Author Interview: Lin Enger

Lin Enger is the author of two novels, The High Divide (Algonquin, September 2014) and Undiscovered Country (Little, Brown, 2008).  He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches English at Minnesota State University Moorhead.  In the 1990s he collaborated with his brother, the novelist Leif Enger, on a series of mystery novels published by Pocket Books.

I met Lin Enger at Book Expo America. He was on a panel, “The Journey of a Book: From Writer to Reader,” with his editor and agent. I was fascinated by his process—writing long hand for all of his work—and how his idea gave birth to his novel, The High Divide.

I interviewed Lin via Skype.

How long did it take for you to write your novel, The High Divide?

The first draft I wrote fast. I started it in January and completed it by July in 2008. I wrote 70,000 words in that time, while working full time as a teacher and writing one and a half hours a day. It was the revision process that took me a long time, from July 2008 to Fall 2012.

I find it hard to go into and out of the realm I’m writing in. Entering that world I created and exiting out of it is so difficult, especially coming back to reality. That’s the hardest thing about writing. I knew where I needed to go and where I wanted the story to be; I knew the end and had the inner compass, but boy it is hard to come back. I think it’s especially hard for me when I’m working full-time, when I’m teaching.

In the summer, when I’m not teaching and I can go for 12 hours a day and work [writing] and I don’t have to come out. That’s wonderful. I think for a novelist more than for short story writers, or poets, that’s the rub. It’s hard to get much done when you have relatively small amounts of time to spend on the work. Although when I’m drafting, a rough draft, I’m not good after an hour and a half anyway. When I’m revising that’s 85% of the work for me, and that’s when it’s a problem. That’s also when I can work for fifteen hours straight and it doesn’t bother me.

The difference between drafting and revising, I can’t emphasize how different those endeavors are for me. I don’t let anyone read my work until the manuscript is completed the way I see it.
Getting that story down at the outset is—it’s like taking a deep breath and swimming under water, longer than you have lungs for—that’s hard.

Is your hour and a half come at the end of your work day, at the beginning of your work day or somewhere in the middle?

Whenever I can find the time. It usually comes at the end. I’m not a morning person, so I don’t like to get up early. I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work for me. I tend to be more of a night person. Late at night, very late at night or sometimes during the day if I can squirrel away some time.

You said you composed your first draft from January to July, writing 70,000 words, which is quite a bit in one and a half hour bits of time, so was that daily, or Monday through Friday?

I wrote on an average probably 5-6 days a week.

Is that intensity because you’re giving your brain a work out in those one and a half hours?

The intensity is hard to describe because it’s a matter of visualizing, creating, rendering in your head, the texture, the psychology of the scenic moments, and then finding some language for it. I find the only way I can do it, is to force myself to do it quickly. I try to use as much image base language as I can to try to recreate the moment that I can see and hear in my imagination. And I try to do it as fast as I can, so that I’m not self-consciously editing. That’s intense. It’s challenging, but once I have the story and vision on paper in some form, even if it’s not in a form anyone else can read, once I have that, then it becomes more of a technical problem; how to make it work. Getting that story down at the outset is—it’s like taking a deep breath and swimming under water, longer than you have lungs for—that’s hard.

How rough is your first draft since you don’t do any editing, or revisions, until you finish your work?

I had the beginning, middle and end, but there were chapters that weren’t there yet, there were points of view that weren’t there yet. I was originally going to tell this story from the point of view of Eli, so for the first early going I was writing from his point of view. But then I realized this is Gretta’s story too, so I added her, and late in the process I started adding the father. When I went back into the next drafts, I would restructure, reorganize and add. But the trajectory of the story was there in the first draft.

If a person could read my handwriting—because I write with a pencil—they would get the whole story in that first draft even though it would be pretty rugged reading, because I don’t pay much attention to syntax in the first draft.

