Tag Archives: fiction

Freedom of Expression and the Exiled Writer: A Reading List from Contemporary Literature Journal

To mark Banned Books Week, we are sharing a collection of articles and interviews from Contemporary Literature journal featuring writers whose work has been censored, or who have faced government persecution in response to their writing.


“I have tried to write honestly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China.”

Ha Jin

Chinese writer Ha Jin came to the United States to complete doctoral studies in American literature and opted to emigrate permanently following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. From studying literature, he turned to writing poetry and then fiction, and to date he has published eight novels, seven books of poetry, and four short story collections.

In a New York Times op-ed, published a few days before the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen Square, he explains his decision to write in English: “if I wrote in Chinese, my audience would be in China and I would therefore have to publish there and be at the mercy of its censorship. To preserve the integrity of my work, I had no choice but to write in English.” He continues, “To some Chinese, my choice of English is a kind of betrayal. But loyalty is a two-way street. I feel I have been betrayed by China, which has suppressed its people and made artistic freedom unavailable. I have tried to write honestly about China and preserve its real history. As a result, most of my work cannot be published in China.”

In this Contemporary Literature interview, conducted by Jerry A. Varsava, Ha Jin discusses growing up during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when books were burned and schools were shuttered, as well as his decision to join the “great [English literary] tradition where nonnative writers [have become] essential writers.”

Read the interview, freely available for the rest of September: “An Interview with Ha Jin”


“If our own literature in Africa is too political, then I think the literature of the U.S. is too apolitical.”

Niyi Osundare

Niyi Osundare is a Nigerian poet known as “The People’s Poet” for his commitment to making poetry accessible to all and reflective of common life. He uses elements of the Yoruba oral tradition, which he transmits through his English-language writing.

In this 2000 interview with Cynthia Hogue and Nancy Easterlin for Contemporary Literature, Osundare describes the struggle of the artist writing under a dictatorship, summing up the situation with this parable: “once an English writer came to an African colleague and complained about the apparent irrelevance of Western writers. The African then told the Western artist, ‘Well, when we talk in Africa, the government listens, but that is not the end of the story. The government listens in a different way. They put us in jail.’”

But democracy also hampers the artist in certain ways, Osundare finds, having emigrated to the US in 1997. Comparing US literature and African literature, he notes, “Democracy leads to the flowering of free opinions, of public consciousness, and, without this, creativity cannot really take place. But democracy also leads to a kind of complacency which may undermine that dissonance and eliminate that kick in the stomach that is necessary for every creative activity. . . . If our own literature in Africa is too political, then I think the literature of the U.S. is too apolitical.”

Osundare believes in a “golden mean” that writers should strive for. And while Osundare’s work often has political themes, Isidore Diala argues in this Contemporary Literature article that the poet’s work contains a “vibrant and sustained global humanistic vision” that has been overlooked by critics who focus too narrowly on the poems’ Nigeria-specific social and political commentary.

Read the article, freely available for the rest of September: “Burden of the Visionary Artist: Niyi Osundare’s Poetry,” by Isidore Diala

And read the interview on JSTOR: “An Interview with Niyi Osundare”


“How might we think about postcolonial state formation and literary form together? Can we determine a relationship between them that goes beyond that of simple opposition?”

Jini Kim Watson on NINOTCHKA ROSCA

In 1973, Filipina writer Ninotchka Rosca was imprisoned under the Marcos dictatorship for her antigovernmental journalism. Later, from exile in the U.S., she wrote a short story collection, The Monsoon Collection, and a novel, State of War, about life during the Marcos regime. In the outlines of Rosca’s biography, argues Jini Kim Watson in her article “Stories of the State: Literary Form and Authoritarianism in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War,” we find that the “repressive, unchecked (usually third-world) dictatorial state is conceived of in inherent opposition to the freedom and free speech of committed writers.” This vision of the relationship between the writer and the authoritarian state is seen, for example, in the literary and humanitarian organization PEN International, which fights for freedom of expression and strives to protect writers from state persecution.

