Category Archives: Interviews

“Tangents Are The Point” Q & A with Milwaukee author Todd Lazarski

Todd at a Dunkirk social club

Todd at a Dunkirk social club

Q&A with Milwaukee author Todd Lazarski as he romanticizes and sometimes denigrates: Chris Paul; sarcasm’s hidden kindness; self-destruction as research; necessary meanness in food writing; and thoughts of his father, dead at 39

BY JUSTIN KERN

Todd Lazarski, 33, quietly compartmentalizes his obsessions, sort of shadowboxes that he knows have to see sun, even if it’s when they’re getting tossed. Inside-turned-out, Todd found relief in the release of his first novel, “Make the Road by Walking” (June 2016, on Cleveland’s Red Giant Books), a familiar-feeling journal across the Midwest, New Orleans and California. He has realized personal space as a “fat guy” – pretend or otherwise – devouring the world 10 dinners at a time, in Rio de Janeiro, Buffalo and Milwaukee, in pieces for Paste, TimeOut, Shepherd Express and Milwaukee Record. His next exposition will be a second novel, “Spend It All”, a reckoning of idiotic youth with whatever the hell it is that compels us to trudge ahead and try into near adulthood, chicken finger sub in hand (you can read an excerpt here; he’s currently playing matchmaker with a publisher).

I met Todd a few years ago due to the Buffalo Bills, the team of our respective home fields in western New York though we had both been transplanted to Milwaukee. Along with the yeoman’s bliss from running back Fred Jackson, we shared Jim Harrison and Stanley Elkin books, and realized it’d be easier to be friends than to tough it out as isolated fans. This past December, we went on a road trip for readings at the marvelous Mac’s Books in Cleveland and a book release in Buffalo. These acts pulled Todd further from internalized roiling over writing and out into its small but not-always-wretched public aspects. The following unabashedly long-form Q&A is an extrapolation on that tangent – a dialogue of poignancy and personal jabs, edited (honestly!) for flow, from two nights in early March in Milwaukee.

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The Love Boat: Writer recounts getting hitched while living on Lake Michigan

The author and a tiny crew member.

The author and a tiny crew member.

A young woman in the big city meets a fella, they fall in love and get married. It sounds like a familiar formula. But the guy happens to live on a boat. And we’re not talking like the quirky dude who lives on a boat in a movie or television show, the guy who never seems to have to do any work to the boat or is ever actually seen taking it out on the water. Where the boat is symbol for a carefree, exotic existence. 

No, Felicia Schniederhan‘s newest memoir, “Newlyweds Afloat: Married Bliss and Mechanical Breakdowns While Living Aboard a Trawler”( Breakaway Books)  chronicles all the elbow grease that goes into a life on the water. When she meets her husband-to-be, the writer is a young scribe about town in Chicago living as most city-dwellers do, in a sensible apartment. But as love brings them closer together, the boat becomes home. And, as the memoir attests, it’s not a carefree existence at all. There’s the limited space. The cold winters on the water. The pumps that break. The six-minute showers because of the lack of hot water. The geese attacks. Yes, GEESE ATTACKS. 

The result is a fun journey on the sea of marriage throughout all its waves and calm waters.  (See an excerpt beneath the interview)

We had a chance to catch up with Schniederhan, who know resides in Duluth, Minnesota with her husband and three children. Schniederhan is also a contributor to our Narrative Map essay series.  

What is your background?

I grew up on the Mississippi River. I first met the Great Lakes when I moved to Evanston, IL to go to Northwestern University when I was 18. I was terribly depressed in college and would go on long, wandering walks, usually by the lakefront. The image of a tiny downtown Chicago to the south, and this huge expanse of Lake Michigan in front of me, was very comforting: the city and suburbs weren’t so big; nature was still the boss.

I majored in theater and women’s studies at Northwestern. When I graduated, I had no idea what to do. I took a year to work at a Whole Foods. I was writing a lot. I figured what the hell, let’s go get an MFA in fiction writing (can’t make a living as an actor, why not try being a writer?).  Writing was something I always did, from the time I was 11 years old. So I got an MFA at Columbia College Chicago.

