Interview with Ellen Airgood, Part One

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In July of 2011, my good friend over at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads) sent me a box full of advanced reading copy books. I was in a particularly bad reading slump and I picked out a novel called South of Superior. The image on the cover look cheerful and I thought it was worth a try.

 It was a beautiful novel, the perfect book for the perfect moment. As I wrote in my review, it’s a love story, but not about two people. It’s about a woman falling in love with a place, and I’m a sucker for that kind of story. This was early in my blogging days, so I was thrilled when the author herself, Ellen Airgood, commented on my review.

 When I pulled that book out of the box, I had no idea where it would lead. To an online correspondence with Ellen about books and writing. To my first visit to the Upper Peninsula for a writer’s conference where Ellen and I got to meet in person. To a return trip to see Ellen’s café in Grand Marais, on the shores of Lake Superior. To falling a little in love myself with the landscape of that part of the world. And to a friendship that began with a book and didn’t end there.

Last weekend, Ellen and I talked about her second novel, Prairie Evers. It’s a middle grade novel about the friendship between two young girls. Prairie Evers’s family moved from North Carolina to upstate New York with her grandmother in tow. But now her grandmother wants to move back, and Prairie will have to start going to school instead of being taught at home. In school she meets Ivy Blake and discovers that her new friend has a troubled and complicated past. But Prairie is determined to help, even if she’s not exactly sure how to go about it.

 Prairie Evers has been nominated for awards in nine states and the city of Houston. It’s a great read for kids and adults alike.

 In part one of our conversation, we talk about how the idea for Prairie Evers came to Ellen.

Robyn: Okay, so. I guess I should start asking you questions.

Ellen: Yeah. Okay. I’ve never done anything quite like this before, so, I’m a little nervous. Isn’t that crazy?

R: (Laughs). But you did the NPR interview?

E: I did a bunch of interviews, but I don’t know. Okay. Here I am. Hi. How are you today?

R: Good. Okay. So how did the idea for Prairie come to you?

prairieE: How did the idea for Prairie come to me? I’d been working on a novel all one winter, back in 2000. I had a grant from the State of Michigan to write a book. I’d worked really hard on it. It was a young adult novel called Tin Camp Road, and I didn’t know then that it was almost impossible to write a novel in a few months, so I just went ahead and did it. But I think if you had read it when I was done, you might’ve said, “Wow, she worked really hard on that.” Which of course, was not the effect I might have been looking for. Anyway, I felt good about it. I was satisfied. I had satisfied the terms of the grant and I was ready to go back to the diner to work, kind of looking forward to it. I was looking forward to not writing for 10 or 12 hours a day anymore.

Anyway, it was April. I was sitting on my bed and we have a tin roof and the rain was falling really hard. I could hear it right above my head. I was feeling really relaxed and listening to “A Praire Home Companion” on the radio. And all of a sudden there was a voice in my head and it said, “Folks said it could not be done, but I did it.” And I literally, like, sat up straight. I was like, “What? What?” I’d never had a character approach me that way before, but it turned out to be Prairie Evers and she had a story to tell me about having raised a flock of chickens, which all the local gossips in this small community that she’d moved to thought a little girl wouldn’t be able to do. And she’d also felt like she had helped a new friend, named Ivy, make it through a tough time. [Which was] another thing that most people probably would have told her that she couldn’t make any difference about.

R: So how long did it take to write after that? Was it easier than the young adult novel?

E: It was much easier, I think because there was nothing riding on it and it was just something I was doing, something for myself. I didn’t have to satisfy a grant or do it in a certain time period. I was not at all worried whether it adhered to the rules of a novel in terms of plot or structure. I just was trying to follow Prairie’s voice. It was a completely delightful experience. She told me that she had a flock of chickens and it was like I heard what their names were. I won’t be able to think of them all now, but they were so fun. Like Elmira? Really, Prairie? That’s awesome.

A lot of what I did was playful in that way. And very enjoyable. But also, I could tell there was something very serious behind this story. And I wasn’t 100% sure what it was. In fact, for a long time, I thought that Prairie was an unreliable narrator and that she was telling me about the year when she moved to New York State and her grandmother had stayed back behind in North Carolina. And how much she missed her, and how they wrote letters to each other, things like that, when in reality, I thought for the longest time that Prairie’s grandma had died and Prairie just couldn’t accept that.

I actually wrote the book that way, but I couldn’t accept it. I did not want Grammy to have died at all. Finally, I just decided that this whole story wasn’t one hundred percent inspired after all. It was just too depressing that way [with Grammy having died]; I didn’t want to write something that melancholy. I didn’t want that to be the focus of the book. There was another tragedy embedded in the book already that seemed the heart of the matter to me. So I decided to have it my way–Grammy was going to be alive and she was going to come back after all. But for at least a year or maybe two, that’s the story I thought I was writing–that Prairie had lost her grandma to death and couldn’t accept it.