Do you always write in long hand? “It looked like a place where the skin of the earth had come loose, torn away by some coarse hand to expose another world, the close edge of it marked by a stone spire.” — The High Divide, p. 234

For the first draft, yes. I find it easier to get down into the sub and pre-conscious levels when I write in longhand. Once I have completed writing it in long hand, then I have to type it out. I don’t revise on the screen either. I print out a hard copy of a chapter, and then I work on it  with a pencil because somehow I’m not a very good editor when I’m looking at a screen. I have trouble getting the language right unless I’m working with a pencil on the hard copy. That’s just a quirk. I don’t advocate that because it’s extra work. I’m stuck with it. I wish it weren’t that way.

I was trained as a journalist, so I learned to compose at the keyboard and was very adept at that, and editing on the screen, but I have found that I’m more effective and feel comfortable when I write in long hand. I feel I’m accessing deeper places in my unconscious when I work that way.

The problem with writing long hand is it’s time consuming, but It’s a matter of finding those tricks that work for you. It’s like trying to trick your mind into going away so you can go right to the source. Writers have different ways. Some people use alcohol, probably a bad idea. The novelist, Kent Haruf, who wrote Plainsong, I think it was him, who said, he gets at a key board, puts his fingers in place and puts a bag over his head and types.

Another way is simply turn the screen off and write blind. It’s a matter of tricking your mind into not pay attention to anything on the surface.

One of my favorite passages in your book is on page 234. This passage created awe and inspiration for me:

“They stopped at the top of a hill, from which they could see, beneath a break in the clouds, a declining landscape of canyons and gullies and hoodoos. It looked like a place where the skin of the earth had come loose, torn away by some coarse hand to expose another world, the close edge of it marked by a stone spire.”

How did you come up with this idea for your novel, The High Divide, and what research did put into it? At what point did that research happen? Did it come before, after or during your writing process?

I did a lot of research for the book in terms of story and history. As far as the place goes, I think for me there is a deep link between place and story.  My first novel, Undiscovered Country, was a Minnesota book, but this new one is a great plains, Dakota and Montana book. I have a very deep connection to that part of the country.  Both of my parents were raised in North Dakota, and so I spent a lot of time during childhood there.To create a place vivid for you as a writer and as the reader to feel, to me, that’s a fascinating thing. That’s what we do when we write novels. We create a place and move into that place and live there.

As for Montana, when I was 21, I rode my bicycle from Seattle, Washington to Fargo, North Dakota, and a lot of it was Montana—it’s such a huge state—so I have a deep connection from early in my life with Montana and I’ve been out there a lot of times, even if I haven’t lived there. I feel I know Montana pretty well and I love the place. I think for writers west of the Mississippi somehow place in intricately bound up with narrative.

Places mean something to us because of what happens to us while we were at those places and that’s what forges the relationship between ourselves and places, so we can’t talk about a place without thinking about, talking about or feeling those events, incidents, memories, which those places represent for us. Place and narrative, place and story in my mind are so closely connected.

As far as research, I didn’t do a lot of research for these places because I’ve spent a lot of time in the Dakotas and Montana. Of course, I took additional trips to research the book, and I took notes and photographs. That part of the world haunts me, for a lot of personal reasons, so it was easy to write about it passionately.

I have a hard time imaging writing a novel where my passion and emotional connection to the place don’t figure centrally. I would imagine it would be especially challenging to write speculative fiction or science fiction, where you’re creating an entire world from scratch. Half the fun would be to create maps, pictures, cities, whole environments to inhabit with your mind. To create a place vivid for you as a writer and as the reader to feel, to me, that’s a fascinating thing. That’s what we do when we write novels. We create a place and move into that place and live there.  We look around at it, inhabit it until finally we get to the point where it’s more real than the bedrooms and kitchens we live in.When I read the Hornaday account, I said this is too rich, I’m going to write about this someday.

To me, that’s why I like writing novels. That’s so rewarding and comforting.

How did you come with the idea for the High Divide?