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

When I married Mark and moved onboard, I wanted to write about the experience to my dad, who was fascinated by living on a boat. There were a lot of other people, too, who wanted to know about it. So I decided to start a blog. Blogs were rather new at that time (2006). New-ish. I didn’t even have a digital camera, and the first entries had no images to go with them. Just brief excerpts of boat life. (There was no shortage of stuff to write about.)  Pretty soon I realized people were reading the blog. Other boaters would talk to me about it. Someone Googled how to pump out their sewage tank, and my blog came up – it’s a point of pride that they learned how to pump out their crap from my blog. Boaters at docks would look at me kind of strange, then admit they read the blog. I realized people knew more about us than I thought.

Around this time, I was working as a freelance writer, pitching articles to editors. As a clip, I would give them the link to the blog. I wasn’t sure how editors would react to blogs, if they were considered legit. But inevitably the editor would come back to me and say, “We don’t want the story idea you pitched us, but can you give us this blog entry…?”  So I started writing articles from the blog.

When we moved to land in Northern Minnesota and the experience ended, I realized there was a complete story arc, and a book. So I started honing down the blog – I printed out the whole thing and began editing, shaping, seeing what was missing. I had to write a lot about the beginning of the relationship, since I never blogged about it. And then towards the end, when I was looking at the entire book, I realized there was a really important aspect of that time completely missing – so I wrote “A Boat from Temperance.”

The author's husband, Mark, dealing with a maritime mishap.

The author’s husband, Mark, dealing with a maritime mishap.

 

So what’s it like living on a boat?

Fun!  Stressful and unnerving, always interesting. It’s a gift to be able to live in nature no matter where you are, even downtown Chicago. It was simpler, in a lot of ways – we had less room, so we couldn’t have as much stuff. Now we’ve got a four-bedroom house and way too many piles.

 How is living on a boat more difficult in a big city like Chicago?

Well, I never lived on a boat in a small town, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to.  The advantages in Chicago are that there are many harbors to choose from in the summer, and because there are more people overall, there are more people who want to live on their boats year-round (like 10). Year-round liveaboards formed a great community, the “River Rats,” and we would all go to the River City Marina in the winter, since that marina kept their services (water and pump-out) working all year. The River Rats really helped each other out.

In Chicago, there are also a lot more amenities for people on the water – like restaurants you can cruise up to. And boaters are outside the boundaries, in a lot of ways, so we could do things under the radar, like just dock downtown and spend the night, or throw down an anchor in front of the John Hancock building and sleep out.

You have a chapter about geese-attacks. What are some other scary moments you encountered while living on the boat?

My first winter aboard we spent a weekend in the U.P. climbing ice, and when we got back to Chicago we found that the Chicago River had frozen, locking the boat in ice. The experience is detailed in “Surviving Shackleton’s Endurance.” (Which is excerpted below).  That was dangerous because the ice could have cracked the hull, or the engine would have frozen, or pipes could have burst. Luckily we were able to get things up and running again within a couple days. But it was a terrifying couple days (and I really wanted to bolt – but I learned to stay).

You talk a little bit in the book about how living on the boat may have caused problems in your marriage, where you were kind of second billing to the boat your husband was fixing up. What other ways did living on the boat affect your blossoming marriage?

Because we were in such close proximity, it was hard to hide anything. Like anybody, I had my own issues that I brought to the marriage, and such tight quarters brought everything out in the open – resulting in really good changes for me. (I write about it in “A Boat from Temperance.”)  Living on the boat also taught us how to work together, as partners (which has been great preparation for parenting three small kids).

What are your favorite nautical books or writers that inspired you while working on this project?

I loved Guy de Maupassant’s book about sailing, Afloat.  Libby Hill’s book The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History was always really helpful – it was like our neighborhood phone book.  And Julie Buckles’s memoir Paddling to Winter is a fascinating story about a different kind of newlywed boat trip – paddling 2,000 miles with her husband Charly from Lake Superior all the way up to the middle of Canada.

What’s next for you? What else are you working on?

I’m working on a novel about elite climbers. Climbing is not something I do well, but I really admire people who have the drive and the ability and the grace to achieve what seems impossible. I’m interested in the emotional lives of climbers, their intimate relationships.

