Welcome 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!
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 I remembered as a student that I preferred hearing the raw, rough unpublished work faculty were working on over work that had been professionally edited.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.
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.
I 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.
She 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.
I 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.
El Space: What do you hope readers will take away after reading Angel’s story?
Martine: That every little girl deserves an angel.
El 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.
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!
My Book of Life by Angel is available here:
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.