Check This Out: My Book of Life by Angel (Part 2)

small_photoWelcome to the second part of the interview with the always fabulous Martine Leavitt. The first part is here if you missed it. I’m chatting with Martine about her awesome novel in verse, My Book of Life by Angel (Groundwood Books and FSG/Macmillan). I’ll discuss the giveaway for that at the end of today’s interview. So, let’s get biz-ay!

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El Space: Martine, let’s get back to how you began writing My Book of Life by Angel. What happened after you told your daughter that you didn’t think you could write the book?
Martine: A very short time later, I got a phone call from Vermont College of Fine Arts inviting me to apply to be on the faculty. They would pay me about a third of what I was currently making as a copyeditor. I said I would just love that.

El Space: Wow!
Martine: I was hired a couple weeks before the January 2008 residency. I hastily prepared a lecture, and then suffered over what I would read. I remembered as a student that I preferred hearing the raw, rough unpublished work faculty were working on over work that had been professionally edited. So I summoned my courage and read the only thing I had: some of that fifty pages of Angel.

vermont_college_of_fine_artsI would like to stop here and say that my colleagues at VCFA are the most gifted and generous souls I have ever met.

El Space: I agree!
Martine: They teach me as well as their students. They are not only good writers, they are the best kind of people. They and the students were enormously encouraging, and told me that I should write this book.

shapeimage_3I believe it was at that residency that Julie Larios introduced me to the whole debate about the novel in verse, of which I had known nothing. She said in a lecture, in essence, that she had doubts and deep reservations about the novel in verse, that it would be difficult if not impossible to write something that could be both poetry and novel.

I thought, Oh, so that’s why I’m having so much trouble!

Over the course of a couple of years I worked away at Angel. It was a dark place to live. I looked at my pile of papers sidelong and with dread. I wrestled with my angel, and more than once my hip was put out of joint.

El Space: Ah, like Jacob wrestling with the angel in the book of Genesis.
Martine: Nevertheless, this character had seized me by the left and right ventricles. I knew her. She was mine. I loved her like my child. I was committed to telling her story.

Finally I sent it to my agent, Brenda Bowen, who had been an editor for twenty years. She had suggestions for revision. I rewrote and sent it back to her. She had more suggestions. I rewrote and sent it back to her.

shelley-tanakaShe felt it was ready for the unveiling. Margaret Ferguson at FSG bought it. Shelley Tanaka [photo at right] at Groundwood Books bought the Canadian rights. I had two of the most brilliant editors on the planet, and they were working together. Little did they know that it would take both their good brains to tackle this project.

Margaret sent me the first editorial letter. It was four pages long. Single spaced. The first sentence said, “Thank you for letting me publish your book.” That was it for praise. The rest was all about what needed still to be done.

poetry-ink-blotI worked hard, harder than I ever had. The poetry pulled me out of the story. The story sucked the poetry out of the pages. Every page had to have a beginning, middle, and end. Every page had to have a payoff. And yet it had to work as a whole. It was grueling and humbling, but finally, after several months, I sent it back to Margaret one hundred poems shorter than the original.

She sent me a three-page letter. The first sentence said, “You have done a good job of cutting this down.” The rest was all about what needed still to be done. She said the originally proposed publication date of spring 2012 would have to be pushed back to fall 2012.

El Space: Arrgh!
Martine: I worked hard. Some days I despaired. When I saw her at the residency, Shelley Tanaka touched my hand and said, “Poor Martine.”

She never said, “Poor Martine, never mind about all that work.” She never said that last part. She felt sorry for me, but not that sorry. Finally after some time, I sent back a revised manuscript.

I worked, I cut, I thought until my brain bled, and then, one day I realized that . . . I liked it. I liked my book. I sat up straight. I said, “I’m happy. This book makes me happy. And strong.” I might have heard angels singing. I sent it to Margaret and Shelley. Finally, finally, I got the long-hoped-for email saying, “Yes. We’re done here.” It was published six years after Keturah and Lord Death.

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El Space: What do you hope readers will take away after reading Angel’s story?
Martine: That every little girl deserves an angel.

world-in-black-and-white-hands-1El Space: So true! Your characters have some difficult challenges to work through in your books. I’m curious about how you choose the stories you will tell. Do you have a recurring theme or themes you can trace through your books? If so, what? Why is this important to you?
Martine: I think a recurring question I ask in my books is this: Can language create reality? Isn’t story in charge of the world? If we write better stories, truer stories, could it be that we could change the world? I never get tired of asking that question, and the answer I come up with every time is yes. I just keep having to make sure the answer is yes.

El Space: It would be great if authors had big goals like changing the world as you say here. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Martine: Why do you want to be a writer? Surely by now you know that few of us make much money, to speak of. You will never be mobbed in the grocery store by fans clambering for your autograph. Is it because you must? Is it because you will die if you don’t? If the answer to those questions is yes, you don’t need any advice from me, but I will give you some anyway. Love the world, love the word, love your characters, love your readers, love the work. If you are not very good at loving any one of these things, you must change.

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El Space: Such great, thought-provoking questions and advice! So, what are you working on now?
Martine: After Angel, I wanted to work on something innocent and fun, so I wrote a middle-grade animal story. It is called Blue Mountain and it comes out this fall. Finally I wrote a book my grandchildren can read! I love it very much. I hope it changes the world.

I hope so too! Thank you, Martine, for being my guest!

If you’re a blog visitor and want to find out more about Martine, check out a fan-made page on Facebook and her publishers’ pages here and here.

