Mental illness, the meaning of reality, and the saving power of love are just some of the themes that Martine Leavitt explores in her most recent novel, Calvin, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux this month. The story introduces Calvin, a schizophrenic teen who is plagued by an imaginary tiger friend named Hobbes, and who was born on the same day that Bill Watterson’s final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip appeared. Convinced that his fate will be reversed if the artist creates one last strip about Calvin at 17, “healthy and well, with no Hobbes in it,” Calvin sets out across frozen Lake Erie in a futile attempt to track down Watterson. Leavitt, whose earlier books for teens have received critical accolades (My Book of Life by Angel garnered five starred reviews and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist; Keturah and Lord Death was a finalist for the National Book Award), spoke with PW about the genesis and creation of Calvin.
There’s no escaping the obvious first question: have you long been a fan of Calvin and Hobbes?
Absolutely. I have been a huge fan of both the comic strip and Bill Watterson for a very long time. I think the strip is utterly brilliant – no one else has done anything quite like it. It’s genius!
In what way?
I think people have tried to put a finger on that for years. To me, it’s a combination of the artist getting at the heart of what childhood is – which is an incredible puzzlement – and also how imagination comes into play. Calvin sees the world as a puzzle he can’t quite figure out, though he tries so hard. And, as it does for most children, his tremendous imagination helps him cope – but imagination can make things bigger – and that can be scary.
So it’s safe to assume that your affinity for Calvin and Hobbes inspired Calvin?
Actually, that was only one part of my inspiration – and it came later. Some of my earlier fiction has come out of, not a fascination with – it’s darker than that – but the real connection I feel to homeless youth. For instance, Heck Superhero reveals how poverty is one of the contributors to young people’s homelessness, and My Book of Life by Angel is about the relationship between drug addition and homelessness. And I began thinking about how mental illness is another major contribution to homelessness – and that is where the theme of this book came from.
Did the story then come easily to you?
Not at all. It was as though I had one single neuron in the back of my brain thinking about wanting to write a book about mental illness, which touches so many families. And that neuron was pulsing there for a long time, kind of making little radio waves, but I had to wait.
Wait for what?
I don’t write stories just because I have a message. I write when I love a story, and it took me a long time to find the right way to tell this story. And one day I was reading one of the Calvin and Hobbes collections – I have every one of them – and it occurred to me that Calvin might be interpreted as having a mental illness of some sort, perhaps schizophrenia, or maladaptive daydreaming, an illness in which people get stuck in daydreams, and can be quite debilitating. So this was in the front of my brain, and the little neuron radio waves made an instant connection to this idea.
So you had at last found the inspiration for Calvin?
Not exactly – I had to wait once again. While I knew that Calvin and Hobbes could be my metaphor, so to speak, I still needed to find my story. And I happened to come across an article about Cleveland, where Watterson reportedly lives, and about the zany things that happened to a man who walked across Lake Erie when it was frozen. So suddenly I had the third piece of my story – and went to work connecting them.
Was it a challenge to connect such diverse components as mental illness, Calvin and Hobbes, and a trek across the frozen lake?
Somehow the three had created a brainstorm and all started to come together, which is the magic and beauty of writing. I don’t know how pieces come together like that, but it is that truly magical thing that keeps us writers going – while asking, “Where did that come from?”
Did anything fall into place quickly in the writing of Calvin?
Yes – the narrative structure came to me immediately. I decided to write the novel as a letter that Calvin writes to Bill Watterson, since he is obviously asking big questions, like why do bad things happen to good people, and why isn’t someone coming to my rescue, and why can’t Watterson please, please do one more comic strip? And yet there is silence. That is definitely one of the themes I wanted to explore.
Did you incorporate any themes of Watterson’s strip into your novel?
The notion that Hobbes is both comforting and threatening to Calvin came from Watterson. The tiger is always hungry, which poses a threat, but he’s genuinely a dear and loyal friend. That tension in the comic strip is so fascinating, and captures something about real life: everything has a duality, and can be good as well as terrifying.
In terms of duality, your protagonist attempts to reconcile reality and truth – why did you choose to explore that?
This is something that my editor, Margaret Ferguson, and I discussed quite a bit. I hope it comes across in my story that while reality is really a construct that is up for grabs, and what’s real may be something that people with mental illness can’t negotiate all the time, those who struggle with mental illness can know and understand truth – sometimes in a way that’s deeper than those who don’t grapple with this illness may be able to understand.
In my research I discovered that extreme intelligence and creativity are often connected with schizophrenia. There are many artists – Salvador Dali was an example – who are mentally ill, yet they can reach out and grab something true, and bring it to our eyes. I hope that readers find truth in Calvin.
Calvin by Martine Leavitt. FSG/Ferguson, $17.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-374-38073-1