Beulah, Michigan: Racing to the water


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

How do you explain a place that lives so much in our imagination and memories?

michigan2Anyone can tell you about the sharpness of the water in the aptly-named Crystal Lake in Beulah, Michigan. They can tell you of the pungent taste of those late summer cherries, delicious even though you never thought you liked cherries, of the long canoe trips along the Platte River that ended at Lake Michigan, where you stayed in the water until you turned blue.

What makes it special to us, as sisters, is harder to define. For roughly 10 years we went every summer to a cottage that had a bunk bed with orange comforters, a television with two stations and a temperamental toilet. No one cared, especially because the owners had a Vizsla named Peaches whom Elizabeth adored. There’s a picture of the two of them, the dog being held by Elizabeth, who is wearing the uniform of a 15-year-old: blue jeans, a denim shirt and a denim hat with a flower pin. The cottage we rented sat on a slight hill above the lake. Most mornings the two of us raced to the water, where we spent all day interspersing swimming, playing in the sand, exploring and reading.

Given our five- year age difference, Beulah means a time when we not only had stuff in common, but actually enjoyed being with each other, and with our parents. We were the Four Leis (for lease, get it?). We later learned our father would sneak out each morning to find a pay phone to call into the office, but overall it was a time when there was nothing to do but to be present, whether it was diving into the water or talking to your family. In the evenings there was mini-golf, and millions of pictures taken of the sunset, and ice cream, and lots of meals at The Cherry Hut. One year our father bought a small inflatable boat that was called Albie, short for Albatross, short for our mother saying, “That thing is a fucking albatross.” We gleefully used it around the lake, and we’re still sad he eventually sold it. One year we insisted on bringing back an entire suitcase of rocks from Lake Michigan, some of which are still floating around our homes in Chicago and Boston, and likely in the crevices of our long-sold childhood home in Virginia.

It was a natural extension to not want to leave Crystal Lake or Beulah, ever, and so we extended the escape by going to Crystalaire Camp, even though we went in different years. For Elizabeth, the first year she went, in 1992, was the first time she met other people whose parents were Democrats and voting for Clinton. She met other weird girls who liked to write and wear tie-dye shirts instead of doing sports, and who also loved big floppy hats, flannel and jeans. It was the first time anyone had ever mentioned the Indigo Girls or Joni Mitchell, and even today if she hears “The Circle Game” or “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-dah” she’ll flash back to Fuzz, the guitar player leading the campers in songs around a campfire. She thought he had invented that latter song, and had taught everyone in previous years to sing it, and that it was a nice tune.

It’s rare we are back in Virginia, as our parents moved a decade ago to Illinois, but it’s fair to say every trip there brings back the exact same feelings of exasperation and not-belonging that existed when we grew up. It’s harder to go back to Beulah; the expectations are higher. Virginia is the ex-husband who is always going to be on the periphery of your life, like it or not, and Beulah is the One That Got Away.

The first year Elizabeth started dating her future husband, she brought him along on a family trip to Crystal Lake. Julia arrived a few days in, almost directly from studying abroad in India. It was a fine trip, but impossible to convey to an outsider what it all meant, or to acknowledge that while Beulah hadn’t changed, we had. The cottage where we had stayed as children was long gone, and the camp had been sold.michigan3

When Elizabeth excitedly takes Justin back to where the original Crystalaire Camp sat, the words don’t appear to tell how, 20 years earlier, the feeling of hiding on a hill almost vertically during a massive all-camp color war, or to spend hours riding a horse along the back trails, or to get up at 8 a.m. to run out and yell “Polar Bear” as you jump into the lake. It’s hard to admit there was a summer where Elizabeth made no friends and still thought Crystal Lake and the camp was magical. It’s hard to explain those cracks in the foundation and how much nostalgia may cloud what actually happened. But that’s only the adult journalist (Elizabeth) or international aid worker (Julia) pushing objectivity on the girls who wrote poetry or played soccer or swam in the lake and dreamed. Who is to say that we didn’t become corporate drones because Crystalaire and the town of Beulah made us want to push for a better world? In our minds, the good of the town will always outweigh the bad. It’s the point of reference for every book involving a camp, or any time someone mentions a lake. In our minds, we see Crystalaire, in Beulah, Michigan, a place where everyone knows the same songs, the air is sharp and clear, and counselors tell you that great things are in store for you. And it is magical.

Julia Leis works in international relief and development. She lives in Manila, Philippines. 

Elizabeth Leis-Newman is a writer and editor. She lives in Chicago.

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Michigan bestseller list for September 2014

For September 2014, the largest rise on the Michigan Bestseller List was Kim Harrison’s The Witch with No Name, debuting at the #1 slot.  Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit and Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior have their fourth consecutive month on the bestseller list.

1Bestse) Kim Harrison – The Witch with No Name (Harper Voyager) [highest debut]

2) Kate Bassett – Words and Their Meanings (Flux)

3) Julie Lawson Timmer – Five Days Left: A Novel (Putnam Adult)

4) Tom Shanahan – Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the Integration of College Football, and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans (August Publications)

5) Patricia Polacco – The Bee Tree (Puffin) [last month #1]

6) Deborah Diesen – The Pout Pout Fish Goes to School (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

7) Rachel DeWoskin – Blind (Viking Juvenile)

8) John Green – The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Books) [last month #4]

9) Charlie LeDuff – Detroit: An American Autopsy — (Penguin Press) [fourth month on the list; last month #2]

10) Ellen Airgood – South of Superior (Riverhead Trade) [fourth month on the list; last month #3]

11) Thomas R. Dilley – The Art of Memory: Historic Cemeteries of Grand Rapids, Michigan (Painted Turtle/Wayne State University Press)

12) Eric James – A Halloween Scare in Michigan (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky)

13) Jerry Dennis – Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (St. Martin’s Griffin) [last month #8]

14) John S. Haeussler – Hancock (Arcadia Publishing)

15) Philip C. Stead – A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Book Press/Macmillan)

The Michigan Bestseller List for September compiled lists from 19 participating bookstores: Bay Leaf Used & Rare Books (79 State Rd, Newaygo;, Between the Covers (106 E. Main St., Harbor Springs,, Blue Frog Books (3615 E. Grand River, Howell;, Book World Marquette (136 W Washington St., Marquette;, Falling Rock Café & Bookstore (104 E Munising Ave, Munising;, Grandpa’s Barn (340 South Fourth, Copper Harbor;, Island Bookstore (Main St Centre, PO Box 1298, Mackinac Island; 215 E Central Ave, PO Box 1006, Mackinaw City;, Kazoo Books (407 N Clarendon St., Kalamazoo; 2413 Parkview, Kalamazoo;, Leelanau Books (109 N Main St, Leland;, Michigan News Agency (308 W Michigan Ave, Kalamazoo;, Nicola’s Books (2513 Jackson Ave, Ann Arbor;, North Wind Books (601 Quincy St, Hancock;, Saturn Booksellers (133 W Main St, Gaylord;, Schuler Books & Music (1982 W Grand River Ave, Okemos; 2660 28th Street SE, Grand Rapids; 2820 Towne Center Blvd, Lansing;, Snowbound Books (118 N 3rd St, Marquette;  Ron Riekki compiled the lists.


1) Charlie LeDuff – Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Press) [last month #1; third month at the #1 spot]

2) Ellen Airgood – South of Superior (Riverhead Trade) [last month #2; fourth month on the list]

3) John S. Haeussler – Hancock (Arcadia Publishing) [highest debut]

4) Karen S. Johnson and Deborah K. Frontiera – Picturing the Past: Finlandia University, 1896 to the Present – (Finlandia University)

5) Robert Archibald – Northern Border: History and Lore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Beyond (NMU Press) [last month #5; fourth month on the list] [tied]

5) Joseph Heywood – Killing a Cold One (Globe Pequot Press) [tied]

7) Loren Graham – A Face in the Rock: The Tale of a Grand Island Chippewa (University of California Press) [last month #7; fourth month on the list]

8) William Kent Krueger – Windigo Island: A Novel (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster) [last month #8]

9) Todd Clements – Haunts of Mackinac: Ghost Stories, Legends, & Tragic Tales of Mackinac Island (Hawthorne Books)

10) Sonny Longtine – Murder in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (The History Press) [last month #14]

11) Nancy Coco – All Fudged Up: A Candy-Coated Mystery with Recipes (Kensington) – [tied]

11) Jim Harrison – Brown Dog: Novellas (Grove Press) — [last month #12] [tied]

13) Melanie Dobson – Love Finds you in Mackinac Island, Michigan (Summerside)

14) Peter Geye – The Lighthouse Road: A Novel (Unbridled Books)

15) Joseph Heywood – Red Jacket: A Lute Bapcat Mystery (Globe Pequot Press) [last month #8]

For September 2014, the largest rise on the Upper Peninsula Bestseller List was John S. Haeussler’s Hancock.  Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior, Robert Archibald’sNorthern Border, and Loren Graham’s A Face in the Rock have their fourth consecutive month on the bestseller list.

