Watch a reading of Donna Hoke’s ‘The Spirit of Buffalo’ taped in warmer times

So even though it’s not even Thanksgiving yet, our friends in Buffalo are already buried in a mountain of snow. We here at GLR thought maybe posting a reading from “The Spirit of Buffalo” by Donna Hoke, which was performed in Buffalo during our summer tour (remember summer!), might warm that great city’s spirits.

And for those of you in Buffalo riding out the storms, maybe this will be something to watch to help with the cabin fever.

So without further adieu:

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Munising, Michigan: Chicks with Picks


MunisingI’m not a climber.

I married into a family of climbers. Ice climbers.

Ice Fest in Munising, Michigan is their annual family event.

In Pictured Rocks State Park along Lake Superior, there are waterfalls. Water cascades over rocks and trees deep in the woods; water bursts over cliffs and pours down into the largest Great Lake; water spurts beside highways. Water falls everywhere, for half the year, anyway. The other half, the water is frozen solid. Delightful, laughing waterfalls become a thirty or fifty-foot wall of solid, unforgiving ice. Or a round pillar of ice. Or a combination of rock and ice, hanging in large downward spires, threatening to jab you in the head as you walk by.

When I had been dating my Yooper boyfriend for six months, he drove me from our home in Chicago up to Ice Fest. I was overwhelmed by the energy: the whole town of Munising overrun by axe-wielding, Frankenstein-boot-kicking, ramped-up climbers. YAAAAAAAH EEEEEHHHHHH???

I joined the women’s climbing clinic, “Chicks with Picks,” taught by two world-class climbers, Sue Nott and Zoe Hart.

Early in the morning of the climb, we gathered at Ice Fest headquarters: Sydney’s (a restaurant with an Australian theme, which somehow fits the U.P.). I was terrified that I would fall to my death from fifty feet up, or worse – that I wouldn’t be able to get off the ground at all.

We loaded our gear and tromped downstairs to the waiting van. About 20 miles outside of town, we pulled off to a side road next to a fence with a farmhouse and a barn 100 yards beyond. Everything was white. We hauled out gear and started the trek across a large field of snow to where the trees began. The forest was silent with fresh snow on the branches and ground to muffle all sound. We followed a narrow trail, ascending gradually. My confidence was growing by the minute. This was my element. I loved the outdoors in winter. I loved snow and ice and the cold wind. What had I been so worried about?

After a mile, we emerged onto a cliff before a clearing. One by one we saddled up to the edge to look down over the frozen waterfall. It was a long way. The ropes – one purple, one red – wound around trees at the top near us and dangled over, coiling on the flat, snow-covered floor.

At the bottom, Sue gave us a brief demonstration on the ice, teaching the whole way. Make sure to keep three points on the wall at all times. Use your bigger muscles – your legs.  If you hack away too much and try to pull yourself up by your arms, you’re going to tire yourself out.  She pointed out how our bodies are built differently from guys – our stronger muscles are in our legs – so use them. “Keep your hips close to the wall,” she said, “Push with your bush!”

Without a belayer, she climbed the wall with the grace and exuberance of a kid scrambling up a backyard hill. It looked so easy. We watched and cheered when she got to the top.  Then she climbed down and faced us.  “OK, who’s first?”

“I’ll do it,” I said, and approached Sue’s rope. “There you go,” she said.  I took off the down jacket, put on the helmet, tied into the harness and approached the wall.  “On belay?” I called back.  “Belay on,” she replied. “Climbing,” I said. “Climb on,” she answered.

I inhaled and stepped forward. A few inches from my face, the blue ice smelled clean, like wind. I could hear water trickling inside. Panic rose in my chest. I’m climbing a top rope, I reminded myself.  I’m safe.  I knew this was true.  Even if I climbed up halfway and fell, I would dangle in my harness on the top rope.

“There’s a good foothold on your right,” Sue called to me, “Step up on it.” I looked down and saw a natural formation in the ice that made a small step. I’d imagined the wall would be flat, that I would have to use the picks and the toes of my crampons to dig and kick my way up. But actually, the waterfall was frozen with natural footholds and shelves. I followed Sue’s instructions. “Good,” she said, “Now swing your right axe.”  I did. There was a thunk above my head.  “Now your left axe. Kick in with your left boot.”  I did and found myself in a squatting position, with my right foot resting on ice, both axes in the ice above my head, and the toe of my left crampon firmly in the ice.  I had no idea what to do next.

“Stand up,” Sue said.

“Stand up?”

“Stand up.”

Against all logic, I put my weight in my legs and stood. My crampons held. And there I was, two feet above the ground, in the ice.

I’m ice climbing!

I didn’t get to the top that time. My arms turned to butter about ten feet up. I fell a lot groping up those ten feet, but the rope held. I would replace my crampons and try again. Try again became my mantra that day, and eventually I did make it to the top, to the cheers of my fellow climbers below.

