Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sarah Stonich's Shelter

by Joan

In an area where “the iron content in the rocks is so high that compasses fail,” Sarah Stonich spent ten long years building a cabin “smaller than Thoreau’s.” Just what was it that pulled her to the land in frigid Minnesota? What motivated her to keep going, to fight bureaucrats about a potential highway abutting her land, to spend days at “home” without water, indoor plumbing, or electricity to run “the holy grail of all appliances: a refrigerator.” Reading her memoir, Shelter, one gets the sense that by living so closely connected to the land, and so far from what we call “civilization,” a different set of values exists. It’s a place where a stranger will extinguish a fire on someone else’s property or share abundant well water with those who live “dry.”

I found the stories about her ancestors poignant and enjoyed learning about her neighbors and her new found love. Many of her sentences mesmerized me, enough to draw me back for a second reading. A passage in which she writes about her first alfresco meal at a newly built picnic table overlooking the lake plays beautifully on the page: “Autumn was full on. The bugs were gone, and the fallen leaves were dry underfoot and loud as Doritos. Those still on the trees were thrumming loose from branches to join the eastward curtain of wind, slowly opening the view to the lake across the wooded slope. On the floor of the roofless cabin, eddies of fallen birch leaves swirled like schools of guppies and sawdust lapped at the walls.”

If you’re like me, weak-hearted and content with outdoors as long as you stay closer to the beach and away from the forest, don’t ask what you do with your recently-deceased cat when the ground is too frozen to bury him. Or what happens when you run headlong into a cougar. But Sarah Stonich can write about sticks and stones (or cats) and I’d read it. Infused with both humor and deep-felt emotion, her memoir is an engaging read. (She retells a hilarious story about two sisters fighting over the bones of their dead paramour that had me cackling.)

In Shelter, Sarah touches on all six senses. Being in a cabin in the woods may be quiet, but we learn it is never silent. Birds call, beavers clap, woodpeckers peck, frogs belch, hummingbirds flitter, breezes sing through screens, snow squeals underfoot. Each season is bursting with its own noises, enough to spur this non-outdoorsy type to consider a week in the woods, albeit a little less rustic.

When she describes how the Stonich name is scarce, “cropping up more often on headstones than in phone books,” I got a real sense of what this pilgrimage has meant to her. Her ancestors long dead, time passes, animals and trees turn to ash. But “whether life is being gently rocked or swamped, the land is just there.”

And now, a few questions with Sarah Stonich and a chance to win a copy of Shelter!

WWW: Congratulations on the release of Shelter. Can you tell our readers a little about what this book means to you?

SS: In some ways this book represents closure for me, the end of a long chapter of uncertainty, after five years of a sort of “will we or won’t we” lose our land. The limbo of not knowing, and not being able to go forward, either to plan or build, has been frustrating and upsetting. But at least I could write about the land, and have something to give my son - if not this place in the woods, at least a book about his family and a place that was “nearly ours.”

WWW: Your experiences were truly rustic, yet you’ve described incredibly gorgeous landscape. No doubt the trade off is worth it?

SS: Mostly. Going without water is a bit of a hardship, but the peace is priceless. There is a lot that we’ve been spared because of our remoteness – no jet-skiis or power boats, no ATVs barreling down our road, no neighbors blasting old ACDC records. I’d say the trade-offs are worth it, but I have realized how easy living with amenities makes our everyday city lives. Go without refrigeration for a week and you will come to appreciate the magic of it.
WWW: Oh, I imagine so. What motivated you to persist in your dream of connecting with your ancestors’ land?

SS: I was and still am motivated by the notion of land being a connection to our past and roots. My son didn’t know his grandfather, and I hoped this physical connection to the same land my father once bonded with might bond them in some way.

WWW: What does your son think of the book?

SS: He’s quite pleased. I ran it by him before publication and he jogged my memory over a few things, so he was helpful in that process (has a much better memory than I do, that’s certain.) Sam’s very well-read, but has only recently begun to read my work – he’s just finished reading my forthcoming book, Vacationland. He has yet to read my earlier novels, even though one features a character based pretty much on him.
WWW: I picture you in an Adirondack chair in the woods, leisurely recording your thoughts in a journal. Were you actually able to write there (long-hand, obviously!) or did you return home for the heavy work?