The idea came to me some time ago when I read the account of William Hornaday, who was the curator and taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. in 1886. He realized that he didn’t have any good specimens of the American bison in the Natural History Museum. He also realized the American bison was almost extinct. So he organized a hunt into Montana Territories, before it was a state, to hunt and kill these animals that were all but extinct. I was a history major in college, but I didn’t know about this. I thought this was incredible. This man was hunting bison on behalf of the US government, with the war department’s money in 1886 when it was recognized the bison was all but gone. So I was just fascinated with that.

I had grown up hearing stories about my own great-grandfather, who homesteaded in 1883 in the Dakota territories. He shot a bison behind his barn. It was a bison that wandered into his farm yard.  This was east of the James River, which is actually pretty near Minnesota. That was in 1884, so I felt I have this family connection to the animal.

What so often happens with me is that stories or novels are the collision of two ideas.

When I read the Hornaday account, I said this is too rich, I’m going to write about this someday. I just didn’t know how to write about it. I didn’t know what to say about it. I left it on the backburner knowing that I would come back to it.

As a writer, I don’t keep a journal, I don’t take notes. I assume that if an idea is good it’s not going to let me go. I don’t go out looking for ideas, they come to me and if they don’t leave me alone, then I eventually write about them. This one didn’t leave me alone. It was just a matter of finding the doorway into the story and I didn’t know what that would be. Hornaday himself wasn’t the doorway. I didn’t find him that interesting as a human being. I didn’t want to write a novel about him and knew I couldn’t write a novel about him. I wanted to write about something that would incorporate that idea, and I knew he might come into play, but I knew he would be a minor character.

What so often happens with me is that stories or novels are the collision of two ideas. In this case, on the one hand the Hornaday account, on the other hand, the more important one, I knew I wanted to write a novel about children who have to search out a father who disappeared. I knew I wanted to write that story, but I didn’t know where it would be set. I just knew that idea was compelling to me. Children who would have to seek out a father who abandoned them for reasons they don’t know.

I was thinking, how was I going to write this novel? That was on the front burner and then I thought, oh, I’ll put those two ideas together, and this is the book that came out.

At that point, listening to bad advice sent me down the wrong road for about two years. Now I don’t show something until I’m ready to show it.

They’re very divergent ideas and have nothing in common with each other except that I was able to use the disappearing father plot in a way that could ultimately incorporate the Hornaday adventure.

Once you had those two ideas, how much time elapsed before you started writing it?

I try to sketch out a story: what’s going to happen, who are the characters, what are their backgrounds, what do they want, what’s going to happen in this novel. The big one for me is roughly how is it going to end? What’s it going to lead to? What are the characters going to come away from this experience? Where is the novel going to arrive?

It took me roughly two months to come up with who the characters are, and what they’re going to be doing. It was a rough outline, but I have to have a destination if I’m going to be effective in the composing process. Once I have a destination, I feel I can give myself up to process.

As a short story writer, how did you move to the novel realm? Did you have agents contact you from your short story publications or did you approach agents?

I was contacted by agents after I had a story published in Glimmer Train but I didn’t end up working with those agents. This was years ago, when my first novel, Undiscovered Country, was in the early stages, and I did send them something at the time, early pages of that novel, but I found, and this is one reason I don’t let anyone see what I’m working on, I found from that experience that it’s dangerous to allow someone else a voice in determining the direction of something not yet fully developed. At that point, listening to bad advice sent me down the wrong road for about two years. Now I don’t show something until I’m ready to show it.

I learned more about the structure of the story narrative by reading screenplays.

So, yes, on my first novel I did get advice early on and it was all bad. Finally I had to say enough with this. I’m going to write what I want to write and show it when I’m ready. Eventually I found a different agent and it worked out just fine. I’m very skittish about showing something, a novel especially, to someone in the business. It’s one thing to have smart friends who can read and tell you what they think. It’s all good. But people in the business? Don’t show them anything until you feel pretty confident. Otherwise your confidence can be ruined.

Do you belong to a writer’s group?

I don’t.

