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Interview with Martine Leavitt

Martine Leavitt has written ten novels for young adult readers, including Calvin, longlisted for the Printz Award, a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, and winner of the Governor General’s Award of Canada; My Book of Life by Angel, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the Canadian Library Association Young Adult Book of the Year Award; Keturah and Lord Death, finalist for the National Book Award; Tom Finder, winner of the Mr. Christie’s Book Award; and Heck Superhero, finalist for the Governor General’s Award of Canada. Her novels have been published in Japan, Korea, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands.


Inscape: A few weeks ago I read Calvin, your most recent novel, and, obviously with a seventeen year old schizophrenic narrator it deals a lot with mental illness. I was wondering why were or are you interested in writing about the subject of mental illness?

Martine Leavitt: I wrote a book called Tom Finder, published in 2001. He ran around this city for about 100 pages, and finally I thought, who are you, and why don’t you go home? So he ran home and crawled into a cardboard box. I have no idea where that came from, but I went with it. I realized I was writing about a boy living on the streets. I started to do a lot of research and it kind of consumed me for quite a while. I walked around for a long time with a little black cloud over my head. I finished the book and realized I wasn’t quite done with the subject. I remember thinking after Tom Finder was done, what would happen if a kid on the streets had a toothache? And I got a whole other book out of it called Heck Superhero. I knew as I was writing Heck Superhero that I really needed to also write about a girl living on the streets, and I knew based on the research I had done that I couldn’t honestly approach the subject without dealing with prostitution. Most girls who hit the streets are involved on some level with it within a week. So I wrote My Book of Life by Angel. Now after I had written that third book on homeless kids, I thought I was done. But one day I realized that, without intending it, I had covered three of the major reasons why kids are homeless. Tom was on the streets because of abuse. Heck Superhero was about poverty, and My Book of Life by Angel was about addiction. But it occurred to me at that time that I had missed one subject, which was mental illness, so I always thought that one day I would write about mental illness. As it turns out, Calvin isn’t homeless, but the story came to me in a different way. One day I was reading my Calvin and Hobbes comics and it occurred to me that Calvin might have been considered schizophrenic or a maladaptive daydreamer when he was a kid, so the two ideas just kind of came together, and that’s where the story started.

Inscape: I was reading other interviews that you’ve done, and you’ve mentioned that the inspiration for Calvin was kind of threefold. You mentioned two of them: that you had been writing about homelessness and you wanted to touch on mental illness, and then reading Calvin and Hobbes and thinking about how he may have been a maladaptive daydreamer or schizophrenic. Could you describe the third, for our readers?

ML: Ok, this is further evidence of the reality of a living God. I was thinking, what would Calvin do? I came up with the idea that he’ll get Bill Watterson to make a cartoon without Hobbes in it. If that happened Hobbes would go away and Calvin would get better. But how would he do it? And I thought, he’ll go on a pilgrimage. I have no idea how I found it, but somehow, online, I found this story about this guy who walked across Lake Erie in the winter. And everything that happens in Calvin happened to that man. I just embellished a little. I saw it from Calvin’s point of view. This other man actually did find cars sitting on the ice waiting to fall into the water when the ice melted; people just junked their cars that way. He also saw a fishing village and ice pillars. Calvin thinks they’re snowgoons, of course, from the comic strip. Actually, they’re made from pressure in little fissures in the ice. The pressure causes them to just squirt out of the ice, and then they freeze. They just get bigger and bigger and bigger, and they are luminescent. That article was a gift. It doesn’t always happen that way for me.

Inscape: Do you think any of the three pieces that went into this were stronger than the others, or do you think they all had an equal role in creating this narrative?

ML: Definitely an equal role. I couldn’t have done it without the three pieces. Sometimes I will wait. This is important for young writers to know, sometimes you get an idea but it’s not quite ready. You need another piece or two before you can start writing. Or sometimes you start writing and you find those pieces as you’re exploring. I was starting to make little notes and do some research before the three pieces came together, so I think a certain amount of patience is involved when waiting for the story.

Inscape: What do you think was the most difficult part about creating a story about mental illness, especially one as difficult as schizophrenia?