An excerpt from Newlyweds Afloat: “Surviving Shackleton’s Endurance” 

When I told people I would be moving aboard my new husband Mark’s boat just after our September 30 wedding, initial reactions ranged from “That’s so romantic,” to “Can you do that in Chicago?” Then they would ask, “What about winter?”

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 2.43.57 PM“We live on the boat,” I would tell them.

“No, seriously,” they’d say.

I would explain like I knew what I was talking about: “There’s a heater, and Mark rigged up a furnace. It’s insulated, and he wraps the whole top in plastic. There’s a bubbler to keep the water circulating around the boat.”

They would look at me like I was crazy. “This is Chicago,” they would remind me.

I would shrug. “Mark’s done it for two years.”

I started dating Mark during his second winter on board and even spent some January nights on Mazurka. It seemed like he had worked out most of the bugs of a winter aboard, so I felt confident that the freezing Chicago temperatures would not be our biggest challenge in our newlywed year.

But let’s be honest: Before you spend a winter living aboard, you have no idea what you’re signing up for.

In early February we drove to the UP for the annual Ice Fest, a long weekend of cross-country skiing and climbing frozen waterfalls in subzero temperatures.

You have to really love the cold to want to climb ice. It requires putting on several layers of clothing, procuring the necessary gear (harness, crampons, ice axes, a helmet), and hiking out to a frozen waterfall. Walls of ice are unforgiving, and don’t much care how fit you are or how far you drive to climb them—they are cold and foreboding and will stand firm no matter how much ice you chip off in your attempt to scale the wall and conquer it.

We were exhilarated Sunday night, driving back to Chicago, counting down the temperatures (“Now it’s eight below!”). We returned from a weekend climbing ice to find . . . ice. It was something neither of us had ever seen. The Chicago River was completely frozen over, with geese like new penguins sliding around on the interlocking triangles of dark black ice. The River City Marina was solid; ice closed in on Mazurka’s hull so that it resembled Shackleton’s Endurance at the South Pole in 1915.

We opened up the door to find a frigid tomb. Inside, the cabin temperature was twenty-eight degrees—everything was frozen, including all the faucets, pipes, olive oil, shampoo, and contents of the refrigerator. It felt like an abandoned ghost ship, save for Hunter and Leo, their fur puffed up, looking a bit shell-shocked and thirsty—their water dish was a solid block.

I called my ex-husband (I had asked him to watch the cats over the weekend). When he came aboard Saturday afternoon, everything was fine. We deduced that sometime in the previous twenty-four hours, the Mermaid heater had stopped working, probably when the river temperature became so cold that the water inlet froze and the heater could no longer pull in warm water to heat the boat. The Toyoset furnace (which Mark had just begun fueling with kerosene, before solving the diesel issue) roared through the fuel in less than a day and also quit.

“This is my worst nightmare,” Mark said. He started the engine—the quickest way he could think to warm things up. (We never winterized the boat because we always kept it warm; maybe a day more and the engine would have frozen.)

We heard the terrible crack of a pipe breaking; thankfully it was just the drinking water filter under the sink. Expensive, but not dire. We stayed up till 1 a.m., when the cabin temperature had risen to forty-two degrees, then went to bed on an ice-cold mattress over the water tanks, which were probably frozen, too.

While I love climbing frozen waterfalls as much as the next girl, I like it even more when I know at the end of the day, we’re going to hike back to civilization and back to the hotel, where there’s hot soup and coffee and a sauna and whirlpool. Driving eight hours back to Chicago, I was looking forward to a luxurious six-minute shower, some clean clothes, and a warm bed. Instead, we lay down on a block of ice wearing the same three layers of clothing and hats and coats we’d worn all weekend. I tried to be grateful that I had a roof over my head when there were plenty of people sleeping under cardboard. It was all I could do not to break down sobbing.

“I feel like throwing up,” I told my husband in the darkness. He agreed. It was the first time in four months I thought maybe living on Mazurka wasn’t such a great idea.

The next morning we fretted about living aboard without water. We considered which friends we could stay with. Mark said he would stay on Mazurka to make sure she was okay. I wanted to put my cats in the car and drive three hours to my parents’ house till things heated up, but I thought again; I was married now—I would stick by my husband.