Later that afternoon, we hiked out of the woods in the dusk, pink light glowing across the white field. Back at the hotel, exhausted and exhilarated, we celebrated with warm whiskey and the hotel whirlpool and the satisfaction of having ascended the impossible.

 Felicia Schneiderhan used to live on a boat in Lake Michigan. Now she lives on the North Shore of Lake Superior with her husband and three small tsunamis.

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Bestseller Spotlight: Mardi Jo Link

Mardi Jo Link’s memoir Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm was #14 on the Michigan Bestseller List in October. She spoke to us about some of her other projects, too.

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

Wicked Takes the Witness Stand is the true account of a botched murder investigation and the crushing wave of criminal trials that swept up several innocent men up.  In Dec. of 1986, an oilfield worker was found frozen in the back of his pick-up truck in downtown Gaylord. Because of a botched autopsy, a tunnel vision police investigation, a blindly ambitious prosecution, and one extremely crazy so-called witness, five men went to prison for something that was probably a drug overdose.  If you go to Gaylord today and ask about this case, most people will say the men beat a murder rap. They didn’t, they were innocent and their lives were ruined. That’s why I wrote the book.

After my other two crime books, When Evil Came to Good Hart (2008), and Isadore’s Secret (2009) were published, people started contacting me about other unsolved crimes. Police officers, victims, attorneys, etc. This one really grabbed me because of the complexity of the court case and because of how long their defense attorneys worked to vindicate the five men. It took me several years to write and I have to warn readers, the redemption in it is very small.

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

I was born in Detroit, grew up in various Michigan cities – Flint, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Bay City – and studied journalism at Michigan State University. I worked as a newspaper reporter in New England, then moved back to Michigan when I was ready to start a family. I live in Traverse City now, and can’t imagine ever wanting to live anywhere else.

Describe your writing process?

I’m a workhorse. I try to write every day. I’m also an insomniac and the two fit together quite nicely (she said sleepily). I prefer to work on only one project at a time, but that isn’t always possible. I have a memoir out in paperback, Bootstrapper, just turned in a second memoir, The Drummond Girls (about an annual trip to Drummond Island), which will be published sometime in 2015, and I write a column for my local paper, the Traverse City Record-Eagle. I’m thinking I might want to try fiction . . .

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

It would have to be Hemingway. The Nick Adams stories just ooze with love for Michigan and because no one else can say so much with such plain, unadorned language.  I also like Thomas Lynch, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Steve Luxenberg, Anne-Marie Oomen, Ander Monson, and Elmore Leonard.

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Michigan Bestseller list for October 2014

BDFor October 2014, the largest rise on the Michigan Bestseller List was John Pollack’s Shortcut, debuting at the #1 slot.  Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit has its fifth consecutive month on the bestseller list.

1) John Pollack—Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas (Gotham) [highest debut]

2) Debbie Diesen—The Pout-Pout Fish (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

3) Eric James—A Halloween Scare in Michigan (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky) [last month #12]

4) Dan Mishkin–Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation into the Kennedy Assassination (Abrams Books)

5) Andrea Hannah—Of Scars and Stardust (Flux)

6) Charlie LeDuff—Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Books) [last month #9; fifth month on the list]

7) Kate Bassett–Words & Their Meanings (Flux) [last month #2]

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

9) W. Bruce Cameron—The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man (Macmillan/Tor/Forge Books)

9) Julie Lawson Timmer–Five Days Left (Putnam Adult) [last month #3]

11) Thomas R. Dilley—The Art of Memory: Historic Cemeteries of Grand Rapids, Michigan (Wayne State University Press) [last month #11]

12) John Green—Fault in Our Stars (Dutton Books) [last month #8]

13) John S. Haeussler–Hancock (Arcadia Publishing) [last month #14]

14) Mardi Jo Link—Bootstrapper: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm (Vintage)

15) Tom Rath—StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Gallup Press)

This list was compiled from 19 participating bookstores: 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 Bug (3019 Oakland Dr, Kalamazoo;, 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;, 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;, Squirreled Away Books (22985 W Main St, Armada;, Up North Books (3362 Interstate 75 Business Spur, Sault Ste. Marie;


1) Charlie LeDuff—Detroit: An American Autopsy (Penguin Books) [last month #1; fourth month at the #1 spot]

2) John S. Haeussler–Hancock (Arcadia Publishing) [last month #3]

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

4) Joseph Heywood–Killing a Cold One (Lyons Press) [last month #5]

5) Todd Clements–Haunts of Mackinac: Ghost Stories, Legends, & Tragic Tales of Mackinac Island (House of Hawthorne Publishing) [last month #9]

6) Robert Archibald–Northern Border: History and Lore of the Upper Peninsula and Beyond (Northern Michigan University Press) [last month #5; fifth month on the list]

6) Melanie Dobson–Love Finds You in Mackinac Island, Michigan (Summerside) [last month #13]

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

9) Jim Harrison–Brown Dog (Grove Press) [last month tied #11]

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

10) Tom North–Mackinac Island (Arcadia Publishing) [highest debut]

