One of the perks of pushing good books is getting to meet the authors who write them. Letting what's on our minds come out of our mouths is just the icing on the cake.
CGB: You’ve mentioned that The Long-Shining Waters is less a character-driven story than a kind of meditation on place, which is a fascinating project as conceived through the writing of a novel. That said, Lake Superior is a pretty beautiful place to have to spend 400 years in the collective mind of your three characters. Did it have to be the lake? Or are you interested in the idea of place, and places, in general? Could you, in other words, ever write a novel about Hobby Lobby?
CGB: Hilary Mantel has said that to write a historical novel, you have to research and be true to the ideals and behaviors of people, or characters, from the period you're writing about. While every novel is historical, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. calls attention to itself as an especially salient instance of the modern novel, not only because it takes place just after 9/11, but because the premise of the book is based on that which we make public and that which we conceal, and how both serve as documents of who we seem to be.
I imagine that writing a story like this would bring to mind some things that you yourself have never shared with anyone. What's one thing that on purpose or absent-mindedly you've kept, until now, to yourself? Could be embarrassingly private, could be that you've always thought of Bill Russell as more of a power forward.
So… I’m going to take my embarrassingly private thing, and after 45 years of keeping it to myself, share it with the blog of one of the country’s most beloved bookstores? Sure, why not.
Your blog, like Elizabeth D's journal, gives a look behind-the-scenes as well of how a book is brought into existence. I was especially taken by your account of the events surrounding your friend's death on 9/11, and your realization that "Fictionalizing the facts of the story freed [you] up to dig deep into emotion." I'm guilty as the next guy of taking creative license when it comes to seeing people not for who they are, but as someone else who likes me. But I mostly mean acquaintances, not friends. Was writing about the secret journals of a fictional character a way for you to re-conceive the friend you lost in life?
My thoughts about my friend — who was a part of my group, but not an intimate or confidante — were inspired by a small role I’d played for the family, helping them field media calls and describe her in quotes and sound bites. For a long time afterward, I wondered how she would have wanted to be described, how she’d have perceived her legacy. That led to wondering about how well any of us are known and memorialized, the roles of honesty and facades, and years later, to the book. -July, 2012
CGB: Sugarhouse, the Salt lake City neighborhood in which you found your fixer-upper, contains streets with names like Emerson and Browning. As you say, there's something American or Emersonian about your desire or conviction to start from scratch and, more-or-less, rebuild a house yourself. Especially considering your not knowing the difference at the time between a hammer and a nail, and "doing it anyway." What in recent memory have you "done anyway," regardless of a lack of knowledge, with less favorable or benevolent results? As in, "I didn't know how I'd react to once again consuming dairy, but I ate the chocolate ice-cream, anyway! With whip-topping."
Tim Brady, author of 12 Desperate Miles
CGB: 12 Desperate Miles, though based on facts surrounding the November 1942, first American invasion of North Africa, has been likened to a novel for its adrenalized, edge of your seat sense of direction, its inconspicuous foreshadowing of an equally book-worthy beach invasion, and your exposition and development of "characters," like German U-boat admiral, Karl Dönitz. No doubt a lot of readers would like to know just how an author pulls that kind of fact to fiction-esque writing off. I'm curious, however, how far one might go. Did you consider splicing harmless, made up details in about what the nefarious Dönitz shouted to his crewmen, for example, prior to attack, or have to stop yourself from writing what the moon was like that night?
TB: I began my career as a fiction writer and failed at it, in part, because I took forever getting to the point---describing the moon when my readers simply wanted to find out what happened next. History itself is so dense with material that I find that it drives the narrative of its own accord, which relieves me of the burden of making things up. My job is to steer the semi, which can be difficult enough. I don't have to add any weight to the trailer.