The Upper Peninsula Bestseller List for September compiled lists from 6 participating bookstores: Book World Marquette (136 W Washington St., Marquette;, Falling Rock Café & Bookstore (104 E Munising Ave, Munising;, Grandpa’s Barn (340 South Fourth, Copper Harbor;, Island Bookstore (Main St Centre, PO Box 1298, Mackinac Island; 215 E Central Ave, PO Box 1006, Mackinaw City;, North Wind Books (601 Quincy St, Hancock;, Snowbound Books (118 N 3rd St, Marquette;

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Bestseller spotlight: Julie Lawson Timmer


Tell us a little about your book and how it came to be?

Five Days Left tells the story of two people who have five days left with the ones they love. Mara is a Type A lawyer living in Plano, Texas, with her adopted daughter and her husband. She’s been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, and she’s considering taking her own life in five days, to spare herself and her family from the horrible future the illness will bring. Meanwhile, in Royal Oak, Michigan, Scott is a middle school basketball coach who has five days left with Curtis, the eight-year-old boy who’s been living with Scott and his wife for the past year while Curtis’s mother is in jail. Scott and Mara are both members of an anonymous Internet parenting forum, and they have become friends, even though they don’t know each other’s names. The book explores the limits of human endurance, the things we do for love and the friendships that sustain us.

A few years ago, a friend of mine died after a long struggle with cancer. She was in hospice for the last several months of her life and she was spectacularly brave in facing what she knew would be her last months, weeks and days. I was consumed with outrage at what she went through, and I thought writing about someone in a similar situation might be a way for me to work out my feelings and honor my friend. I chose Huntington’s because I didn’t want (or believe I had any right) to write my friend’s story. Five Days Left is not biographical in any sense.

I had a milestone birthday in 2011 and a few months before, I told myself I would have a first draft of a novel by my birthday. I’d always wanted to try to write a novel and see if I could get it published. My impending “big” birthday, and the thought of my friend’s name on the dedication page, were the things that motivated me to finish the draft and seek an agent.

What is your background? Specifically, what are your ties to the Great Lakes region?

I grew up in Stratford, Ontario, and attended undergrad at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (located on Lake Ontario). I now live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I see Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie on a regular basis.

Describe your writing process?

I have four teenagers, two large dogs and a full-time legal career. Because of those things, I’m a 4 a.m -6 a.m. writer. I’m a big outliner, and I like to have characters fully fleshed out and the plot framed in great detail before I start to write. I start each writing session spending a few minutes revising what I wrote the day before. I try to limit the time I spend doing this–enough to get back into the story, but not so much that I end up revising for two hours and not putting down any new words. I’m a big believer in getting to “The End” as fast as possible, before I lose my grasp on the story, so I set fairly aggressive deadlines for myself and stick to them, allowing myself to crank out a terrible first draft. I try to let the first draft sit for a few weeks or more, and then I start on revisions, usually with aggressive deadlines again. These are the things that work for me–I don’t think there are any “rules” that every writer needs to follow.

Who is your favorite writer from the Great Lakes region? Why?

I love Lori Nelson Spielman (The Life List) and Camille Noe Pagan (The Art of Forgetting). They’re both fantastic writers and lovely people.

Lean, Thirsty, Hungry: An interview with U.P writer John Smolens


John_SmolensRR: Authors Beverly Matherne, Austin Hummell and Vincent Reusch claim that your opening chapter to Cold is one of the great all-time pieces of literature for Michigan’s U.P.  Why do you think it is so highly regarded by them?

JS:  The relationship between Liesl, a middle aged woman, and Norman, a young man escaped from Marquette’s maximum security prison, is based on a combination of fear, desperation and a deep sense of isolation.  Liesl lives alone in the woods, rather imprisoned by the deaths of her husband and daughter, which occurred some years earlier.  When she sees Norman, who has walked away from a work detail, emerge from the woods during a blizzard, she picks up her husband’s rifle—but she lets him into the house because he’s so cold.  This first chapter was written as a short story, entitled “Cold,” which was published in Columbia:  A Journal of Art & Literature in 1999; the final image haunted me for months, and eventually I began writing the novel.  I couldn’t not write the novel—the characters, the blizzard, they were knocking on my door, so to speak, and I had to let them in.  Place means a lot to me; that, and weather.  When I’m writing about a storm or Lake Superior, I don’t feel I’m just describing weather conditions or a geographical setting.  I can’t imagine writing Cold without having experienced winter in the U. P.

RR: Chapter one of Cold closes with this passage:

After a while Liesl closed her eyes against the incessant flakes.  Cold seeped into her back and shoulders.  Her arms and legs were outstretched as though she was floating on her back, and she tried to imagine a lake with the blue sky of a hot summer’s afternoon above her.  But it wouldn’t hold, and she opened her eyes again to the snow.  The cold had worked its way up into her ribcage, causing her to shiver.  She closed her eyes again and saw bearded men in robes and fur hats.  They spoke a foreign language and watched her with interest.  She smelled grease.  When the sharp thin needle stabbed into her anus, she remembered Gretchen’s birth.  But instead of descending, the pain ascended, moving slowly up through her bowels, her stomach, her lungs, her esophagus, the back of her throat, then finally, as she opened her mouth, the warm steel slid along the end of her nose, its bloody tip stopping right before her eyes.

Can you discuss the techniques you’re using here to successfully build to a powerful poetic end to that opening chapter?

JS:  It has to do with the mystery of images.  Who knows where they come from?  I think this is one reason we write:  because images are out there—they’re as invisible as this thing known as the Internet—and we hope to tune in a few.  A powerful image is a language unto itself; it can speak the unspeakable, define the undefinable.

I read a fair amount of history, and at some point I read about Vlad the Impaler.  He was a ruthless warrior, and the image in this paragraph is based on what he would do to his opponents—those who were unfortunate enough to not to die in battle.  He would surround his camp with hundreds of people—some historians claim thousands—all horribly impaled on thin metal stakes, suffering an agonizing death that often took days.  The sound these people made was said to be utterly terrifying, and it was intended as a warning to others who might consider attacking the camp.

As for technique, it’s really an exercise in description.  What Liesl imagines in this final paragraph is, to the best of my ability, a rather accurate depiction of what Vlad had done to his victims.  She has taken a fall in the woods and been left alone to die; she can’t move and is in pain, and to deal with the pain she thinks about those people impaled on stakes, taking some solace in the fact that there is pain that is more severe than what she’s experiencing.  Sometimes even the most brutal, gruesome act, when described with a dry eye, can lead to a visceral reaction on the part of a reader.  Ironically, this is sometimes considered “poetic,” which says something about the human condition, no?

RR: As far as contemporary U.P. authors, the old school big three are you, Ellen Airgood, and Steve Hamilton.  You probably write about the U.P. the least of those three authors.  Ellen and Steve are operating outside of academia.  Is this the reason why?  I’ve heard it worded that a person stationed on a military base, say, in Spain, is shut off from truly experiencing the country.  Does Northern Michigan University create a citadel so full-time faculty write about the U.P. only occasionally because they aren’t truly getting to experience the people of the U.P.?

Reciprocally, because you’re one of the top three authors in the Upper Peninsula and you’re the only one at the creative writing program for the region, I view you as the most powerful writer in the entire Upper Peninsula.  Can you talk a bit about the power that full-time creative writing faculty hold?  “Power” seems counter to your general demeanor as you come across as someone who feels humble, yet I’m interested in the realities of the stature you hold in the peninsula and how you approach the influence you have on future writers’ careers.

JS:  I don’t care for the ranking of authors, in the U.P. or elsewhere.  It may work in sports but not in literature.  For a relatively small population, we have a marvelous literary culture.  If I’m considered a part of that, I’m truly grateful.  And I honestly don’t feel that teaching gives me any real “power”—frankly, what I get back from my students, their energy, their enthusiasm, helps me to keep working.  It’s interesting—and it’s no surprise—how many of our students remain in the U.P. after they graduate.  They love this place because it’s vast and wild and unpredictable, and because it gets inside you.  That’s a remarkable thing, when a place becomes a part of you, when its geography seems imprinted on your soul.  For some, it’s the rivers or the forest.  Then there’s the lake.  I love it when people tell me they have a spiritual connection to Lake Superior because I do, too.

