be at VCFA, if only for the weekend).

  9. So enjoyed reading this interview with Martine, Cyn–thanks! And the book. Oh, I've waited SO long to read this book, and it did not disappoint. Not one little bitty. Gorgeous and heart-breaking in every way. Loved!

  10. Thank you, both of you. Martine for keeping it real, and Cyn for putting it here to read. I feel like I have been to a lecture at VCFA today, and now my mind is full with new possibilities. So much depends on that transference of wisdom. It is the future mind, ours and the kids.

  11. Martine– you beautiful person! "I had to neglect one or the other of them by turns." Aint it the truth. Missing you and Brigadoon terribly. Can't wait to win your book!

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