Purchase the book at Amazon. 

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Andrea Scarpino, new U.P. poet laureate: ‘My desire is to get poetry out into the community’

Michigan doesn’t have an official, state-supported poet laureate.

ScarpinoBut a grassroots campaign has created a position in the Upper Peninsula.

Andrea Scarpino was recently named the poet laureate of the U.P. for 2015-2017. She succeeds Russell Thorburn, the first laureate who served 2013-2015.

The public had a chance to vote Scarpino in as poet laureate at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters website.

Scarpino is the author of Once,Then, a collection of poems published in March 2014 by Red Hen Press and The Grove Behind, published by Finishing Line Press in 2009. She teaches in Union Institute and University’s Cohort Ph.D. Program in Interdisciplinary Studies where she is the Creative Dissertation Coordinator, Coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing, and Director of the Master of Arts Program.

The Great Lakes Review had a chance to ask Scarpino a few questions recently:

1. What is your background? Where did you grow up, schooling, etc.?

I’ve lived all over the US, mostly in the Midwest, and one year in France. But I’ve lived in the UP for almost five years.

2. How/when did you first start reading/writing poetry?

I don’t really know when I first started reading and writing poetry, but I have poems that I dictated to my mother before I could write—she typed them on her typewriter—and I remember being in love with Shel Silverstein from a very early age. In high school, I discovered Emily Dickinson and my love affair was official.

3. How does the Upper Peninsula influence your work?

When I moved to Los Angeles, my poetry started containing all of these references to fire and heat and desert—and of course, to the Pacific Ocean. Since I’ve moved to Marquette, I’ve started writing a lot about ice and snow and winter and deer and red pine trees—and of course, about Lake Superior! I’ve always loved the water and have spent most of my life living near big bodies of water, so Lake Superior is probably the most important influence.

4. How did it feel to be named the U.P. Laureate?

I’m delighted to be named UP Poet Laureate! I’ve only lived here for 5 years, so I’m delighted to have been so embraced by the writing community here.

5. What are your plans as laureate?

I have so many ideas! Too many, probably. I’m actually starting a crowdfunding campaign next week to help raise some money to fund some of my ideas. One of the things I’m most excited about is building a Free Little Poetry Library that could move to different locations in the UP. It’s going to launch outside the DeVos Art Museum in Marquette the week of June 20, which is our Art Week, but I’m hoping I can move it to other communities around the UP as the summer continues. Basically, it will be a mini-library filled with poetry that people can borrow from as they please—and hopefully contribute to! My desire is to get poetry out into the community as part of daily life, not as something that only special people can do or understand in special places, but as something that we all can celebrate and read and write. Poetry is a part of my daily life, and I want to help it become more of a daily presence in the UP.  Also as part of Art Week, I’m collaborating on an event with the Children’s Museum, and with the Marquette Food Co-op (were going to be doing food odes!) so that week will be really fun. I have a few other readings scheduled throughout the summer as well, including one at Bayliss Public Library (in the Sault) at 7 p.m. on June 11 with several other UP writers. I’m very excited for my tenure to begin!

 

 

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TOUGH, MAGIC, REGIONAL: An interview with Julie Babcock

INTERVIEW BY MEREDITH COUNTS

When I talked with poet Julie Babcock this winter she was finishing the semester teaching at the University of Michigan, excited about starting a new journal, and enjoying the events surrounding the November 2014 release of Autoplay (MG Press) her debut book of poems. The poems in Autoplay describe Midwestern territory defined by American history, local landmarks, and the narrator’s imaginative leaps that take us from Ohio to Wonderland and Valhalla while exploring the too real hazards of growing up female. Jeff Pfaller, an editor at MG Press, is drawn to “her notion that if you call the Midwest home, your past becomes something you want to run from but ultimately cannot shake. It becomes something you wish you could transform, but is indelibly tied to place.” When she came to chat, Babcock was charming and fiercely thoughtful, and very polite about the aggressive flavor of the well water at my house. If you’re at AWP in Minneapolis this year, check out Babcock’s Saturday panel, “Who We Are in the Creative Writing Classroom: Interventions in the Craft vs. Context Fight.” She’ll be reading at Lyon’s Pub that night for MG Press. - Meredith Counts, Managing Editor, Great Lakes Review

GLR: What’s happened since the book has come out?

