In 2014, Susan Bernhard submitted a 23-page section from her novel-in-progress Winter Loon for the Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship in Fiction/Creative Nonfiction. In May of that year, she learned she was one of the eight prose writers who had received a $10,000 grant.
Now, four and a half years later, she’s just published Winter Loon, which was an Amazon First Reads Pick for November. We asked the author about the book’s journey and her life and work as a writer with close ties to the local literary community.
Winter Loon is set in rural locales in Montana and Minnesota. What drew you to those landscapes? And how did place factor into the journey of creating your novel?
When Winter Loon was still taking shape, I took a solo road trip from where my brother lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan down to the Minneapolis area where a dear friend lives. I was struck along the way by how similar the small towns were to the ones I knew growing up in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana. My small town memories are of a newsstand with Archie comic books, a wood-floored roller rink above a corner drugstore, everyone turning out for football and basketball games, idiot teenagers drinking and driving. There was also the smell of cut hay and cottonwoods and the river bottom; the freedom of a bicycle and a hot summer day; creeks and ditches to explore; the familiarity of knowing your neighbors. In the brief fall, we raked leaves into giant piles that we set on fire in the street. That’s a very specific smell that blends right into long winters of sticking feet into bread bags to waterproof our snow boots. And lots of trudging. We trudged through a lot of snow. So, certainly parts of Winter Loon are an homage to being a town kid, to the Montana of my youth. I was also interested in telling an authentic story of lives we sometimes resign to darkness and in exploring limits of compassion. It made sense to knit this in with a cold setting, with ice and the past closing in on Wes and his family.
Do you remember where you were (as in, what actual place) when you learned of your 2014 Artist Fellowship? Where were you in your career?
I was home and I think I let the call go to voicemail! When I returned the call, Dan Blask let me know that I’d received the fellowship. I was absolutely stunned. All these submissions for conferences and grants are due and decisions come back at the same time. It can be a real rollercoaster for writers and artists looking for opportunity and support. In fact, the same day I got the Mass Cultural Council news, I was rejected from a prestigious writer’s conference. I was kind of hungover from completing the Novel Incubator, GrubStreet’s year-long master-level intensive program, trying to identify a way forward with the novel revision, and feeling a little at-sea and on my own. The fellowship was an incredible boost to this writer’s self-esteem and a validation that Winter Loon was on a good path.
So, you’re an alum of the GrubStreet Novel Incubator program and a bookseller at Belmont Books. How has working within a literary community affected your writing and your process?
I honestly don’t think I could have finished Winter Loon without GrubStreet. Writing itself is a solitary process but being part of a writing community means you have this built-in network to rely on for feedback, support, and encouragement. I formed a writers group with women I met through GrubStreet and their insight and candor helped me with not just the final revisions but with the process of querying agents and selling the book. I feel very fortunate to be part of an organization that creates these opportunities and champions writers. And I’m so lucky because when I’m not writing, I get to work with amazing booksellers who are passionate about writing and all genres of books. I was a kid that hung out in the stacks at the library. I’m pretty sure this is that kid’s dream life.
You’ve got several readings and events coming up. How do you approach talking about your writing? What do you strive to convey when speaking publicly about your work?
I’m not terribly comfortable speaking in public, especially when the topic feels intimate and personal, so you would think I’d be a stickler for preparation. Sadly, I’m not. A writer friend laughed when he saw my launch notes which were basically:
- Start at the beginning.
- Talk about women and kids in peril.
- Answer questions.
So, like my writing style, I present by the seat of my pants! I’ve been doing a lot of written interviews and that helps me sort out my thoughts on themes in Winter Loon. I do want to convey that while Winter Loon may be Wes Ballot’s story, it’s also about the women in his life, their pain and sacrifice. I’m also interested in talking about lived trauma, what we endure, and the resilience of the human spirit. Those themes seem to be resonating with readers as well.
We asked this question of artists last year, and I’m curious about your take: What’s a common piece of artist advice that you find useless?
I don’t know if it’s common but I once received critique in a writing workshop that my narrator Wes Ballot seemed to speak with a kind of fluency that was deemed above his station, as if people who live in small towns or who don’t have a PhD or who have suffered trauma couldn’t possibly express themselves in any kind of poetic terms. I rejected that criticism and maintain that Wes’ introspection is what makes the way he narrates his story beautiful. It was important to build a language for Wes that was lean and organic to his knowledge and experience then allow him to use that language to get to the very heart of his story.
What writers are you reading right now that you think other people should be too?
This has been a great year for women in fiction. My favorite books from 2018 were Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, The Book of M by Peng Shepherd and Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee. I’m reading an advanced copy of Women Talking by Miriam Toews which I think will be a big book in 2019. I’m excited to read new work from Massachusetts authors like Crystal King and Marjan Kamali and debuts from Whitney Scharer and Rachel Barenbaum.
I’m looking forward to sharing Winter Loon with more readers and getting back to a novel-in-progress about four people whose lives collide when a child suddenly appears in the town where they live.
Susan Bernhard is author of the novel Winter Loon. She’ll read from the novel at events in the Buttonwood Books Supper with Authors Series (1/16, 6:30 PM), at Brookline Booksmith (1/17, 7 PM), and at the Newsfeed Cafe of the Boston Public Library (2/7, 6 PM).
Image: cover art for WINTER LOON (Little A Books 2018); Susan Bernhard, photo by Miles Bernhard.