While writers do face very real persecution, Watson argues that it is dangerous to oversimplify the dynamic between writers and the authoritarian state, since this could imply that third-world states are simply “tyrannical and backwards”—a judgment that privileges Western norms of “good” government and ignores the agency of individual citizens. “How might we think about postcolonial state formation and literary form together?” Watson asks. “Can we determine a relationship between them that goes beyond that of simple opposition?” Watson puts these questions to Rosca’s State of War, examining the ways the novel confounds a simplistic view of state tyranny through formal experimentation and a nuanced narrative.

Read the article, freely available for the rest of September: “Stories of the State: Literary Form and Authoritarianism in Ninotchka Rosca’s State of War,” by Jini Kim Watson


To learn more about Contemporary Literaturesubscribe to the journal, browse the latest table of contents, or sign up for new issue email alerts.

A Sense of Place

Our guest bloggers are Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden, authors of the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mysteries. The fourth book in the series, The Dead of Achill Island, was published this week.

Plains of Achill Island and Mountain

Photo by Betsy Draine

In planning a mystery, we begin by asking: where? Our first novel, Murder in Lascaux, was set in southwestern France. The setting generated the plot, which focused on prehistoric cave art. A sense of place has been important in each installment in the series: northern California in The Body in Bodega Bay, the French Riviera in Death on a Starry Night, and the West of Ireland in The Dead of Achill Island.

We first visited Achill on the advice of Betsy’s cousin, an Irish nun. The West of Ireland, she told us, is where the old ways are best preserved. The largest of Ireland’s islands, Achill (rhymes with “cackle”) lies offshore above Galway on the Atlantic coast, as far west as an Irishman can go. Today the island is linked to the mainland by a causeway and a bridge. Even so, Achill feels remote. Denuded of trees, the landscape presents flat vistas of bogs and grasslands, steep mountains, and treacherous cliffs. Its megalithic tombs attest that the island has been inhabited for millennia, while church graveyards with broken headstones recall the dead of recent centuries. A soft rain falls more often than not. What better setting for a mystery?

Cottage rubble with mountain backdrop

Photo by Betsy Draine

At the base of Slievemore Mountain lies a string of ruined cottages known as the Deserted Village. These homes were abandoned in the 1840s at the time of the Great Famine. Inhabitants fled to the island’s shore, where they survived by fishing. They left behind an Irish ghost town. As we wandered through the lonely village, we imagined discovering a body in one of the ruined cottages, and that became the opening scene of this novel.

The title refers not only to a fictional murder but also to the victims of two historical tragedies on Achill that gave rise to legend. It is said that In the 17th century a prophet named Brian Rua O’Cearbhain foretold that carriages on iron wheels would come to the island, belching smoke and fire—and on their first and last journeys, the carriages would carry the dead. The prophecy was fulfilled when the first steam train came in 1894, returning the bodies of thirty islanders who had drowned en route to seasonal jobs in Scotland. The last run of the train before the line shut down in 1937 carried the bodies of twenty-three local boys who had died in a fire while working away from home. The haunting legend attached to these tragedies colors the atmosphere of the novel.

A well-rendered sense of place can immerse a reader in another world. In The Dead of Achill Island, we hope the reader is transported to the West of Ireland alongside Nora and Toby.

Draine and Hinden author photoBetsy Draine and Michael Hinden are are coauthors of the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mysteries. They also coauthored the memoir A Castle in the Backyard: The Dream of a House in France and translated The Walnut Cookbook by Jean-Luc Toussaint. They are professors emeriti of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

When Fiction is Based on a True Story

Our guest blogger today is Patricia Skalka, author of the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series. The fifth book in the series, Death by the Bay, was published this month.

Of the five books in the Dave Cubiak Door County mysteries, Death by the Bay is the most personal.

