LDS author Martine Leavitt would compare a writer's journey to "tromping around on a hike." Writers might spend a long time in metaphorical valleys and lowlands, she said, but every once in a while, they reach a high place where they get a beautiful vista of where they've been — and that makes it all worth it.
"Writers work alone for years," Leavitt said. "It's just us and our lonely pen and paper or keyboard. We persevere over years, sometimes with not a lot of positive feedback. We get published and we say, 'Is anybody reading this book?' Then you get your royalty check and you find out that, yes, a total of eight people are reading your book."
And that's what makes finally getting acknowledged so special.
Leavitt has won Canada's Governor General's Literary Award for her young adult novel "Calvin." Her award will be presented to her Nov. 30 in Ottawa, Ontario, with a prize of $25,000, according to cbc.ca.
Leavitt compared the prize to the National Book Award in the U.S., for which she was nominated in 2006, according to ggbooks.ca. She has been nominated for enough awards that she said she's excited to finally win one.
"I think I've been a bridesmaid so often that I'm considering wearing a bridal veil to this award ceremony," she said.
In fact, Leavitt has won several awards, including the Whitney Award for general youth fiction in 2015, according to whitneyawards.com; the CLA Young Adult Book of the Year in 2012; and the Mr. Christie's Book Award in 2003, according to ggbooks.ca.
"Calvin" (Farrar Straus Giroux, $17.99, 181 pages, ages 14 and up) tells the story of the titular Calvin, a teenage boy with schizophrenia, who starts having hallucinations of a tiger friend named Hobbes, according to a previous Deseret News article. He is convinced that he will be cured if he hikes across frozen Lake Erie and meets Bill Watterson, the author of the famous comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes." Calvin's best friend, Susie, tags along.
Leavitt said she thinks people connected with "Calvin" mainly because of the characters.
"My characters are so willing to be vulnerable," Leavitt said. "Calvin is willing to be vulnerable about his illness, and Susie is willing to be vulnerable about how she feels about Calvin, and I think that's what appeals to people."
While doing research into mental illness for this book, Leavitt learned that a lot of people think there are the mentally ill and the mentally healthy and there is no in between.
"In fact, we are all on a continuum," she said. "There are people who are perennially and inexhaustibly happy all the time and there are people who suffer from debilitating depression," but most people are somewhere in between. That idea helped her find common ground with Calvin from which she could successfully write his character.
Her goal was not to teach anyone about mental illness, she said, but to ask questions and to acknowledge that she doesn't know the answer — all the while showing that it is OK to talk about mental illness.
Along with her writing career, Leavitt is a professor of creative writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a visiting professor at BYU.
Chris Crowe, a BYU English professor and novelist who was instrumental in getting Leavitt to the school for the fall 2016 semester, said the English department is thrilled to have her and has been inviting her for several years.
"Her answer was always, 'Well, I still have kids at home,'" he said.
As the youngest of Leavitt's seven children is now on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hungary, she finally agreed to leave her home in Alberta, Canada, with her husband, Greg, so she could spend a semester teaching creative writing at BYU.
Crowe said he is impressed by the career Leavitt has made for herself while raising a large family and serving in the LDS Church.
"(She had) lots of excuses not to pursue her art, and she's found a way to do it," he said. "So one of her challenges to our graduate students was to start writing at five in the morning because then you make sure you get it done."
He shared a story about Leavitt writing on the bus during her hourlong commute to her job in Calgary.
"That was the only time of day she had to write," he said, "so she wrote a couple novels on a bus — handwritten — because she couldn't take time away from the kids."
Crowe said Leavitt also brings credibility to her teaching with all of her success and she is really able to help students improve their craft.
"Instead of just critiquing stuff that's already written, she's actually working to add to their knowledge of writing and bank of skills," he said. "And she's a nice person. She's likable too. That just makes it even better. She's very pleasant and she really loves her students."
That Leavitt loves her students is something she echoed herself.
"They're so bright and talented and smart and funny and hard-working and wholesome," she said. "I love them and I love being here at BYU."
She particularly enjoys that she can talk with her students about her faith in terms of writing. To her, faith and writing are inseparably linked. It was only after she converted to the LDS Church that she committed to being a writer.
Leavitt will admit that she is not a traditional convert since she was baptized when she was 8 years old, but her parents were inactive and she never really attended church as a child.
When she was 21, her 11-year-old sister died and Leavitt wanted to know where she was.
"I thought, 'Well, I'm going to start going to churches and the first one I'll go to is the one I was baptized in.' Thank goodness I was baptized into it. That was far enough."
Every aspect of her writing career since then has been a result that conversion, Leavitt said.
"When I realized I was a child of God, I thought, 'That means I can do anything if Heavenly Father is OK with it.' And what did I want to do? I wanted to write a book."
Those who don't believe in God, she said, are the "real writers," but she feels that she could do nothing without him.
"My Father in Heaven gave me the talent," she said. "He gave me an ability to somehow carve out the time. He gives me the ideas. Sometimes he gives me the words. I'll be showing up to this award indebted to him."
Email: [email protected]