RR: Speaking of, when I read someone like Vincent Reusch, who’s one of the big up-and-coming authors with U.P. ties, I see you hovering in his writing.  Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to read authors who you’ve guided into their careers?  Do you see yourself in their words?

JS:  The last thing I would want to do as a teacher is be an overwhelming influence on how someone writes.  Vincent, who’s from downstate Michigan, wrote a story about a fast-food joint in Kalamazoo.  I remember reading the first draft and feeling incredible excitement.  The sentences rolled down the page, the images were so fresh.  I can’t possibly recall what I said or wrote about each draft, but what I do recall is the workshop discussion.  This is where things come alive:  you get a group of writers in a room and you discuss something one of them has written.  I had my say, certainly, but if I’ve learned anything as a teacher over the years it’s this:  it’s most important to listen.  Listen to what each member of the workshop is saying; occasionally reinforce the things you think are particularly valuable for the writer of the piece to keep in mind.  And perhaps more important, don’t be afraid to express what you don’t know or understand.  I sometimes think I’m doing the best job when I’m the dumbest person in the room.  Ultimately, you don’t “teach” someone like Vinny Reusch.  But you do form a bond, you do try to make it clear that you are striving for the same thing, to produce a story or a chapter that works, that’s as strong as it can be.  This takes time; it’s a slow-cook process.  And this is why when we developed our MFA program at NMU we wanted our writers here with us for three years, whereas most other writing programs are two years.

RR: I’ve asked this question before and have had some great answers when the authors haven’t avoided answering, but do you read your critics?  When you’re writing reaches such a mass audience, criticism becomes nearly unavoidable.  Has any criticism of your work actually helped future writings?

JS: I won’t avoid reading a review, but I doubt it has any influence on what I write in the future, largely because you’re writing something different.  What you did “right” or “wrong” in the last one really doesn’t have anything to do with this one.  What I don’t read anymore is stuff on places like Amazon.  First you’ll see something written by someone who has something to say about a book, and says it well; and then the next “review” is by someone who can barely read, barely write, has an axe to grind, or often all three.  No time for that.

RR: I’m a big fan of medical writing.  Quarantine is in alignment with a genre of narrative I love—I think here of films such as Contagion and Outbreak, which were a bit hit-and-miss.  There’s automatically high drama involved, but it seems the genre would be most successful on the page, where the pace can slow down and the minutiae can increase the suspense.  What drew you to this story?  As you get older, are you drawn more towards themes of medicine, death, survival?

JS:  I suppose all novels are about death and survival.  One of the main characters in Quarantine is a doctor named Giles Wiggins who lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1796, when the town was devastated by a deadly fever which was brought into port by a trading ship.  I lived in Newburyport, which is north of Boston, for many years before coming to Michigan.  My first novel, Winter by Degrees, is set there, and, as I’ve mentioned before, I read a great deal of history, much of it about places like Newburyport.  The state of medicine in the late 18th century was dismal, more superstition than science.  The novel portrays two families that are affected by this sudden and mysterious epidemic; more than that, it explores how people respond when they’re threatened by extinction:  lawlessness prevails; opportunists engage in black market activities, while others fall prey to religious fervor.  It’s a novel about how thin the veneer of civility really is; about chaos.

And about mortality.  While writing Quarantine I sometimes felt that people at that time had a greater sense of mortality than we do today; now, we sometimes act as though we’re protected, that we’re exempt.  There’s health insurance, good doctors, good hospitals (if you can afford these things); we can be fanatics about diet and exercise; we can not only live forever, we can remain young and tighten up our abs.  There’s a lot out there to deceive you into thinking you’re immortal.  But then you lose someone to cancer, or whatever, and you realize, despite all these “advances,” we’re still the same human animals we’ve been over the centuries.  People don’t pass or pass on, they die.  Since my wife died three years ago, I don’t know how many times people have avoided using certain words in my presence—they’re afraid to say dead.  I understand and appreciate the fact that they’re being empathetic in some way, but let’s be clear.  People die.  There is no “closure” (nor should there be).  I was raised Catholic, so I’ve had ample instruction regarding notions about the afterlife.  As I said, my favorite poem is The Inferno, even though I don’t think that’s what awaits us.  When you watch your wife die, you simply don’t know where she goes.  You can believe in something, but that’s not the same as knowing something.  The only thing you can really know is she was alive and you can be thankful—very thankful—that you knew her.  She had a soul, definitely, and it still exists in those of us who knew her.

But you have to ask yourself, if there is no reward after this life, if there is no punishment, if only the great Nothing awaits us, why do we behave at all while we’re here?  Why make and observe laws, why open doors for each other, why have a kind word for a stranger?  That’s the real mystery.  I don’t have the answer but I suspect it’s at the core of why we’re human.  Every day we read and hear about tragic, horrific events—war, pestilence, plague, massacres, hundreds of abducted girls in Africa, disappearing airplanes, sinking ferry boats.  Why wouldn’t it make you want to pray for a better life in the next world?  But every time there is a moment of generosity or an act of true kindness, doesn’t it indicate what humans are capable of?  Such acts aren’t performed out of fear or hunger or need, but out of empathy for another human being.  That’s our strength; that’s what we should cling to.  In Cold, after Liesl lets Norman in out of the blizzard, she chains him to the kitchen radiator, puts down her rifle, and cooks him scrambled eggs.  At the end of Quarantine, which I’ve been told is a pretty grim story, a young man named Leander Hatch, who has lost his entire family, takes on new responsibilities which will allow him to build a new family and help his town recover from the horrors of the epidemic.  My hope—my prayer, if you will—is that there will always be such people who show us what we’re capable of, those who will attempt to rise up from devastation and the ashes.  Because we will have the ashes; we will always have the ashes.

RR: As you get older, how is your relationship to story and to writing changing?  Are you a completely different writer from your days of Angel’s Head and My One and Only Bomb Shelter?  What are those key differences?

JS:  For years, for decades, writing has been the center of my life.  I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without the written word.  Sometimes I joke with my students about how we’ve all got the disease, that there’s no cure, and it’s fatal.  But none of us would have it any other way.  If I could find something else that helped me cope with the world and my time in it, I’d give it a try, but for me putting words on the page is the thing.  Call it a religion, a drug, a disease—it doesn’t matter.  It keeps me in touch with what’s important, what’s essential.

Yet what’s curious about this thing is that it’s not about me.  I’m not an autobiographical writer.  When I’m at the desk I’m lost, I lose myself, literally.  Call it an out-of-body experience, if you want.  My dear friend and mentor of many years, Andre Dubus, who died in 1999, used to say to me, back when I was 20-something, “When I read something good or I’m writing, I forget my own name.”  It’s a good thing, a healthy thing to get lost in the language, the sentences, the characters on the page.  Andre also told me that “Failed writers walk different than you and me.”  He wasn’t talking about not finding success in terms of sales and fame, he was talking about people who quit, who, for whatever reason, stop writing.  They don’t have time; it’s too hard; there are too many sacrifices.  Writers who continue to work, who make the effort—often at a great cost to their lives, not to mention their families—he admired them greatly.  If I hadn’t spent all these years getting up in the early morning, sitting at the desk, and writing well over a thousand pages to find a novel that’s maybe 350 pages, I don’t know who I’d be or what my life would be.  But, ironically, you have to learn to lose yourself in those pages; let them take you where they want to go.

As for how I’ve changed as a writer, there’s an old Paul Simon song that has a line that says something like:  “After changes and changes, we still remain the same.”  Amen to that.

RR: Do you get pushed towards writing sequels?  By fans, agent, publisher?  If so, what character(s)—out of all you’ve written—do you think might come back in future novels?

JS:  Characters?  Probably not, though never say never.  I have great admiration for writers who can keep working with the same characters, but my writing brain thus far keeps finding new characters and new places to write about.  But I am currently revisiting a place I’ve written about before (this is not to be confused with a sequel).  I’ve been working on a novel about four people who are brought together during a fierce blizzard in the U.P.  The working title is Out.  I like the connotation of the word when it’s used in the U. P. to mean that somebody lives outside of town, out there in the primeval forest…they live out, and that little word says it all.