Who do you end up showing your roughs to before you show it to an agent or an editor?

I don’t show anybody. Nobody saw this book until it was done. The first person who read it was actually a friend, who is a former editor of mine. I knew she could look at it and give me a good idea for the right agent for it. And that’s what she did. She sent it on to the person who ended up representing me.

You really don’t show your work to anyone during your writing process?

I don’t think that’s probably a good idea for me. I’m pretty thinned skinned when it comes to criticism before the work is done. After it’s done, I’ll listen. Once someone shows interest, I’m all ears, but when it’s early in the process when I  don’t feel I’ve found my way through it yet, I don’t benefit from it at that point.

I think when you’re working on the book, it’s very important to try not to think about the next step, which is how do I sell the book. For years, I had to put that away and not think about who is going to like this book, who is going to hate it. How does this fit into the commercial world, what kind of subgenre might this fit into, all of those questions. I think you’re better off not entertaining those ideas. Try to get the book as close to your vision of it as you can, and then allow yourself to move in that other direction. Then listen to the people, but until you’ve rendered your vision on the paper, as well as you’re able, leave it alone. IMG_7091_10

How do you manage your gaps when you’re working in your process? How do you build that bridge when you know you’re missing information in your story?

One thing I give a lot of thought about before I start writing a story is structure. I learned more about the structure of the story narrative by reading screenplays. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Story by Robert McKee, but I read the first quarter of it and studied it. Novelists who try to talk about plots are useless. Screenwriters understand plot. You can’t hide crappy plot in beautiful prose when you’re writing a screenplay, so I love to think about my novels in screenplay terms. Not that I’m trying to write a screenplay, I’m not. But I feel like if you can understand the basic elements, how a story gets told in film, you can probably handle plot in a novel.

I also told my latest book in a limited time frame; everything happened from late summer to late fall. I was trying to avoid writing a book that sprawls over years of time, especially in regards to the family I’m writing about. Of course their problems and dramatic circumstance do evolve over years of time, but the story itself happens in about 2-3 months.

I like to go in understanding what my opening gambit is going to be, what the close is going to look like, and what the major plot points will be. I like to know those things going in, and sure, they’ll change as you compose, but it helps to have that safety net as you’re moving through the process. I think it helps you to avoid some of those gaps. You deal with those gaps in the revision process. I find myself adding scenes, memories in flashback moments. Even in my fourth draft I would find something missing. I remember adding a scene in the Fall of 2012 just before I sent the book off. I just had this feeling what the readers needed. I think gaps are always there. I think there are gaps there now, but it’s too late. You can’t write a perfect book. This isn’t even close. If I had another year to work on it, it would be a much better book I think. But I don’t have that. I can live with what it is.

How did you decide to fold in the different characters at the different times? One of the things that writers struggle with is when do you move to a flashback, whose point of view do you want to show when you want to show different perspectives other than the main character’s perspective? How do you maneuver that terrain?

That was the hardest challenge for me. There is not a simple answer to that, but what I try to do is tell—how do I put it—I try to decide who has the most at stake in a given dramatic moment and tell that dramatic moment, that scene, that chapter, from that character’s perspective. So you’ll notice that there are only two chapters in that book where there is more than one perspective given. It’s the beginning and ending chapters. In the beginning I moved from perspective to perspective and the last chapter I did the same thing. The other chapters are filtered through a single character’s consciousness.

The first part acts like a prologue, the next chapter is Eli’s chapter where he is recounting his father’s disappearance and he’s walking his brother home from school, and we’re getting the sense of how his father’s abandonment is effecting this family through him, and we see the mother through his eyes and we get the sense at the end of the chapter Eli is going to leave. The next chapter is his mother’s chapter. We get the visit from their landlord, who wants money and we get the sense the landlord is up to no good, so there it extends the story and we understand what the mother’s stake is because the story is being filtered through her fears, needs and disappointments.