Aside from villains, the story of the SS Contessa features heroes, such as the french-born seaman Rene Malevergne, who piloted the New Orleans banana boat up the Sebou, and whose private diary, The Exfiltration of René Malevergne you researched and drew from. Did you come across any licentious or mundane entries, entirely unrelated to the events of the story? For example:
October 3, 1942
"Yesterday, I walked into town to buy three watermelons, but the vendor had a deal: 'Buy three, get one free!' So, I purchased four. I had no idea how quickly ripe fruit spoils. Shouldn't someone tell you that? I mean, when you're alone and buying four?"
Rene Malevergne was a very forthright and upstanding man; I couldn't detect a hint of licentiousness in his character. As far as mundane details are concerned, there were quite a few and I wish there had been more. When a person is writing a book about war, and using the words and thoughts of others to put it together, mundane details can help make a character and circumstances come alive, and offer a realism that makes a story come alive. I was grateful, for instance, when interviewing the grandson of the Contessa's captain, William John, that he remembered, not just that his grandfather smoked heavily on the bridge, but the brand of cigarettes---Winston's.
Back for just a minute to the harmless, made up details thing. The name of this particular U.S. invasion was "Operation Torch," which is unassailably cool, but, to my mind, doesn't instantly conjure the ins and outs of yielding a large boat up a small river. Just for laughs, let's each make up one alternative, more-or-less dubious name. Mine's Operation Dogstorm! What's yours?
The Saturday Evening Post writer who first told the story of the Contessa back in 1943 said that the ship crossed the sandbar at the entrance to the shallow Moroccan River Sebou "with all the grace of a hog going over a mud bank." What followed was twelve miles of achingly slow travel up the river to Port Lyautey, with the Contessa's bottom dredging river-bottom sand the whole way. How does Operation Hog Slog sound to you? -June, 2012
CGB: You've said that one theme of your book is how idealized images of things and people can be hard to reconcile with the reality of that thing or person. You're also an avid record collector. Who, if anyone, has totally foundered your expectations in live concert?
ND: Unfortunately, there are many occasions when seeing a band live has
zapped the magic from the albums—in performance the artist doesn’t
always conform with the picture you had in your head. It’s a bit like
seeing a film version of your favorite novel where the characters don’t
look or act anything like you pictured them. But why focus on that?
I drove up to Detroit during the fall of my freshman year in college to see Modest Mouse. I’d been listening to Lonesome Crowded West on repeat for three months, though I knew next to nothing about the band: no one really did back then. The album painted such a vivid portrait of an America full of deserted truck stops, trailer parks, drunk cowboys, junkfood, and long rides on the seedy public transportation. But the lyrics were so thoughtful and poetic that part of me didn’t quite buy it. I expected the singer, Isaac Brock, to look like a Swarthmore grad, a disdainful intellectual in thick-rimmed glasses.
The man that took the stage at the Magic Stick that night was
overweight, side-burned, flannel-shirted and drunk out of his mind. He
sang through the pickup on his guitar. He charged into the crowd, not
affectionately. At one point he bent down to whisper in the ear of a
heckler in the front row. The man turned white and immediately headed
for the exit. A few songs later Brock emptied what looked like a water
bottle onto the stage, lit a match, and dropped it. The stage erupted in
flame until a roadie came with a fire extinguisher. Incidentally, he
also played the absolute hell out of the songs. Now that I’m past 30
I’ve pretty much abandoned my old rock dreams. Except this one.
Besides records, objects in general seem to play a part in your thinking and writing about people, in terms of how things help us visualize ourselves. Say it's your birthday and you're given an oversized American League jersey from a not terribly close friend. Do you consider integrating it into your wardrobe or move confidently in the direction of an adult male?
I’m a big sports fan. Reading about Michigan Football, and the Chicago Bulls and Cubs, is my go-to procrastination. And while trying to write, and I procrastinate a lot. Any interest in an analysis of the Wolverine’s 2012 recruiting class? Care to know more about the Cub’s top minor league prospects? We should talk. So maybe it’s hypocritical to fully accept some parts of the culture of American sports fandom while rejecting others. But as to the jersey question: salvation army, pronto.