When not working on that, I’ve been writing very short things.  I like the concentration of a short story.  Some days I’ve even written a few lines of poetry.  All this is, really, a form of prayer.  I’ll spend hours working on a few lines, a page or two at most.  Afterwards, I’m exhausted, but it’s kind of like the exhaustion you feel after a good workout.  It makes you lean, thirsty, and hungry.

Ron Riekki‘s books include U.P.: a novel (nominated for the Great Michigan Read and by National Book Award-winner John Casey for the Sewanee Writers Series) and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (2014 Midwest Book Award finalist, Foreword Book of the Year Award finalist, Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist, and selected by the Library of Michigan as a 2014 Michigan Notable Book).  His next book will be released by the Michigan State University Press on May 1, 2015. He has also published an essay in the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map series

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Bloody, Damn Sexy and Very Shakespearean: An interview with Tom Wells


Two Pence production poster--197x300Tom Wells is the co-founder and artistic director of Two Pence Theater Company, an organization devoted to theater of the Early Modern period, including that of the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline playwrights, and Shakespeare in particular. They’re a performance company guided by Renaissance humanist principles devoted to human agency and the individual’s relationship to self and society. As they perform and entertain, Two Pence provides audiences a powerful introduction to another world and time that is much more like our own than we might first imagine. Two Pence also offers actors and other theater professionals a fertile training ground where they’re able to take risks and cultivate their crafts.

 Tom’s credits at Two Pence include directing the company’s inaugural productions The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet and The Merry Dogs of Reservoir; acting in The Malcontent and The Tamer Tamed; voice and text coaching for Richard II; and teaching classes and workshops including “Owning Shakespeare: A Workshop In Progress,” “Revealing Shakespeare,” “Shakespeare in Play,” the ongoing Two Pence Lab, and “Worthy Warriors” for theatre professionals, students, and U.S. veterans all around Chicago and Evanston. Before settling in Chicago, Tom acted, taught and directed for more than six years at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and assisted with the Shakespeare in the Courts program supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, as well as numerous professional development workshops. In addition to his work with Two Pence, Tom is also a Designated Linklater Voice Teacher Trainee under Kristin Linklater and teaches at The Acting Studio Chicago.

 Tom and I have known each other since we were kids. The Internet hadn’t yet been invented, and Mark Zuckerberg was still doing all his friending at the sandbox. Given the technological wasteland we found ourselves in, it was good fortune that we lived three blocks from each other. Now that he’s in Chicago and I’m in Milwaukee, we corresponded by email while discussing Shakespeare, language, and the pursuit of something mysterious in a certain windy city on Lake Michigan’s southern shore. (David Bowen)

 David Bowen: How did Two Pence begin?

Tom Wells: I formed Two Pence Theatre Company in Chicago with co-founder and Managing Director Sarah Augusta near the end of 2008. Sarah and I met earlier that year through a mutual friend at an Actor’s Equity audition for The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We were both fairly new to the Chicago theater scene. I had been in the city for a few months, and she had just moved from Boston. We realized that we’d both undergone similar training, and we both lived for Shakespeare.

DB: What kind of training had you both undergone at that point?

TW: Sarah had gone to Emerson, and I’d spent a little more than six years acting and teaching at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts. Emerson and Shakespeare & Company both approach actor training using Kristin Linklater’s Freeing the Natural Voice methodology. Shakespeare & Company has also developed an elegant body of text and movement training that works symbiotically with Kristin’s approach to voice.

So Sarah and I shared a common theatrical language. And as we talked about it, we realized that there weren’t (to our knowledge) any theater companies with a Linklater voice training core. So we began to talk about why there was a vocal training gap in the many actor and improv training programs in Chicago, and whether there might be interest if we tried to fill it by teaching a class or two—and if that went well, how we might go about producing a play.

DB: What draws you specifically to Shakespeare?

TW: I started acting in high-school because some guy I knew (my best friend to this day) wanted to audition for a play.

So, I thought, well, I couldn’t possibly have a less successful freshman year experience in high school, so why not? And it was a huge, huge win. And then every year after I got cast in a larger role than the last, and it wasn’t until later that I realized that Shakespeare’s plays, characters, thoughts, and words really spoke to and through me, communicating the huge emotional experience I was having as a teenager.

And Shakespeare has been with me every step of my journey since. He’s the one I turn to when I’m having the worst day ever, or the best, and I just can’t quite find words specific enough to communicate what I’m feeling. I just open up some of the tens of editions of his complete works I own, or look through the Shakespeare app I have on my iPhone while I’m on the train, and inevitably, in whatever play I open to, I find someone feeling the way I do in that moment. The character’s life situation is typically much more complicated and immediate than mine, because the greatest plays compress and pressurize time so much, but there’s still that connection to people past and present that allows me access to a deeper awareness of my own experience, connecting my microcosm of an interior feeling life to the macrocosm of such life throughout all time and human experience.

DB: Why should people go to the theater? What might other people get out of seeing work that was composed four-hundred years ago? Does it have to do with this self-awareness you’ve described?

TW: I don’t know why people should go to the theater. There are too many shoulds in the world already, and I don’t want theater to be another should in people’s lives. I think we get out of seeing theater the very same things the Greeks, the Elizabethans, and everyone else got out of seeing theater composed in their own time. I think that the question “Why am I going to the theater?” is actually one of the gifts people get before, during, and after seeing theater. Questions are the most divine tools we have in our toolbox, and I think it’s in a spirit of inquiry, the question, where true theater begins, and where the most rewarding experiences of theater can be discovered. If self-awareness is one of the rewards of seeing theater, and I think it is, then we must begin with questions.

Etymologists would tell us that the Greek word for theater was theatron, which means literally “a place for viewing,” but I would like to suggest that the theater is the place from which we view the gods. The gods without. And the gods within. The suffix -tron denotes “place,” and the word thea has two meanings: “to view” and “goddess.” Thea meant Goddess. Theo meant God. So, theo-logy is where you study the god(ess), the-rapy is where you talk about the god(ess), and thea-ter is where you get to hear, feel, and see the god(s) speak. And by god(ess) I mean the images, the myths, the archetypal characters and stories that have been passed down from human to human since before recorded time. And these stories are still being passed down—the same twelve or so stories, some would say—in the theater. It’s the very thing that connects the Millenial Generation, Generation X, and our parents’ generation, and back and back to theater that was wrought five-hundred years ago. And not just in an intellectual way, but in a very visceral, tangible way.

DB: Are there plays or roles or passages from Shakespeare’s work that have been particularly transformative for you?

TW: Yes. And even now, as I’m thinking the line in my head, it occurs to me how cliché it sounds to choose it, but here it is: To be, or not to be, that is the question. It expresses a divine understanding of what it is to stand on the precipice and view life in all its sublime horror, angst, and utter beauty. I don’t think anyone has ever written or said it more simply. I mean, this is the essence of the microcosm of man inside and out, and the macrocosm of life on earth, and the universe.

I think that thought alone gave birth to a new self-consciousness that we have been wrestling and coming to terms with since Shakespeare grappled with it himself. And the most important part of the line is the part at the end: that is the question. That is the quest-ion. That is the quest in life, and the question that every human embodies with every breath of every day.

The most exciting thing for me about the plays from this period is the way that the Elizabethans and Jacobean playwrights used the English language. Book after book has been written on the subject. They understood that the language you use, as an individual human walking around on the street of your hometown, in small town Wisconsin or Michigan or wherever, that to talk about that teeming, seething, sensual stuff happening on the inside of them, of you, was and still is in direct relationship to the words. Language shapes your experience of the world. That’s a fact.

DB: How have Two Pence and its projects evolved since 2008 to explore the language of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and how have you involved other actors and audience members in the quest?

TW: We began by teaching a text-based class called “Owning Shakespeare,” and then we produced Romeo & Juliet at The Evanston Arts Depot just north of the city. After a hugely successful six-week run, we ended up in the black financially. A huge deal in any theatrical venture.

The next summer we produced the pastoral comedy As You Like It, directed brilliantly by Kathryn Walsh. Several actors and a lighting designer got excited by what we were trying to create, and Sarah and I had been dreaming up new programming, so we agreed that it was the right time to grow the company. Associate Producing Director Kathryn Walsh, Director of Education Lucy Carapetyan, Grants Manager Michael Mercier, and Production Manager Jessica Carson became company members and all helped create As You Like It.

