Today we welcome Martine Leavitt to the Launchpad to celebrate the release of Blue Mountain, published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux. Martine is what we call a triple threat - a graduate of VCFA, a member of VCFA faculty and one of the nicest and most talented people we know.
When young Tuk is born on the mountain, life is simple for a young bighorn. Run, jump and play with his bandmates, eat and grow strong. But soon it will be up to Tuk to lead the herd to a new mountain he has seen far to the west. It will be a long journey filled with dangers. Wolf, bear, wolverine, puma — and man. The responsibility to lead the herd sits uneasily on Tuk’s shoulders. But Tuk is the one who has seen the blue mountain in the distance, and his bandmates are counting on him. There is little Mouf, full of questions. There is Sham, who must reach their new lambing grounds before her lamb is born. And there are his male rivals, who challenge his ability to lead them. After all, Tuk is just a yearling, and his horns are not even fully formed. Can Tuk lead them to a place where the bighorn can live in peace, on the gifts that the moutain provides.
What was the spark that ignited this book?
My father loved nature and the animal world and was an avid hiker. At one point he became intrigued with the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and made a study of their ranges, habitat, herd structure and social order. For many years he trekked into the backcountry of the mountains, photographing the bighorn and recording his observations. He loved their independence and their ability to live in the most forbidding places. Long before it was in style, he was concerned with wilderness environments and the effects of man’s encroachment.
Some years ago he showed me his writings, an account of a bighorn sheep through four seasons of the year. It was beautiful. I was transported to the mountain and the simple but adaptive life of these remarkable animals. I thought, here I have been writing for years, and he writes this one thing and it’s magical! One day my father gave me a gift of all his notes. I accepted his gift with gratitude and based this story on them. My story became a very different thing than his lovely and perfectly accurate rendering, but we tell the stories we can.
Who was your favorite character to write and why?
Tuk is the name of my viewpoint character – he is the biggest and the fastest and the cleverest sheep. I love him because he is smart and strong, and yet he doubts himself. It’s his journey, both physically and emotionally, and he deserves to be the main character. I loved his friends, too. But I accidently ended up loving Mouf the best. She isn’t very clever, but she is funny and brave, and funny and brave are two of my favorite qualities in people and sheep.
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process, and why?
My editors will tell you that I have this thing with time. In My Book of Life by Angel, things that should have taken a few hours seemed to take days, and vice versa. The same thing is happening now with my work in progress, Calvin, and the same thing happened with Blue Mountain. I guess I get into the story and this time-warp thing happens. The worst of it is that even after my editors send four-page letters describing in detail why the time is all wrong, I still have a hard time getting my head around it. I’m not like that in real life – I’m always punctual, I always know when dinner is… Next time I’m going to keep a timeline as I go because otherwise it sure makes a mess of things when you go to revise.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled as research for you writing?
Here is a very private magic secret: when I want something to be true for the sake of my story, I google it, and I always find a way to make it true. It’s almost like your imagination figures something out, and then you go out into reality to see if your imagination got it right. And yes, she did! At one point, Tuk is in danger of being pushed off the side of a mountain by a puma. I googled around to make sure that could happen, and I came upon a very grisly photo of a bighorn sheep dead on the road at the bottom of a cliff, and beside him was a dead cougar. The cougar still had a clump of the bighorn’s fur in his mouth. For a second I was scared that my story had caused it! Stuff like that always happens to me.
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
My favorite memories are of the times my colleagues and I sat together and talked and laughed in the landing lounge. It’s sort of tacky and frumpy, that room, but I feel happy when I walk into it because it is filled with good karma. The students should never doubt that our faculty has a culture of deep respect and regard for one another’s work, and love for each other. Is that cheesy? Yes, it is. But when you get old, you gain a new appreciation for all things cheese.
What advice would you give to prospective VCFA students?
When I first started as a student at VCFA, I was bowled over by all the talent and genius of my fellow students and faculty. I was envious, and I had much to envy. But that was a waste of my time and emotional energy. Don’t waste your time.
Martine Leavitt is the author of nine novels for young readers, including Tom Finder, winner of the Mr. Christie’s Book Award, and Heck Superhero, Governor General’s Award finalist. Keturah and Lord Death was a National Book Award finalist, and Martine’s most recent novel, My Book of Life by Angel, received five major starred reviews, won the CLA Young Adult Book of the Year Award and was an L.A. Times Book Prize finalist.