In the first four volumes, both the characters and the plots were born in my imagination. The concept for Death by the Bay evolved from a true story that my mother told me when I was ten or twelve. She grew up on a small family farm in central Wisconsin in a community of Polish immigrants. Few spoke English and most had large families. One neighboring couple stood out because they had only one child, a daughter with a disability. One day, an itinerant doctor, or someone posing as such, told the couple that he could help their child. The specifics became blurred over time, but in one version, he talked of a special school where children like their daughter could learn to live independently. I remember my mother saying that he offered to provide free medical care, treatments that would alleviate her condition and even “cure” her.

The stranger was educated, persuasive. The desperate couple believed him. Thinking they were acting in the best interests of their precious only child, they allowed him to leave with her. They never saw her again.

I was horrified. I could not believe that such evil existed in the world. But there was more. Months later, the same predator or one of similar ilk came to my grandparents’ farm. His target was my mother’s younger sister, Rose, who’d been afflicted with polio and as a result was unable to speak or walk properly. Aware of what had happened to the neighboring family, my grandmother picked up a broom and chased the man out the door.

Before I became a novelist, I was a nonfiction writer. My stories about human drama, women’s issues, and medical advancements appeared in many print and online publications. The story I always wanted to write was the story of the couple whose daughter was stolen under false pretenses. But there was no paper trail, no way to research or document the events.

So, I did the only thing I could: I fictionalized the story. This tragic tale I heard decades ago became the seed for Death by the Bay. Though I shifted the locale, altered the circumstances, and developed a contemporary plot line, the basis of the story remains unchanged. Death by the Bay is a tale of the powerful preying on the weak, a tale of the educated taking advantage of the unknowing. It is a story that, unfortunately, continues to repeat itself in various ways throughout the world today.

Patricia Skalka Author

Photo by B.E. Pinkham

Patricia Skalka is the author of Death Stalks Door CountyDeath at Gills RockDeath in Cold Water, and Death Rides the Ferry, winner of a Midwest Book Award. She is president of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime and divides her time between Chicago and Door County, Wisconsin.

Visit Patricia’s website to view her upcoming events and more: http://www.patriciaskalka.com/

29th Annual Midwest Book Award Winners for UW Press titles

We are thrilled to announce two Midwest Book Award winners from the University of Wisconsin Press! These awards from the Midwest Independent Publishing Association (MIPA) recognize quality in independent publishing in the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin).

Death Rides the Ferry cover imageDeath Rides the Ferry by Patricia Skalka won the Fiction–Mystery/Thriller category. The fourth book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series finds Sheriff Dave Cubiak enjoying a rare day off as tourists and a documentary film crew hover around the newly-revived Viola da Gamba Music Festival, back after a forty-year hiatus. A passenger is found dead on a ferry, and longtime residents recall the disastrous festival decades earlier, when a woman died and a valuable sixteenth-century instrument—the fabled yellow viol—vanished. Sheriff Cubiak is sent on a trail of murder, kidnapping, and false identity. With the lives of those he holds most dear in peril, the sheriff pursues a ruthless killer into the stormy northern reaches of Lake Michigan.

Eleven Miles to Oshkosh cover imageEleven Miles to Oshkosh by Jim Guhl won the category for Fiction-Young Adult. The story centers on the coming-of-age of Del “Minnow” Finwick, whose small world in Wisconsin has blown apart. His father, a deputy sheriff, has been murdered by the unknown “Highway 41 Killer.” His mom has unraveled. And a goon named Larry Buskin has been pummeling Minnow behind Neenah High. When the sheriff seems in no hurry to solve the murder, Minnow must seek justice by partnering with unlikely allies and discovering his own courage.

 

Congratulations again to the authors and all involved! To celebrate, we are giving away a a copy of both award-winning books to one (1) lucky entrant:

An Interview with Poet Marge Piercy

As National Poetry Month draws to a close, we will be presenting three interviews with living poets, originally published in Contemporary Literature journal. The interviews are freely available to access until May 1.

