As we wrap up our special coverage of the 2016 Governor General's Awards for Literature, we are pleased to be in conversation with noted young adult author Martine Leavitt. Martine is this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award winner for Young People’s Literature (Text) for her book Calvin.
“In Martine Leavitt’s Calvin,” writes the jury, “A boy newly diagnosed with schizophrenia makes a pilgrimage across a frozen Lake Erie. Told in spare, beautiful prose, this transcendent exploration of reality and truth is funny, frightening and affirming. Calvin is an astonishing achievement.”
Martine Leavitt is the author of ten novels for young readers. My Book of Life by Angel, which received five starred reviews, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and winner of the CLA Young Adult Book of the Year. Other titles include 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. Her novels have been published in Japan, Korea, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands. Martine teaches creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
THE CHAT WITH MARTINE LEAVITT
How was Calvin born?
I’d written several books about homeless youth when it occurred to me that I had inadvertently addressed three contributing factors to homelessness: abuse (Tom Finder), poverty (Heck Superhero) and addiction (My Book of Life by Angel). I thought, I’m missing an important one: mental illness. I tucked that thought away into a single neuron at the back of my head, and it throbbed away for years, sending out signals the way we send signals into space hoping to hear from sentient life in other worlds. A topic isn’t a character or a story, after all, so I had to wait.
I tucked that thought away into a single neuron at the back of my head, and it throbbed away for years, sending out signals the way we send signals into space hoping to hear from sentient life in other worlds. A topic isn’t a character or a story, after all, so I had to wait."
One day I was reading my collection of Calvin and Hobbes comic books, as is my wont to do on a somewhat regular basis, when I realized that nowadays Calvin might have been diagnosed as schizophrenic, or a maladaptive daydreamer. That revelation at the front of my brain had a little electrical party with the lonely neuron at the back of my brain, and I had my character. Still ... no story. Still I waited. One day—I have no idea how I came upon it—I read online about a man named Dave Voelker who walked across Lake Erie in the winter and lived to tell the tale. The surreal things that happened to him began to inspire a story. Finally, I could begin writing.
Lesson to writers: Don’t worry if it takes time. There’s life out there. It will contact you.
Lesson to writers: Don’t worry if it takes time. There’s life out there. It will contact you."
Calvin tells the story of a boy newly diagnosed with schizophrenia. What research was involved for you as you set out to write your story?
I did a tremendous amount of research—the research sort of took over my life for a while. I read books about mental illness and books written by people who suffered from schizophrenia, I read Scientific American Mind magazines, I read personal accounts online, I spoke with a friend who suffers from schizophrenia. I needed more than information, I needed to be able to imagine what it felt like to be ill.
One of the breakthroughs for me was to learn that individual people experience schizophrenia in unique ways. I also read about a young psychologist, just graduated with her Master’s degree, who had schizophrenia and an interesting perspective on her illness. She said that when she treated the voices in her head as adversarial, the more outrageous and disturbing the voices became. When she began to recognize the voices as a symptom of something wrong in her life, as a kind of pain response, and honour them that way, she began to heal and manage her symptoms. That’s when I knew that Hobbes was going to play some kind of positive role in the story.
When she began to recognize the voices as a symptom of something wrong in her life, as a kind of pain response, and honour them that way, she began to heal and manage her symptoms."
What’s your own litmus test for great children’s literature?
If the book respects the audience and doesn’t think it can be cliché or shoddily crafted because “it’s just for kids after all.”
If the genre of children’s literature has been chosen because, as C. S. Lewis said, it is the perfect form for the story.
If the story doesn’t try to “teach” kids something but instead asks an important question about humanity, a question to which there may be no one easy answer.
If the story leaves room for the young reader to participate in the meaning of the text for him or her.
If it’s something the child in the adult can love, too.
You’ve written ten novels for young people, and been recognized with many awards and nominations. What does winning a Governor General’s Literary Award mean at this stage of your career?
Writing is a pretty solitary endeavor. You write alone for years without much feedback of any kind. Finally, you publish, but you never know if anyone is reading your book. Until you get your royalty cheque, at which point you know that exactly eight people are reading your book.
Finally, you publish, but you never know if anyone is reading your book. Until you get your royalty cheque, at which point to you know that exactly eight people are reading your book."
Winning this award feels like my country got behind me and said, “Martine, your stories have made a difference in a heart or two.” At the very least I know that eight people plus three jury members are reading my book—almost doubling my readership.
49thShelf is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations?
I’d recommend my fellow nominees, of course, and I’m making my way through the winners of the fiction prize as well, beginning with Thien’s book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I love adult books with child protagonists!
I read everything by Tim Wynne-Jones and Sarah Ellis. But I suppose everyone reads their books. Mostly these days I read MFA student manuscripts—the future writers of young adult fiction. There’s some great stuff coming down the pike!
Excerpt from Calvin
This is Calvin again. I hope it’s okay if I call you Bill. Meaning no disrespect at all, but Bill is easier to type than Mr. Watterson and this is going to be a long letter.
I am writing this letter for two reasons. One is because it has to be my English project, which is worth fifty percent of my final grade. My teacher gave me the idea but said it better be a long letter if it’s going to be worth fifty percent.
So where do I start? They say a person my age knows maybe thirty thousand words, so picking the first word out of thirty thousand is the hardest part. After you pick the first word, it weirdly picks the next one, and that one picks the one after that, and next thing you know you’re not in control at all—the pen is as big as a telephone pole and you’re just hanging on for dear life ...
Sometimes I riff like that. Sorry.
Everything I’m going to say in this letter is true with some real stuff thrown in. You may wonder how you can believe that, coming from a recently diagnosed schizo kid, but I’ve figured out there’s a difference between the meaning of the word real and the meaning of the word true. Reality is all the stuff that won’t go away. Like school and gravity, no matter how much you wish it would. It’s the ceiling your imagination bumps up against. People with my condition just keep floating on up as if there weren’t any ceiling, with every so often a few hard falls and then more floating.
But true doesn’t float. It just is.
So this is how it started, Bill: I got sick.
This excerpt is taken from Calvin, copyright © 2015 by Martine Leavitt. Reproduced with permission from Groundwood Books, Toronto. www.groundwoodbooks.com