SS: When I set out, I had a vision that the place would be a retreat, not only in which to write, but to write brilliantly, with lots of inspiration and few interruptions. Of course I couldn’t have been more wrong. And let’s face it, a lot of excuses to not write are born of writers imagining they need everything perfect and in place and all ritual-ready before they can set pen to paper. Fact is that to write you only need the desire – only in mid-career has this sunk in – perfect circumstances do not foster writing, it’s all motivation and work. Tom Waits said it: “You gotta get behind the mule in the morning and plow.” It shouldn’t matter where the mule is standing.
WWW: Good advice for all of us. You managed to infuse humor and insight into this very personal book. What did you find most difficult about writing memoir?

SS: I’m a pretty private person, so wasn’t all that comfortable writing about myself, which seems rather narcissistic. I told myself in the beginning that it would be easier if the tone of the book was the tone of a conversation I might have with my son. There has always been a lot of play in our discourse and we like to entertain each other. I was a little more worried about the rest of my family – even when writing about my long-dead grandparents, it needed to be done very delicately. It’s important to portray anyone you write about in an authentic way that honors their character. Memoir, by definition includes speculating over the broader aspects of people’s lives – it needs to be done respectfully. Quite a lot was edited out of this book, but there are still a few passages I feel a little squeamish about including. That’s memoir.
WWW: Well, you succeeded in writing a truly authentic book. The cover is stunning—I imagine you were quite happy with it? (Readers, check out the book trailer, here.)

SS: Yes, as an author who has had a devastating cover in the past that actually hurt book sales and my career, having some say in a cover is most important. My last two book contracts have included a clause that I have input on the book jacket and right of refusal. I think this cover is just right – it nicely sets the tone of the story within.
WWW: My favorite of your books is The Ice Chorus. Do you plan on returning to Ireland for another book? Is another memoir brewing?

SS: Maybe one day I’d go back to Ireland. I really loved the Irish characters in The Ice Chorus and sometimes miss them. That’s the fun of writing – you not only get to choose who you spend time with for the duration of writing a book, but you actually get to build them and set them in places you’d like to spend time in yourself. I cannot imagine doing another memoir, but there’s lots of material I wouldn’t dare write in a memoir that will be much better milled into fiction.

WWW: That's why we love to write fiction! Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

SS: I’ve just finished a new novel, and currently am working on two more (I toggle back and forth, which only works because I’m ADD). I know many of your readers are writers themselves, so, I’d just like to encourage them to keep at it, get behind the mule as often as you can. Also, If you have comments or questions don’t hesitate to email (writers like to hear from readers – it validates our existence)
Cheers, Sarah

Thanks so much for your encouraging words and the lovely invitation to our readers. We'll be waiting anxiously for your next book.

Readers, comment here or on our FB page by Saturday midnight, and you'll be entered to win a copy of Shelter. Be sure to add your email address so I can contact the winner for her/his mailing address.

UPDATE RE BOOK GIVEAWAY: SUSAN VIGILANTE IS THE WINNER! Congrats Susan, and thanks to all who entered!

Reading and giveaway copies of Shelter provided by Borealis Books.


  1. I am a transplanted new Yorker living in Minneapolis, and it never ceases to amaze me how gutsy Minnesotans are. This sounds like and inspiring read.

  2. I've never been to Minnesota, Susan! I think I'll go there in the summer. Thanks for stopping by! Email me offline if you want to be entered in the drawing. mora dot joan at gmail dot com

  3. Hi Ladies, found you through Writer Unboxed.

    I was born in Wisconsin, but those winters... better to visit (in the summer) than to shovel, IMO. Shelter sounds like an amazing book and experience, but call me effete, I likes me my hot showers and refrigerators, I does. Writing in Flow

    Thanks for an interesting look at an interesting book. If I don't win, it'll definitely go onto my wish list/reading queue.

  4. Hello Writing Goddess--I'll add you to the contest entries.
    Thanks for stopping over from WU! Glad you enjoyed the review.

  5. Carol Woods14 April, 2011

    This is on my never-ending gotta read list.

  6. Carol--you're entered into the contest! You will love this one, whether you win or not!


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