Today I welcome Kristin Neva. I just finished reading her debut novel Snow Country. What a fascinating read. This is a longer interview then I normally post. But for those of you struggling with the writing life I think you will find her thorough answers inspiring.
Here is the back-cover description.
Shame desperately depends on secrecy for its survival in this multi-generational story of love and loss.
Jilted three weeks before her wedding, Beth Dawson escapes sunny California for the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where a young State Trooper challenges her to let go of her rules for Christian courtship. Her domineering mother chides her to stay single and wants her to talk her ailing grandmother into moving to Los Angeles.
Copper Island averages over 200 inches of snow annually. The fictional towns of Douglass and Quincy mirror the actual towns of Houghton and Hancock, and although the names of businesses and persons are imaginary, the history, landmarks, and spirit of the region described in the novel are real.
Kristin, settle in at the kitchen table. I’ve brewed some hearty Ceylon tea and I have a plate of scones, in honor of my Scottish heritage. Many of the scenes in your novel take place over steaming tea and nisu. (Defined in the glossary of Snow Country as Finnish for sweet cardomom bread.)
It’s such a great way to become friends — over tea and comfort food. When traveling with my husband on a business trip to Taiwan, I realized I had been missing out. I had grown up drinking and enjoying tea out of a box, but loose leaf tea took tea to a whole new level.
My character Grandma Lou always has loose leaf tea steeped in water heated on a wood stove. “Tea tastes better when it’s heated by wood stove,” she claims.
It’s funny, because the biggest pushback I get on the book is over my choice of tea selection and some of the esoteric details of drinking loose leaf tea. There are some people out there who take their tea very seriously. J
I read your first book Heavy, a memoir of the emotional rollercoaster of the first year your husband Todd’s ALS diagnosis. So, why did you decide your second book would be a novel?
I wanted to write what I love to read: small town fiction with quirky characters. I felt like our memoir, Heavy, was a book that should be written for others who were also suffering. Snow Country is just for fun, and it’s a creative outlet for me. It’s an escape from my real life and it’s a way to flesh out some of my thoughts on life, love, and loss in the lives of fictional characters who lead more fascinating lives than mine.
How did you come up with the idea for this Contemporary Romance?
The idea for Snow Country started with a scene based on my mother’s experience of learning to drive in the snow her first winter in the Copper Country after growing up in California. She got pulled over for driving too slow. And once, as a teenager, I led the police on a slow speed chase as I looked for a safe place to pull over. I wouldn’t roll the window down more than a crack, and I questioned if the officer who pulled me over was a real cop. As a brand-new driver, I couldn’t believe I was getting a ticket.
That’s basically the scene I begin with in Snow Country, and from there I let my main character work through some issues that resonate with me.
I’ve heard it said that everybody has a book or two in her. Authors might mine their own lives for the first book, and maybe the second, although I found I needed to interview some friends with different life experiences to flesh out some ideas for my second book, which is now in the editing process.
To be clear, my characters are not me or my friends, but an idea needs to begin someplace.
How did you go about learning the craft of fiction writing while being Todd’s caregiver?
I don’t think I would have devoted my time to learning the craft of writing had I not been Todd’s caregiver. Since he requires twenty-four hour care, it’s not possible for me to work outside the home. After I get the kids off to school, I generally have a couple hours to write. I listen to podcasts, watch YouTube videos by writing instructors, and read books on the craft of writing. I also analyze my favorite authors. Why do I like their work? What draws me in? What keeps me reading?
Todd edits and critiques my work and helps me brainstorm plotlines. It is good to have something to focus on other than the terminal disease. It has also been good for the vitality of our marriage. I take care of Todd, and he gives back by helping me with my writing dream. He is just so smart. Our biggest arguments are about word-use and he is usually right. I tell our kids, “Just so you know. This isn’t typical. If you get married someday, you likely will argue with your spouse about something other than grammar.”
