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 the Gone 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.
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.