Interview with Nicole Helget

Posted: May 30, 2009 in Interviews
Tags: , , ,

Live Nude Books: The Turtle Catcher opens with a series of intense scenes that take place in 1920.  From there, you send the reader back to 1897 and tell the story of the Richter family leading up to and going beyond those first few scenes.  Did you have the structure of the novel planned out when you first started writing, or did you organize the story this way during the drafting and revision processes?

Yellowleaves1Nicole Helget: Probably to my discredit, I don’t worry about overall shape or structure when I first begin writing a story. I feel very free to jump around in history or in the story without regard for chronology. I connect or arrange events more by theme or metaphor and *expect* my readers to make the connections themselves. I’m aware that this doesn’t always work for some readers. I’m aware that some readers prefer a more linear or traditional plot structure. But there are plenty of books out there that already do that. Plot or structurally-speaking, I’m more impressed by poets and poetry, with all their leaping and echoing, and I try to honor those types of constructions in my prose. When I start trying to force traditional structures on my prose, it ends up feeling predictable, and I despise predictability in my own fiction. I’m trying to fight against what’s expected. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

LNB: There are several characters that receive a hefty amount of page space, yet they’re all well developed—none of them seem like two-dimensional “types.”  When writing a story with a lot of characters, how do you manage all of them without letting one or two fall to the wayside?

NH: It’s sort of cliche, I guess, but I try to deliver the humanity of every character. I, personally, don’t even like all of my characters, but I try to give even the most abhorrent character a history or event that makes them at least somewhat sympathetic, that explains why they behave the way that they do. Managing so many characters isn’t something I’ve ever considered a problem or challenge. In my real life, I’ve always had a lot of people around. I have 5 sisters. I have 5 children. Because of the sheer amount of people in my personal life and because I’ve always been interested in knowing them thoroughly and understanding their motivations, that personal experience transfers naturally to my literary work.

LNB: The novel spans twenty plus years, covering the early twentieth century immigrant experience and World War I.  How much and what types of research did you need to do in order to tell this story?

NH: I’m intensely interested in history. My favorite reads are actually the Pulitzer Prize or National Book award-winners in historical nonfiction, like Nathaniel Philbrick, Timothy Egan, and Ann Applebaum.  I’m no expert on any particular era, so I write fiction instead, where I can just use events of the past to tell the story I want to tell. My favorite part of writing is probably the research that goes into creating the accurate historical perspective. I read a lot of narratives from the time, histories, poetry of or about the time, and watch a lot of documentaries. For The Turtle Catcher‘s purposes, I grew up in the area, too, so I knew some of the history and could see and feel how it has shaped the area and the people in it.

LNB: In your memoir, you write about growing up in rural Minnesota, and the novel is set primarily in your home state.  Does place work as a form of inspiration for your writing?

NH: Oh yes. Setting is its own character. It has moods and bad behavior. Particularly in this area, weather, seasons, animals, plants, and insects, are still prevalent, still a part of the people’s daily business, so it would be dumb, I think, to pretend as though it doesn’t exist or doesn’t have an effect on the people here. So if a writer sets a book here, setting has to be a part of it.

LNB: Your first book is non-fiction, the second is a novel, and you’ve written several children’s books.  What are you working on now?

NH: I am working on another novel, titled STILLWATER, which is about a pair of twins born during the fur-trapping era, who are separated but then later reunited under the most abhorrent, incestuous circumstances. I’ve got about 150 pages, but I think it’ll be close to 400 pages when I’m done. It’s coming out really fast. Hopefully, I’ll be done by the end of summer.

Nicole Helget’s novel, The Turtle Catcher, began as a short story, which won the 2005 Tamarack Award from Minnesota Monthly.  To read this story, click here.

  1. betty ziegler says:

    thank you Nicole for a great read….it will stick in my memory for a long time. Betty Ziegler

  2. Zein says:

    an amazing wirter & one of the best teachers i had! all the best of luck for Nicole ❤

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