ML: Many people with schizophrenia suffer terribly. For some the illness is debilitating and horrific. Then there are some who have one instance and never have another. There are some who manage it very nicely with medication. Some go on to do great things in the world of art, in the world of science. One of the people I researched had her Master’s degree in psychology. She talked about how, when the voices first came into her mind, she went for help and was taught that the voices were hostile, that she should shut them down. But for her, the voices were teaching her that something was wrong, like a pain response when we touch a hot oven. So she stopped considering them as hostile, and this was key to managing her symptoms. Another woman I read about had schizophrenia but found her voices hilarious and spent a lot of time laughing. So I guess the most difficult thing for me was deciding, was I going to take my character to this very dark place where their illness is not managed and where it causes tremendous suffering, or could I write a story about a person who might be able to function. There is that story too. The same year as Calvin I think there were two other books about characters with schizophrenia who did go into that extremely dark place, but you know there is the danger of one story. So mine was a different way to look at it. Calvin still suffers, but his approach is different. He suffers from the stigma of it. I think my book was reaching for that place where we say, ok let’s just not do this anymore. Stigmatizing mental illness is really antiquated.

Inscape: So are you hoping that through Calvin maybe your readers can understand more about this stigma around mental illness?

ML: I would love it if that came out of it. But a topic is not a story, and my first ambition when I start a new project is not what I can teach people, what my message is. I just want to tell a great story. Sometimes the way I feel about the world plays a big part of what the story’s going to be. This year or two of research I did about homeless people for Tom Finder and more research for Angel, it bruised me. I had to heal. My stories are part of that. But I don’t set out to say, I sure hope people think differently about mental illness after this. That would be lovely, but that’s not my prime directive.

Inscape: I think, sometimes if people say, “oh I want to write about mental illness, and I want people to think about mental illness in this way,” it takes away from the story and the characters.

ML: It takes away from the reader’s participation, because they don’t create their own understanding. People might get something completely different from Calvin than I did. Young readers want to make their own decisions. They don’t want the old 63 year-old writer saying “this is what you should think about schizophrenia.” I don’t even know what I think half the time. I think there’s a lot of teenagers out there who have things a lot more together than I do. So I am deeply respectful of my audience.

Inscape: Speaking of members of your audience who don’t have schizophrenia, how do you deal with creating a character that they can identify with even if they aren’t struggling with the same things?

ML: Because there’s no essential difference between people with schizophrenia and those who don’t. I read an article, actually I think I put it in the book, that said we’re all on a spectrum. There are people who are extremely happy all the time, and there’s people who suffer from terrible depression, but most of us are somewhere in the middle. I don’t understand exactly what it feels like to have schizophrenia. But I do understand that deep inside we are the same. I felt the same about My Book of Life by Angel. There was a time I was in Vancouver giving a reading and I had nothing to do that evening. I had heard of this United Church that cooked supper for prostitutes every evening, the real down and out prostitutes who spent all their money on their addictions and had nothing left to buy food, so I went and helped cook. And afterwards the people who helped cook sat down with the prostitutes to eat supper, so we sat down and there was this lovely lady next to me. She was kind of my age, and there were a lot of cooks there, so I figured she was one of the cooks. She just looked like somebody at church. As we talked, I said to her, “How often do you come to cook?” and she explained to me that she wasn’t one of the cooks. She was there to eat. And it made me realize that the differences between us are those of circumstance and not of the heart.

Inscape: Along with dealing with mental illness, Calvin also explores the idea of reality versus truth. How would you describe the relationship between reality and truth?

ML: I don’t think I could describe it any better than the way Calvin describes it. Let’s use an example. The movie Hurt Locker was about a man who removed bombs from war-sites. In one scene he’s standing there in the desert, and he starts to pull up this rope and bombs start to come out of the earth. This movie was supposedly very realistic. But of course, even one of those bombs would probably be too heavy for him to pull out of the earth, never mind however many there were. So I don’t know how much truth was in that movie. But a book like The Lord of the Rings isn’t real, but is true. It’s full of truth. That’s always been an interesting thing to me. Real and true are not the same things.

Inscape: So I guess what you’re saying is that something can be a true story without it being a real story.

ML: And something can be realism and not be true at all. Books that have pat answers for problems are not true.

Inscape: You’ve written a lot of fantasy, as well as these more contemporary and realistic novels. What makes you choose between presenting a certain theme or idea as contemporary realism or even magical realism versus a fantasy novel? Is it just how it comes together?

ML: That’s a good question. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that you choose fantasy because it’s the best way to tell a certain kind of story, not for any other reason. I also don’t really observe boundaries. A lot of people think that genre fiction is somehow less valuable than literary fiction, but you just have to look at Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale or Yann Martel’s Life of Pi or any number of fantasy novels that are literary.

Inscape: For you personally do you think this is the subject I know I want to talk about. Would it be better addressed as a fantasy novel?

ML: I often don’t start with a subject, I often start with a voice. So Dollmage and Keturah and Lord Death both began with just hearing a voice in my head and I got it down and realized this would be a fantasy novel.

