I have the opportunity to introduce to many of you author Nicole Helget. Her novel, Stillwater, was released a couple weeks ago and I had the chance to ask her a few questions about the new book. Stay tuned to the end of the interview for a giveaway too!
Has writing been something that you has always wanted to do or did you get the reading bite later?
Later. I was in my mid-twenties before it every occurred to me that I should write creatively. I read a lot before that, and I knew a good story when I read or heard one. I come from people who can spin a good tale. I think those stories, told at the supper table, were my first introduction to storytelling.
Minnesota isn’t a setting that gets much attention in the historical fiction world, especially in the time around the Civil War. Why set you book in this time and place?
I live here in southern Minnesota, and I think it’s a beautiful state and is still, for the most part, “a state that works.” I got into the book of Stillwater through a photograph I saw of a logjam. The man sitting on the logjam had a curious face, one which looked young but ragged and knowing at the same time. He looked like he’d seen some battles. So, the combination of the logjam on a Minnesota river and a battle-weary countenance was the motivation for putting those two components together.
I’m also something of an amateur Minnesota and Civil War history nut. I can’t get enough of reading about them.
There are many different elements that come together in Stillwater. It’s a novel of family connections, the life on the frontier, and of course residuals of the Civil War. What inspired the novel? Was it a storyline, specific event, character?
Inspirations come from everywhere for me. Sometimes I have to try and turn them off! The book began with Clement, who was inspired by the logjam photo. But, after that, I was inspired by songs, by narratives I was reading, by documentaries, by movies, and by the outdoors. I also shameless “pluck” people and events from history and sort of massage them into my work. Mr. Hatterby was based on a real politician. Eliza was based on a real escaped slave. The swan motif came from another book I was working on at the time, a children’s nonfiction book for a local publishing company. And, of course, being pregnant and birthing and childrearing during the creation of Stillwater inspired me, too. I’ve got loads of “mama” stuff in there.
Mental illness is relatively infrequently explored in the historical genre – and I had not really considered it myself when I have thought about America during this time period. What led to the inclusion of this plot line in Stillwater?
Upon statehood, Minnesota had three cities vying for the capitol. St. Paul eventually “won” that right, but the other two cities received consolation prizes. One city got the prison, and one city got the “lunatic asylum.” Interesting, isn’t it? I couldn’t get that out of my head, that of all the things a new state would need, a lunatic asylum would be near the top of the list. Also, my oldest daughter is obsessed, obsessed with books about serial killers and other people with sociopathic tendencies. And, she loves to talk about whatever she’s reading. I co-oped some of her interests, I guess.
Do you have plans for future writing endeavors?
Oh yes. I’ve got a book coming out next year, titled Wonder at the Edge of the World. It’s about a Kansas girl in the late 1850s who travels to New Bedford with her best friend (and escaped slave) Eustace to hop on board a whaling ship. I’m also working on another book about a character named John Mirror whose father is a tyrannical religious nut. John Mirror loves trees and has a wild fox following him around.
You have some wonderful family photos on your blog – how do you find time to work on your writing with a large family?
I surround myself with helpful and productive people. That’s the most important thing. I’m real loose with my writing schedule. Sometimes I get up at five in the morning and write like a maniac. But then, the phase might pass, and I might not write for months. I like writing. But I’m not one of those people who feels like they will die if they don’t write. I do have brief moments of serious urges to write, and I do try to create in those times. But, often, writing is work. And I do it when the deadlines are looming. So, in that way, it’s just like every other working mother out there. You do it when it has to get done.
Born in 1976, NICOLE LEA HELGET grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, a childhood and place she drew on in the writing of her memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways. She received her BA and an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Based on the novel’s first chapter, NPR’s Scott Simon awarded The Turtle Catcher the Tamarack Prize from Minnesota Monthly.
Nicole Helget shares her thoughts on writing and her influences, as well as beautiful photos of her family (including six children!) at her blog.
And thanks to the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour, I have the opportunity to offer a giveaway of one hardcover copy of Stillwater to one lucky USA resident. Entries are made through the Rafflecopter below. Last day to enter is March 23rd. Good luck.
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