What was the genesis of the novel?
Twenty years or so ago I picked up a slender novel in a Wisconsin bookstore called The Clam Lake Papers by Edward Lueters. I loved the premise. The setting is a summer cabin in the northern part of the state, closed before the snows come. The owner returns in June to discover that someone has been living there all winter and has left a stack of manuscripts and letters behind. It is a philosophical novel in the tradition of Walden, but what got me was the eeriness of the situation. I have always been fascinated by the notion of the secret self, by doubleness, by stories like Henry James's "The Jolly Corner" and Conrad's "The Secret Sharer." The Hounds of Winter is radically different that The Clam Lake Papers, but it does begin at the same source: a boarded-up winter cabin inhabited by a spectral presence.
There is a murder in your book.
There is. And a manhunt and a myriad of hairsbreadth escapes and characters you're not sure whether you should trust.
So is The Hounds of Winter a thriller or a literary novel?
I've always felt that a novel could be both. One of the most beautiful pieces of music I know is a Miles Davis version of Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." He took this pop tune and turned it into the most soulful, breathtaking thing. It's all in what you do with it. There was a wonderful quote from Joyce Carol Oates in a recent New Yorker review, apropos of thrillers and mysteries: "Fixed forms can yield infinite, ingenious variations." I think she's right. I hope she's right.
You said that the book was set in Wisconsin. How autobiographical is it?
My main character, David Neisen, is private and deeply wounded in a way I'm not. I have never lost a child, as he has. I would never run from the police. I'm a prudent person and he's willing to be extreme. On the other hand, I feel a kinship with him. Sometimes I like to think of my main character as a brother. We grew up in similar places and we went away for thirty years and then in middle age yearned to return. When we did return, we found a drastically different place from the one we had left. What David Neisen and I share is a dislocation and restlessness that so many Americans share. We're both at an age when the losses start to pile up. Also, my father worked at a munitions plant during three wars, just as David's did.
How did the book change during the four years you were working on it?
In the early drafts of the novel what worked best was the mourning for a lost place, for the world of the main character's youth. What wasn't there, and what I was resisting dealing with, was the emotional devastation involved in the loss of a child. It was too awful to think about easily, yet structurally it had to be the very heart of the book. Sometimes you have to worry yourself into some very dark places, working on a novel. Several drafts later it came to me that the greatest mystery in the book was not who the murderer was, but who his daughter was. That was when it all started to get very interesting.
Let's turn the question around. How would you say the book changed you?
Life is what changes you. During the writing of the book, both of my parents died, and there were other losses of people close to my wife and me. There were also some pretty harrowing brushes with catastrophe. Grief became very personal; it ceased to be a problem imagining it. I remember, riding to work, a month or so before my father died. He had been disabled by a stroke. I was listening to a radio report about a bell that announced the ships as they came into the Duluth harbor. My father had lived in Duluth as a boy, and I thought, I'll have to ask him about that, and then remembered that he wouldn't be able to tell me, because he couldn't speak. It was those kinds of moments, when you feel whole worlds being closed off forever, that informed the writing and the tone of the novel.
Did you have to do much research for this book?
Yes, though to call it research seems a bit odd. Can you do research about a place you know better than anywhere? The world of this book is very much the world of my childhoodthe woods, the small towns, the farms, the snow, the range of bluffs. Yet while writing this book, I went back several winters to look at it again with a writer's eye. I visited many dairy farms and tromped around Devil's Lake State park with my notebook in my back pocket. I talked to a woman who had organized a group protesting the Army's handling of the cleanup at the ordnance plant where my father had worked. I spent time at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, riding around in a truck with members of their staff, trying to track wolves by their radio collars.
Having said all that, you might think that I've gotten everything factually correct. In truth, I've taken liberties with the geography of the state. I've reapportioned farmland and wilderness, kept the glaciers from coming down quite so far, moved bluffs a hundred miles north and west, but most novelists do that. While the landscape will be familiar to any Midwestern reader, it doesn't exist on any map.
What was your greatest challenge in writing The Hounds of Winter?
Probably it was trying to honor the conventions of the genre I was working in, the mystery, while making it as emotionally resonant and convincing as I could.
Someone told me that reading your most recent novel, Windfall, cost him a night sleep because he wasn't able to put it down until he finished it. Will The Hounds of Winter have the same effect on readers?
They are both books that quite unapologetically try to keep the reader on the edge of his seat. David Neisen is pursued through my of the novel; he is out in the cold for a good long time. The hounds that are after him are quite literal. Because it is a mystery you think that one person is the murderer and then another. But I think the deepest and most sustained tension of the book comes from David's picking up, fragment by fragment, the things that have been said about his daughter. Some of them are true, some of them are not, but they add a whole new dimension to his anguish.
This is your eighth novel. Is it getting easier or harder? Are there things that you've learned?
I can't imagine saying it's getting any easier, but I think I may make fewer of certain kinds of mistakes. There are blind alleys I've learned not to go down, of if I do go down them, not to stay in them too long. As a young writer, I wanted to make everything so important, as if importance was something that could be imported, like good Italian olive oil. When you're young you're driven by both ambition and total insecurity, as that distorts things. You feel as if you have to have a brilliant new idea on every page to show everybody that you're a real writer. Young musicians always want to play too many notes. As I've gotten older, I trust the story more. I don't try to yank the characters around to conform to my brilliant structural notions, or at least not as much. As a basketball coach might say, I've learned to play inside myself. Writing a novel is a totally absorbing and totally humbling experience.
You're the director of the Michener Center for Writers and worked with Michener for the last ten years of his life. Would you say he has influenced your writing in any way?
On the one hand, not at all. I still write 300-page novels and his run 1,000. He did a book a year; mine now take me three or four. He always seemed to be putting more in his books; I'm always trying to take stuff out. On the other hand, how could anyone not be influenced by his discipline and perseverance? I greatly admired him. Until he was 90 years old, he was at his desk from 7:30 in the morning until half past noon. His great mantra was, "Just get the books on the shelf. If you do that, anything can happen." He never felt accepted as a literary writer and though he pretended that didn't hurt him, it did. Yet the bulk of his fortune went to supporting literary writers. There's a quote from Proust, who I believe was quoting St. John, that always makes me think of Michener: "Work, while you still have the light..."