One reviewer noted, after reading Captain Flint, they had to stop themselves from "crying in public." Which I imagine must feel great. If that same person though was sitting next to you on the subway, book in hand, obviously struggling to keep it together, would you be more likely to sit back and enjoy the ride, so to speak, or pretend to be wearing headphones?
I became a writer because it got boring bringing only my friends and family to tears. I thought I could do so much more. But if there is one thing I’ve learned about the New York Subway in the brief time I’ve lived there: always pretend to be wearing headphones. -June, 2012
Su Smallen, author of Buddha, Proof
CGB: I suppose more rarely than not are we offered a book of poems written
entirely with use of a persona. But then, Buddha isn't the easiest of
targets when it comes to pinning someone down. In this case, Buddha
variously takes time with his feet and hates Barbie, at least "during
[her aerobics] class." Was there anything you felt that Buddha wouldn't do or think?
I like "empty vessels"--certainly Barbie, in the best sense, is manipulated by her child, her deus ex machina. She has much to say about the Americanized west and therefore is a good friend for Buddha, who speaks from the east, who is making his way in the west. Is Barbie so empty, she is full? Well, the empty-full question is a kind of chicken and the egg question meant to break open duality: we are full and we are empty, we are empty and we are full.
Eric Utne, editor of Brenda, My Darling
CGB: Your talk tonight alluded to the uniqueness of an epistolary
romance, in today's age of instant communication. But Brenda Ueland
edited her letters in time to "leave history exactly as she wanted it,"
and Fridtjof Nansen sent nude photos of himself that probably came
across as instantaneous to Ueland then as such photos tend to
now. In what ways then do you think that writing letters, as opposed to
texts or emails, has an effect on what is written?
EU: An "epistolary romance"... you mean love letters?
Yes, love letters.
Well, his great grandson said on television that he thought his great grandfather was proud of his body, but I also learned while over there that Knut Hamsun and... who's the painter who did "The Shout"? Edvard Munch. Knut and Munch were also taking nude photos of themselves just around the same time. So it may be that this was going on, not only in Norway, but probably throughout Europe; that people were discovering photography. I mean, Nansen took these of himself. And he probably took them about 10 years before he sent them to Brenda, cause he looks young enough. There's no way he was 67 when he took these. So he was probably sharing them with other women, too. They were definitley living in an artistic milieu, and exploring the human body was something a lot of people were doing.
Remind me of that line from Brenda's book you cited.
I'll read it to you. Brenda's secret for good writing was to "slow
down, as in long, inefficient, happy, idling, dawdling and puttering,
and this inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic,
energetic striving, but it comes slowly and quietly and all the time,
though we must regularly and everyday give it a chance to start flowing,
prime it with a little solitude and idleness."
Okay, so just for fun, can you think of any other situation, besides writing, where that skill might come in handy?
Well, I think life, ya know? I mean, actually, Graywolf is promoting Brenda's book as an inspiration for a creative life, not just the writing life. People now are turning to yoga and meditation, and they talk about mindfulness-based stress reduction, but that's so much just the surface of it. The reason to get quiet is because that's where the inspiration comes. A friend of mine, Arthur Zajonc, just wrote a book on meditation, and he calls it a contemplative inquiry. He says that's where great scientific discoveries come from and that's where artistic inspiration comes from, learning to be quiet, and listening. Listening deeply is what Brenda talks about in her essay on listening. Thats where the creative spirit, the imagination, comes alive, out of that quiet. That's why Nansen went to the far north, what he called the world's loneliest and saddest rims, because he felt that no true leader could ever emerge unless they knew that kind of quietude. For Nansen, it was going to the wilderness, but Brenda knew how to get there just by "dawdling" and "puttering." She'd also say, "woodling" and "doodling."
Your own life was in jeopardy as a result of publishing this book. Who was it that informed you?