A mantra we often hear as writers is write what you know. It shows in the wonderful setting you chose for Snow Country. Explain how you created the fictitious towns of Quincy and Douglass Michigan. What parts of the setting and characters mirror real people?
My husband Todd likes to say there’s more truth in fiction. Creating the fictitious towns of Quincy and Douglass, based on the real towns of Hancock and Houghton, allowed me to be even more true to life of the culture and spirit of the region. If I used the real towns and real businesses, I couldn’t possibly describe a snarky waitress who treats a guest with contempt because she’s on a date with the man of her dreams.
Nonetheless, locals who’ve read the book see right through the fictitious names. Just like the real Houghton, my fictional town of Douglass is named after Douglass Houghton, an American geologists, who explored Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula prior to statehood. My town of Quincy is named for the old underground mine that sits atop Quincy Hill above Hancock.
Douglass State, the fictitious university, is loosely based on Michigan Tech, but using a fictitious name allows my characters to have jobs and take classes that don’t actually exist at the real university.
The restaurant Cornucopia, where Beth and Danny go on their first date, isn’t based on any specific restaurant, but the sandstone building it resides in is inspired by a real building that houses a different restaurant.
I do, however, use the real names for the outlying areas that are not integral to the story. There really is a Brockway Mountain. There’s a charming town called Eagle River that really does have a park where locals feed the deer in the winter. Basically any place that’s tangential to the story and would only be described in a positive light gets to keep its real name.
The people are truly imaginary, although I pull traits from various people to inform my characters. Mak, for example, is the quintessential Yooper — he plows and makes wood, yet he’s unexpectedly intelligent. His wife Lorna always has a business idea, and that’s reflective of many Yoopers. My friend, a native of Arizona, was once trying to learn how to knit because she wanted to fit in with the locals. She said, “Everybody has something to sell at the Tori (Finnish word for market) except for me.”
Beth Dawson and Daniel Johnson have differing views about dating. Beth is by the book while Danny is less structured. As their relationship grows the battlefield focuses on trust. Your focus audience is YA and 20 somethings and you really bring up some interesting points about the true love waits message. You sprinkled the theme throughout your work without being preachy. Which character in this novel most mirrors your own heart on dating?
I find it interesting that you’d think of this book as targeted for young adults. Although Beth, my main character, is in her twenties, another central character, Grandma Lou, is in her seventies. Hoping that the varied themes of the book would appeal to a broader cross-section than your typical romance reader, I labeled the series a Copper Island Novel. I have gotten positive feedback from girls in their teens, middle-aged women, and women in their eighties. What has been surprising to me is that the book has been well received by guys too.
To answer your question about my heart on dating: Like Beth, I started by the book. As a teenager, I read all kinds of Christian dating/relationship books because I wanted to do it right. Recently I went through some of my high school papers my mom had saved, and I had to laugh. For my tenth grade World Affairs class, I wrote a paper on communication in marriage. For a college class I took during my senior year of high school, I wrote a paper on abstinence. I had dating and marriage all figured out well before meeting Todd. I think it’s a good place for a young person to start, but like Beth, I had to process my ideals in light of the messiness of life and embrace grace.
Fortunately, Todd was patient with me. That scene where Danny tells Beth he loves her and she responds with “Thank You” — yup, that was our story. Of course, Beth is her own person, so I had to tell her story. The way my story worked out was that I resisted telling him that I loved him until one day I was shopping at a thrift store and happened to see a Carolina Herrera wedding dress on a rack. I lifted it up, and a woman said, “Hey, I was going to get that. That’s a $5,000 dress.”
Well, that’s not how thrift store shopping works. If you walk away from the rack, you lose. I felt my competitive nature coming out and I held onto the dress.
The woman asked me “Are you getting married?”
Todd and I had been talking about the possibility, but we had not yet dated for a year. He was ready to commit, but I was uncertain. In that moment I had to give her an answer, so I made a decision. “I’m getting married next summer.”
That evening, I met Todd at his condominium and told him I had a surprise. “I love you and I bought a wedding dress today.”