Since then, Eliza Hofman has come aboard as Literary Manager. We also produced Richard II at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theater; added A Dead Man’s Hand—Chicago’s only reading series dedicated to Jacobean playwrights—and developed middle school residencies and a high school festival (inspired by Shakespeare & Company). We also teach The 2P Lab—a free actor training program—and throw a “Fun(d)raising” mashup and cocktail mixer each summer. We keep having great ideas and huge successes.

DB: What are some of Two Pence’s upcoming projects?

TW: We’ll be opening the Chicago premiere of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women on September 8 at The Den Theater in Wicker Park, one of Chicago’s ultra-hip neighborhoods. Kathryn Walsh will direct, and previews begin September 4. Women Beware Women is sexy, passionate, and deadly—a play that uses those “Machiavellian Italians” (a favorite Early Modern trope) to explore sexual politics, their consequences, and what happens when a gender imbalance impedes one sex’s ability to survive and thrive.

We’ll also produce the The Fall Festival of Shakespeare: Chicago, our flagship education program for high school students. Then in February or March of 2015 we’ll produce an original adaptation of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s city-comedy The Roaring Girl, which I’ll adapt and direct. And then Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night, or What You Will in the Fall of 2015. We’ll also continue to explore the Early Modern period with the Dead Man’s Hand series. And we hope to raise funds for these projects and many others at our annual Fundraiser Gala Shakespeare Mash-up: Shake Wars: Revels, Alliance!

DB: Let’s talk a little more about the Dead Man’s Hand reading series. What draws you to Jacobean playwrights? Aside from Middleton and Dekker, which other playwrights have been part of the series? Who else would you like to include in the future?

TW: I love the Jacobean plays because they are bloody, damn sexy, and very Greek. And very Tarantino at times. Incest, patricide, genocide, murder, revenge, rage, jealousy, secrets, shame—all those feelings that we’re too polite to talk about. And those Jacobean playwrights really exploded the theatrical form, experimenting with dis-unity of plot and character. And because I’m still learning about Shakespeare’s many collaborators, comrades, and admirers, there’s the excitement that comes with exploring the unknown. There’s so much that’s been studied, written, known, and assumed about Shakespeare and Elizabethan theatre that it’s really exciting to unearth these other plays written by his comrades and competitors, and explore the personal and theatrical connection to them, as well.

In 2014, we got Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle and Aphra Behn’s The Rover up on their respective feet. Aphra Behn is the first female playwright of the period that we’ve explored.  And in the past we’ve read John Fletcher, John Marston, and Ben Jonson.

As far as what I’d like to see us do in the future? I would love to do a reading of Nick Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister, Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor, James Shirley’s Hyde Park, and then even more obscure playwrights like Margaret Cavendish and Mary (Sidney) Herbert.

DB: What’s the Chicago theater scene like, and how does Two Pence fit into it?

TW: The Chicago theater scene is eclectic, dynamic, and mostly centered around contemporary and new works. I think it’s the best town for theater in the country. There is a sort of movement springing up where small theater companies are producing Shakespeare, but—this may be a bold claim but I’m gonna make it—I think that Two Pence is the only store-front theater company in Chicago whose specific mission is to produce Early Modern playwrights.

And we’re also the only theater company I know of in Chicago committed to training actors of all ages to speak the thoughts and words of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. That’s what we’re really passionate about. There are several small companies who are using modern methods of actor training (Improv, Meisner, Stanislavski, etc.) to work on Shakespeare, and that’s been going on for years. But it’s my experience that Early Modern playwrights demand a different type of training. To fully embody Shakespeare’s words, an actor has to embrace a different way of experiencing the cosmos, the physical world, their inner being and language, the language they use to express the connection between. This requires a more specific way of approaching the plays of that period. And Two Pence (inspired by the body of work created by Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts, and American Players Theater in Wisconsin, and other companies) fills that particular space for theatrical production and training in the community.

I think the best productions of Shakespeare’s plays trust the story of the play, and make Shakespeare’s words the star. And when Shakespeare’s words are the star, everything becomes illuminated because of the light of the consciousness with which he wrote. So, that’s what we’re gonna keep working towards…the light.

The latest Two Pence production, Thomas Middleton’s “Women Beware Women” directed by Kathryn Walsh, runs through September 26, 2014, and tickets are going fast. Find out more at

This is a portion of the interview. For the full interview, check out the print edition of GLR Summer 2014,



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Capturing the spirit of Detroit: An Interview with Jim Daniels


Meredith Counts recently had the opportunity to interview Detroit-reared and Pittsburgh-based fiction writer and poet Jim Daniels, whose newest book of short stories, Eight Mile High, was released in the summer of 2014 by Michigan State University press. What follows is a portion of the interview. For the full interview, check out the print edition of GLR Fall 2014, which will also feature Daniels’ story “Pearl Diving.” 

The two stories from your new book Eight Mile High  that have been published in the Great Lakes Review – “Pearl Diving” (Fall 2014) and “Our Lady of No Mercy” (Summer 2014) — take place in a mostly Polish Catholic neighborhood of assembly line workers in Warren, Michigan. It’s such a specific place with its own landmarks and rules and characters. I wouldn’t assume it’s directly from your memory, but it reads as very real. Could you talk about the importance of place in your writing, in this collection in particular?

JIM DANIELS PHOTO FOR GLRPlace has always been important to me in my writing, and it’s often been wrapped up in social class—both a physical place and an economic place, and how those two things are linked. I’ve always had a little chip on my shoulder about the people I know the best and care about the most not showing up enough in our literature. I want to say, these lives are important and deserve our attention. In a lot of my earlier writing, I tended to blur things, referring to Detroit as a more general term for the metropolitan area rather than go into distinguishing the city from its surrounding communities.

For Eight Mile High I decided to zoom in even more on Warren, and even more particularly on the area next to Eight Mile Road, the border with Detroit, where I grew up. Anyone from Detroit knows Warren is not Detroit, and I wanted to focus on the distinctions, this white working-class community next to Detroit. I want this book to be like a magnifying glass or a camera with a zoom lens—to intensify the experience by limiting it geographically. This area in particular tends to look generic, the streets anonymous, but what makes them distinct is the people—the lives lived on those streets.

While the work is definitely fiction, I did want to capture the spirit and feel of the real place.

You grew up in Michigan and you’ve been living and teaching in Pittsburgh since 1982 but your fictional eye is still in your hometown; you are still sending characters in your stories on trips up north and following their lives in neighborhoods designed around auto assembly plants. Are you a Michigan writer no matter where you go?

Michigan has its hooks in me. It’s always pulling me back. I can’t say for sure why, but while I have written about other places—including Pittsburgh—Michigan is definitely still home for me. I am close enough (5 hour drive, though on the Ohio Turnpike, it seems longer….) to get back frequently to visit family in Michigan. I’ve got the emotional and physical distance to give me some perspective on the place, but still very attached to it too. Many of my initiatory experiences took place there, and I inevitably return there in my work.

My wife kids me about my Michigan pride—Michiganders have a state pride that Pennsylvanians simply do not have, with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on opposite ends, and, as I believe James Carville said, “Alabama in the middle.” I think exploring that territory in multiple genres—poetry, fiction, film—has hopefully allowed me to keep making it new without repeating myself too much.

Tell us some of your favorite writers from the Great Lakes region?

Jim Harrison might be my favorite because I came across his poetry (he’s a great fiction writer, but I really love his poems) early on when I was in college and first beginning to read contemporary poetry.  Phil Levine, of course, though I came to him later. I should stop there, otherwise I’d be going on and on….

Besides my teachers, the first living poets I met were Conrad Hilberry and Herb Scott, two Michigan writers who I learned a lot from—they made the whole thing real. Hey, these ordinary guys publish poems! And they weren’t crazy or assholes—and most importantly, they weren’t dead.

One of the stories in Eight Mile High that leaves the neighborhood is “Raccoon Heaven.” It’s about a sort-of-reformed drug dealer and his disastrous attempt at a healthy marriage and a normal vacation cottage. His story gets worse and worse and it’s sensory, like he’s remembering this time in full, with his whole body. The rotten fish alone… It would be a terrible story to read while hungover.

Then in the story “Our Lady of No Mercy,” after a disturbing revelation, the narrator says “Okay, it’s all on the table now. Or, most of it anyway. I don’t blame you if you get up from the table. I don’t blame you if you lost your appetite. Me, I’m always hungry. Me, I never get full.”

Eight_mile_highDo you feel that way as a writer? I sometimes do. What’s so important about writing the ugly stuff?

Yeah, I guess I do. I tend to have a dark sense of humor, so sometimes I’m surprised when some readers find the work depressing and I think it’s kind of funny in some twisted way.