BabcockJB: I was thinking about my younger self, and those visions that when you have your first book everything is going to change, knowing even as I was creating that fantasy that it wasn’t true. It’s been fun to realize how wrong my fantasy was. I’m teaching every day, and taking care of my son. Inside that are a few readings here and there… Life continues as it does and writing is a practice more than a product.

It doesn’t really change my daily world view except I feel a little bit more part of the poetry community and when I go to AWP I’ll be at a couple of book tables and events.

It’s taken so long for this book to come out that I’m working on several other writing projects. I’m hoping to read in my hometown this summer, that’s in the works.

 GLR: To take Ohio back to Ohio. Will it be like when you translate a translation, that it might not even be recognizable to the people that it’s about?

JB: I’m really curious! I grew up in this small town and never moved until college. I haven’t been back in ten years, even though it’s only three hours from where I am now. I had school friends from Mount Vernon who I see on Facebook bought the book – maybe people who don’t read a lot of poetry but are still living in that place. I wonder how they’ll experience the book, I hope it’s a good experience.

GLR: Anything that gets anyone buying poetry can’t be bad.

One of the things I really like in these poems is this contrast between the regionalism, these really concrete places, like the Big Boy or the graveyard where kids eat ice cream, but then you have Oz and Wonderland, and fantasy characters like Johnny Appleseed,  Jonah and the Whale. Is that trying to put some magic into the real place?

JB: I definitely am. Part of my experience growing up in Ohio was fairly – I don’t want to say banal, but there’s this – flatness. This everyday, day-to-day living that was not presumptious in any way. You got up, you had a job to do, you did it, you came home and went to bed. In Central Ohio there aren’t as many models of difference or otherness as in a big city.

 GLR: So you get those models, as a kid, from books instead?

JB: Yes! Books can be really abstract and out there. Like, I’m on track in a really clear way, or I’m in outer space, or I’m inside a whale. (Laughs)

 GLR You said that having the book come out makes you feel a little more connected to the poetry community, and people have great stuff to say, do you feel like you fit in with a school of writers? Are people doing same things that you relate to?

JB: This notion of poetry schools and affiliations, hanging out with poets has helped me to understand that I can be obsessed with what I am, that I don’t need to worry about how it connects to ideas about poetry, and that strangely enough that brings me closer to the conversations that they’re having rather than if I made some theorist move to situate myself.

 GLR: It sounds like that allows you to commit to your own voice whether it snaps into place with someone else’s dogma.

JB: Yes. Part of my teaching is getting students to listen to their own concerns, pay attention to those and figure out what they’re curious about to broaden that conversation and understand “I am a part of this conversation and I want to know how this works.” My journey as a poet has strangely been to become more conscious of what I’m particularly doing so I can see the way my work resonates with what other poets are doing, rather than the other way around.

 GLR: You’re publishing fiction, too. Did you study both?Autoplay

JB: I did! I’ve always written poetry and fiction. I’ve always loved writing. I taught myself to read from Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” I have that book memorized still, I performed those poems. I won a second grade talent show for performing “Paul Bunyan” in overalls and a flannel shirt… there was a grainy picture in the Mount Vernon News.

Anyway, I got an MFA in poetry and went on to do a PhD in Fiction at University of Illinois Chicago. A lot of places where they have Creative Writing PhDs, writing is separated from lit studies. At UIC there are workshops but there’s a huge literature component. So I have graduate degrees in both.

 GLR:  I saw on the University of Michigan website that one of your interests is Women’s Studies. Let’s talk about that in terms of AUTOPLAY, because you have some delightful and tough girl and women characters here.

JB: That idea of being set up in an established system, a daily thing that you’re supposed to take for granted and not question, is something that can be really devastating when you’re not in a position of power.

GLR: Like, to be told “you’re a girl, here’s your girl things, go do girl activities”

JB: Right. Or these are things you just have to put up with, these are realities of your life as a woman or girl. And then trying to imagine outside of that is double challenging. I think the poems in here where girls, mostly, are experiencing some kind of violence whether it’s sexual or an uneasy kind of familial structure. Giving voice to that tension really concerns me. Thinking about, how do you live in a small town or place with expectations on how power in relationships is supposed to go.

