Tonight, I have a highly anticipated (by me…) interview with author Nicole Helget about her most recent novel, Still water, and as well her life and opinions. I am highly inspired by her thoughts on our humanity, our nation, and women’s rights. You can see the review of Stillwater I did, HERE. Enjoy!
Hi, Nicole! Welcome to Oh, for the Hook of a Book! I am very pleased to have you here. After reading through your site, I feel an enormous kinship with you, as I am also a writer, spend a lot of time outside and gather inspiration there, read and write poetry, and I am a mother. I feel my words and it’s why I write, and also, I feel the weight of our ancestor’s stories and a need to spread their history. But we’ll get to that in the interview….
Your third book, Stillwater, a novel that surrounds a town in the Civil War era Minnesota, has just launched and I hoped to sit down and talk to you a little about it and your writing. How have your survived the winter? Is your book launch going well?
Nicole: We are trying (trying!) to enjoy this beautiful winter despite the relentless frigid cold. I go out every morning and try to find animal life to remind myself that this will pass and the next season is coming. The book launch in Stillwater, Minnesota, was fabulous. Valley Bookstore and the historic Lowell Inn put on a wonderful party for us. I couldn’t have been happier. And, since then, readers, writers, librarians, book sellers, and bloggers have been an absolute joy to work with. Everyone really has the “Minnesota Nice” on.
Erin: Yes, we are trying here too in Ohio where we also are still having frigid temps and snow. In the quiet of the woods and country, the snow is quiet, peaceful, and beautiful…in the city and getting kids to school and running errands, and heading to work meetings…not so much!! Amazing how there are two sides to life!
Since we both like to put our nose in the wind, let’s find a forest of pine, a bench, and I’ve brought along a thermos of hot tea since the wind is still a bit nippy. I hope you’ve brought your scarf….
Nicole: Oh, we’re well prepared for arctic temperatures here. I’ve got scarves, mittens, boots, snowpants, shovels, ice scrapers, whatever you need. Whiskey? Got that, too.
Erin: Ha! Let’s get started then, I’m anxious to learn more. When did you first discover your love of writing? How did it progress for you into not only a career, but something you are obviously very passionate about?
Nicole: I was in my mid-twenties before I wrote anything creatively. I read a lot before that, though. I taught high school and had a couple of babies. Then, I went back for a Master’s degree in education. But I met some cool people who thought I had a god storytelling style and who encouraged me to write and take creative writing classes, so I did. I won a University-sponsored writing contest, then a bigger one, and then a publishing company contacted me.
Erin: Which did discover first then, researching history or writing? How do both evolve together for you?
Nicole: I’ve always been a researcher. I like to look under things, in them, behind them. I’m just curious, I guess. I literally want to know everything about everything. Listening to smart people talk about their expertise makes me really happy. Writing became a way that I could work with that information, could sort it out, play with it, massage the nonfiction into a palatable story for people like me, who love curious historical tidbits and like a good chuckle every now and then and a solid lump in the throat before they go to bed.
Erin: Stillwater is set in Stillwater, Minnesota. Did I read correctly that this is a real town? Is it where you live or did you discover it? And if the latter, how? Why was it of importance to you or how did it allow you to set the scene of your novel?
Nicole: Stillwater is a beautiful town on the St. Croix River. I don’t live there, but I love the town in any case. It’s not that far from where I live. Stillwater is also considered the “birthplace of Minnesota.” The first real meeting and attempt to organize the state happened there. I knew of that event, of course since I’ve read a lot of Minnesota history and know a thing or two about westward expansion and such. Mostly, I like the natural elements around Stillwater, the river, the trees, and the air.
Erin: If you didn’t already state the inspiration for your novel above, what was your inspiration? How long did you spend researching?
Nicole: I’ve been “researching” for a very long time, before I knew I’d write a book about it. I love to read historical narratives and essays, and I’m particularly interested in Minnesota and Civil War history. A long while ago, I saw a photo of a man sitting on top of a log jam. The photo is from the St. Croix river in 1883. That man from the photo became my Clement.
Erin: In writing Stillwater, what surprised you most? Perhaps something you learned in your research or a character that took on its own form without prompting?
Nicole: At first, I thought that Beaver Jean, the bumbling fur trapper, was going to be a true villain, an obvious antagonist. But he took on a silly personality, and I grew to be quite fond of him. So, I couldn’t have him be 100% evil. I was also surprised by how the mothers took over the book. Originally, Clement was to be the main character. But, probably because I had two children during the writing of the book, all the moms wanted attention.
Erin: Are you a history lover or a lover of the connections history gives us? If the latter, is this what compels you to be a storyteller? How do you take a photo or a passage of a person and create a whole world stemming from that? Where do you begin?
Nicole: Both. I’m an amateur history buff, but I also see lots of connections to current events, usually because we haven’t solved the conflicts of the past. While writing, I go where the setting and characters take me. I never start with a plot in mind. That seems quite contrived to me. For me, conflict and plot develops out of the characters relationships with themselves, with each other, and with their environment.
Erin: What historical time periods most intrigue you? And why?
Nicole: I spend a lot of time in the pioneer days. The pioneer spirit interests me very much. I feel like I have it, even though I’m quite tethered to the home front with my job and children. My job, teaching at South Central College, provides me the opportunity to work with new pioneers through my international students. I have students who have been in the country for less than a year. I’m so amazed and intrigued by their stories, especially since the push and pull factors today are so similar to the ones for the early settlers.
Erin: Besides the Civil War, what historical time periods do we still need to learn from in our modern age? What lessons have we just not “gotten” yet?
