Throwback Thursday: Martine Leavitt on Writing & My Book of Life by Angel

Congratulations to Martine Leavitt on the publication of her newest novel, Buffalo Flats (Margaret Ferguson Books, 2023). From the promotional copy:

Seventeen-year-old Rebecca Leavitt has traveled by covered wagon from Utah to the Northwest Territories of Canada, where her father and brothers are now homesteading and establishing a new community with other Latter-Day Saints. Rebecca is old enough to get married, but what kind of man would she marry and who would have a girl like her—a girl filled with ideas and opinions? Someone gallant and exciting like Levi Howard? Or a man of ideas like her childhood friend Coby Webster?

Rebecca decides to set her sights on something completely different. She loves the land and wants her own piece of it. When she learns that single women aren’t allowed to homestead, her father agrees to buy her land outright, as long as Rebecca earns the money —480 dollars, an impossible sum. She sets out to earn the money while surviving the relentless challenges of pioneer life—the ones that Mother Nature throws at her in the form of blizzards, grizzles, influenza and floods, and the ones that come with human nature, be they exasperating neighbors or the breathtaking frailty of life.

Take a look back at Martine Leavitt’s first Cynsations interview in 2012 when she talked with Cynthia Leitich Smith about her writing process and My Book of Life by Angel (FSG, 2012).

Author Interview: 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.

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

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?

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

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?

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 Notes

Martine Leavitt is the author of award-winning books for young readers, including Calvin (winner of the Governor General’s Award), My Book of Life by Angel (finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book of the Year) and Keturah and Lord Death (finalist for the National Book Award). She teaches in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she is serving as the Katherine Paterson Endowed Chair. Martine lives in High River, Alberta.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is a New York Times bestselling, award-winning author for young readers. Her 2023 release is Harvest House, an Indigenous YA ghost mystery. Her most recent previous books are Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids, which was an ALA Notable Children’s Book; Sisters Of The Neversea, which received six starred reviews; and Hearts Unbroken, which won an American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Award. She also is the author-curator of Heartdrum, a Native-focused imprint, and a member of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA faculty.