12) Abe Sauer–Goodnight Loon (University of Minnesota Press)

13) Jerome Pohlen–Oddball Michigan: A Guide to 450 Really Strange Places (Chicago Review Press)

13) Michael Schumacher–November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913 (University of Minnesota Press)

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

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


This list was complied from 7 storesBook 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;, and Up North Books (3362 Interstate 75 Business Spur, Sault Ste. Marie;

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Announcing the 1st Annual Great Lakes Poetry Prize

Stolen_imageHave a sonnet for Lake Superior? A Lake Erie epic? An ode to Lake Ontario? A Lake Michigan hymn? We’re pleased to announce that we’re hosting the first ever Great Lakes Poetry Prize contest. Submissions are open until Dec. 31, 2014. Details here:

1)  Three Great Lakes Poetry Prizes will be awarded each to a single poem written about the Great Lakes region or written by a poet from the Great Lakes region: First Place will receive $500; Second Place $250; and Third Place $100. All three poems will be published in the spring 2015 issue of the Great Lakes Review.

2)  We tend to consider the “Great Lakes region” to mean the Canadian-American vicinity including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ontario, but we’re prepared to be convinced otherwise.

3)  Send up to three poems per entry, each poem beginning on a new page. All lengths, styles, and forms are welcome. Multiple entries by a single poet are accepted, but each group of three poems must be treated as a separate entry with its own $10.00 entry fee.

4)  All entries to the Great Lakes Poetry Prize will be considered for publication at Great Lakes Review.

5)  All poems submitted for consideration must be previously unpublished. Simultaneous submissions are allowed, but please notify Great Lakes Review immediately should any poems be accepted elsewhere.

6)  Please include all pertinent contact information in the cover letter you submit here at Submittable and remove any identifying information from the poems that you submit.

7)  Final judge is poet and literary critic Robert Archambeau, whose works include Citation Suite, Home and Variations, Laureates and Heretics, and The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, in addition to a number of edited collections.

8)  Deadline for submissions at Submittable is December 31, 2014.

Submit here. 


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Ann Arbor, Michigan: A Love Letter to Woody Plants


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

APpicTo the woman in the parking lot of the park, who has found me crushing leaves, smelling them, and looking at the willows: I am giddy because I have identified a poison sumac. It grows on the trail by the water. They happen in Southeastern Michigan, and here are some ways to tell: Shrub or small tree; leaflets compound, sessile, with scarlet midribs; drupes white, persisting in winter.

I have been learning the names of woody plants this fall thanks to a special course at the college in town, a historic course, and sometimes I am overwhelmed with the trees. The distinctions between oaks, the tips of their leaves sometimes bristled, their buds sometimes tomentose, their acorns brimmed with fringe, where they are and aren’t on a hill. And the maples. “Something like Acer,” the graduate instructor says of them, meaning something common, mundane, easy to define. Silver, red, sugar, and box elder, they do their own thing. Thankfully, the Hawthorns one cannot tell apart, by the species at least. They have a thorny, suckering habit. They are part of one another. It is true that they have thorns and haws.

The shrubs that creep and climb beneath, I had not noticed. The vines with their special lifestyle, a specialist explains. They adapt; survive in high winds; have special structures. Sometimes, they get a bad rep. A man comes to talk about soil, its micro-biome with elements that outnumber stars. He throws acorns at the students to get their attention. A student asks how we could count the stars; the man explains.

I drive to somewhere by Highland Township, and towards Detroit, and to the border with Ohio, to find the right plants. There are places in Ann Arbor I had not considered. Their glacial features. The forest changes. A place that felt common, felt familiar, is not the same place. I’ve only visited the class for weeks, which is to say, I know not much at all. Still, that is all it takes to make the forest strange and lovely, a place to touch and explore.

Often the forest is a backdrop. Now, as I walk and scan the paths for bark patterns, and then the understory, the leaves on everything, the way they move with wind, I become the backdrop to the forest. By the end, my senses have exhausted, and I listen. It is the time of year when I can hear the acorns drop, a time of year I hadn’t noticed until now. I am not particularly spiritual, but I am quiet. I think: Once I was an addict. Maybe I still am.

In the Mary Karr memoir Lit, she conveys a familiar situation. When in traffic, inching bit by bit, we don’t think of ourselves as it. Traffic is the other humans. Prickles, spines, thorns, I touch plants with all of them. What else can we learn from the woods? I crush leaves, I rub at bud scales.

There’s a saying that encapsulates advice for winter identification, after the leaves have dropped: “Trust the bud.” My instinct is to walk away from the forest, the way it’s changed me in weeks. My instinct is not to trust it. I am hoping instead to find a place where I can. A forest in town, perhaps.

Anna Prushinskaya’s writing has appeared in Redivider and Sonora Review, and on The Millions and Vol. 1 Brooklyn, among other places. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and she is also the Midwest editor of Joyland Magazine. Find out even more about her here:


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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)


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.

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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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