Posts Tagged ‘Nicole Helget’

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.

The Turtle Catcher by Nicole Helget

In her 2005 memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways, Nicole Helget writes long, descriptive sentences that are both rhythmic and lyrical.  She continues this technique in her debut novel, The Turtle Catcher:

What matters is after the three brothers left, after the rain stopped, after more than thirty minutes had passed since one gasp of breath had crossed Lester’s cracked lips, and after millions and millions ofpounds of water had pressed down and tried to crush his life with its weight, Lester Sutter opened his blue eyes in that black place, expanded his lungs, and found himself alive.

Primarily set in rural Minnesota, The Turtle Catcher paints a picture of the immigrant experience for one German family, surrounding the events of World War I.  The story begins in 1920, when the Richter boys force their neighbor, Lester Sutter, into Spider Lake at gunpoint.  This is because they believe Lester has violated their only sister, Liesel.  The first four chapters introduce one of the novel’s central themes: the destructive power of keeping secrets.  Liesel Richter wishes to keep hidden her two biggest secrets: a birth defect and her relationship with Lester.  When Lester—brain-damaged after years of physical abuse from his father—discovers Liesel’s deformity, he is unable to remain quiet.  Liesel then panics, calling for her brothers’ help.  She doesn’t want them to hurt Lester, but she is too ashamed of her secret to say anything.

At this point, Helget takes the reader to Bavaria, 1897, where Liesel’s mother, Magdelena Schultz, carries a secret of her own: a child (Benjamin) conceived out of wedlock, whose father happens to be the wrong religion.  This secret, and the shame it would bring her and her lover, forces Magdelena to move to America and find a proper man to marry.  In New Germany, Minnesota, Maggie is introduced to her future husband, a farmer named Wilhelm Richter.  The story follows this family from prosperity to financial ruin, solidarity to The Richter’s have three more boys and Liesel, but Maggie never forgets her lover from back home.

Love occurs in this novel with little reciprocation.  This is not for lack of want or desire; rather it’s the limitations the characters have placed on themselves for fear that their secrets will be exposed.  Maggie doesn’t want her father to find out about her Jewish lover.  Luther Richter and Pernilla Sutter don’t want their feuding fathers to know about their relationship.  Herman Richter’s battle wounds run deeper than the surface, which causes him to create distance from his sweetheart, Betty.  Liesel shies away from her brother’s war buddy, Philippe, because of her anatomical secret.

Overall, this is a story about identity.  The characters in this novel struggle with the concept of their national, personal, and—in some cases—gender identities. Which leads to feelings of shame, fear, guilt, and ultimately the need to keep their thoughts hidden.  This means the end for some, and nearly destroys one family’s namesake. The characters become haunted both figuratively and literally by the secrets they keep and the actions produced from trying to keep them hidden.

But that ends up being the strongest element of this book.  Helget creates characters that are direct, yet guarded—characters that display acts of mental fortitude, while remaining contemplative about their actions.  Reading this novel feels as if you’re getting a glimpse into the history of a real family that actually experienced these events.  While there is enough suspense from the plot to keep a reader interested, the character’s reactions and responses to conflict made me want to continue turning the page.