But I do think we have to go there—where the ugly stuff is—if I find myself hesitant to write about something—scared, even—I take that as a good sign. You want to say, oh, that hole’s deep enough, but you have to keep on digging if you want to be honest with your readers, and with yourself.

I’ve got to go with my man, Celine, here—I used this as an epigraph for my second book, Punching Out:

“The greatest defeat in anything is to forget, and above all to forget what has smashed you, and to let yourself be smashed without ever realizing how thoroughly devilish men can be. When our time is up, we mustn’t bear malice, but neither must we forget: we must tell the whole thing, without altering one word—everything that we have seen of man’s viciousness, and then it will be over and time to go. That is enough of a job for a whole lifetime.”

In trying to give a quick synopsis of the “Raccoon Heaven” I didn’t manage to convey any of that dark humor, but it is there for sure. This plague of algae and the illegal fish that eat it, the former homeowner with her yappy dog, the sinister neighbor children with their George-and-Lennie-vibe – it’s funny-grotesque, weirder and weirder stuff piling up.

Have you read this one out to groups yet? It’s the kind of story that if you read it out loud to the right crowd they’d be roaring…

I have yet to read that story aloud. I’ll have to try it and see if the tone comes through.

You write fiction about big issues – death and grief, sexual abuse, domestic violence, shame and addiction. Yet the stories in the end are about the people, not the abstract issues, because there’s also hand-holding and cigarettes and porn and pancakes and unlikely alliances. It’s like story tax, if you kill a character, you have to give the reader something else to keep them reading, to keep us from getting up from that table? Like if there’s a death, you have to give us some pancakes. Is it all intuition? How do you balance the ugly with the sometimes sweet and often mundane?

Story tax—what a great way to put it. I guess looking at the list of subjects, it is a pretty dark book, though I think there’s more humor in this one too. I do hope it is about the people, in the end. With all of our flaws, we still love each other.

For me, maybe it is all intuition, though maybe I do try and add humor as a survival tool. I don’t think I consciously try to balance things—in life, obviously, we can’t. Things are always tilting one way or another. We’re just trying to keep our balance, which I believe is a form of dancing, in order to stay alive. Even though we know that too is going to ultimately result in failure, death. So, eat the damn pancakes, right?

Coney dogs vs. Cheesesteaks?

Coney dogs—not even close. I’ve been taken to the best cheese steak places in Philly, and all I can do is shrug. What’s the big deal? Now, coney dogs, that’s a whole different story. They’re the perfect food to come from Detroit—they have the personality of Detroit. Nothing subtle about them. When I had a Detroit News paper route, every Friday after I collected from my customers, I would go to this coney place on Ryan Road and get two coney dogs and a root beer and sit at the counter with my piles of change and eat like a king. In winter, taking a coney dog in my frozen fingers and taking that first bite—pure heaven.

Visit the MSU Press for more information on Eight Mile High


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Michigan bestseller list for August 2014

For August 2014, the largest rise on the Michigan Bestseller List was Patricia Polacco’s The Bee Tree, debuting at the #1 slot.  Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit and Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior have their third consecutive month on the bestseller list.

The Michigan Bestseller List for August compiled lists from 19 participating Michigan bookstores: Between the Covers (106 E. Main St., Harbor Springs), Blue Frog Books (3615 E. Grand River, Howell), Book Bug (319 Oakland Dr, Kalamazoo), Book World Marquette (136 W Washing


ton St, Marquette), Falling Rock Café and Bookstore (104 E Munising Ave, Munising), Grandpa’s Barn (340 South Fourth, Copper Harbor), Kazoo Books (407 N Clarendon St, Kalamazoo), Kazoo Books II (2413 Parkview, Kalamazoo), Leelanau Books (109 N Main St, Leland), McLean & Eakin (307 E Lake St, Petoskey), Michigan News Agency (308 W Michigan Ave, Kalamazoo), Nicola’s Books (2513 Jackson Ave, Ann Arbor), North Wind Books (601 Quincy St, Hancock), Saturn Booksellers (133 W Main St, Gaylord), Schuler Books & Music (1982 W Grand River Ave, Okemos; 2660 28th Street SE, Grand Rapids; 2820 Towne Center Blvd, Lansing), Snowbound Books (118 N 3rd St, Marquette), and Squirreled Away Books 22985 W Main St, Armada).  The list is compiled by Ron Riekki.

1) Patricia Polacco—The Bee Tree (Puffin)

2) Charlie LeDuff—Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Press) [last month #1; 3rd month on list]

3) Ellen Airgood—South of Superior (Riverhead Trade) [last month #8; 3rd month on list]

4) John Green—The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Books) [last month #9]

5) Kathleen Flinn—Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Midwest Family (Viking Adult)

6) Jennifer Billock—Keweenaw County (Arcadia Publishing)

7) A.J. Baime–Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) [last month #7]

8) Jerry Dennis–The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (St. Martin’s Griffin) [last month #3]

9) Julia Mary Gibson, Copper Magic (Starscape)

10) Joseph Heywood, Killing a Cold One: A Woods Cop Mystery (Globe Pequot Press)

11) Heidi Chandler, Holding Avery: A Memoir (MP Publishing)

12) Holling C. Holling – Paddle-To-The-Sea (Sandpiper Books)

13) Steve Hamilton – Let It Burn: An Alex McKnight Novel (Minotaur Books)

14) Thomas Foster—How To Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines (Harper Perennial)

15) George Cantor–Tigers of ’68: Baseball’s Last Real Champions (Taylor Trade Publishing)

15) John Green—Looking for Alaska (Speak)


For August 2014, the largest rise on the Upper Peninsula Bestseller List was Jennifer Billock’s Keweenaw County, which reappears on the list from its previous inclusion in June.  Ellen Airgood’s South of Superior, Robert Archibald’s Northern Border, and Loren Graham’s A Face in the Rock have their third consecutive month on the bestseller list.

The Upper Peninsula Bestseller List for August compiled lists from 5 participating U.P. bookstores: Book World Marquette (136 W Washington St, Marquette), Falling Rock Café and Bookstore (104 E Munising Ave, Munising), Grandpa’s Barn (340 South Fourth, Copper Harbor), North Wind Books (601 Quincy St, Hancock), and Snowbound Books (118 N 3rd St, Marquette).

1) Charlie LeDuff—Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Press) [last month #1]

2) Ellen Airgood—South of Superior (Riverhead Trade) [last month #2; 3rd month on list]

3) Jennifer Billock—Keweenaw County (Arcadia Publishing)

4) Loren Graham – Death at the Lighthouse: A Grand Island Riddle (Arbutus Press)

5) Robert Archibald–Northern Border: History and Lore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Beyond (NMU Press) [last month #3; 3rd month on list]

6) Steve Hamilton – Let It Burn: An Alex McKnight Novel (Minotaur Books)

7) Loren Graham – A Face in the Rock: The Tale of a Grand Island Chippewa (University of California Press) [last month #10; 3rd month on the list]

8) Julie Buckles – Paddling to Winter (Raven Productions) (tie)

8) Joseph Heywood—Red Jacket: A Lute Bapcat Mystery (Globe Pequot Press) (tie)

8) Jim Harrison—True North (Grove Press) (tie)

8) William Kent Krueger –Windigo Island: A Novel (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster) (tie)

12) Jim Harrison — Brown Dog: Novellas (Grove Press)

13) Bonnie Jo Campbell – Once Upon a River: A Novel (W.W. Norton & Company) [last month #7]

14) Sonny Longtine — Murder in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (The History Press) [last month #8]

15) William L. Blewett – Geology and Landscape of Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and Vicinity (Wayne State University Press)



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Hell, Michigan: I’m from Hell


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

By Sswonk (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

By Sswonk (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

I’m from Hell.  Almost.

Technically, I’m from Pinckney, but I claim Hell.  How could I not?  The winding roads of the area create a playground for motorcyclists.  Teams of Harleys, mostly, can frequently be spotted along M-36, all the way through Pinckney, making the turn on Darwin to Hell.

Yes, that’s right.  The road to Hell is called Darwin.

