Monday, October 7, 2013

Stillwater Events and Information

Photos with some of my favorite people at the launch. 

Praise for Stillwater

"A wonder of a novel, rich in history, humor and heart, with prose that flows and sparkles like a sunlit river." 
-Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon and The Wilding

"Stillwater is a stunning achievement. Helget brings her keen sense for Southern Gothic to, of all places, the Northwoods of Minnesota. A fascinating story of a frontier logging town, this novel boasts a remarkable assortment of characters--Indians, slaves, trappers, missionaries, mothers and lost children--all caught up in the crosscurrents of American history. A highly touching and believable tale."
-Jonathan Odell, author of The View from Delphi and The Healing

"Make room, Louise Erdrich, Minnesota has a new resident scribe, and her name is Nicole Helget. Stillwater, Helget's sophomore effort, is that rare historical novel that shines as much light forward as it does back. In prose that shimmers, she tells the story of orphans and runaway slaves, do-gooders and do-gadders, gentle nuns and randy old coots, each of whom damn near leaps off the page, reminding s of who we are now. Rascally and robust, saucy and sincere as a logjam, Stillwater is a celebration of this country's coming of age from a writer staking her claim."
-Peter Geye, author of Safe from the Sea and The Lighthouse Road 

Publisher's Weekly

Helget, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir The Summer of Ordinary Ways, sets her third novel in the harsh frontier of Minnesota around the time of the Civil War, where the explosion in logging activity transforms her characters as wholly as it does the landscape. What drives the narrative is the dark side of the pioneer spirit—the urge to abandon home and loved ones in search of opportunity. Helget’s colorful cast struggles against an “every man for himself” frontier mentality: from a set of orphaned, separated twins named Clement and Angel; to their biological father, a ne’er-do-well fur-trapper named Beaver Jean; to Angel’s nervous, abusive adoptive mother in her fine taffeta skirts; to the nuns and priests and native Americans and escaped slaves who fill out the titular town of Stillwater. The question of whether they will—or won’t—take the risks to help each other survive gives the story some tension, but Helget’s lyricism is what elevates it: “Wedged among the reeds of the shore, the swan’s nest rested in a precarious position... Clement watched as the river took another few strands of the nest, and he was reminded of what happens when one thread is pulled from the cloth.” Agent: Faye Bender, Faye Bender Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on: 10/07/2013 Release date: 02/04/2014

Nicole Helget Q and A

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Clement and Angel, a pair of newborn twins, are abandoned and then separated in the logging town of Stillwater; as they grow, various mothers of good and evil ilk raise them at a time when the young United States, too, grows in ways good and evil, pitting industrial ingenuity and personal ambition against mother nature and inherent human freedom.

What inspired you to write this book?
Oh, lots of things. This photo of a logjam on the St. Croix river for one:

Also, I read and reread Victor Hugo, William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Manfred, Willa Cather, and lots of other writers. A bevy of personal narratives, newspaper articles, and letters from the time period also caught my attention, and as I read them I started writing Stillwater thinking that the story would mostly be Clement’s. But the more that I added, the mothers seemed to take over. This makes sense as I birthed two babies in the years it took to write Stillwater. The babies were Archibald and Gordon, a year and a half apart, my last two of six. My mind was often turned to pregnancy, birthing, nursing, and overwhelming fatigue.

Exhaustion puts me in a distinctive mindset. I get very introspective and gloomy, but I also get ironic and even giddy. It was in that mindset that my character Beaver Jean took shape. Writing should be enjoyable, at least once in a while. And I honestly enjoyed writing about him, putting him in ridiculous situations, making him think and say absurd things, especially while I was writing in the middle of the night or early morning with a growly baby snuggled against my breast.