There were times, I believe in the third draft, I had every chapter stapled, and placed on the floor and I was trying to figure out how it should be told. Mixing things up and combining  chapters and rearranging them; it really was a mess for a while. It was hard for me to tell the story through a number of different perspectives. That was the biggest challenge of writing this book, and also the biggest joy in writing it.

So the next book you’re working on, have you started it? What I learned is if you dedicate yourself to writing, you’ll be a writer.

I have a story idea, I have characters. I’m about 2-3 weeks away from actually starting.

When you’re taking notes, to when you’re actually writing, how much time lapses?

That doesn’t take me long. I spend 2-3 months and then I’m ready to compose.

Do you write more than one novel at a time?

No. I have tried to do that in the past, but not in a very long time and no, I wouldn’t do it now. I can only handle so much at once, especially when I’m teaching, too. Right now I’m going into a sabbatical year. I finished my class last week and won’t be teaching again until next year. So now it’s going to be wonderful to write. Maybe I won’t be very productive now that I have time. We’ll find out.

I might try to write a short story or two, or three or four. There’s a collection I would like to finish.  But for a novel, only one novel at a time. My brain isn’t large enough for that. I wish it were. I need about 30 more IQ points.

Have you ever thought about doing book trailers?

I’m vaguely familiar with trailers but my publicist hasn’t spoken to me about it.

How much say or input do you like to have with the marketing aspects of your books?

I let my publicists at Algonquin take care of that. They sent me to BEA, they’ll put me on a book tour this fall, so whatever they want me to go, I’ll go happily and whoever approaches me for an interview, I’ll be happy to do that. Strategizing and coming up with a marketing plan, I just let other people take care of that. I don’t really know how to do it.The people that find their way to publication are the people that didn’t quit.

How much feedback do you receive from the galley copy and how much do you listen to?

I haven’t heard anything. I don’t know if the feedback ever goes back to the writer. I’m led to understand that once the galleys are done, the book is done. If there a typos, that’s one thing, but if I wanted to edit something, I think they’d discourage me from that.

There were changes I asked for just before the galley was printed and they didn’t make it into the galleys. There will be things that are different from what you read in the galleys when it is printed, due to my request.

I think they’re interested to know what people think about it; if they like it or not.

You went to Iowa Writers Workshop and received your MFA. How did you like that experience?

That’s where I became a writer. Going in I had relatively little experience and I was very stunned they accepted me. I learned so much from that experience. That’s not to say it wasn’t very harsh and difficult because the level of competition and the level of criticism, superseded anything I had ever experienced up to that point. It was intense. Was it good for me? Yes. I learned to take myself seriously.

I’d highly recommend it.

What I learned is if you dedicate yourself to writing, you’ll be a writer. I think the MFA can offer somewhat of a shortcut. You might get there a little faster if you enter that program at the right time in your life.Persistence is almost everything in the writing world.

How long in your querying process did it take you for your first book to be accepted by an agent?

I queried 20-30 agents. There were a handful, about 6-7 agents, who wanted to see the first 50 pages or so. Of those, 4-5 that were on the fence. Then one who indicated who wanted to represent the book.

It’s like a catch 22. It’s hard to find an agent without a track record, but without an agent you’re not going to have a track record. It’s very hard to find an agent.

My recommendation to anyone is to have a really good query letter and send it out with a shotgun approach to many, many agencies. Hopefully there will be a number of agents who will show some kind of interest. Then if it doesn’t land you an agent, start over again. There are a lot of agents. And sometimes an agent doesn’t want your book because they sold one just like it, or maybe they’re just too busy to read. There are so many reasons to be turned down and so few reasons to receive a yes. You have to realize the odds are against you for any particular agency. That’s why you have to query many, many agencies. It’s easy to get discouraged. The people that find their way to publication are the people that didn’t quit.

Persistence is almost everything in the writing world.

That’s why those of us who publish something look like we’re 80 years old. It takes so much out of you. To finally find someone who wants to publish your work. It’s a long process.

The High Divide is due out September 23, 2014.