Our first offering features poet, novelist, and memoirist Marge Piercy. Interviewer Bonnie Lyons describes Piercy’s poetry in this way:

Valuing usefulness highly, Piercy writes poems that are accessible to ordinary readers without sacrificing rich imagery and subtle sound effects. Her poetry embodies her belief in the importance of attention in her precise word choice and acute perception. Tikkun olam, Hebrew for “healing the world,” is central to her poetry, which works to awaken her readers’ passionate recognition of all that could and should be changed through human effort.

To date, Marge Piercy has written nineteen volumes of poetry, seventeen novels, and a memoir. When asked how she navigates multiple genres, she characterizes herself as “a poet who also writes novels.” She describes the benefits of her chosen genre:

You can write poetry when you are dying. The Plains Indians would try to have a final utterance. You can write poetry in a prison cell—you can scrawl it on the walls. You can memorize your poems. You can carry them around with you. A novel is a far more artificial construction, and it takes huge amounts of time to write one. If you were fighting as a guerrilla, you couldn’t write a novel, but you could write poetry. A novel is far less portable.

Lyons and Piercy discuss the writer’s long history of social and political activism. Piercy articulates how she has created a balance between activism and writing—two fields of activity that are often felt to be in conflict with one another. Piercy explains,

When I was a full-time organizer, I basically gave up sleeping to write. In my life since then, because I have been able to reach people through my writing, I feel much less of a conflict. In fact, it’s all of a piece with me. I don’t divide things up that way. I don’t make a value judgment that one type of poetry is more important than another—neither my poems about Judaism, or poems about love, or poems about the war in Iraq or the environment.

The interview also touches on the usefulness of poetry, the importance of reading in order to write, poetry as an act of attention similar to a religious practice, making a living as a writer, Piercy’s reputation as an “anti-academic” poet and how poetry can thrive outside of academe, and writing about sex, aging, and the body.

Read the full interview here, and then go read Piercy’s poems!

Starvation Shore

Today’s guest blogger is Laura Waterman, author of Starvation Shore, a compelling tale based on a true story of polar explorers fighting for their lives.

 

My novel, Starvation Shore, is based on the Greely Arctic Expedition of 1881–1884. Also known as the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, this three-year saga of a little known American Arctic expedition can be equated with the Franklin Expedition for daring and horrific disaster.

This is the story of 25 men who find that surviving in the Arctic requires cooperation to the point of selflessness. But as darkness, vicious wind, and gelid cold confines them to what feels like a prison sentence, what gets laid bare are the fatal flaws and staggering misjudgments.

I began work on this novel in 2008. Researching and writing it has been an epic journey itself. I was drawn to this story because of the hardships that bring us face to face with our true selves. I was curious to join with these men, to see how I would react in a setting that made such physical demands, that required moral, ethical, and spiritual courage.

A group photo of the explorers

This expedition grew out of a desire to counter the enormous loss of men and ships in the Arctic over the last three centuries. In 1881 the United States was part of the International Polar Year that established stations around the icecap. Lt. Greely’s men were there to take meteorological observations and so learn about the Arctic.  They were expected to set a new Farthest North, long held by the British. The U.S. Army was in charge. The equivalent today would be a manned trip to Mars.

Sgt. David Brainard

I used the men’s diaries, particularly Sgt. David Brainard’s, the portion he wrote at Cape Sabine after the men had left the fort they had built at Discovery Harbor, farther north and only 500 miles from the North Pole. The promised resupply by ship had failed because of pack ice. The men had spent a second winter, and as the third winter drew near, Lt. Greely ordered the men into the open boats, a controversial move. They had had supplies enough to make it through a third winter, if they had stayed.