You seem to spend a lot of time writing about the past. Reason?
Well, for one, I feel a deep connection to the domestic lives of women from the past. I can’t help it. Living in a small, hundred-year-old house with a large family, I feel one blown fuse away from pre-electricity survival. I hyperbolize a bit, but I really do spend a lot of time cooking, cleaning, and caretaking. These themes appeared in my earlier work of literary historical fiction, The Turtle Catcher, too.

Also, I felt that—had I the opportunity or choice to participate in the creation of a new place, like the characters in Stillwater—I would have taken it. I would have been the one to step forward with all my kids dripping off me like sap. I would have been the woman who would have gotten in the boat to cross an ocean. I would have been the woman who then piled the children into a wagon. I would have been the one with the pioneer spirit, the one looking west.

How do you accurately depict the time period you’re writing about?
Reading, viewing, listening, and thinking. A long time ago, early in my education, I was lucky to have a couple of teachers who taught me how to research—how to go deep beyond the google search and find documents, videos, photographs, articles, maps, and a glut of other wonderful sources of information. My alma mater of Minnesota State University, Mankato, devotes an entire room of its library to Minnesota history. In St. Paul, the Minnesota Historical Society has an enormous library, rotating exhibits, and a vast online database of information. In these physical and electronic spaces, for example, I’ve found personal narratives from early settlers moving west, articles from early newspapers, and theses from people working on graduate and doctoral degrees. Accounts from ordinary people interest me the most.

For the novel Stillwater, I found the impetus for my escaped slave, Eliza Christmas, in these places. The character Eliza Christmas is based on a real woman, Eliza Winston, who came to Minnesota with her Mississippi masters and earned her freedom with the help of freed African-Americans living in Minnesota and the Minnesota courts. After the court’s ruling, she escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad with the help of Minnesota abolitionists. Interestingly, the real Eliza Winston returned to her masters before the Civil War. This complication of loyalties and perceived duties and physical survival affected me as a writer. All these considerations manifest themselves in Eliza.

I also go outside. I try to find quiet places as close to what the place must’ve looked, sounded, and smelled like over a hundred and fifty years ago. I take the sensations in. To that end, I spent a good deal of time in the city of Stillwater, Minnesota, walking around with my nose in the wind.

Do you ever have any hesitation about writing from the perspective of Native Americans or slaves?
No. Not really. With any character, male or female, child or elderly, living in 1850 or 2050, I begin with a connection point—something they want that I can identify with, something they’ve lost that I can identify with, something that hurts that I can identity with, something that’s scary that I can identify with. From there, with good research and mindful imagination, I try to get in their head. I think some of the strongest books in literary history are third-person omniscient. I think it’s the most challenging narrative perspective to write. But I think, done well, it is the champion story-telling approach.

That said, I think a writer like me (white, middle-class) has to approach those characters with seemingly simultaneously-held contradictory approaches: bold ambition and humble alertness, with a willingness to let each live a personal life and have personal motivations while remembering that what I think I know about their experience could be based on history (even though well-researched) interpreted and written by whites rationalizing their conquests. 

Why is the Civil War important?
We still feel the long-lasting effects of the Civil War. For one, we’ve never overcome the racism that became one of the issues of the war. Emancipation didn’t immediately “fix everything,“ not even close. Though the slaves were free, most had no jobs, no money, no homes, scattered families, and little hope.

For two, the economic disparities we still feel in this country, to some degree, stem from the Civil War. Those who had land and wealth before and during the Civil War largely still have it. Those who did not, still don’t. In many cases, after a war, the “wrong” or “losing” party is held responsible for making some gestures toward reconciliation and compensation for the wrongs they committed.  We worked toward reconstruction in the south, in that we rebuilt buildings, bridges, and roads using the industrial ingenuity of the North, making Northerners rich in the process. But what did we do to fix the flawed thinking/behavior/culture? Not much. Create the KKK? Create Jim Crow? Withhold black voting rights for another 7 years? Withhold women’s suffrage for another 50? We’ve never sufficiently apologized or helped the injured parties.  We don’t acknowledge the decades, centuries of a financial “head start” whites have over people they enslaved, then freed, then held down, and now blame for their own poverty. 