My Book of Life by Angel is available here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Powell’s Books

I was going to give away one copy of My Book of Life by Angel to a commenter. But you know what? I’m going to give TWO copies of this book away. Yeah! That’s right! And guess what else? A third commenter will win a copy of the book that was life changing for me: Keturah and Lord Death. So go for it! Winners will be announced on Valentine’s Day! When you comment, please mention something you’d like to do to change the world.

Thanks for stopping by the blog!

Book covers from Goodreads. Poetry image from annawrites.com. No money sign from crazzzytravel.com. Hearts image from hdwallpapers.in. World image from strictlycoffee.co.za.

A Writer’s Process (11b)

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAHello! Please join me in welcoming to the blog once more the luminous and enlightening Laurie Morrison! I really, really, really wish I had a brownie like the ones Laurie wrote about in Rebound, her young adult novel. I could also go for a slice of pie! (Mmm. Pie.) Let’s move on, since I can’t get either one just now.

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If you’re reading this blog for the first time ever, welcome to you too. But I have to tell you that this is the second part of the interview with Laurie. The first part is here.

El Space: Yesterday we talked about your antagonist. How did you go about crafting a “nuanced, realistic antagonist”? “A nuanced, realistic heroine”?
round characterLaurie: Hmm, that’s a good question. Once I decided to make Lissy’s dad an antagonist, I thought about her insecurities and considered how I could turn him into someone who would especially push her buttons. That involved turning him from a not-very-successful lawyer into an entrepreneur who takes risks, thinks people should look out for their own interests, and has never valued Lissy’s interest in baking. I did a lot of free-writing about Lissy and her dad’s back story, to figure out precisely when and how he had made her feel not good enough, but then I also figured out what her dad has going for him and why Lissy’s stepmother, Kim, fell in love with him. When I turned him into an antagonist, that actually opened up possibilities for Kim to become a rounder and more important character.

As for creating a nuanced and realistic heroine, one thing that really helped me was to free-write scenes between Lissy and each of the other key characters, both from the past and from the summer when the book takes place. Some of these scenes made it into the story and many did not, but I got a fuller picture of Lissy as I saw how she interacted with others and came to understand the relationships that have shaped her.

El Space: You’re writing a series of blog posts on first-person narration. (If you want to read them, start here.) What excites you most about this perspective?
11925514Laurie: I love the intimacy of a first-person narrative and the experience of trying to capture a character’s experience through her own eyes and ears, skin, etc. and in her own distinctive voice. I’m also excited about what I think of as the reliability spectrum for first-person narration.

I find it fascinating to read books with narrators who turn out to be quite unreliable, such as Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein and Inexcusable by Chris Lynch. But then I’m also interested in narrators who aren’t unreliable on purpose, but who aren’t unequivocally reliable, either, because any person’s perspective is subjective and in some ways limited. No narrator can attend to everything that is going on all at once or truly know where others are coming from.

307652Some narrators are closer to the wholly reliable end of the spectrum than others, but it’s still important to think about when those largely reliable narrators might not be seeing a character or situation accurately and what their blind spots or defense mechanisms might be. I love to write and read about characters who are relatable and engaging but also clearly fallible. I think it’s a powerful experience to love and identify with a first-person narrator while also understanding her limitations and rooting for her to grow.

El Space: Cool! I wish I could quote directly from the podcast interview I heard with Ally Carter some months ago. But she mentioned having a niche in the marketplace. She’s known for a certain type of book. I happen to love her books. What do you see as your niche? Why?
Laurie: If I continue to write the kind of stories I’ve been writing—and if, you know, people actually want to read those stories—my niche would probably be writing books for the younger end of YA readers.

Most of my 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students read young adult novels instead of, or in addition to, middle grade books. The term middle grade is actually kind of confusing, because it doesn’t really correspond to middle school years. I gravitate toward writing stories that would be good for middle school students who are ready to read about teenage experiences, but might not be quite ready for all of the content in “older” YA books.

5819551That doesn’t mean that I censor myself when I’m writing or exclude certain things on purpose because I am trying to send a certain positive message. It just means that if I really think about my intended reader, I imagine myself at age 13 or 14 or one of the students I’ve gotten to know especially well, and my sense of that intended audience influences which stories I choose to tell.

El Space: What authors inspire you?
Laurie: Lots of authors inspire me, but here are a few. E. Lockhart and Jaclyn Moriarty inspire me because of their humor and their distinctive first-person narrators. Sarah Dessen inspires me because of the emotional depth of her novels and her multifaceted characters. Katherine Paterson inspires me because of the affection she clearly has for her characters and her readers.

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2839El Space: They’re all awesome. What writing advice, if any, have you received that electrified your writing?
Laurie: [VCFA’s own] Alan Cumyn taught me that it’s very compelling to watch a character who won’t let herself have something we know she really wants. Franny Billingsley taught me to identify a character’s vacuum—the longing or hole that the character is struggling to fill. Mary Quattlebaum taught me that if you give a character a driving passion, that passion can help shape your character’s voice and make it sound distinct. And Shelley Tanaka taught me that subplots need to enrich or mirror the central story, and too many subplots can make a story less powerful.

Thanks, Laurie, for being my guest! You’ve been awesome. But next time, please bring brownies.

Those of you who stopped by can find Laurie at her blog or on Twitter. If you have questions for Laurie, please comment below. You can also answer this question: Which antagonists have you read reacently which seemed “nuanced and realistic”?

Book covers by Goodreads. Pie photo from Wikipedia. Round character poster from mhaywood.blogspot.com.