R: Wow. And so was Ivy harder to write?

E: Ivy was the true inspiration for the story. It gradually dawned on me that what happened to Ivy and her grace and strength in dealing with it was a big part of what I was exploring. But because Prairie’s the narrator and it has that first person narration and Prairie had come to me, Ivy didn’t have as strong a presence in the book despite being its true subject.

She surprised me a number of times. She surprised me by how determined she was. A number of different times she didn’t care as much as Prairie did about what people might think or say or how other kids might see them. In terms of being kind of an outcast. So I was like, “Oh, well, that’s cool.” She’s quieter. Ivy is a quieter person. She’s more reserved because of the things that have happened to her. So she was definitely harder to get to know. But, I found her very likable and now that I know her a lot better, I love her.

R: And I think you told me once that when you Prairie Evers was like a prose poem at first?

Lake Superior at Grand Marais

Lake Superior at Grand Marais

E: I think, yeah, well, someone said that to me. I worked on Prairie Evers for many years off and on. I mean, not constantly, but it was my main project over a course of at least three years, if not four. I kind of lost track. And I had a number of people read it, and one reader was a retired editor from a big publisher in New York. She’d read quite a bit of my work and had liked various things about it. And when she read Prarie Evers she said, “Oh, that wasn’t a novel. It was a prose poem, Ellen.”

I was like, “A what?” “Huh.” But it was an interesting way of thinking about it for me. I’m not completely versed in what it means to be a prose poem, but I can see what she was saying. Probably because I had so little concern about the structure at the time. It was really a wonderful way to work, because I wasn’t worried. I just kept jumping from place to place, wherever Prairie seemed to want to take the story. It had an overall story arc but it certainly wasn’t a plot driven novel in any sense of the word. A lot of it was concerned with language. Part of the reason that Prairie was from North Carolina, and then moved to New York state was because she told me that was so, but, also at the same time, I really wanted to use the word, or the fact, that the Appalachians are a chain of mountains. A mountain chain. That North Carolina and New York State are both in the same mountain chain. And that’s not really a very smart way to write or plot a book. But, it really mattered to me for reasons I couldn’t even–, I have no idea why it mattered so much to me. But there it was and I just went with it, you know? There it is. It’s still there.

R: So is that why you did you picked upstate New York?

E: You know, I didn’t feel like I picked anything. I truly felt like Prairie told me. But if I were to unravel it all, I lived in New Paltz, New York, for almost a year after I got out of college. And so I think it was a setting that was easy for me to work with and I could imagine that landscape and those mountains and the little farmhouse where I put Prairie is actually a little farmhouse where I rented a room for that year. I like to be able to describe things fluently. And I basically have to have seen them in order to do that. I pick random things from all over my life, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. It doesn’t mean it’s autobiographical. It just means there was a little house on the side of a mountain in New Palz that became perfect for my purposes.

R: So what is the book about for you? And when did you realize what the book was about?

E: I think the book for me is about a question that I’ve probably had since I was a kid myself, a kid maybe Prairie’s age. I think in certain ways, I, as a ten year old kid, was quite a bit like Prairie. I was a very cheerful ten year old. Before I hit puberty. I was raised on a farm. I loved it. I was raised in a very secure, warm, loving environment. That seemed normal to me. I didn’t have a lot of experience with trauma. I was pretty sheltered. And one of my best friends came from a background that wasn’t very sheltered at all. All I knew as a little kid was that there was something wrong at her house. I suppose I was, in a way, smart enough–, not that it was conniving, but I simply didn’t tell my parents everything that happened at her house. I didn’t talk about it. I never felt truly in danger but there was something very bleak about it. There just was a lot of–. Something was wrong. And even that, I was such a sheltered kid that that wrongness did not shock me the way you might be thinking. Because it didn’t occur to me that something really, really bad could be happening. I led a very safe life.

Anyway, we were friends through high school and she had a kind of predictably rough time in life. And I’ve lost track of her since then. But I think, as it slowly dawned on me over the years and I got just a little older and wiser and into high school and I thought, wow, what really is going on in her house? Certainly I could see her as the first time I ever realized that bad things happened to people–people you knew. Not all parents were great. And, I started to feel–, I really, I loved her. She was a good friend. And I wondered, What you can do? And I wasn’t anywhere near as proactive as Prairie. I probably wish I would have been. And maybe that’s, writing that book might be my way of trying to proactively, retroactively, do something to help her. Rewrite history the way I wished it’d been.

You can buy Prairie Evers at Village Lights Bookstore in Madison. In Part 2 of the interview, Ellen and I talk more about the process of writing Prairie Evers and her tips for National Novel Writing Month. Stay tuned.

 

 

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