Pvt. Charles B. Henry

That this was an unhappy expedition from the start fascinated me. What was going to happen? Dr. Pavy and Lt. Greely were a mismatch of temperaments. Lt. Kislingbury wished he’d never come.  His senseless acts of insubordination caused Lt. Greely to break him. Sgt. Brainard was sure they had a murderer along, namely Pvt. Charles Henry. Lt. Lockwood, brave, strong, a gifted leader of men—he set the Farthest North record—was prone to depression.

On the other hand, Pvt. Shorty Frederick was there when you needed him. Their young astronomer, Ned Israel, took infectious delight in the mystery of an Arctic night. Photographer George Rice’s glass plates showed a frigid black and white beauty not seen before. Eskimo Jens Edwards died in his boat catching seals for them.

The six survivors on their way home in 1884

When the rescue party arrived in 1884, two thirds of the men were dead. What George Rice had feared, and Sgt. Brainard had tried to prevent, had happened: cannibalism.

I grew up reading about adventure; most children do:  Doctor Doolittle, Treasure Island, Swallows and Amazons. When I read Annapurna, Maurice Herzog’s account of the first 8000-meter peak to be climbed, I wondered, had I been along, could I have made it to the top? I began climbing on my homeground. The White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Presidential Range in winter, and learned about winds that can knock you down, visibility so compromised you’re relying on all your senses and your internal compass, and frightening subzero cold. I drew on this experience for writing Starvation Shore. I learned, as Greely’s men did, that we are often capable of more than we had thought possible.

 

 Laura Waterman is an author, environmentalist, and outdoor enthusiast. Her books include The Green Guide to Low-Impact Hiking and CampingA Fine Kind of Madness: Mountain Adventures Tall and True, and Losing the Garden: The Story of a Marriage.

Contemporary Literature Journal Seeks Articles and Interviews

Call for Papers and Interviews

Contemporary LiteratureContemporary Literature seeks scholarly essays on post-World War II literature written in English which offer scope, supply a new dimension to conventional approaches, or transform customary ways of reading writers. Additionally, CL welcomes interviews that focus on an author’s writing, pursue and elaborate a line of questioning and response, and provide insight into central aspects of the writer’s significance. Past interviews have featured writers such as Dorothy AllisonRae Armantrout, Edwidge Danticat, Rachael KushnerBen LernerViet Thanh Nguyen, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Charles Yu.

See the journal’s submission guidelines for more information. Questions may be directed to the editorial office at CL@english.wisc.edu.

About CL: Contemporary Literature publishes scholarly essays on contemporary writing in English, interviews with established and emerging authors, and reviews of recent critical books in the field. The journal welcomes articles on multiple genres, including poetry, the novel, drama, creative nonfiction, new media and digital literature, and graphic narrative. CL published the first articles on Thomas Pynchon and Susan Howe and the first interviews with Margaret Drabble and Don DeLillo; it also helped to introduce Kazuo Ishiguro, Eavan Boland, and J. M. Coetzee to American readers. As a forum for discussing issues animating the range of contemporary literary studies, CL features the full diversity of critical practices. The editors seek articles that frame their analysis of texts within larger literary historical, theoretical, or cultural debates.

To learn more, subscribe to the journal, browse the latest table of contents, or sign up for new issue email alerts.

Series Surprises – When the Characters Take Charge

Today we have a piece written by Patricia Skalka, author of the Dave Cubiak Door County Mysteries. The third book in this series, Death in Cold Water has recently been released in paperback.

In real life, people and relationships continually shift and change.  They do the same in fiction. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises I encounter in writing the Dave Cubiak Door County mysteries comes from seeing how the characters evolve from one book to the next. Death in Cold Water, the third book in the ongoing saga, finds protagonist Dave Cubiak firmly ensconced as the heroic sheriff even as he continues to struggle with the issues of grief and loss that propelled his move to Door County. But he is no longer the same character he was in Death Stalks Door County, the book that kicks off the series. Over time, and the course of three volumes, he transitions from a forlorn, drunk recluse into a man who slowly learns to trust both himself and others and one who learns to love again.