GLR: Tell me about the process of putting AUTOPLAY together. A lot of the poems have appeared in journals, and I know the title changed, and I heard you say at a reading at Literati Books in Ann Arbor that an editor suggested you add more poems.

JB: It’s hard for me to say how long I’ve been working on this book, because I’m not sure how long it has been this book and when it was an earlier, different project.

The earliest poems in there are the persona poems, I’ve always been attracted to that form. So there’s one in there about Alice in Wonderland, one about Pinocchio. Those are older pieces, then skipping some time to about four years ago my brother graduated from Ohio State and John Glenn was the speaker. At that point I was really thinking about astronauts, and I was sitting in the stadium, trying to amuse myself as graduation went on and on, and I was thinking about the phrase “Astronaut Ohio.” I came up with that phrase and concept at my brother’s graduation, listening to John Glenn, and it was at that moment that I really understood what kind of collection I was writing and that it was much more about place than I thought.

Those earlier poems with Pinocchio and Alice were sort of place-less, their stories from two different countries.

GLR: The finished book is very rooted in place.

JB: That was an important shift for me. And that was how I got the original title, Astronaut Ohio. Then I changed it because editors really liked the collection, but said a title about Ohio was too specific. It seems strange because we experience place in a literal way but also in a psychological way that’s much more united across different localities. While I see this book as being about Ohio, in the shorthand, I also see it as being about a more general place where you’re trying to see more options and having a difficult time bring those options and your reality together.

The magical jumps that all human beings are capable of fascinate me, and fill me with a lot of hope, the ways we create and recreate things.

 GLR: A lot of these characters seem like they’re looking to get away or they’re looking for more? I think that translates to anyone who’s grown up in a small town worldwide, grown up with expectations. You might not have a Big Boy in town, you might not have the same regional touchstones, but the need for more translates.

JB Christina Olson was my editor and she was really helpful with this work. She had suggestions about reordering some of the poems at the end of the book, and asking me for more. I added three poems – two are erasures, the only two of that form in the collection.

The end poem was originally “Astronaut Ohio,” which I think is an inspirational poem because it’s, like, “I’m gonna get out of this galaxy! I’m gonna do whatever!” I am so interested in those moments, but there’s always something that pulls us back down or tethers us. The last poem now is an acknowledgement of that as well.

GLR: You bring us back to earth with an object. It’s an object that’s full of possibility but it’s also a thing you can hold in your hand, it’s not trying to fit all of your future and longing for adventure – it is a totally different note to end on. Either, “I’m blasting off, or on land.”

JB: But still surrounded by water! It’s actually not my most realist poem, either (laughs).

I see things I’m obsessed with recur in different ways through different genres… I used to think that I was really sporadic with my tastes and knowledge base. I worried I wasn’t connecting anything, but now when I think about my writing I worry “maybe somebody is gong to notice that I am writing about the same thing over and over again.” Obviously neither one of those is true, but I may have a central thing I can’t stop writing about.

GLR: Yet you’ll always find new ways to look at the obsession, and new research. If the longing for adventure is the sun in your mental solar system, you’ll find all sorts of different things orbiting it.

JB: I like the idea of orbits. I was at the natural history museum on campus the other day. They have a big piece of meteorite, or a cast or whatever, that you can touch. I’d like to think it’s a real meteorite that I’m touching.

You can fine Julie’s book at the Midwestern Gothic website. 

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Bestseller spotlight: Ellen Airgood

Ellen_AirgoodEllen Airgood’s 2012 novel South of Superior has come in at numerous slots on the Michigan bestseller list over the past few months.

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

When I started writing South of Superior, I wanted to convey a sense of place–the  place I’ve lived and worked for the last twenty four years, a small village on the shore of Lake Superior–more than almost anything.  I wanted to evoke the mood and spirit of the Upper Peninsula.  It’s a fascinating, beautiful, hardscrabble place, a rare place.  I hoped to share that.  I began work on the novel on a sleety day in April, 2004, and after at least twelve major revisions, in the spring of 2010 my wonderful agent phoned to say that the Penguin Group’s Riverhead Books wanted to publish the novel.

