Rugby, education, friendships and family all weave their way into the plot of Mike Levitt’s debut book, Rugby Rivals.
Scheduled to be released on Feb. 4, 2020 and published by Lorimer, Levitt — a longtime Williams Lake resident, retired high school teacher and sports coach — combined several of his passions for his first offering.
After coaching rugby at the high school level for many years at Williams Lake Secondary School, Levitt took up creative writing upon retiring six years ago after moving to Kamloops to be closer to his children and grandchildren.
“I had an idea for a story and I’d been to a workshop,” Levitt said. “This woman, her name is Jacqueline Guest — she’d written a couple dozen books for Lorimer and she was doing a writing workshop in Salmon Arm and I talked to her about my story and she said you should try Lorimer.”
Levitt began studying what the publishing company would potentially be looking for, nailed down their submission guidelines and began working on a draft in 2017.
“I just treated this like a great, big English assignment,” Levitt said. “I was really meticulous about looking at the kinds of stories they were publishing and exactly what they were putting out, so last March I got a phone call from a woman, Kat Motosune, asking: ‘Is your manuscript still available? We’d like to publish it.’ I was a bit surprised because this was the only publisher I sent this story to.”
Levitt soon signed off on a four-month, substantive editing process and, now, all that’s left is to physically get a copy of the work of fiction in his hands.
Rugby Rivals is targeted at youth aged 10 to 13, and tells the story of 14-year-old Sam Brewer — a fledgling rugby player living in a run-down area of Kamloops’ North Shore and, when his school closes, is forced to transfer to the uppity Rosedale Heights secondary. Of course, his arch rivals at Rosedale now become his teammates.
At home, things are not great for Sam. His single-parent mother is struggling to make ends meet and Sam is worried about his poverty being exposed.
The one person he admires most, his grandfather, Pop — an international rugby star in his glory days in his own right — ingrained in Sam the most important aspects of rugby are sportsmanship, camaraderie and teamwork.
At school, those beliefs are brought into question through on-field and off-field battles with his teammates at Rosedale while Pop, meanwhile, now suffers from dementia.
“Pop’s dementia kind of puts a time constraint in the story because back in the day Pop had been the original organizer of something called the Quintin Cup — Okanagan North versus Okanagan South — and there’s nothing Sam wants more than to win and bring the cup back to Pop while he is still lucid.
“There’s also a love interest in the story. Sam is absolutely smitten by a girl he’s met, Brooke Baptiste, and she is from the Chilcotin. Baptiste is the only First Nations student from the Chilcotin at Rosedale Heights.”
Through the writing and editing process, Levitt said he pulled “all kinds of bits and pieces” from his own life.
“I was about Sam’s age when I started playing rugby,” he said. “I was about 14 in high school in Abbotsford and it was a real hit and miss, kind of watery program we had and I didn’t get really serious until I was 18 and played for the men’s team in Abbotsford. I played with them for a few years but, really, my best years and best memories were with the [Williams Lake] Rustlers and playing that full-on beer league.”
Levitt and his wife, Lorraine, moved to 100 Mile House in 1981 where Levitt began commuting to Williams Lake to play rugby.
In 1983, he took his first foray into coaching high school rugby at Anne Stevenson under the tutelage of Dave Chambers.
“We were coaching side by side at Anne Stevenson, and I learned a ton from that guy. After Anne Stevenson I coached at WL and then at Columneetza and Lorne Sherlock and I coached a women’s Rustlers team, as well.”
One thing Levitt thought was interesting was how Lorimer has published a series of sports books, however, none had been written about rugby. One of his main goals through writing the book, he said, is to grow the game of rugby.
“I think maybe some kids will have never played and they’ll read the book and it might arouse their interest,” Levitt said. “For kids that already play, maybe it will charge them up and reinforce their interest and escalate that passion. It all goes back to being a teacher and you think that kids learn in four basic ways: visual, auditory, readers and doers. It’s not going to appeal to all kids, of course, but hopefully some kids will be inspired by it.”
Levitt said he’d always toyed around with the idea of writing, and added he thoroughly enjoyed the publishing process of writing drafts, editing and reediting to what Lorimer was looking for.
When he was about 12 years old, Levitt said he roped a bunch of his buddies into going to the library to write “war stories about [DC Comics] Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury.”
“When I retired I took a couple courses at Thompson Rivers University,” he said. “I took one semester about writing fiction and the other one was screenplay writing. I really got into the screenplay writing stuff and at the end of that year I won an English modern language award for an original, short screenplay I wrote. That gave me a bit of a boost and I thought: ‘maybe I can write and let’s start working on this book.’”
Toronto-based Lorimer has a 40-year-plus history with a catalogue of 600 books in all genres including children, adult, fiction and non-fiction.
“I think it’s kind of cool — you don’t see rugby books, and I’ve never seen any rugby fiction published in Canada, so it’s kind of a niche,” Levitt said. “My hope is maybe through the rookie rugby camps all over the province — kids usually go home with a ball and T-shirt — maybe Rugby Rivals could be included as part of the take-home package.”
Levitt, meanwhile, has already begun work and signed a contract to write a second rugby book with Lorimer.
“This one is with a female protagonist,” he said. “It’s a girl who’s 14 and part of her struggle in the story is she’s very small to play the game.”
The latest book currently has the working title of Dream Big, he said, as it tells the tale of a young woman who watches a game of rugby and has the idea to start her own team, and all the ensuing struggles that come with it.
“I called Carleigh Walters [former Williams Lake high school player, St. Francis Xavier university player], and we had some great discussions about what it is to be a smaller woman playing the game of rugby, and she gave me some great insight.”
He thanked Lorimer’s Motosune for patiently and gracefully walking him through the editing process, and said so far feedback he’s received from friends has been really positive in anticipation of the book’s release.
“I should mention in the new and upcoming book there’s a Williams Lake girls team travelling through and I just kind of write them up as being a very seasoned team that creams my protagonist’s team,” Levitt said. “It’s kind of a nod to Williams Lake.”
Rugby Rivals is available for order in hardcover and paperback on Amazon by searching ‘Mike Levitt Rugby Rivals,’ though Levitt noted the Aug. 1, 2020, listed release date is for the U.S. version. The Canadian version is set to release Feb. 4, 2020. Rugby Rivals is also available directly through Lorimer’s website.