In describing the heroic detective figure, Raymond Chandler once famously said “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero.” Chandler’s description does not fit the flawed and tragic protagonist we first meet.  He is mean (punishing himself for the deaths of his wife and daughter); he is tarnished (having drunk himself out of his job as a Chicago cop); and he is afraid (fearful of life, of making more mistakes); he is not a hero (initially he stubbornly refuses to help solve the mysterious murders plaguing the county). After his moral compass swings back into place, all changes. Cubiak’s plight endures him to readers who empathize with his failings and see themselves reflected in his struggles.

Although I create the stories and control the words that fall upon the page, more often than not I feel like a bystander, one who records events as they occur and documents the shifts in relationships between my fictional characters. I always imagined that Dave Cubiak and the erudite physician Evelyn Bathard would be friends, but I never planned for Bathard to become a father figure to the sheriff. Yet that is exactly what happens. The process begins in the second book and intensifies in Death in Cold Water.

Meanwhile, Mike Rowe makes his entrance in book two as a minor character. His role is expedient. Cubiak needs access to a fast boat, so I introduce a hot-shot young deputy who owns the high-powered Speedy Sister.  I cast Rowe as a minor figure but then the muse takes over and in Death in Cold Water, the deputy plays a pivotal role. Even more interesting, at the same time, almost magically, Cubiak emerges as something of a father figure to the younger man.

Did I mention love? In book two, both international photographer Cate Wagner and local vet Natalie Klein appear as romantic interests. In Death in Cold Water, one of the two wins Cubiak’s heart. But I’m not telling which. The answer is one of the series surprises.

 

Patricia Skalka is the author of Death Stalks Door CountyDeath at Gills Rock, and Death Rides the Ferry, the fourth book in the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series. She is president of the Chicagoland chapter of Sisters in Crime and divides her time between Chicago and Door County, Wisconsin. A former staff writer at Reader’s Digest, she presents writing workshops throughout the United States.

A River Runs Through It

 

Today’s guest blogger is Lucy Jane Bledsoe, author of the new book Lava Falls, a collection of twelve stories.

A deep canyon divides this continent, our country. I’m not talking about the political divide, but rather an actual geographical feature. The Grand Canyon, however, can also be seen as a massive metaphor.

The National Parks are as American as baseball and apple pie, and Grand Canyon National Park is perhaps the most iconic of them all. It’s no surprise this gash is at the center of so many American conflicts.

The current administration in Washington is enthusiastically embracing lobbyists aiming to roll back the environmental protections on our nation’s 640 million acres of public land, including that surrounding the Grand Canyon. Uranium miners are particularly eager to get their hands on new ground and have already succeeded in grabbing parts of Bears Ears and Escalante National Monuments. Environmentalists and Native Americans, such as the Havasupai who live in the region, are fighting back.

But environmental threats are not the only trauma rocking Grand Canyon National Park. The Colorado River corridor has been at the heart of a sexual harassment disaster ripping through the National Park Service, with a years long history of female guides and rangers being physically attacked, propositioned for sex, and retaliated against after reporting incidents. The isolated environment of the Colorado River corridor, where small groups of travelers are dependent upon one another for literal survival, makes an unfortunately perfect habitat for predation. National Park Service managers knew for years about the sexual harassment in the Grand Canyon and failed to take action. The scandal resulted in the resignation of park superintendent Dave Uberuaga, and also reportedly left the river corridor unpatrolled for at least two summers.

It is in the context of these stories of abuse—of the land itself and of the women who love it—that I wrote my novella, “Lava Falls.” As a way of reclaiming the majestic red walls of the Grand Canyon, and the sparkling emerald river running through it, I sent a group of six women on a rafting trip, each with her own story for why she’s making the journey.

As the trip progresses, the women discover secrets in the canyon and encounter the sources of the contemporary conflicts gushing through it, all while trying to survive the desert and monster rapids, including the famous Lava Falls rapid.

