Author Ellen Airgood speaks about her novel, South of Superior, during a presentation at the Calumet Public Library in September. (Photos © 2011 and courtesy Katie Alvord)
Story and photos by Katie Alvord*
CALUMET -- About forty people at the Calumet Public Library gave U.P. author Ellen Airgood a warm reception last month as she talked about her debut novel, South of Superior, released earlier this year by Riverhead Press.
Set in a small U.P. tourist town resembling Grand Marais -- where Airgood and her husband own the West Bay Diner -- South of Superior centers around a woman who moves up to the fictitious hamlet of McAllaster from Chicago. The novel unfolds as her life becomes more intertwined with others in the community.
"The story is fictional," Airgood said, "but I really hope it's true."
Fans of the book have already commented to her about the realism of her characters.
"People say, 'These characters are so real, how do you do that?' and I don't know," Airgood said. But she added that her work at the diner probably helps.
"From the first of May to the end of October, it's all diner, all the time," she noted, which leaves her little time to write. Yet she thinks her stories and characters "marinate" as she washes dishes and waits tables. "I deal with people all day, every day," she said. "As I do, the characters are all kind of in my head. They're just always with me. They all become very, very real to me as I try to pay attention to what people are really doing."
Author Ellen Airgood discusses the writing and publishing of her first novel, South of Superior, during her September presentation at the Calumet Public Library.
According to Airgood, her publisher considered this a book about community, but she didn't see quite so clearly that it was about community.
"I think I saw it somewhat, but not totally," Airgood noted. "As a writer, sometimes you yourself don't have as much perspective on what you're writing."
Some distant readers have told Airgood they didn't know towns like McAllaster still existed.
"That's not the way of the world anymore," she told her Calumet audience as she talked about places like her fictitious town, or like Grand Marais. While some express nostalgia for small towns, Airgood noted that living in one can have two sides.
"It's not all beer and skittles," she said. "It's very good but it's very hard. People can be nasty but at the same time people will help people they don't like. No one leaves anyone out in the cold."
Lake Superior is as much a character in the book, Airgood said, as the people of McAllaster.
"I wanted to write about the kind of people Superior creates," she recounted. "It's the spirit of the characters I'm trying to get across."
Describing herself as stubborn, the author said her stubborn nature kept her going through the 18 years of serious writing and rejection letters that finally led to publication of her first book. She has wanted to be a writer since age ten, when she was growing up on a farm in Michigan's thumb. Airgood started writing professionally shortly after moving up to the U.P.
Ellen Airgood signs copies of her novel, South of Superior, after her presentation in the Calumet Public Library in September.
After penning several young adult manuscripts and publishing some essays, she turned to writing a novel for adults. It took her seven years to finish South of Superior. Along the way she hired a freelance editor to help revise the book, and she worked with a London literary agent to revise it further.
While at times she despaired over the book, Airgood noted, her determination paid off when the final version of South of Superior got a nod from Riverhead Press. After the boutique literary division of Penguin released Airgood's novel in May, she and her husband threw a book launch party in Grand Marais that attracted around 200 people.
It's all been a huge boost for Airgood's writing career. One of her young adult novels, Prairie Evers, will be released through Penguin's Young Reader's Group (Nancy Paulsen Books) in May of 2012.
She has also started work on another novel for adults -- this one set in the Keweenaw.
"I'd like to set the book where there's a strong sense of culture," Airgood said, commenting that she senses that here in the Keweenaw region. "A sense of place is very important to me, not only in life but also in writing."
Keweenaw resident Joanne Thomas, who read South of Superior and attended Airgood's presentation, commented on Airgood's ability to capture the local culture in the details of her story.
"Ellen possesses a keen eye in observing the flavor of the personality we call 'yooper,'" Thomas said. "The smallest details of life, person and surroundings were noted in this book. "That made me grin in recognition of our particular culture. Her portrayals of the characters present to the reader the multi-faceted dramas in seemingly ordinary or mundane lives. Yes, everyone has a story, and she knows how to tell it."
Airgood's presentation was organized by Grandpa's Barn Bookstore and the Friends of the Calumet Public Library. South of Superior is for sale at Grandpa's Barn in Copper Harbor, as well as at other local bookstores. Read more about Ellen Airgood on her web site.
* Editor's Note: Keweenaw Now guest writer Katie Alvord is the author of Divorce Your Car and several articles on Keweenaw Now, including three prize-winning articles on climate change in the Lake Superior Basin. Click here to read about her journalism award and links to these articles, which were published on Keweenaw Now in 2007.