Common Questions for Great Authors

 

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.

Recently...

Simon Rich, author of What In God's Name

 

Previously...

Danielle Sosin, author of The Long-Shining Waters

 

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?

DS: I’ve been drawn to Lake Superior’s powers since I was a kid, so my questions about the mystery of that novel were a natural thing to explore in a novel. But I am definitely interested in the idea of place. Place is story after all. Every place has its own archaeology. There is physical evidence of story left  behind, and some places hold psychic evidence as well. I call it juju for lack of a better word. In those places the past is palpable. Lake Superior is like that. It has big juju. As for Hobby Lobby? Theoretically, someone could write a novel about that place. I barely passed my 7th grade sewing class, so I’m pretty certain it won’t be me.

Your process of writing this novel initially involved a great deal of not writing a novel, or rather, not endeavoring to write a novel. Did that freedom or reluctance stem from your background as a short story writer? And do you think you might approach writing a longer work that way again? That is, with equal parts excitement and indifference?

After a failed short story, which the novel’s 1622 storyline grew from, I did set out to try to write a novel. I was just clueless how to go about it. Still, I was excited by the challenge. Though short stories and novels are made of the same craft components – character, place, point of view, theme, plot – there are huge differences in the execution of the craft. A particular focus and skill is required to bring a work to life for 30 pages verses 300. It wasn’t indifference I felt at the start of the novel. It was fear. Embarking on my second novel is as exciting as the first, but still there is fear. The questions are unanswered and the path is unknown. My dad once told me that the most important quality in a surgeon was the ability to see three-dimensionally. Well, probably the most important qualities in a novelist are the abilities to have faith and endure.

In my mind, a lot of poetry and mystery is set around bodies of water, I suppose to aid in both the grizzly death scenes and reflections on solitude, but less commonly fiction. Besides bridging the gap of time and space between your characters, what did the setting of this novel enable you to say or think or do?

That’s a big question. The setting of the lake allowed me to think about connectedness and conductivity. How circular existence is, and how we all grapple with physical and emotional survival and loss. But mostly the setting led to more questions and to my pondering the presence of mystery. The book is largely about the things that we as humans can only know at the edges, things we intuit about the mysteries of existence.

Along with lists of details and descriptions that would become your novel, you kept a record of potential titles. Before you settled on The Long-Shining Waters, did you have a system in mind for eventually winnowing it down? Pin the tail on the donkey, perhaps? Throwing darts?

Ha! I wish I were capable of that kind of letting go! Basically I was stumped. For years I was convinced that the word “Superior” had to be in the title. Well, Superior is a hard word to work with. I kept lists of potential titles, pages and pages of brainstorming, while using the working title Superior’s Keep. Finally, I gave up on the word “Superior” and aimed for a title that would refer to both water and time. More lists. Many more. In the end, my honey woke up one morning having dreamt the title The Long-Shining Waters. -August, 2012

 

Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. 

 

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. 

Did you feel at all obligated to make your characters behave authentically to 2002, in the sense of being perhaps less attentive or more anxious than they might have been in 1889 or even 1987? Let's say, hypothetically, encumbering the narrative by nature of their being unable to concentrate on one scene at a time, or furtively texting lines of dialogue across the page? And while we're on the subject, do you think the novel of the not-so-distant future might not do away with speech and action altogether, in favor of more beautifully written accounts of people switching to Verizon or staring at their iPods?

NB: It’s a fascinating question. The issue of time, in terms of era, was one that was always on my mind from a psychological standpoint. The summer of 2002 was an extraordinary time when it felt like anything could happen: anthrax, Mad Cow disease, sneaker bombs, threats of poisoned reservoir. It was an unnerving time to be a new parent responsible for a small new life in an uncertain world, and for Americans who hadn’t experienced the proximity of threats in that way, it happened literally overnight. Most of us moved on from that place of paralysis, and we know with the gift of time showed that no next huge thing was, in fact, about to happen. But I was fascinated by the prospect of creating a main character who could not move on, and didn’t yet have the gift of passage of time to temper her anxiety.
             
As far as other temporal accuracy and encumbrance: my main character has a tendency to forget to recharge her cellphone, which does become a plot device. (In case you’re interested, I once wrote about the role of technology as a plotdevice). But I don’t think that’s going too far out on a tech limb. At least as long as batteries have to be recharged, there will probably be distracted parents who forget to charge them.

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.