I wrote “Lava Falls” because I’m interested in the layers of earth’s history revealed by the Grand Canyon, the way they mirror the layers of human history. People have been living along and inside the Colorado River and Grand Canyon for thousands of years. There still exists a rickety bridge across a gap in the canyon wall built centuries ago by the Anasazi people. Compare this to the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams bracketing the canyon today, not so rickety, and yet sure to eventually crumble and wash away.

Our country is deeply divided, by our political views and by a gorgeous canyon. I hope that one day soon the national parks, especially the stunning landscape of the Grand Canyon, will return to its role as the crown jewel of America, a source of spiritual renewal and nourishing water, a reminder of our short and precious history on this planet.

 

 

Lucy Jane Bledsoe is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels A Thin Bright Line and The Big Bang Symphony and the adventure essay collection The Ice Cave. She has traveled the length of the Grand Canyon, skied through Yellowstone National Park, kayaked and hiked in Alaska, and voyaged several times to Antarctica. She lives in Berkeley, California.

Blind Entry, Bittersweet Exit

Today’s guest blogger is Lee Zacharias, author of the book Across the Great Lake, a haunting novel of nautical adventure, love, ghosts, and tragedy.

I’ve never written from an outline. My first novel, Lessons, began as a short story about a sixth grader whose mother signs her up for the school band.  But as the story grew so did my sixth grader. The adult Jane Hurdle becomes a classical clarinetist, and to research the novel I audited a year of music theory and attended a summer’s worth of orchestra rehearsals at the Eastern Music Festival, where each day I lunched with the musicians, immersing myself so completely in their world that when I finished I was shocked to realize I can’t play a note.

My new novel, Across the Great Lake, grew out of research for an essay about Frankfort, Michigan, which still bills itself as the home port of the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries, though the ferries stopped running long ago. As a girl I had visited Frankfort once. Coming as I did from the industrial Calumet Region at the bottom of Lake Michigan, I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever been.

Though at twelve I thought my life would be perfect if I could only live there, more than forty years would pass before I visited again, a short detour on my way from my mother’s house in Hammond to Traverse City, where my husband’s cousins were holding a reunion. There was the beach, just as I remembered, the house where we had stayed, the restaurant where my family had eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The only thing missing was deep, evocative call of the foghorn. I bought a copy of Ninety Years, the history of the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries, and was plunged into a world of tricky currents, fierce storms, and ice, so much ice. Soon I was reading everything I could find about the lake, the ferries, the history of the area. I finished my essay but couldn’t let the material go.

The first sentence of the novel, “We went to the ice,” came to me without a clear sense of who was speaking or when. In the first chapter I learned it was a five-year-old girl whose father was thecaptain of a railroad car ferry and that he was taking her with him because her mother was dying, but I didn’t know her name, which I found as I sat on the porch at Wildacres Retreat in North Carolina tossing names back and forth with a friend until we both said, “That’s it!”

I chose this adventurous little girl, Fern, because everything aboard would be new to her. The narrator couldn’t be one of the crew because I didn’t know what his story would be, and I panicked when I realized I had no idea how sailors talked among themselves. “Just have them tell Ole and Lena jokes,” a former student from Wisconsin suggested, and as soon as Axel began a joke I’d found online, his voice—their voices—seemed as natural as if I’d been listening to them my whole life. I settled on 1936 because it was one of the coldest winters on record. No radar. Things came together. I finished the book. But the world I’d lived in for the last three years wasn’t mine, and I felt its loss nearly as acutely as Fern feels the loss of her childhood home. To write a novel is to create a country for yourself that you will one day leave with the homesick backward glance of an exile.

 

Lee Zacharias is the author of four previous books, including The Only Sounds We Make and Lessons, a Book of the Month Club selection. Her work has appeared in the Best American Essays series. Born in Chicago and raised in Hammond, Indiana, she is professor emerita of English at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Read more about Lee Zacharias at www.leezacharias.com.