Students in field

Question and Answer with U.P. author John Smolens

March 23, 2016

In early March FinnU Director of Grant Writing and Foundation Relations Terri Martin led a discussion with Campus Read 2016 author John Smolens about life as a writer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

How it all started: What inspired you to sit down and write your first book? Did you have a story to tell? Has the process changed for you since you first became a published author?

John SmolensMy first novel was Winter by Degrees, which came out in 1988. I’m distrustful of terms such as “inspired” (and certainly “muse”); they make what writers do seem mysterious and magical. It is the former but not the latter. There was a point when I was in my late teens when I suddenly realized that reading stories spoke to me like nothing else, and I wanted to do that, write stories. There’s little inspiration, in my case, and lots of toil. My dear friend and mentor, the short story writer Andre Dubus, once told me, “I want to read stories that are so good that they make me forget my own name.” Writing such stories should be every writer’s dream.

My process, such as it is, hasn’t changed much over the years. When I started out, I wrote my stories longhand and sometimes on typewriter. Now I mostly write on a computer, but I believe I still think like I’m writing longhand (after decades of writing and playing guitar, my hands now cramp up if I hold a pen or pencil for more than a few minutes). If anything about my “process” has changed, I suspect that it’s my ability to let the story take me where it wants to go—to trust the characters. I find that when that happens I learn more about these people, and quite often they surprise me.

The theme for Finlandia’s Campus Read events this year is “Writers of the Northern Persuasion.” What does the word “northern” conjure up for you, and how does the northern environment influence your work?

North. It’s my favorite direction. I started out in New England, which is considered north, and have only ventured farther north since then. North is synonymous with the Upper Peninsula. We breathe northern air; we live by northern lakes, rivers, and streams; we pray to northern gods. I can’t possibly measure how much all things northern have influenced my work. The weather, the terrain, the people, it gets in your bones. I have this strong affinity for Lake Superior. My mother’s ashes and my wife’s ashes are in that lake, put in a place that I can see from my house. One day I’ll join them, and I take great comfort in knowing that. There is something about living up north that strips away that which is excessive and superfluous, that leaves us with our essential selves. (Even in winter, when we’re often swaddled in layers of clothing.) We are closer to the elements here and I believe that helps us remain mindful and respectful of this land. It’s so difficult to capture, to express, but that’s what I want to do in much of my work. Listen to Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”; that song has it and I love the lines “where the winds hit heavy on the borderline” and “please see if she has a coat so warm.” It’s in the diction of these lyrics; it doesn’t explain northern life, it just breathes it in its tempo, its simple guitar and melody, its melancholic lyrics.

Many of your novels involve a great deal of research. Tell us how you merge fiction with fact in your writing?

I love reading history for many reasons, but primarily because a good historian is often a good storyteller. The oldest advice given to writers is “Write what you know.” That’s fine, but I contend that I don’t know much. I prefer to write what I want to find out. When I’m reading about POW camps in the U.P., as I did for my most recent novel Wolf’s Mouth (Michigan State University Press), or the assassination of President McKinley, I’m always looking for the moment, the event in history that is begging to be a scene in a novel. And I love to gather details. About the weather, about what people wore, what a bowler had cost in 1901, or what the POW’s were paid per day to cut down trees. I distrust the word research; I prefer to read, to look. History books are a necessity, but I can’t get enough of old newspapers and magazines, memoirs, or letters. And maps and photographs (if there are any from the period in question) are invaluable.

You were a college professor for many years and have been deeply involved with helping others find their “voice.” What is your best advice to aspiring writers who don’t know where to start?

Two things: read and don’t quit.

Reading is absolutely essential to a writer’s life. You have to find the voices of others that speak to you. Admit what they say into your soul, and learn from it—how do they do it? How do they construct their sentences, their dialogue; how do they write scenes and narrative. Painters study paintings, how colors are realized, how brushes and knives are used to achieve certain textures on the canvas. It’s the same with writers. You need to absorb and study the work of others. It’s how you learn.

Perseverance and patience. All writers will (I might say they must) face rejection. If you want nothing but a pat on the back, you’re looking in the wrong place. Writing is a most solitary endeavor. You have to learn to spend a great deal of time alone; it’s just you and the page. Your only tool is language. Words, words, words, as the Bard wrote. You will seldom be rewarded or congratulated, and often you will be rebuffed, but if you have perseverance and patience, you may discover things about yourself as a writer that you would never have known had you pursued any other endeavor.

Is there a new project on the horizon? If so, please tell us a little about it.

In 2001 I published a novel called Cold. It’s been out of print for some time. Though we haven’t worked out the details yet, Michigan State University Press is interested in reissuing Cold. I’m currently working on a sequel, which I hope would be published once Cold is back in print. This new novel, which is as yet untitled, is set in the Upper Peninsula and one of the main characters, Del Maki, is back. I for one am happy to be in his company again. I’ve missed him.

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