It was a woman named Caren Berg, and she wrote a book called Nansen and His Women,
and she documented about 15 women with whom he had affairs. And she had
come here and seen the photos at the historical society, and chose not
to use them. And so, when I contacted her, she said, "Don't publish
those photos, because you will put your life in danger." Maybe I'm the
Evil Knievel of the publishing set.
Is it more or less exciting, death, if you know it's coming?
I haven't a clue, but we all know it's coming, don't we? -February, 2012
CGB: As I was reading European Shoes, it occurred to me that interspersing poetry with notebook entries, as a form, felt suddenly brand new.
LJ: Well, I got the idea when I was in Wales. I’d been, you know, writing things, taking notes, and working on poems all the time. I talked with a class, and they had been working with a form called Haibun, which if you know the Japanese poet Basho… he did a book called something like… they translated it as, The Narrow Road to the North, or something like that, and that’s the form. He goes and he has a little travel entry, and then he writes a little haiku poem. So I thought, ‘Well, I could use that, and just write prose poems instead of Haiku.’ And so that’s kind of how I put the book together.
It’s an exciting form, in part because we seem to do less writing in notebooks, in the age of social media. Have you worked through other forms?
No. Garrison wanted me to hook all of these poems together and turn them into a novel. But I tried that and it didn’t work out very well.
If you were assigned to write a Minnesotan version of your poem, “The Full English Breakfast,” with a list of Minnesotan fare, what would that poem be?
I don’t know. Of course, everybody would immediately write about Lutefisk. I think I’d have to think about something else. And, of course, there’s the proverbial hot-dish, church basement fare. But I don’t know. If I were gonna write about food of Minnesota, I’d have to think about that awhile. Because, you know, you could do those kinds of things, but they’ve been done and been done well. I’d have to think of something new. And at the moment, I have no idea.
If you did the hot-dish, I could see that getting pretty wordy, too. What with all of the preheating…
I discovered that the traditional green bean casserole… you know that?
Yea, with the stuff on top?
Yea, the canned, fried onion rings. I discovered, by looking on the web… I thought, ‘Well, there must be an alternative, better recipe’…Very difficult to find. Almost every one of them called for Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup and canned green beans.
There's not something more up-to-date?
I found one or two, and I even tried one, but frankly, I didn’t think it was as good as the old one.
So, Campbell’s has a monopoly on the green bean casserole, unfortunately.
I guess so.
I haven’t lived in Minnesota long, but as a boy, during visits to Duluth, I and everybody else was captivated by the raising of the lift bridge. And as soon as it began to rise, everybody came to the shore there to start looking out for ships. Is that how it is in Duluth? Are people in awe of it still? Still taking time to watch the ships?
Well, in the summer you get a lot of tourists, and, of course, it's all new to them. For people who live on Park Point it can sometimes be an annoyance. You get trapped. You're supposed to be at work or the dentist or something. So, it sort of behooves you to know the schedule. -January, 2012
CGB: Many writers write in coffee shops or studios. You, however, bought a church. Does that "I shouldn't be doing this" feeling that people often claim to feel when it comes to using the lord's name in vain or sneaking boos inside a sanctuary ever occur to you while you write? Even a sentence as harmless as "He lit a cigarette and tossed the pack on the dashboard." Does a part of you think, "Eh, I'll change it to candle"?
TW: It's really more about what the neighbors think. One night I looked outside to see an angry mob of torch-carrying villagers trudging up the hill to the church. I thought they were saying, "Kill the witch." They were actually saying, "This hill's a bitch." So it's easy to misconstrue how people react to living in what was once a sacred space. I think everybody's okay with it.
You divide your time between St. Paul and rural Wisconsin. Everyone assumes the worst, so what's the easiest thing about living, occasionally, in the middle of nowhere?
My middle name is Toiling In Obscurity, and I'd really hate to have to change it to I Think I've Heard Of You. So I wouldn't admit to having read or written the book.