The final sharp curve opens to two brightly colored buildings, and a giant pole with arrows pointing in all directions gives the miles from here to various locations across the world.  Sixty-two miles to Detroit, 3,683 miles to North Pole, Alaska.  There is a portable marquee that offers puns, or congratulations to brides and grooms getting married in the chapel out back, in big black letters.  My favorite message:  “Welcome to Hell: Now Serving Ice Cream”.  There is mini golf and a boy and a girl devil painted on a piece of plywood with ovals cut out to stick your faces in and take a picture.  I have permanent proof that “I’m a little devil from Hell”, because that’s what we’ve all always wanted to be, isn’t it?  There is a gift shop full of Hell, Michigan branded merchandise that can be sent to friends who couldn’t make the journey to the dark land.  You can buy a thong that says “I’ve been to Hell and back”, or a keychain with a cartoon devil bent over with its pants half down.

Every possible play on the town’s name is printed on something.  The ashtrays, bottle openers and other tchotchkes will certainly spend their entire lives outside of that shop in the back of the drawer in everyone’s kitchen that no one ever cleans out.  There’s a bar next door to downtown Hell called the Dam Site Inn.  It’s exactly like you want it to be.  The floors sticky, the beer cheap, the light from Big Buck Hunter dim in the back corner.  The motorcycles packed three or four deep out front.

When he proposed and I said yes, I immediately knew I wanted to get married in my hometown.  I looked for fields or barns to rent and came up empty handed.  Then I remembered.  There’s a little chapel in Hell.  I met with the man who owns the place.  He once owned the car dealership in Pinckney so though we’d never met, his name was as familiar to me as anything from my childhood.  He rented me the chapel and field next to it.  I was nervous to tell my future in-laws, very conservative Southern Baptists, we were getting married in Hell, but they thought it was great.  They even told their Bible study group.  My dad was often given the response of, “of course Patti would get married in Hell.”  I knew exactly what they meant.  I sent out Save the Date cards from the post office branch there, and the woman behind the counter burned the corner of each one, then firmly stamped “I’ve been through Hell” in the left corner.  It was perfect.

A wedding in Hell. Courtesy of the author.

A wedding in Hell. Courtesy of the author.

We had the rehearsal dinner at my grandpa’s house a few lakes over.  We ate pizza from Zukey, drank beer and went swimming.  I woke up to a rainbow over Bass Lake, my niece and nephew already dressed in their fancy clothes.  The day was here.  “Congratulations Patti and Jason” on the marquee.  The field opened up and created quite a beautiful scene, the rushing river adding to the soundtrack of acoustic guitar and motorcycle engines.  Hundreds of candy colored balloons dotted the landscape.  I wore an off-white lace dress and walked down the aisle on my dad’s arm.  My oldest best friend officiated the ceremony, and when I looked out at the crowd, all huddled under their umbrellas because it was raining in Hell on my wedding day, I cried. It was, again, perfect.  Full of love and just the right amount of levity.  My sisters of blood and circumstance stood to my side with ribbons tied around their waists.  As soon as the ceremony was over, the rain stopped and sun flooded down on my new life.

Under the high peak of the tent were tables set with antique dishes collected over years by my dear friend.  She chose each cup to match each plate so when you looked at them all in a row, another rainbow appeared.  Flowers grown on a friend’s mother’s land, red, orange, yellow tied with tidy little twine bows, stalks of wheat to represent the prairie of my almost husband’s home. Wheat grass sprouted in planters built for me, lined up and creating a low runner of bright green down the center of the tables.  Soft white round lights climbed the seams of the tent and wrapped around the center pole, and as the sun set they played like the stars that wouldn’t come out in the sky.  I got to dance with Dad to the same song he played every time he’d picked me up from the airport, swaying slowly and completely unaware of everything else.  My husband and I smashed cake into each other’s faces, then he smashed it in my five year old nephew’s face which took everyone by surprise.  The little guy got him back, though, I made sure of that.  We listened to A$AP Rocky as loud as possible and danced and danced and danced.  I was home, surrounded by my most favorite people, eating, drinking, dancing, celebrating my love, in Hell.  The kitsch of the town, it just fit.  I was happy.

The marriage lasted only a few months.  Turns out, the little devil wasn’t me.  Back in Hell, I received an official certificate declaring I got married there.  In the legal sized manila envelope was another piece of paper, this one a coupon for a free second wedding if the first one didn’t work out.  They say a marriage that starts in Hell has nowhere to go but up, but even they don’t believe that.

Patricia Wheeler currently splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and Johnson City, Tennessee. She is the The Moth’s Michigan StorySLAM producer and has the honor of studying storytelling in Appalachia. 

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Pictured Rocks, Upper Peninsula, Michigan: On The Trail And Near The Edge


This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.

Pic_rocks“If I wasn’t absolutely positive the fall would kill me, I would so fucking jump right now. Oh Christ, I’m talking to myself.”

The truth is I’ve already been talking with no one else around to listen for the better part of five hours. I’ve just finally verbalized it and confirmed to myself that I am, in fact, talking to myself. The madness of summer heat combined with — I don’t even know at this point, maybe like seven or eight miles of walking through a forest alone — leads one to forget the social norms that somehow exist out in the world of concrete and aluminum siding. I am standing, dripping with sweat looking out at the tip of Grand Island jutting up from the endless blue of Lake Superior. Below me, the most inviting waters. I know they are cold. Bluer than the eyes of a girl at the end of the bar who is so pretty you’re afraid to hit on her. Those waters are so clean I could open my mouth and happily drown myself trying to drink the great lake dry.

But, those purifying and welcoming waters are also more than 200 feet below me. And, as much as I hate myself for setting off on this trek — Munising Falls to Chapel Beach and back, 32 miles in two days — I’m not quite ready to die.

The trees wrap around me in the great forest that probably stretches forever southward, as far as I’m concerned. The uninterrupted wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the suffocating green forests that stretches from Copper Harbor to Manistique and Escanaba. And here I am, still another nine long miles from the great comfort of the driver’s seat of a Ford Focus, with a great land surrounding me on on all sides. Yes, I am contemplating a comfortable suicide, but I am home.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a world away from everything. What people call Up North, the area between, say, U.S. 10 and the Mackinac Bridge, is, for the most part, a tourist’s playground. There are a few spots to escape mankind in the summer, but you’re as likely to find a world-renowned brewery up here as you are to find peace and quiet during the latter half of June. The most northern portions of the Lower Peninsula, save for a few spots in Leelanau and the majestic beauty of the Straits, is a lot like the 2005 Detroit Pistons: Underrated so much that it’s overrated. You’ll never have a hard time finding a McDonald’s in those areas, for instance. Every 20 miles or so on Interstate 75, you’ll come to a fairly good sized town where you’ll find actual residents. Hell, you can access most of the area by a damn interstate.

In the UP? Not so much.

Cruising through the upper reaches of the Lower Peninsula as twilight slowly descends on the rolling hills, I barely have time for all these summer hamlets with their downstate residents making their way to weekend cottages. The sight of the Mackinac Bridge — Mighty Mac standing tall against the elements season after season — peeking through a gap in the hills caused by that concrete river that took me northward, ever northward, makes my heart leap. As my trusty Focus rolls up to the bridge, I throw off the restraints of cliche and find “Free Bird” on Spotify. Fuck it, man. It’s time.

As you cross the bridge, getting closer and closer to St. Ignace, you see a sign getting clearer: “Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.” The sun is setting on the Straits of Mackinac and I am doing my best to take in the view, but that sign makes my chest warm and makes me smile wide. The towering forest along the coast stretches back to the interior and it feels like you’re opening the door and walking into the welcoming arms of a lover.

I pull up to the toll booth, turning down the wailing solo, and am struck by the beautiful Native American man working that Thursday night. I hand him a twenty and hear him mumble something.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” I ask, leaning out the window.

He looks up at me and grins. “Welcome back, young man.”

Chills shoot down my spine and I don’t find the words to reply. I want to tell him it’s good to be home. I want to tell him how I’ve missed this empty place. Instead, I drive off into the majestic embrace of U.S. 2. The northern coast of Lake Michigan unwinds in front of me, all sandy beaches separated from the darkened forest by a simple two-lane highway. My goal is a campground 30 minutes west, where I manage to beat the sun, the bugs and the nagging fear that inevitably comes with being all alone in a great forest, to watch the sun dip behind the trees and drop gracefully into the deep lake.

I wake up to sunlight pouring into my tent and mosquitos parked on top of it. Also on the sides of it. Really, just about anywhere but inside of it. I’d convinced myself they wouldn’t be so bad, but what the hell do I know. In 20 minutes, I’m changed, packed and driving west again heading back to a place where I felt I was reborn into this world. Pictured Rocks, the stretch of Lake Superior coastline between Munising and Grand Marais, was my first thru-hike, 47 miles of forest, beach and stunning cliffs. Hiking was a hobby in the months before that trip, and afterward became a passion. Michigan was a place to escape before I walked those four days. It was a place to love in the years since.

