Recently, I caught up with Sue Harrison, author of numerous critically-acclaimed novels, including the best-selling Ivory Carver Trilogy (Mother Earth Father Sky, My Sister the Moon, and Brother Wind), to talk about writing, nature, and finding literary inspiration in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Joseph Daniel Haske: We’ve never met in person, but as you know, I grew up about ten miles from where you live in the eastern Upper Peninsula, in the next town over. Home remains important to me in countless ways and it still significantly informs my writing, as I’m sure it does yours. What do you think are some of the major advantages and disadvantages of being a writer in northern Michigan?
Sue Harrison: You’re absolutely right, Joe, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – my home since I was four years old – informs my writing in many ways. I once heard a biologist claim that water is so essential to a fish that the fish isn’t aware that water exists. Currents, yes, the air above the water, yes, pollution, yes, just not the water. That’s an apt description of how much the U.P. influences my life, my opinions, and my writing. In other words, more than I will ever know or understand.
As to major advantages, let me try to list a few: the isolation, which gives time to read, to write, to think; the beauty, which renews my soul and regenerates my gratitude; my dependence on the earth and the weather for food (venison, fish, game birds, garden crops, wild plants), which helps me define my place in the world; the community spirit of sharing, which has imparted a sense of trust and helped me overcome my shy nature; the spiritual sense that I live in God’s world, which enhances my faith. I’ve also gained a confidence in my own voice. Many of the birds and deer are so tame that, if you begin a gentle conversation with them, they listen. That’s a confidence builder!
Major disadvantages are usually the downside of the advantages. The isolation, which limits exposure to the powers-that-be in the writing and publishing worlds. The beauty, which can make me forget that many places and entities in this world embody a true ugliness brought about by greed, anger, lust, and hatred. I have to work “blind,” so to speak, to develop my antagonists and even to give a dark side to my protagonists.
JDH: After family and friends, I think the two things I miss the most about living in the eastern Upper Peninsula are the unique connection one enjoys with nature as well the marked seasonal changes. From reading your work, I sense that you find a similar inspiration in nature. Does your connection to the northern Michigan landscape play a significant role in your writing?
SH: It surely does, Joe. Actually, my inspiration to write my first novel, Mother Earth Father Sky, came to me as I was looking out my kitchen window while I washed dishes. It was mid-winter, and I was grieving over what I perceived as my lack of knowledge about anything that could form the foundation of a novel. As I looked outside, though, at the little woods behind our house, I realized I could name the species of those leafless winter trees simply by looking at their bark. It came to me that not everyone could do that, that my love of the outdoors and my interest in the natural world could be a legitimate basis for a novel.
JDH: Do you find that you’re a more productive writer during any given season? When I was still writing and living in the U.P., I think summer was my least productive season. Maybe there were too many distractions.
SH: Summer is definitely my least productive season. I love my family and I love having extended family come to visit, but the U.P. is a very popular place in the summer and some summers my husband and I joke that we run a bed and breakfast. We no longer live in our large log home, but, when we did, we had room to host lots of folks. I remember one summer, mid-May to mid-September, we had only four days without company. As much fun as that is, it pretty much gobbles up all my writing time. My favorite and most productive season is winter, January through mid-April. I snuggle up in my office with a cup of hot tea, snowflakes falling past my window, and I WRITE!
JDH: Speaking of productivity, could you tell us about your writing habits? Do you keep a regular daily writing schedule?
SH: I believe a regular writing schedule is essential to most writers, with the possible exception of poets, whose writing is so much more intense than a novelist’s. I write from about 9:30 a.m. to noon four or five days a week, if possible. For me, first draft is extremely intense and that time period is all I can handle. If I’m writing beyond the first draft, I can put in a few hours each afternoon. Otherwise, I dedicate early mornings and many afternoons to parent care (My dad is age 90, and my husband’s father is 98. They’re both widowers and each lives in his own home. I probably don’t need to say more than that!) I also work on my blog in evenings, do research (Love that!), or housework (Don’t love that!). My work days are usually 12 to 14 hours long, six days a week. I try to keep Sunday for more relaxing activities.
JDH: What is your working space like? Do you listen to music at any point in the process?
SH: My husband built me a beautiful office. I’ve decorated it in calming colors – blues, mauves – and I have a collection of vinyls that keep me company when I’m NOT writing. I love classical music. When I’m writing, I need total silence. I have had poor vision all my life, so I’m an auditory learner. Spoken words and music are huge distractions.
JDH: Which writers have influenced you the most? What are some lessons that you’ve learned from them?
SH: Hmmmm. Laura Ingalls Wilder – her very visual descriptive prose. Ernest Hemingway – his tough depictions of life, his spare prose. Mark Twain – the character-driven development of his chosen voices. The King James Version of the Bible – the music of its words. Dorothy Dunnett – her intense and quirky characters. Farley Mowat – his words melt me. William Faulkner – his eternal, everlasting sentences. Alice Walker – her ability to portray joy with words alone. More recently, Janie Chang – her ability to carry me into a new-to-me world. Also her use of the unreliable narrator. Ken Follett – his research and characterizations. Anne Lamott – her irreverent reverence. Ah, I could go on forever. Even weak writers can teach us strong lessons.
JDH: Some writers, Kurt Vonnegut for instance, have attempted to rank their own books. I won’t ask you to do that, but I wonder if there is any particular book or work that you are the most proud of and why?
SH: Of my published books, it’s a tie between Song of the River and Call Down the Stars. I think they’re both strong in the sense of telling an unusual story, but more than both of them, I’m proud of a novel I just completed. It’s set in Eastern Europe, 5700 B.C., working title – Horses of the West Sun. In writing Horses, I’ve achieved my strongest writing yet.
JDH: Tell us about your most recent projects? What are you working on now?
SH: Well, I’ve just mentioned Horses of the West Sun, which hasn’t been placed yet, but my agent Victoria Skurnick strongly believes in it, as does my editor Maggie Crawford. Currently I’m working on two novels, the sequel for Horses of the West Sun , and also an historical set in the 1870s in New York City, working title Gilt. Gilt leans toward magical realism. The premise is age-old, but the setting allows unusual complexities since the decade of the 1870s was a time of worldwide economic depression within what has been called The Gilded Age. The premise? What if you could, in a very odd and specific way, grant wishes – but let’s take it one step further. What if you could grant wishes, but you didn’t know you were granting wishes. And yet another step further – but other people do know you can grant wishes. Gilt is a study in extreme vulnerability, and I think the fear of vulnerability stands as a universal theme — and a heart-deep anguish — for many, many people.
JDH: Best of luck with all of the new projects. Hope to see you the next time I make it up north!