We bow our heads at the great sacrifices and courage made by the soldiers. We get teary over the holy language Gettysburg Address. But perhaps we’re too reverent. Perhaps we've lionized the war too much. 

Why is Minnesota important to the Civil War?
Every time a new territory organized and made its bid for statehood, the country was forced to ask itself, “What does it mean to be an American and to whom does that label apply?" So when Minnesota began making its moves toward statehood, every state previous and in-the-waiting was watching what would happen. Most of the issues of concern to Minnesotan politicians in the years leading up to statehood included timber, fur, water, and agriculture, with a smattering of worries over how to best wrestle the last of the lands away from the Dakota and Chippewa. But, as the Republican party started to take shape and spread west, Minnesotans too became interested in the issue of slavery. The issue was no longer a far-away concern. Dred Scott was here while the place was a territory. Once the territory earned statehood in 1858, abolitionists began making life very difficult for hotel owners accommodating southerners who vacationed here in the summer. Eliza Winston forced the new state to test its courts, to see which way they would go. Suddenly, people, like my character Mother St. John, who had never really thought about slavery before, had to.    

What does any of this have to do with me?
Immigrants used to be given free land. Many, many people I know in southern Minnesota are here, living on land, given to their ancestors mostly for free, And then they had the opportunity to work hard, to make a go of it and partake in the great American belief that if you work hard, you will succeed. But they already had a boost. Paul Wellstone used to say that if you want people to pull themselves up by the boot straps, you first have to make sure they have boots. Or maybe that’s Al Franken; I can’t remember. In any case, I really like this quote, definitely from Paul Wellstone: we all do better when we all do better. And for us all to do better, we may need to stop howling when poor people or immigrants need access to food, healthcare, housing, and education. We should remember that our white ancestors were given boots, too, and those boots became the foundation for at least some of our current comfort.

Do you worry that you may get pigeon-holed as a “regional writer”?
If I do, I try to remember my good Minnesota upbringing and gather my humility. Regional writing can be the writing of all of us. Lonesome Dove, Texas, is a region, Yoknapatawpha County is a region, Hanover, Nebraska, is a region, Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, is a region. All small places with large literary reach and influence. Among my favorite documentarians is Ken Burns. I admire very much the way he chooses small places, but through them tells the story of the nation. Stillwater, the small town in my book, is like many other river towns affected by westward expansion and then the Civil War. Its pristine environment suffered unbridled development. Its people got caught up in waves of jealousy, greed, classicism, racism, altruism, kindness, and generosity.   

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
Besides the hapless and accidentally funny fur trapper who bumbles about the storylines, there’s a woman with Munchausen by proxy syndrome and another woman who flees on the Underground Railroad. Beaver Jean is my response to the popular myth of the stoic and courageous heroes who settled the country. Our settlers were, I think, as ordinary but occasionally lucky as we are. Mrs. Hatterby poisons her daughter, Angel, to garner attention from her husband. She’s full of chilling thoughts. Eliza Christmas runs away from her masters while they’re in Minnesota working at Fort Snelling. But she doesn’t run away to escape slavery, necessarily. She runs away to look for her long-lost love and the father of her child, Joe. She wants to see him one more time before she dies.

Interview with the Feathered Quill
Today we're talking with Nicole Helget, author of Stillwater 

FQ: I see that you wear many hats; teacher, mother, writer and still are able to get up in the morning in freezing Minnesota and go on. I really loved Stillwater and am looking forward to the next Helget book. I’m interested in the fact that you set your book mostly about the Civil War and people who lived through it in the North. Usually, Civil War books are all about the South and theGone with the Wind characters. I realize that Minnesota is your home base but what made you use the Northwoods as the location for your book? The women were nothing like 'Scarlett.' 