My novel is about lifelong journals that begin with a preteen’s coming of age pain, and my journaling started a bit that way, too. I started keeping a journal when I was twelve, an awkward twelve (as if there’s ever anything else) and brand new to town. My English teacher gave the class an assignment to write about something on our minds, and we were to do this for ten minutes daily. My first entry was about something the girl at the desk next to mine had said to me 10 minutes earlier. “I like your skirt.” My family had just moved to the East Coast from the Midwest, and as the oldest child of four whose mother still picked out her clothes, I had no concept of what was cool. So I had no idea I was about to experience my first social catastrophe of junior high when she realized it was not in fact a skirt but pants, glorious plaid extending all the way down to my lace-up Buster Brown shoes. I can still see the expression on her face, a combination of disbelief and good fortune, because she had something so rich for the person beside her.

I continued the journaling habit the following year even though it was no longer an assignment, recorded each hopeful and painful detail that had to be exorcised, like the time a boy announced to homeroom on the first day of eighth grade that over the summer, Nichole Bernier’s mosquito bites had turned to maraschino cherries.

So there you have it. I once had plaid pants, and I once had mosquito bites that became maraschino cherries. As you can see from my author photo, they pretty much stayed that way.

Now that you mention it, you look believably relaxed in that photo for a woman with five children. The average person finds it hard to unwind between their work and magazine subscriptions. What's your secret? And how on earth did you find time to write a book as a full-time mom, and then some? Are you holding on to one of them with your feet (not pictured)?

If I look relaxed in the photo, it’s because I’m in a serene sunlit studio in New York being spoken to gently by a photographer and stylist, which couldn’t be more unlike my daily life than if they’d done a photo shoot on Mars.  

There really was no big sexy secret. The short answer is that I chipped away writing time little by little, night and weekend hours, and when I became really obsessed, I started giving over some of my babysitter hours that were supposed to go toward my paying freelance writing assignments. The long and very unsexy answer is that I gave up a lot along the way. I started the novel shortly after my third child was born and finished just before the fifth came along, and the further into it I went, the more hobbies and activities fell by the wayside. In a way, it was a good reality check on what really mattered, because it made me triage my interests. I wouldn’t be PTA president, I’d be a room parent. I could live without running road races or having a gorgeous garden or cooking ambitious meals, but I couldn’t not write.

But the most important thing by far was having a supportive husband. He gave me chunks of time to steal away when I was really in the thick of it, and believed in the book even at times when I didn’t.

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?

I know it’d be more poignant to say yes here, but truthfully, no. Once I went through the initial catharsis of writing about a woman imagining her friend’s last moments on a doomed flight, it was as if I’d balled up a bad wad of paper and sent it into the stratosphere. Everything was fictionalized, based on my observations and curiosities about marriage, friendship and motherhood, frustrations and aspirations and fears.

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

Matthew Batt, author of Sugarhouse

 

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."

MB: I’ve been mostly really lucky/determined enough to see something through revision after revision after revision until it’s right or, you know, right enough, but winter before last when we had a ton of snow in Minnesota and then some warm weather and then some super cold weather, we got some tremendously robust ice dams on our roof. People were having theirs jet-washed off for thousands of dollars and, sadly, still had bad leaks inside and all that. I thought, Surely there’s a DIY solution here and, sure enough, found a friend who recommended putting salt in panty hose and slinging them over the ice dams and in a few hours, she said, you’ll have these tidy little channels for when the ice melts. Well, let’s just say that I spent a little too much time fretting over whether they should be control top or if they had to match my shoes and not enough time practicing slinging what are effectively really uncooperative snakes over my gutter in subzero temperatures while perched atop a twenty foot ladder. When everything finally melted we had beige stockings hanging from our eaves as though the neighborhood high school kids had run out of eggs and toilet paper. It was unfortunate.

What, in terms of labor, proved most difficult, disgusting, or unexpectedly endearing as a result of your new home having once been full of crack?

The one thing we never did fix was that whenever we would use the shower, the white walls would weep this orange, gooey resin. We probably conserved a good deal of water, we were so scared to be in there for very long.

Amidst repairs, your family life was faltering as well. Did your enthusiasm or perseverance for this project manufacture from an instinct to simply not let something else implode?