Inscape: So you try to capture the character rather than a subject or a story idea, and that character is more of a fantasy character as opposed to a realism character?

ML: It just seems that they’re leading me that way.

Inscape: How would you describe your writing process in general? Do you think it’s evolved over time?

ML: It’s been different with every book. Every time I write a book and I finish it, I wonder, will I ever do that again? And every time I start a book, it’s a bit of surprise, because I’ve never done it quite that way. With my work in progress, I knew twenty-one  years ago that I would write a book inspired by these stories of my husband’s ancestors. I began by writing in journals. I’ve filled ten or twelve journals with character sketches, bits of dialogue, bits of setting, thoughts my characters might have. I just felt I really needed to get to know my characters, and I really needed to create my own world, so I couldn’t launch in for quite some time. I often do that sort of thing but not to the extent that I’ve done it with this book. Calvin was completely different. As soon as I had those three pieces, I literally just started and wrote to the end. It was a horrible mess at first, but it was a very linear process.

Inscape: So I guess it just depends on the characters you’re creating and the plot you’re developing as you go, that’s what creates your writing process?

ML: Yes, and I guess I can say this at Brigham Young University, but the Spirit plays an enormous role in what I do. I feel like I come to work every day to collect manna. My Father in Heaven gave me the talent I have. He helps me find and make the time to work. He gives me ideas. Sometimes He gives me the words. He’s absolutely integral to everything I do. He doesn’t take away the work. He doesn’t rob me of the wonderful feeling of having done a really hard thing. He gave me a ten year apprenticeship, and then when I published my first novel, I was able to have all the joy. He lets me work and develop my talent and struggle, but He helps me every step of the way.

Inscape: You mentioned your work in progress. It’s a historical novel, and you mentioned in your reading last week that it’s inspired by your husband’s ancestors. Obviously there are differences between what actually happened to these ancestors and this world that you are creating, so how do you take this true story, or this real story, and decide what things need to be changed? Is it again what just comes to you as you create this world.

ML: That is a really good question because in the past I’ve never had to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes, but this time it’s historical. It’s been a challenge. I discussed by subject with a historian who lives in the same place where the story takes place, and I told her my story happens between this year and that year. She said, “Oh, don’t do that. Because everybody here knows the history between this time and that time, and if you do it wrong, they’re going to be mad.” I just had to let that go. I am true to the truth of that time, but I have had to fiddle with a few things to make a story. As far as I know there never was a girl who wanted to buy land and was told she couldn’t. But those laws that prevented her from buying land were real, and maybe there was a girl who tried, who knows? That’s something that can be tricky for writers just starting out, they can become slaves to the facts. You get boxed in. To the extent that they inspire you, let the facts do that. But to the extent that they want to kill your story, don’t let them.

Inscape: This work in progress deals a lot with religion and God, especially as this is an LDS family. Do you ever feel that there’s a line you shouldn’t cross that might make your readers disinterested while reading about religion or might make you come across as preachy?

ML: Well, I’m not going to be preachy at all. As far as the religion thing, this is why I haven’t written the book for twenty-one years. I thought so many times, does it have to be a Mormon story? It’s going to make it hard to sell. I finally thought, I‘m just going to write the story, and I’m just going to have to make it so good that it well sell anyway. It’s our story. I guess I could take away all the references about being Mormon, but it’s our story! Why should I? You have to be true to what you want to do as writer, whatever it is. You can’t let those considerations mess with your art.

Inscape: You’re not writing this LDS story to an LDS audience. How do you think you’ll be able to take an LDS narrative and make it applicable to a non-LDS audience, when they’re finding ideological or philosophical differences?

ML: Well the story isn’t about Mormons, it’s about one girl. It’ll be the same as making as a schizophrenic boy applicable to a general audience. She’ll love, and she’ll be angry, and she’ll try, and she’ll fail, and she’ll be human. I’m always trying to write for the right reason. If it never sells, writing the thing brings me incredible joy.

Inscape: To wrap up, if you had a piece of advice to young writers, what would that be?

ML: I will tell you something that I can tell you because I’m getting old. When I was young and just writing for my own joy, I thought what I really needed was to be published. Of course an artist is all about sharing. Of course you want to publish. But what I’m saying is that one day, when you’ve published ten books, and you’ve won a bunch of awards, and you’ve been invited to come and teach at Brigham Young University, one day you realize that the best thing about writing is still that wonderful joy of putting words on the page that you had long before you ever published a book. Be the best you can be. Enjoy your apprenticeship, you need those years to develop your craft.