Recently, I had a chance to talk to Candace Simar (award-winning author of the Abercrombie Trail series). Her newest book, Shelterbelts, was released on May 16th. Shelterbelts has everything you love about Candace’s writing: Minnesota history, Norwegian culture, a gripping story, and characters who steal your heart.
Tia Fiskum, the old maid of Tolga Township, yearns to retain her hold on the family farm after her shell-shocked brother returns from World War II. The neighbor she hopes to marry chooses a town girl for his new wife.The Potato King listens to the radio preacher and prays for a miracle. Eddy Root fears a return to the asylum. A German war bride struggles to find acceptance in this tight-knit Scandinavian community. Woven throughout is the man who walks lizards, a grieving father, a disillusioned pastor, and the neighborhood gossipmonger. Shelterbelts chronicles the life of a community struggling to return to normal after war. This is a story true to history of those difficult times while rich in the complications of the human spirit.
And here to talk about her fifth book, Shelterbelts, is the one and only, Candace Simar! *Applause*
So, tell me Candace: How was writing Shelterbelts different than your experience writing the Abercrombie Trails series?
Shellterbelts was much more difficult. For one thing, it is more character driven in the literary genre of writing. Even more so, the choice of writing a linked story cycle made it much harder than I expected. I was influenced by The Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg, Ohio. Both were written about a hundred years ago, and told the story from multiple points of view. I loved the idea of getting “the rest of the story” after reading about the next character. While this was exhilarating, it was also excruciatingly difficult. Minor changes in later chapters, made huge revisions in others. Trying to tell multiple POVs without giving away too much of the other characters about drove me crazy. Just keeping the timelines somewhat in sequence was a challenge. But, at the same time I loved doing it, and feel Shelterbelts is a much better work because of the multiple points of view. I wanted Tolga Township to be the main character of the story, and I think it worked.
I loved how much emphasis was placed on the town as the focal point of the story. Reading how different characters felt and reacted to the same events either made the community stronger or shook it to its core. Getting to know all the characters was probably my favorite part of reading Shelterbelts, so I have to know: do you have a favorite character?
I started out liking Tia best, but I really grew to love Tillie, the neighborhood gossip, as her story unfolded. I also have tender feelings toward Eddie Root, who is based on a mentally challenged person in my family, and also on someone I have known in the community. Norman is a complex character who I still think about from time to time. Vera is based on my mom, and I loved writing her POV. You can tell, I have a hard time choosing a favorite. People ask me if the characters are based on people from my childhood—the answer is both yes and no. The characters are more composites of people I’ve known, as characters from all my novels have been. The setting is definitely based on my home territory. Clyde and Vera’s farm is based on my childhood home, the Fiskum farm is our neighbor’s farm, and Tolga Lutheran is based on Tordenskjold Free Lutheran where I grew up, including their Pentecost Dinners. The rural school is based on the one-room school I attended for 5 years. Shelterbelts feels very personal to me. My editor said that she could see I really loved my characters. That is perhaps the nicest compliment I have received.
You’ve mentioned that Tolga Township is very similar to the town you grew-up in. How did your upbringing shape the characters and stories of Shelterbelts?
I was born in 1953, and WW2 shadowed much of my childhood, even though my father was not a veteran. The war was such a monumental event that it impacted U. S. culture for decades. We knew who had served, who had been imprisoned, who had lost family members, or who had moved, etc. because of the war effort. My parents married in 1944, and I loved discovering the world where they started. I knew someone called Big Barn and Potato King. Everyone who had survived the Great Depression was influenced by their experience. Farmers shared a common struggle.
I have always been interested with the relationships of farmers to their neighbors. Marrying a farmer means spending the rest of your life with his neighbors. In Shelterbelts, Tia’s rival marries her next door neighbor. Tia must learn to get along. There was no other choice.
The title, Shelterbelts, is based on the wind breaks planted around prairie farms to stop drifting snow. I love the metaphor of shelterbelts sheltering and protecting the entire community.
Norwegian language and culture serves as the backdrop to many of your stories, giving a foundation of identity and faith to your characters. As someone who has very little knowledge of the Norwegian way of life, I learned a lot reading Shelterbelts! Were you raised in a traditional Norwegian home, like many of the characters in the story? Or was your family like Tillie’s, and insisted on speaking only ‘American’?
I grew up sitting under the kitchen table listening to my parents and grandparents gossiping in Norwegian. My sister, Claudia, always the smartest one, would listen and translate what was said. When adults slipped into Norwegian, we kids knew it was getting juicy! Yes, we celebrated Christmas with lutefisk and lefse. We mentioned Syttendemai, Norwegian Constitution Day, every May 17. We learned Norwegian swear words and sang hymns in Norwegian. We took great pride in our Norwegian heritage. Almost everyone in our little corner of the world was Scandinavian and Lutheran. It’s a time gone by, and I loved putting it down on paper in Shelterbelts.
Every writer approaches writing differently. What is your favorite part of the novel writing process?
I love loosing the imagination that translates vague thoughts into story on the page. I love seeing the characters unfold, and the story going forward. I don’t plot or plan my books in advance. If I knew too much what will happen, I tend to lose interest. I like being surprised. There’s nothing like the feeling that comes with writing the last line of a first draft. At the same time, the writing process is excruciating. A million distractions beckon. The focus needed must be like that of an athlete going for the gold. Filling the white spaces with meaningful words is mostly painful. And then the revision process. I thought Shelterbelts was nearly finished in 2010 when I took the first draft to the Taos Master Novel Class. In reality, it had just begun.
My actual writing process is to journal first, where I dump all the worries and clutter of the day on the page, then read Scripture and pray. After this, I go into the story. I begin by reading what I wrote the previous day, and then hitting the blank page. Other writers have their own processes, but for me it’s always the journaling, scripture and prayer. I spent a lot of time at a Bismarck, ND monastery to finish Shelterbelts. It is the ideal writing spot: quiet, clean and spiritual. I can’t wait to go back.
Sounds wonderful! And I have to ask: Will you be turning Shelterbelts be a series, like Abercrombie Trails, or a stand-alone novel?
Ever since Shelterbelts came out a couple of weeks ago, I am being bombarded with requests for a sequel. I’m not saying never, but I have other novels in my brain that need to be written first. The first time it was mentioned, I was completely horrified! I worked on Shelterbelts for almost 10 years. It had only been out a few days and readers were asking for another! I needed a little breathing time!
Any other novels in the works?
I am mid-way through an historical novel called ESCAPE TO FORT ABERCROMBIE. This book is in the new adult genre, appropriate for younger readers but still appealing to adults. An editor from Five Star/Cengage who purchased the large print rights to the Abercrombie Trail Series, asked me to write another book about the Dakota Conflict. I hope to finish it by the end of the year. I’m also researching logging camps, bonanza farms and the Benedictine nuns who started many hospitals in Minnesota and North Dakota. Solveig, from Abercrombie Trail, will be the main character in my logging book. I’m anxious to get started on it.
Awesome! Thank you SO much for the interview, Candace, and good luck with your next writing project! For more information on Candace or to purchase Shelterbelts, please visit candacesimar.com