So, you're a genre-spanning author, who lives in two places at once and writes under the pseudonym Anne Frasier. Do you have a favorite anything?
My favorite thing is getting behind someone who's driving very slowly in the left lane. I love that. -December, 2011
Lynne Cox, author Swimming to Antarctica and South With The Sun
CGB: In reference to swimming across the English Channel, you mentioned
never wanting to do the same thing over and over again. How do you feel
about stop-and-go traffic?
LC: That's why I live in California, so I can drive on the freeways.
It took you 7 years to write South With the Sun, and 21 to write Swimming to Antarctica, which you began writing on a typewriter and finished on computer. Do you prefer one over the other?
Each book has its own method. The way I wrote Swimming to Antarctica was chronological, but then Grayson was just sitting down to write this "One day..." story, and then [South With The Sun] was me weaving stories through time and place and theme, which was so different than what I'd done before. So, your question was... what?
Well, your answer is more interesting than my question. But some writers have strong opinions about, for example, writing on a laptop as opposed to a pad of paper.
What I learned is that I'll start by writing longhand. When I know that I'm ready to do it, I'll start writing, and the first two or three or four paragraphs will be constant writing, and then I'll sit down and start writing it on the computer, because I don't think writing longhand anymore is good for me. Now, I can just go from brain to computer.
You spoke of invoking a "presence of mind," while swimming alone in the dark at 1 in the morning or above a baby whale. Does that presence of mind necessary for enduring such mentally and physically demanding states and situations serve a purpose in the process of writing a book?
Absolutely. That's such a great parallel, because you have to maintain the storyline, you have to keep going in a forward direction, because if you don't, you lose yourself and you lose the story. And there's nothing worse than to be in the middle of... "I finally figured out what I need to write here," and then somebody calls you. Because you know that that whole thing you've figured out in your brain now that you're just about ready to write... you're thinking as you're going along, and now that thought is gone, and it just drives me nuts.
So you value preparation and endurance when it comes to thinking?
Exactly, and seeing a thought all the way through. That's why I don't write poetry. I'm a long writer. I write books. But that whole sense of being right there in the moment as you're writing it, that's what I really try to do. That's why I love when people say, "When I read about your swim in Greenland, I felt like I was right there." That's the best that I could ever hope to write: that I could take somebody and make them feel like they're right there in that moment.
It sounds like you're saying there's an association between length and longevity and the ability to focus.
Yes. And I learned, like swimming short distances in very, very cold water, the intensity of that focus is probably what got me through it. And the long distance swimmer is like the long distance novel or nonfiction writer. It's a book, not a novella.
You seem to like the cold. Have you considered writing a book about or in Minnesota. Perhaps one titled, Living in Saint Paul?
I hadn't thought about that. But I keep hoping that one day I'll get to swim across Lake Wobegon. -November 2011
Peter Geye, author of Safe From The Sea
CGB: As former editor of Third Coast, you must have read a lot of cover letters. What's the oddest personal fact about an author you've ever come upon that had nothing to with their writing?
PG: I got a letter from a woman who said that she'd never heard of any of us, but that we should remember her name, because she was going to be famous. In fact, I was at Benjamin Percy's reading the other day, and a woman came up to him and said, "I've never read your books, and I'm not going to buy them, but you should remember my name." For all I know it was the same person.
Your novel takes place along the northern Minnesota lakeshore. What's your favorite thing about fall in Minnesota?
It means it's almost winter. I love the cold. It's 80 degrees in the middle of October. That's not right. It should be 55 right now, preparing us for highs of... 6.
It's coming up on Halloween. Say trick-or-treaters come to your door, but don't say "trick or treat". Instinctively, how would you react?
I'm pretty adamant about wanting to hear it. But we live in a neighborhood with the world's most polite children, so they not only say "trick or treat" but "thank you," "happy halloween," the whole thing. -October 2011