One might pray for a coffee shop while driving in the Upper Peninsula’s interior, but all you’ll find are lonely gas stations in one-stop-light “towns.” Sometimes, you just have to make due with some beef jerky and an energy drink before walking 16 miles, but the crisp northern Michigan morning made up for any lack of food or drink. By the time I park at the trailhead in Munising Falls, I feel like a horse in the starting gates waiting for the sound of a gun.

At a pace that can comfortably called “Death March,” I blitz through the first eight miles, arriving by lunchtime at Miner’s Castle, which I’m sure is beautiful when it’s not full of fat people eating lunch. This is where their trip into one of Michigan’s most beautiful landscapes would end. Me? I have a date with the cliffs.

A few more miles later, and I realize I am minutes from what I’ve been longing for. The first sight of the grand lake hundreds of feet below you steals the wind from your chest. The trail bends around some trees and, quite suddenly, the only thing between you and Lake Superior’s icy blue waters is three steps and Michigan air. The sandstone cliffs jut in and out, never sheer, the erosion wearing lines in the rock like smiles do to a beautiful woman’s face. The base of the tan rock widens at the water line, the outline clear in the shimmering water. Some trees lean out over the chasm, their leaves gently slapping the cliff face.

The mosquitoes swarm and the promise of more beckons. Along the next five miles or so of trail, there will be a hundred such overlooks, every turn in the trail bringing a new point from which to ogle Michigan’s great rack. Every now and then, the blanket of the forest envelops the trail again only to spit you out onto a lonely beach a hundred feet above the lake where the water is invisible and only the horizon is there to greet you. I’d happily live on those beaches enduring whatever nature could throw at me.

But the summer heat holds me and is starting to wring me dry. My clothes are damp, my feet hurt and my eyes long for the sight of a tree growing out of a rock outcropping with the center somehow  – as if by cannon blast and missing. When I reach it, the sand of Chapel Beach is comforting and the lake is calm, but the swarms of infernal mosquitoes seem destined to ruin this fine dinner of re-hydrated chicken fajitas. The tent becomes home and I fall asleep listening to the blustery winds whipping through the trees.

I wake the next morning knowing I would soon face one of the sternest tests of my life. Another 16 mile walk back to the car awaited me and I curse my decision making.

“Why the hell didn’t you just park at Miner’s Castle and save yourself 16 miles?” I ask, starting the soon-to-be-troublesome habit of speaking to myself while alone on the trail.

In short order, my crippling fear of heights was washed away by the slightly dehydrated and completely fatigued urge to float on my back in the ice-cold lake. Within the first hour  – a relatively straight forward hike to Mosquito Beach  – I begin thinking there is, in fact, a difference between things you can do and things you should do.

But, there is no where else to go. And nothing else to do. So, I keep walking.

Apparently, the wind in this stretch of the southern Lake Superior coastline has Saturdays off. The sun rises high in the sky and the wind barely ruffles the leaves of the ancient trees that thankfully provide me shade. The heat falls on me. My mind grows tired, which always means my thoughts speed up. My mind is like the rapids of a river, moving fast but incredibly shallow. I lose myself in the drumbeat of my feet, moving ever onward.

It is a short time before Miner’s Beach, a sandy portion of the trail unprotected from the sun’s rays, when I stand over the beautiful cliffs and contemplate jumping. The greens of the trees contrast with the yellows of the sandstone; the reds, blacks, blues and greens of the minerals bleeding out inside the cliff face give the appearance of a master tossing paint on the earthen canvas. I pant like a dog, desperate for cool water and a respite from the June sweat.

“God it looks so good,” I say to myself, apparently no longer concerned with the two-way, one-person conversation.

The blue of Lake Superior, from that spot, can almost reach up and grab you. The depths of the freshwater sea are unfathomable. You stare at it and wonder who’s gone to rest there forever, what lives has she claimed and would it really be so bad if she claimed yours?

“I mean, what if you didn’t die? What if it was just really cold and nice?”

“Well, then how the hell would you get back? Are you going to flag down a tour boat? You’re sure as hell not swimming to Munising.”

“Yeah, and I’d lose my pack and all that too. If I lived and managed to get back to Munising, I’d have to come all the way out here and get it.”

“Exactly. Not worth it, man. Keep walking. Keep talking.”

And so I did. All the way back to Munising Falls, once again not bothering to take the side trail to see the actual waterfall because I was too exhausted, too ready to drink a Gatorade and get into sweatpants. Time goes by, but some things never change. The minute my boots hit the pavement and my eyes saw the Focus, waiting patiently as any good horse does, a smile crept across my face. I looked back into the forest – the place that tried to steal my breath away from me, the place that wrang me dry of damn near every drop of water in my body, the home of a place that pictures can’t do justice – and I missed it immediately.

Kyle Feldscher is a reporter and writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

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Michigan bestseller list for July 2014

For July 2014, the largest rise on the Michigan Bestseller List was Jerry Dennis’s The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas and for the U.P. Bestseller List, it was Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy, in part due to One Book One Community in Marquette.  LeDuff’s Detroit was the bestselling book in the Upper Peninsula and for the state as a whole.

UPMurderThe Michigan Bestseller list is compiled from 16 bookstores: Aunt Agatha’s New & Used Mysteries, Between the Covers, Blue Frog Books, Bookbug, Book World Marquette, Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, First Edition Too, Happy Owl Bookshop, Island Bookstore, Kazoo Books, McLean & Eakin, Michigan News Agency, North Wind Books, Saturn Booksellers, Schuler Books, and Snowbound Books.  (The Michigan Bestseller List is sponsored by Arbutus Press,

1) Charlie LeDuff – Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Books)  [last month #1]

2) Kelly O’Connor McNees – The Island of Doves (Berkley Trade)  [last month #9]

3) Jerry Dennis — The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (St. Martin’s Griffin)

4) Tobin T. Buhk — Michigan’s Strychnine Saint: The Curious Case of Mrs. Mary Mcknight (The History Press)

4) Michael R. Federspiel – Little Traverse Bay, Past and Present (Painted Turtle/Wayne State University Press)

4) Tom Rath — StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Gallup Press)

7) A.J. Baime — The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

8) Ellen Airgood — South of Superior (Riverhead Trade) [last month #11]

9) John Green — The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Books)

10) Daniel Silva — The Heist: A Novel (Harper)

11) Dr. John J. Agria and Mary A. Agria — Bay View (Arcadia Publishing)

12) Robert Archibald – Northern Border: History and Lore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Beyond (NMU Press)

13) Steve Hamilton – Let It Burn: An Alex McKnight Novel (Minotaur Books) [last month #2]

14) P.J. Parrish–Heart of Ice (Pocket Books)

15) Stuart Dybek – Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)


The U.P. bestseller list is compiled from: Book World Marquette, Falling Rock Café and Bookstore, First Edition Too, North Wind Books, and Snowbound Books.  (The U.P. Bestseller List is sponsored by Arbutus Press,

1) Charlie LeDuff – Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Books)

2) Ellen Airgood – South of Superior (Riverhead Trade)  [last month #2]

3) Robert Archibald – Northern Border: History and Lore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Beyond (NMU Press)  [last month tied #10]

4) Joseph Heywood – Killing a Cold One: a Woods Cop Mystery (Lyons Press)

5) DeLorme Mapping Company – Michigan Atlas and Gazetteer (DeLorme Publishing)

6) Todd Clements – Haunts of Mackinac: Ghost Stories, Legends, & Tragic Tales of Mackinac Island (House of Hawthorne Publishing)

7) Bonnie Jo Campbell – Once Upon a River: A Novel (W.W. Norton & Company)

8) Sonny Longtine – Murder in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (The History Press)

9) Dennis Cawthorne – Mackinac Island: Inside, Up Close and Personal (Arbutus Press)

10) Loren Graham – Face in the Rock: The Tale of a Grand Island Chippewa (University of California Press) – [last month #7]

10) P.J. Parrish – Dead of Winter (Pinnacle)

12) Holling C. Holling – Paddle-to-the-Sea (HMH Books for Young Readers)

13) Kathy-Jo Wargin – The Legend of Mackinac Island (Sleeping Bear Press)

14) Jerry Dennis — The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas (St. Martin’s Griffin)

15) Mary Casanova – One-Dog Canoe (Square Fish Books/Macmillan)

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