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 I remembered as a student that I preferred hearing the raw, rough unpublished work faculty were working on over work that had been professionally edited.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.

Check This Out: My Book of Life by Angel (Part 1)

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!

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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.

13160329First, 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.

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(2) I have seven children and fifteen grandchildren.

150px-High_River_AB_logo(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.

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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.

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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:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Indiebound
Powell’s Books

Book covers from Goodreads. Goldfish photo and High River logo from Wikipedia. Statistics photo from catholicsun.org.