Saturday, March 30, 2024

Q&A with Martine Leavitt




Martine Leavitt is the author of the young adult novel Buffalo Flats. Her other books include the YA novel Calvin. She lives in High River, Alberta, Canada.


Q: Why did you decide to write a novel, Buffalo Flats, based on your family history?


A: I think everyone should write a novel based on their family’s stories! They are uniquely your stories to tell, and you would begin the story already knowing so much about your characters!


My husband’s pioneer ancestors had a family tradition of writing their life histories (or if they didn’t, their children did it for them after they were gone).


A Dr. Clark Leavitt gathered these personal histories and published them in a hard-cover volume of about 900 pages, which we lovingly call “the big red book.”


When I married my husband, I poured over these stories and was inspired and enchanted. There had to be a novel in there, or maybe even two.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: You would think that if someone handed you a big red book with all its treasures, you wouldn’t have to do research. But people living over a hundred years ago don’t stop to describe their world. They assumed we would know.


Perhaps they took for granted that in 2024 we would still be riding horses to school – why would they need to talk about horses, what breeds they had, how they cared for them, how to put on a saddle…?


I was always having to stop writing and dive down into rabbit holes: what did they feed their cows in the winter? why kind of hay? how did they build their houses? how did they stay warm through the bitter winters? What was a wedding reception like in those days?


In some ways I was continually surprised by what I was learning about the late 1800s in what is now Southern Alberta, Canada. Research was a challenge for me – I am not a historian by inclination or temperament. But it was great fun!

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book said, “Leavitt…presents Rebecca’s faith as a tender, sometimes fraught, ever-evolving dynamic that honors those struggling to define themselves within religious traditions.” What do you think of that description?


A: Well, I’m always glad to be reviewed by Publishers Weekly, so there’s that. But I would disagree with the idea that the story is somehow about Rebecca struggling to define herself within a religious tradition.


First, the story is shamelessly seeped in faith – Rebecca encounters God in the first chapter. She spends the rest of the book trying to purchase the land where she had that epiphany so she can always be reminded of it, have a connection with that moment.


She never questions the existence of God, but she also isn’t afraid to question God at times, such as when her baby nephew dies. I think the fact that she is willing to ask God the hard questions is an affirmation of her faith, not a challenge to it.


As for the religious tradition, Rebecca doesn’t struggle with that, either. She’s a little bored and restless in church, but she never resists church. She finds it hard to live up to the admonition to love one another, but she never questions the admonition.


When I began this story, I was asking the question, “what is goodness”? Rebecca sees ultimate goodness in her parents, especially her mother, and in her friend LaRue. She wants to emulate them.


But as the story goes on, she learns that they are not perfect in the way she had thought they were. Still, she learns, their goodness, their beauty of soul, goes much deeper than unfailingly adherence to a set of rules.


I think “what is goodness?” is a question with no one easy answer, and those are the questions I like to ask in my stories. Rebecca comes to an answer for herself, but not necessarily the answer.


This is what she grapples with. This is how she evolves. She doesn’t “define” herself within a religious tradition – the religious tradition frees her to discover her true self.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I recently received an email from a woman who was undergoing some painful medical treatments. She took Buffalo Flats with her to her appointments as her “comfort book.” I hope they take away comfort.


Another reader said she felt “seen.” I hope they take away feeling like they have found themselves on the page.


Many tell me they laughed or they cried, or both. I hope they take away laughter or tears.


I just wanted to tell a good story. That’s what I mostly hope for, that my readers will close the book at the end and say, wow, that was a good story.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Currently I’m working on a book called AD SEG, which is short for administrative segregation, which is a euphemism for solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities.


It’s about two boys in ad seg who are allowed to meet one another for one hour a day for yard. One of them tells the other that he has a time travel portal in his cell.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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