In the second grade, Tom Leveen discovered his passion for storytelling. Students were given a task to write a short story, an exercise in honing handwriting skills. The teacher called him up, asking him to rewrite this story, making it longer, and Tom was told he was going to read it to the first graders.
“I thought I was being punished for something. I had no idea what I had done wrong,” Tom remembers. “This was one of those scary teachers, so I followed her instructions. And the next day, I was sent over to the first-grade classroom, terrified, because who loves public speaking, especially when you’re 8.”
He looked out at those wide-eyed first graders, and the world seemed to change.
“At that moment, I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I want to be up in front of people and I want to tell them stories.” A spark ignited within him, setting him on a path to pursue storytelling and creativity.
Leveen published his first novel with Random House in 2010, followed by eight more young-adult fiction novels. His second published work was actually a project he undertook in his first year in college in the early 90’s.
He dedicated over two decades to promoting and nurturing the arts, operating two theatre and mixed-use art venues in Phoenix, making films, and working as an actor, all while doing school visits, conferences, and conventions to promote his published young-adult fiction novels.
When his book, Random (2015), came out in the US, they sold the German language translation rights.
“And much to my surprise, I was contacted by somebody at the US Embassy in Berlin, and was asked to come to Germany for a book tour in eight different German schools, all English language speaking.”
That trip changed how Leveen saw the world. “My wife and I had both been overseas before when we were very young, and didn’t really appreciate all the differences from those cultures compared to growing up in the US,” he remembers. “As adults, and I think also as parents, coming back over from that long trip, we really started to realize the differences.”
He noted that there are so many vastly different cultures in such close proximity in Europe. Germany had opened his eyes to the incredible possibilities of life outside his homeland, “And we started talking relatively frequently about what other ways there could be to do life.”
That led him to look for a place to complete his master’s degree with the goal to teach at the university level.
Leveen cast a wide net, searching internationally for suitable programs, including in Germany. He had been accepted into several programs including the library program at UBC Vancouver, the interdisciplinary program at Simon Fraser, and the MFA program here at UBC Okanagan, all of which were very tempting he says.
It was a visit to Kelowna that ultimately led him to the decision to come here. “My wife and I came up a few months before I had to make my decision and after the three nights we spent here, I knew that Kelowna was where me and my family were meant to be.”
“As a published author, I have experience in writing and publishing, but it was exciting to read about the creative writing faculty in Creative and Critical Studies,” he says. “They’re working on stuff that I don’t know about, and that was a big draw for me.”
The program has given him the opportunity to delve into poetry and nonfiction, subjects he notes he has had very little experience with. “The variety in teaching styles and approaches has broadened my understanding of these genres.”
Leveen notes that this program has turned out to be an invigorating experience. “It has given me fresh perspectives on writing, and I’ve learned about other unique viewpoints and motivations in ways I hadn’t encountered in my professional publishing experience. I’m learning a new vocabulary, a new way of talking about storytelling and about art and creation.”
He has found that his professors in the MFA program have a deep understanding of both the creative and the business aspects of writing. They don’t lose sight of the art’s value and purpose, making sure to prioritize these discussions alongside the business aspects.
“After over a decade in the industry, this approach is not just refreshing but also motivating. It has reignited my passion for my own creative practice. The emphasis on the artistic aspect of my field has made me appreciate my practice in a whole new light. I’m excited about what the future holds, and I’m grateful for the journey of rediscovery that UBC Okanagan has provided me.”
Leveen is in the second year of his program, and will be teaching a third-year creative writing class, Writing for Children, in the winter of 2024.
About Tom Leveen
Apropos of absolutely nothing, Tom has also: finished a marathon, two Spartan Sprints and a Super, completed a grueling 13-and-a-half hour crucible event coached by retired Navy SEALs, played guitar in three bands (but only in public once), earned a blue belt in tae kwon do, studied fencing, kenpo, and aikido, co-hosted a public access television show, been the artistic director of a theatre company and of a mixed-use arts venue, been an early literacy specialist, spent twenty years earning a four-year degree, did a ten-day book tour in Germany for his novel Random, and spent a total of nearly nine years in public library work, including being a Teen Programmer and Early Literacy Specialist.