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

I was born in Caro, Michigan, and grew up on a small farm a few miles out of town.  I went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and earned a B.S. in Natural Resources.  I worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Motor Vehicle Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor for a couple of years after I graduated, in the Air Programs Branch.  Then I took a fateful camping trip to the Upper Peninsula with my sister.  I met my husband on that trip–he owned a small cafe in Grand Marais, at the edge of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore–and six months later returned to marry him.

Describe your writing process?

My writing process is messy and slow.  It’s often agonizing.  I like to work in the morning, very early, when it’s quiet and the day hasn’t yet begun.  I will work whenever I can find the opportunity.  I put in long hours on every project–sometimes to its benefit, sometimes to its detriment.   Very rarely, I’ll hear a narrator’s voice in my head.  That was the case with my second novel, Prairie Evers.  I  was sitting on my bed, listening to the rain on our tin roof and Prairie Home Companion on the radio when a young girl’s voice said in my head, Folks said it could not be done, but I did it.  Writing is magic then, and I wish it was always that way, but it isn’t.  Often a small moment sparks a novel or story.  For South of Superior, the ideas that were milling around in my head came into focus when I received a postcard from my sister, an old black and white photo of two elderly women sitting on a lawn, leaned toward one another, talking.  For The Education of Ivy Blake, my third novel (due out this June), the image that kept me moving forward was of Ivy tugging on her braid, frowning, thinking.   I could see how brave and optimistic she was when she had every right not to be; I had to try and discover her fate.

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

This is an unanswerable question!  Many names come to mind, and there’ll be as many I should have thought of and didn’t.

I admire Mildred Walker’s work a great deal.  (Her U.P. novel is Fireweed.)  I’m inspired by Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ferocious talent and heart.  I was fascinated and delighted by Ingrid Hill’s Ursula, Under.  I read Gordon Young’s memoir about growing up in Flint, Tear Down, with feeling–much of my family is from Flint–and pleasure.   Joseph Heywood is a great mentor and friend.  This is the tip of the iceberg, there isn’t time to list them all.  I’ll close by mentioning two short stories I reread recently and sort of wish I’d written:  Janice Repka’s “Tug” and  Jonathon Johnson’s “Notes from the End of my Occupational Life.”  (They’re both included in The Way North, Wayne State University’s 2013 anthology of new Upper Peninsula writing.)  Why are all these writers my favorites?  They’re unique, they’re inventive, they’re real without being bleak.

 

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Bestseller spotlight: Tobin Buhk

Tobin Buhk is at #14 on the Michigan bestseller list for his true crime book Poisoning the Pecks of Grand Rapids. 

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

Poisoning the Pecks of Grand Rapids details Arthur Warren Waite’s convoluted get-rich-quick scheme to do away with his in-laws and thus gain control of his wife’s inheritance. Waite first tried an ingenious stratagem to infect John and Hannah Peck with virulent diseases, but when this failed, he turned to the more reliable poison, arsenic. His plan began to fall apart when a telegram under the mysterious pseudonym “K. Adams” arrived in Grand Rapids and warned of possible foul play.

Although the case took place nearly a century ago, it remains one of the most fascinating and twisted cases in West Michigan history. Waite’s duplicity was incredibly complex. He told his wife that he spent his days conducting tricky oral surgery, but in fact, he ran around Manhattan procuring dangerous germs and spending afternoons at the Plaza with a married cabaret dancer.

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

I was born and raised in West Michigan, and I’ve spent the last twenty years as a teacher in the Grand Rapids area. My first two books—Cause of Death (Prometheus Books, 2007) and Skeletons in the Closet (Prometheus, 2008) were collaborations with the Kent County Medical Examiner, Dr. Stephen D. Cohle.

Describe your writing process?

When writing about a historic true crime, I try to recreate the events, so readers may eyewitness the crime, follow the police as they follow the clues, and listen in on the trial. Therefore, my writing process typically involves constructing a chronology of events. Once I’ve pinned down a timeline, I will begin to visualize the best way to tell the story. Sometimes this will lead to an outline, but most often, once I’ve decided on an approach and direction, I will begin drafting. My writing process then becomes like a pencil sketch. As I draft, I’m constantly adding some things while erasing others and re-rendering them.

