The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 6, 2013

Novelists mystical about process

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — Sitting down to write a fiction novel, three authors agreed Saturday, is like embarking on a mysterious journey fraught with surprises and with a destination unknown.

Minnesota authors Erin Hart, Peter Geye and Thomas Maltman presented their thoughts on historical fiction crafting during a panel forum at the 2013 St. Peter Book Festival in the city’s community center.

The authors said their abiding fascination for people and places of historical note was the genesis of their writing careers.

For Hart it was eerie artifacts unearthed in the bogs of Ireland. For Maltman is was a compelling interest in the U.S.-Dakota conflict. And for Geye it was the magnetic allure of Lake Superior’s North Shore.

Not that fascination equals ease and speed of writing, they all said.

“I wasn’t very disciplined when I started writing,” Geye said, jokingly slipping into his inner voice: “You should have a character when you sit down to write a novel.”

He said it took him 10 years to write “The Lighthouse Road,” which he cryptically summarizes as a book delving into the vagaries of “whiskey, an apothecary, fish and boats.”

Hart said it took her six years to write the archaeological crime novel “The Book of Killowen,” a bog-inspired tale of a man who died in the 9th century and whose body was found centuries later in the trunk of a car.

Hart described her unknown-journey process as she began writing her novel based on that whimsical premise.

“Someone asked me how that could be,” Hart told forum attendees. “And I said, ‘I don’t know. I have to write the book to find out.’ I approach novel-writing as an archaeologist approaches an excavation. I have to work my way into a story.”

Maltman, author of “Little Wolves,” suggested that writing about the Dakota conflict was almost cathartic after he researched that often overlooked chapter in Minnesota history.

“I really feel it’s a story I wanted to tell.”

Maltman said to ensure period authenticity he pored over settlers’ journals and fashioned a chart listing the detailed everyday stuff of life that informed pioneers’ existence.

On whether they determine a book’s main characters before they begin writing:

Geye: “In my mind I call it giving the characters a biography, but I’m never beholden to it.”

Maltman: “In the beginning the characters are blurry to you, and then they emerge, like a Polaroid photo.”

On abandoning a book’s characters who don’t become clear to a writer:

Maltman: “Sometimes, for a character who’s not serving any purpose in a story, you just X them out.”

On the role editors play:

Hart: “When you’re writing a crime novel, what you find is that editors want a character in jeopardy on every single page.”

Geye, whose editor showed him how less was more by whittling his lengthy manuscript: “It was a supreme education ... the book became better and better by getting rid of that first layer of fat.”

On whether authors become famous through luck or skill:

Hart: “Skill at being popular is different than the skill of writing.”

Maltman, alluding to Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County,” which was hugely popular but panned by critics: “He had a good story, but the author was a great marketer.”

More than 60 area authors and several representatives of publishing firms took part in Saturday’s event.