Technically, things could have been worse. Like maybe in the fine film Red Dawn, Russians could have decided out of the blue to attack the Midwest and the mountain states, as though they were somehow the key to controlling the nation. But short of being strafed by a bunch of MIG fighters, it was the worst year of our life. My dad died, my grandmother died, my wife’s grandfather died, doctors detected a suspicious mass on my mom’s abdomen, my grandfather was having prostate trouble, four of our very best friends were getting divorced, others were having babies while we weren’t . . . no jet fighters, but we probably wouldn’t have noticed. Our decision to dig in, buy a house, and fix it up ourselves wasn’t some self-fashioned move to make us appealing to all the Canadian producers of HGTV (and they are all Canadian—isn’t that weird?) but rather it was our only option short of unmerging our book and music collection and trying to decided who was getting the dog and who was getting the cat.

I laughed out loud at your line about buying a car based on its cup holders, and other less-than-informed purchase decisions. And I'm just betting you can name a book or two you've bought based on its cover that defied your expectations, for better or worse. Anything particularly explosive come to mind? And any advice for readers who themselves buy books for looks, like "Keep doing it," or "Way to go!"?

I am loathe to admit it but I bought the novelization of the movie Rambo. I might have been thinking, What could be finer than Stallone’s acting prowess? Or what’s better than watching a very soggy vigilante single-handedly blow up a town? Reading about it! I was twelve. What can I say? As for readers who buy books for looks—that’s catchy!—I would say it’s absolutely the way to go if the words don’t matter. Like if you only want them to stack in chromatically-unified piles—the way those bastards on HGTV do! (I know, I harbor a lot of resentment toward them. It’s all just an expression of a secret crush on Candice Olsen.)

Now that you live in Saint Paul, what do you miss most about Salt Lake City and/or the lingering stench of old takeout?

The mountains, of course, and the aridity. That rarified, dry mountain air made it all the easier to smell with—and that, of course, cuts both ways. -July, 2012

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


Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man

 

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?

SS: Well, Buddha doesn't really hate, right? "Buddha, Barbie" is one of the earliest poems, and at that time I was thinking Buddha could use the word hate like we do when we say, "oh I hate the way that makes me feel." But hate now feels too strong. Maybe Buddha wouldn't think this--after all the readings I've given of this poem, I'm uncomfortable with the word. Even so, it makes people laugh because we recognize that feeling of being pushed too much beyond what's comfortable or known and then blaming the instructor or coach, even though we signed up for it.  Buddha definitely has a deep sense of humor and is the first to laugh at himself. Other than that, I often felt while writing the book that Buddha is limited only by my imagination.  
 
Barbie, too, is featured in these poems, whether contemplating "tenderness" or made reference to by Buddha's trip to Target and subsequent, inscrutable, desire for a Midge doll (Barbie's friend). Are both Barbie and Buddha figures in a way? Empty vessels, open to manipulation? Or is Barbie too defined; an inverse instance of your line about our being "so full, we are empty"?

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.
At one point, Buddha laughs, and the mistrust and immediacy of the world around him ceases. Does that ever work for you?  

Yes! But I never remember soon enough or often enough to laugh, Buddha's compassionate laugh. -May, 2012

Utne

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, I've been writing letters online more recently. Actually, since doing this book, I find myself bringing more thought, and being less slapdash in my digital communications. But I also have to say that getting any letter that someone has written by hand, in the mail, feels like I'm getting a present. I feel like I'm unwrapping a present when it arrives. And I know that if I feel that way, others are probably feeling that, too. So I do take the time, occasionally, to write a genuine letter, and a love letter's even more precious. Also, if you know that your recipient wants to be written to, there's a kind of challenge; it lifts you, it's like you want to deliver the goods, you want to rise to the occasion and do something that's worthy of their expectations. Wouldn't it be an interesting world if everybody wrote love letters?
 
Speaking of getting a gift, Nansen was a polar explorer, diplomat, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. More than a public intellectual, he was an international celebrity. Did it ever cross your mind that in sending naked photos through the mail, he was hoping to get "caught," in a Janet Jackson, Us Weekly sort of way?

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.

Yea, 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

Grrr...

Louis Jenkins, author of Before You Know It and Nice Fish

 

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


Theresa Weir, author of The Orchard.

 

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?

Nobody can hear you scream. 
One of the audience members mentioned having seen your book, The Orchard, out and about, in the hands of a stranger, and you lit up, adding that you'd always wanted to see a "live copy" of your book in the world. I love this idea of a "live book" vs. a "dead book," which I suppose is any book not being read, but just displayed. If you were to come across a "live copy" yourself, what would you do? Would you let the reader know? Or would you act like someone else and simply mention to that person that you too had read The Orchard by Theresa Weir and, as far as you could tell, your days of reading other people's books were over?

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