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

I’m particularly fond of Elmore Leonard and the way that he is able to capture the essence of his characters.

 

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Bestseller Spotlight: Joseph Heywood

Joseph_HeywoodJoseph Heywood’s novel, Killing a Cold Oneis currently number 5 on the U.P. Bestseller list.

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

Mountains of the Misbegotten is the second in a new series intended to explore the early days of professional game wardens in Michigan.  As part of my “Woods Cops” series, set in contemporary times, I have spent about a month a year in trucks on patrol with conservation officers around the state and over that time officers often told me how they wondered what the job was like in “olden times.” This of course set my tiny think-pot to action. The new series begins with Red Jacket (2012), in the summer of 1913 in the Keweenaw during the famous copper strike. Mountains of the Misbegotten (2014) then picks up the same characters in the spring of 1914 when one of them is dispatched to Ontonagon County to try to locate a missing game warden. The stories deal with both the professional and personal aspects of life in those difficult and formative years. My second collection of short stories, all with female protagonists, will be out from Lyons Press March 1, 2015. These stories were written in the summer of 2013 in Deer Park in the U.P. The title of the collection is Harder Ground.

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

USAF brat, lived all over the US and other places. Graduated from Rudyard High School in Chippewa County in 1961. Graduated from MSU (BA Journalism), 1965. Served in the USAF as a KC-135 navigator at  now de-activated K.I.Sawyer AFB south of Marquette, 1965-1970. Studied for MA in English Lit WMU in early 70s. Worked for The Upjohn Company for 30 years. My wife and I summered in Deer Park, 35 miles north of Newberry for five years, and now we spend six months a year in Alberta, eight miles south of L’Anse. My wife is a WMU art grad, Niles-born, an artist, and retired teacher with as big a hankering for wild places and the outdoors as inhabits me.

Describe your writing process?

I read constantly, fiction and nonfiction, poetry, short stories, essays, all genres, varied subjects. (Reading IS part of writing, contrary to some foolish notions.) I  spend a lot of time formulating stories. I write first drafts in longhand and move it to computer within a day or so. I write the story all the way through to a conclusion, then edit and revise. I don’t believe in revising and repainting brick by brick or board by board. I write seven days a week until the first draft is done, then set it aside for periods ranging from one month to a year. The time needed to compose varies. The Snowfly (2000)  was written in 45 days. The Berkut (1987) required 3-4 years of research and a full year of writing. Most novels require about six months of writing time, but by the time I put pen to paper the book is usually quite complete in my head. I am lucky to be a fast writer, perhaps a product of my journalism training in
ancient times. For example, this past summer I wrote 40 short stories, which are collected under the working title of Uncharted Ground.  I hope
to see them in print in the spring of 2016.

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

My fave poet is Mike Delp. His imagery and edge makes me chuckle and think. Bards Jim Armstrong and Ken McConnell are faves too. Ken and I were baseball teammates in the fog-shrouded summers of long, long ago. My fave nonfiction writer hands-down is Jerry Dennis. Great images, interesting backgrounds, his heart and intelligence show through all of his work.  I try to read everything Jerry brings to us. As for fiction, I have two faves, Bonnie Jo Campbell and Ellen Airgood. I also really like the ouvre of Henry Kisor (fiction and nonfiction).  And though he’s written only one novel so far, I think Bob Linsenman is going to bring us some fine work as we stumble into our dotage. I’m proud to call all of these fine writers pals and colleagues. It has always struck me how in some parts of the country there is tremendous petty competition among writers, and by that I mean jealousy and other negative feelings. I never sense that among Great Lakes authors. Among us the prevailing attitude seems to be, the more the merrier. People can never have enough good writers to stroke their emotions and imaginations. I probably see the world through tinted glasses, but so be it. Let me add here I’ve also read everything by Jim Harrison and the late John Voelker (aka Robert Traver) and respect the work of both men– for different reasons. How can anyone pick one favorite anything? Not fair, not fair.

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Bestseller Spotlight: Mardi Jo Link

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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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Bestseller spotlight: Julie Lawson Timmer

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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

RON RIEKKI INTERVIEWS 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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