Nicole: That’s a good question. I’m going to stick with the US for this one. There’s a lot to be learned from the Dust Bowl, of course, so we don’t forget what happens when we put too much pressure and bad stewardship on our environment. I think we should revisit the 80s and review what happens when deregulation runs rampant. And, though this is related to the Civil War, I think all citizens should be very aware of and sensitive to the fact that this country was built at the expense of many people, blacks and Native Americans chiefly, for the benefit of other people, whites, and that the social and economic consequences of those battles and genocides and enslavement take centuries to fix, not decades. I’d also add that this country’s pervasive and tenacious grip on sexism is a thing that will prohibit America’s greatest achievements until we recognize it and fix it. I am an enormous Obama supporter, but I think it’s remarkable that we picked him over a more qualified woman.
Erin comments: Excellent, you inspire me. I agree, I hope that we are able to change that in the next election. My hopes are high. We campaigned for the current President to win, but yes, I agree, it is time for women to respected as the intelligent, organized, and amazing people we are!
Erin: I know you are a fan of gothic Southern literature. Who inspires your writing? Who do you like to read? Why are these novels and authors of importance on today’s literary shelves?
Nicole: I read mostly poetry and historical nonfiction. I’ve also been reading the essays of John Muir. I do like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison. I also really like Larry McMurtry, Frederick Manfred, Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, and Denis Johnson. I like Mark Richard and Herman Melville and Annie Proulx and Kate DiCammilo and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, too. Basically, I like anyone whose art struggles against the expectations. I think all of these writers do that. Their writing is deep, knowing, surprising, compassionate, fun. There’s nothing better than a big, bold idea in the hands of a craftsman.
Erin: I also feel connected to a certain set of ancestors and some of it has to do with passing down old world baking recipes. Do you have a special recipes you keep tradition with in your household?
Nicole: Oh sure. You in the mood for sauerkraut and potato dumplings (knadels) and schmierkuchen?
Erin: What women of history inspire you or do you look upon with great fondness? Who were women trailblazers in your mind? And why?
Nicole: I think Elizabeth Cady Stanton was absolutely wonderful (despite some nasty words she threw Frederick Douglass’ way). She was the force and the words behind the suffrage movement. Every speech Susan B. Anthony ever uttered was written by Cady Stanton. Cady Stanton couldn’t travel the way Anthony could because she had a houseful of children to tend to.
Sacajawea, of course, comes to mind, the poor thing. My God. Can you imagine? Pregnant, birthing, and nursing with a canoe caravan of voyageurs who weren’t even sure what they were looking for?
Erin: How far do you think America has come in terms of women’s rights? Is there still room for improvement?
Nicole: Oh yes. Lots and lots of room for improvement. Childcare and time off for maternity leave has got to be easier. Health care has got to be free. Contraception has got to be free. Education has got to be free and equal. Religious zealots need to mostly go away. I teach late afternoon and night classes. I often have young women who say they need to miss class because of family obligations. My contribution is that I can be flexible. Can a new mother nurse her baby in my classroom? YES! Can I accept online work from a woman home with a sick child? ABSOLUTELY! This whole country needs to think more creatively and flexibly. Flexibility is structured, too. Women’s structure tends to adapt with the phases of their children. Why can’t the work world’s and education realm adapt to that?
Erin: YES, in full agreement!!
Erin: What other books have you written in addition to Stillwater?
Nicole: The Summer of Ordinary Ways, The Turtle Catcher, and Horse Camp. Wonder at the Edge of the World is coming out next year.
Erin: I read that you are a mother of six and yet you seem to work tirelessly. I am a mother of three (ages 6, 10, 14) so I don’t know how you keep it all together. What is your secret? How do you find alone time to let your muse breathe?
My muse breathes amidst a lot of chaos somehow! Ha. I have a lot of help. My kids have great dads. My kids are good to each other and patient of me.
Erin: I hate to draw the interview to a close because I have so much I could ask you. But I know you are busy and I’ve taken up already so much time. Where can readers and writers connect with you?
Nicole: You can follow along with my kids and me at nicolehelget.blogspot.com. You can find my twitter and instagram there, too.
Erin: Where is the best place for readers to purchase your books?
Nicole: Independent bookstores! But also Barnes and Noble and Amazon.
Erin: It has been a pleasure to have you here, Nicole. You are an amazing woman and I hope you’ll come back by the site in the future for even more discussion. Next time, maybe the air won’t be so chilly and we’ll have a longer walk and talk. Until then, I wish you much success with your writing and blessings to you and your family.
Nicole: Thanks so much! This was so fun. I love readers and readers who blog!
Clement and Angel are fraternal twins separated at birth; they grow up in the same small, frontier logging town of Stillwater, Minnesota. Clement was left at the orphanage. Angel was adopted by the town’s richest couple, but is marked and threatened by her mother’s mental illness. They rarely meet, but Clement knows if he is truly in need, Angel will come to save him.
Stillwater, near the Mississippi River and Canada, becomes an important stop on the Underground Railroad. As Clement and Angel grow up and the country marches to war, their lives are changed by many battles for freedom and by losses in the struggle for independence, large and small.
Stillwater reveals the hardscrabble lives of pioneers, nuns, squaws, fur trappers, loggers, runaway slaves and freedmen, outlaws and people of conscience, all seeking a better, freer, more prosperous future. It is a novel about mothers, about siblings, about the ways in which we must take care of one another and let go of one another. And it’s brought to us in Nicole Helget’s winning, gorgeous prose.
Buy the Book
Author Nicole Helget, Biography~
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.
You can see more reviews and posts from Stillwater tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours here:
Tour Page: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/stillwatertour
Tour Hashtag: #StillwaterTour