HELGET: Ha. No. My female characters aren’t much like Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett. A couple of them might feel familiar to readers of William Faulkner, though. I’ve long been a fan of the gothic southern writers. 

I spend a lot of time outside, and I spend a lot of time reading history (I mostly read classics, nonfiction, and poetry.) I find the combination of fresh air and historical reading to be a cosmos of literary inspiration. Many years ago, I saw a photo of a man sitting on a log, which was tangled in a log jam on the St. Croix river. Though the photo was taken in 1884, the man had a “civil war era” look to him. My mind took hold of him, and he became my Clement. Though war, its battles, statistics, maps, and colorful characters, often take up the pages of our history books, we should remember the world doesn’t stand still while we war. During the Civil War, the country moved west, set up homesteads, built towns and industry, and in many cases, created the foundations for later conflicts and later resolutions. For Stillwater, I focused on the timber industry, which brought people and money from the east to the west, which then populated the territory to the standards of statehood, which then created tension as the quickly-growing country was unprepared to a) regulate law or industry in the west, b) manage the precarious balance between slave states and free states, and c) deal with the native people who were already here and were prepared to fight for their lands. 

Author Nicole Helget - photo courtesy of Nicole Helget

Not only that, but plenty of writers have written about the Civil War, and many of them have done a very fine job setting their stories in the traditional places of concern. I didn’t feel a need to contribute to that. I didn’t see a hole there. I also didn’t feel a need to write about the battles. In fact, I purposefully avoided it. While researching and preparing to write, I read a lot of soldiers’ correspondences from the Civil War. What struck me the most was the amount of sitting around in tight quarters, waiting for something to happen, that plagued the Northern soldiers in particular. The war went on for years largely because Lincoln had a terrible time finding a leader who would actually use the troops amassed. All that sitting around together spread disease, of course. And kids like Clement and Davis, who had spent all their lives in the wide-open north, were suddenly exposed to germs for which they had no immunity. That kind of thing interested me enough to write about. 

FQ: An excellent beginning for Stillwater, using the birth of twins and placing one in a wealthy home while the other had to work long and hard to make his living. How did you come upon this storyline? 

HELGET: If I remember right, I think the “music” of that section came to me first, as in I heard how a couple of lines were supposed to sound, and then I found the words that fit them, and they just happened to be about a young woman birthing twins. I know that sounds a little ridiculous. But that’s how poetry reading affects me. I think about the way words sound all the time. As my friend and the wonderful poet Richard Robbins often says, “Sometimes, the music makes the metaphor.” So, the twins were born in my mind because I liked the way the individual words and sentences sounded. Then, I had to figure out how to use them. I like to think that the twins become a metaphor, though it would be too ridiculous to pretend I was always thinking of this as I wrote about them. But somehow, Clement and Angel, do become a metaphor for the conflict in the whole country. One, Angel, wants to press forward with progress. The other, Clement, wants to remain rooted in tradition. Angel, whose adoptive parents are very wealthy, has her eyes on the future. She and her family are opportunists and exploiters. Clement, whose adoptive mothers are very poor, has his on the old ways and present needs. He and his parents are stewards and traditionalists. 

FQ: Angel, one of the twins, is adopted by a rich family, but the mother is a little off and Clement stays at the orphanage and makes a life for himself that turns out to be a good one. How did you decide which twin was about to make mistakes and how the other would always be there to help? 

HELGET: I like that Angel, who is strong and hard and determined despite having a mother who tried to poison her all the time, ends up being the one who is resolute against the odds. I like that she takes care of Clement and encourages him to toughen up and fend for himself. She’s probably partially inspired by every female relative I have. Good lord, I’ve got some tough old birds in my family. Strange though, too, because they all lived pretty traditional lives, as devoted wives and tender mothers, but they could also ring the neck of a chicken without a moment’s hesitation. Have you read Elizabeth Cady Stanton? If you haven’t, you should. She was Susan B. Anthony’s right arm. She never got the attention she deserved because she was always stuck at home tending seven children. But, she was the real voice of the suffrage movement, wrote most speeches Anthony delivered. Anyway, she’s my kind of woman. And I was reading her at the time, so some of her concerns might have gotten into Angel a little bit, too. Like Cady Stanton, Angel is physically beleaguered, but emotionally durable. 

