Hola! Welcome (or bienvenidos if you prefer) to part 1 of an interview with the marvelous Martine Leavitt. Martine, an award-winning author of nine novels, is a member of the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program. Her young adult novel, Keturah and Lord Death, made me want to enroll in the school and meet the author who wrote it. So I did!
Martine, who is represented by Brenda Bowen, is here to discuss her novel in verse, My Book of Life by Angel (published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press and by Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan). I’ll have a giveaway for that, but not until part 2 of the interview concludes. So, grab a seat, say hi to Martine, and let’s get started.
First, here’s a synopsis: When sixteen-year-old Angel meets Call at the mall, he buys her meals and says he loves her, and he gives her some candy that makes her feel like she can fly. Pretty soon she’s addicted to his candy, and she moves in with him. As a favor, he asks her to hook up with a couple of friends of his, and then a couple more. Now Angel is stuck working the streets at Hastings and Main, a notorious spot in Vancouver, Canada, where the girls turn tricks until they disappear without a trace, and the authorities don’t care. But after her friend Serena disappears, and when Call brings home a girl who is even younger and more vulnerable than her to learn the trade, Angel knows that she and the new girl have got to find a way out.
El Space: Four quick facts about yourself, Martine?
Martine: (1) I once had a goldfish that lived for 9½ years. I gave it to one of my children for his ninth birthday. He took care of it for a few years, but then he became a teenager and felt himself too busy. It became my job. Year after year I washed that aquarium out and fed the fish, and year after year it kept living. Its scales turned grey. It went blind. It sat on the bottom instead of swimming around. Twice the cat swiped it out of the tank. It just kept living. I confess that, a time or two, I wished it would go to the Golden Aquarium in the sky, but when it finally did die, I was sad. My youngest child asked if we could get another goldfish. I said no.
(2) I have seven children and fifteen grandchildren.
(3) I live in a town called High River, Alberta, which was, last summer, at the epicenter of the largest natural disaster in Alberta’s history, and the costliest in Canadian history. The flood destroyed many homes and businesses in our community, and many of my friends suffered emotionally from the effects. My particular brand of neurosis became an evolutionary advantage for me, however. In the past, whenever I was stressed or upset, I would clean out closets, even though they were always clean, and throw things away, even when it was difficult to find things to throw away. It made me feel better. It has been a source of distress to my husband at times.
After the downstairs had been gutted following the flood, I went downstairs and looked around at the bare basement walls and I felt . . . happy. Clean! Unburdened! I was somewhat alarmed by this reaction—everyone else in town was in mourning. I went upstairs and googled, “What is the opposite of hoarding?” As it happens, there is a name for it: obsessive-compulsive spartanism. I do worry and fret and feel sad for my friends who are dealing with PTSD and depression, however.
(4) I’m afraid I can only summon three facts—I am actually a rather factless kind of person. On paper I sound boring, but in reality I find life to be breathtakingly exciting.
El Space: I think you’re awesome! But how awful about that flood. I remember hearing about it. Life takes some sad turns sometimes. . . . So what inspired you to write My Book of Life by Angel?
Martine: I had written two books about homeless boys: Tom Finder and Heck Superhero. I knew, as I was researching for these books, that I must one day write a book about a homeless girl. I also knew that I couldn’t really write the book honestly unless I dealt with the subject of prostitution.
Of the 450,000 young people who run away every year, about a third of them are lured into prostitution within about 48 hours. When you’re vulnerable and hungry and cold and lonely and scared, and the only thing you have to barter for survival is your body, it can happen rather quickly. As I did my research on prostitution, I alternated between rage and heartbreak. That this form of abuse and slavery should be tolerated in our society is unthinkable. I wanted to change the world, but all I wrote was a book. I wanted my book to change the world, but now I sit here and realize that the book has been out for a year and it didn’t change the world and maybe not even the life of a single girl, and I see that slowly it will disappear from the shelves and all the blood I sweat and the tears I cried to write that book might be for nothing. I am getting old now so I can say things like this.
El Space: You can still change the world with this book, Martine. Angel’s life is pretty harrowing, but you’ve provided an honest depiction of a horrible existence. What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book? How long did it take you to write it?
Martine: Years. I wrote some of the poems as far back as 2003. I had thought that the poems must have been simply a pre-writing strategy, an entrance into the story. Often my stories begin with words on little pieces of scrap paper that, if moved around, could sound like poetry. But as I began to write Angel’s story, the pages refused to stop being poetry or at least something like unto it. So I honored that artistic impulse and I wrote poems. I wrote and wrote until I broke my heart and I stopped. I had fifty pages. Fifty poems.
That was it. I stopped. I didn’t want to write this book. I didn’t want to live there. Not strong enough. Not happy enough. I had no control over these poems. They weren’t becoming a story. I was attentive to the language; I played with form. But I couldn’t make a story at the same time.
I have an adult daughter who loves to rifle through my private things. She likes to read my journals and my computer files and my emails. We have an unspoken agreement: I won’t be offended if she won’t confront me with anything she shouldn’t know. One day she came upstairs crying. She said, “I just finished reading your Angel story, and Mom, you have to write that book.” I said, “We have an agreement.” I said, “I don’t know how to write that book.”
We’re going to have to break here. I know. Awwwwww. Be sure to come back tomorrow to hear more about Angel’s story and to visit with Martine Leavitt. If you can’t wait to hear more about Angel’s story, My Book of Life by Angel is available here:
Book covers from Goodreads. Goldfish photo and High River logo from Wikipedia. Statistics photo from catholicsun.org.