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Ellen Airgood Writes About Longing to Belong

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Airgood cover
South of Superior
by Ellen Airgood

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An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Ellen Airgood,
Author of South of Superior

 

 

By Diane Slocum
July 2011

 

In Ellen Airgood’s debut novel, South of Superior, Madeline leaves her Chicago home to live in a tiny town on the Great Lake to care for a friend of her late grandfather. Having been abandoned by her mother and rejected by the grandfather, she knows nothing of her family except for the resentment she holds toward them. As the town and its memorable inhabitants become a part of her, she learns more about her family and a meaningful life than she ever expected.

“I’d have to feel strongly about any place I set a story.”
—AIRGOOD

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: Why did you set your novel by Lake Superior?

AIRGOOD: It’s such a rare place—remote, beautiful, harsh, hardscrabble. It’s dramatic and enlivening, and it’s my home. A sense of place is so important to me. I’d have to feel strongly about any place I set a story. The landscape to me is always a character, whether it’s a city street or a tiny town at the edge of Lake Superior. Landscapes shape people, communities and cultures, and that fascinates me.

AUTHORLINK: How did you come up with your memorable characters?

AIRGOOD: The characters came to me. One day in my mind’s eye I saw a woman in her mid thirties walking down a city street wearing a navy pea coat, her hands jammed in her pockets. She was frowning, but I thought she wasn’t truly an angry person—she just had a lot on her mind, some things to figure out. I wondered what her story was, and began writing to try and find out. And that’s how I met Madeline.

Two of my favorite characters in the book, Gladys and Arbutus, came to me through a postcard my sister sent me. It’s an old black and white photo of two elderly women sitting side by side on a lawn, confiding in one another. “Sisters,” I thought. I wanted to write about them. I had to know what they were talking about. I wanted them to become part of my own life, my own family in a way.

“I tried, but mostly failed, to plan ahead. I knew the basic outlines of the story from the start, . .”
—AIRGOOD

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: Did you plan how your story would unfold and did your characters cooperate?

AIRGOOD: I tried, but mostly failed, to plan ahead. I knew the basic outlines of the story from the start, but I had to keep working to have events occur that would lead to conflicts, so that the characters could act and react and deal with each other. Much that happened was a struggle for me to find out about. It was almost as if I was a newcomer to a small, close community—the community of the novel—and the residents were not going to leap up and instantly start telling me things. But I kept listening and wondering—what kinds of things happen in the course of ordinary lives that bring out the best and the worst in people?

AUTHORLINK: How did you manage to write a novel while working 80-100 hours a week?

AIRGOOD: I’m very stubborn. I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was ten years old. Even as a child it was never a frivolous desire, and it never faded. When I was twenty six, I decided it was time to try. I thought that I had only myself to blame if I didn’t dive into this dream and work at it, so I did that. I wouldn’t listen to anyone who told me it couldn’t be done. My work in the diner has rewarded me as much as it’s demanded. Twenty years of waiting on people—listening to them, caring about them—has taught me a lot. It’s given me something to write about, a window on what people say, how they think, what they do.

AUTHORLINK: How did you feel selling your first novel and going through the publishing process? What frustrated or pleased you?

AIRGOOD: I felt—feel—great. Fantastic, extraordinary, thrilled. But what I felt most of all, maybe, was a sense of satisfaction and relief. Now I can finally know I wasn’t deluded all these years as I toiled away.

The highest high was probably the day my agent called to tell me about Riverhead’s interest in the novel. I was standing at the pass-through when the phone rang that May morning, about to deliver two cheese omelets with sides of bacon and pumpernickel toast to a couple in the diner. Joy said, “This is Joy,” and for a split second I thought, “Joy who?” because I was so focused on the order coming up. But in the next moment I knew who I was talking to, and I heard her say she had good news. I sank down on a stool and said, “I think I’m going to faint.” She laughed and said, “Don’t do that!” She told me that a wonderful imprint at Penguin was interested in publishing my book.

There weren’t many lows or frustrations. The few that popped up were trivial. My agent and publisher have taken very good care of me. So—it’s all great, but I think maybe the best part is hearing from readers that the book speaks to them in various ways.

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people gain by reading your novel?

AIRGOOD: I hope they gain a sense of how full of courage and nuance the lives of ordinary people can be. I hoped to share a sense of the wisdom that many of the elderly people I’ve met seem to have—it’s the wisdom of acceptance, I think. That’s what the book is about, to me.

Setting aside expectations and accepting what is laid before you. And I hope very much that people are entertained, whisked away as if by magic to this other world and people, for a while.

“Be stubborn and persistent about writing—commit to it”
—AIRGOOD

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have for others hoping to publish their first novels?

AIRGOOD: Be stubborn and persistent about writing—commit to it. Write for yourself, but remember the reader. Strive to learn. Don’t be defensive about your work or yourself. Read—a lot. Read both carefully and recklessly, read things you like and things you don’t, try to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Listen. Listen to the people around you, (and pay attention to your editor if you’re fortunate enough to have one). Pay attention to the world. Be passionate—take the chance of caring. Be humble in both defeat and victory.

About Ellen Airgood:

 

 

 

Like her character, Airgood fell in love with the South Shore and made it her home. She and her husband run a diner in Grand Marais, Michigan, where her imagination is creating new characters to populate her next novel.

Diane Slocum
About
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.