Clement is a caretaker, too, enormously concerned about the reckless clearing of the forests and clogging of the river. He also aids his mothers in their efforts to assist escaped slaves. And, most importantly, he takes the heat for Angel’s crime. He’s physically resilient, but his heart is soft. 

FQ: Your research is right on the money. Living in Minnesota you probably knew the history of the Underground Railroad. Did you have a lot of research to do because you certainly did it well. 

HELGET: I knew about the presence of the Underground Railroad, but it’s not a thing many people talked about here until very, very recently when the Minnesota Historical Society included a bit of it in a Civil War Exhibit. I believe I first heard it mentioned, briefly, by William Lass in a History class I took from him a really long time ago. There’s a lot more to be learned. And I know that the information is out there, but it’s waiting to be discovered, studied, and disseminated. I remember the time before the Dakota Conflict of 1862 was thoroughly studied, how there was barely a document available to study. The stories I heard about it while growing up were all anecdotal and passed down from my dad and grandma. But then, suddenly, there was a flush of renewed interest and devoted study on the topic, and now we have easily accessible manuscripts from and about that late summer tragedy. I am hoping very much that the same kind of scholarship and attention will soon come to the Underground Railroad in Minnesota. 

When I first began writing Stillwater, I read an account of a young woman, Eliza Christmas, who came to Minnesota as a slave with her masters, the Winstons. While here, she was convinced to escape by free blacks already here. So, she did. Her name struck me. I remembered Joe Christmas of Faulkner’s Light in August, and she morphed into my character Eliza Winston. 

FQ: I can see that you are a very busy woman and as I live with a writer (my daughter) I know writing takes up a lot of time. When do you get a chance to get any sleep? 

HELGET: Well, my big joke is that I haven’t slept in 17 years, which is the age of my oldest child. But, I do sleep, of course. I come from industrious people. I associate with industrious people. I have a great affection for work. And, as any of my children or students will tell you, I go on exhaustively about the value of it. 

FQ: Who is your favorite literary figure? (Thought I’d throw an easy one at you!) 

HELGET: That’s not easy at all! I like Jean Valjean of Les Miserable. I like Captain Ahab of Moby Dick. I like Alexandra Bergson of O Pioneers. I like Hugh Glass of Lord Grizzly.I like Clara of Lonesome Dove. I like Per and Beret Hansa of Giants in the Earth. 

FQ: Here's another easy one. My favorite question: Do you have any animals? 

HELGET: Nope. Not at the moment. I do have six children, though. The final two, Archie and Gordie, fight like bear cubs. When they’re bigger, and I have a place that can hold it, I’ll have a dozen farm cats, a couple of scraggly dogs, and whatever else that wants to hang around. I have big dreams about owning a farm someday. 

FQ: What a great job of writing, to take a Civil War book and use locations in the Northwoods. This is the first book about the War Between the States that I’ve read where the North is the star player. Stillwater was a pleasure to read, keep up the good work. 

To learn more about Stillwater please read the review at: Feathered Quill Book Reviews. 

Contact Information
Editor, Jenna Johnson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York
Publicity, Taryn Roeder, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York
Agent, Faye Bender, Faye Bender Literary Agency, New York

Press Photo
Photo by Jason Miller, Franchise Graphics and Photography


  1. I highly recommend reading the book The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel.
    I just finished reading it today, and my conclusion is that its a really good book.

    I ordered mine from Amazon and I got it in just two days.
    Here's the link for the book on Amazon:
    The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel

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