At some point, all of our lives become too complex for formulas. I was a perfect parent—until I had kids. And I didn’t wrestle with the problem of suffering until living with Todd’s terminal illness. As I approach my fifth decade of life, I am less by the book. My life philosophy comes down to the tagline I choose for my author website: Love and Grace on Copper Island.
These characters value and celebrate their Finnish heritage. They still cling to parts of the language and most definitely the food. You paint their culture so differently than what we experience in other parts of the country. Is this true of Upper Michigan in your real world?
Oh, it is very true. One Amazon reviewer wrote, “I loved the characters, and they reminded me so much of my own family and friends.”
My husband and I are Finnish-Americans—third-generation Americans, yet we retain a slice of Finnish culture that is prevalent in the region where I live and write about.
The old Finns called this place Kuparisaari, Copper Island, and it was the favorite destination for Finnish immigrants from 1870 through the early 1920s. Many Finns escaped abject poverty for the promise of fortune to work in underground mines that supplied 90% of the country’s copper.
Since Finns once made up 20% of the population in the Copper Country, they had a noticeable impact on the local culture. My fifth-grade daughter told us the other day that her teacher asked for a show of hands of who has a sauna—every hand was raised. The streets in town are named in both English and Finnish. Many families retain Finnish names for their favorite dishes.
In my writing, I attempt to capture the essence of the culture, climate, and creation. The region almost becomes a character in itself. So much has already been written about Italians in Brooklyn, or the Irish in Boston. I hope to introduce the world to the Finns in the Keweenaw.
You created drama with characters afflicted and affected by ALS in this community. Your husband, Todd, is fighting the good fight with ALS. How hard was that to write about?
ALS is a disease that is always in the forefront of my thoughts so it is not surprising that it would make its way into my writing. We write what we know. I still get tears in my eyes when I reread the scene I wrote about the ALS diagnosis. Some of the small details of our experience are implanted in my mind and they made their way onto the pages of Snow Country. Exam Room 2. Cold, hard plastic chairs. People diverting their eyes from witnessing our grief.
It is my hope that writing about ALS, even in a fictional work, will raise awareness about the challenges of living with the disease. I hope there will be a cure in my husband’s lifetime. Until then, people living with ALS need much more help than our current healthcare system provides.
What do you hope people take away from the story of Beth and Danny?
Life is messy, and there are no easy answers. Part of Beth’s disappointment with her broken engagement is based on the thought that if she follows all the rules, life will work out. I think the prosperity gospel has crept into Evangelicalism. There’s an idea that if we say the right prayer, then we will be healed, or if we follow the right rules, then life will work out. But we need to remember that Jesus promised we would have trouble in this world.
That being said, there is wisdom in some rules, and some of the pain of life can be avoided by making wise choices. Danny’s past catches up with him and he needs to live with the consequences of his choices. We’ll find out in book three how that subplot comes to a climax.
Is there anything you would like to mention about Snow Country or the theme that I’ve not asked?
People have described Snow Country as a Romantic Comedy. I can thank my husband for that. He often makes me laugh, and I file away things he says. As I mentioned, I thought women would be my primary audience, but I think the reason guys like it is because of the humor. Many of the quirky lines are courtesy of my husband, my biggest encourager.
This is Book One of the Copper Island Novel series. Can you give us a brief glimpse into the second book?
The second Copper Island book is Copper Country, a story of family and forgiveness. It’s about Aimee and Russ, who were minor characters in Snow Country.
Grandma Lou asks, “Where do people get this idea that dying people are more noble?”
Ten years after abandoning his family, Aimee’s father returns with throat cancer. Aimee wants to forgive him, but he’s as narcissistic and unrepentant as ever. She’s comforted by Russ, who’s everything her father wasn’t—present and gentle. However, a long-term relationship with him is unrealistic unless he’s willing to let go of his bitterness towards corporations, give up his off-the-grid cabin, and find a real job.
Copper Country will be out this summer.
My final question is something I ask every author I interview. What is one thing you would say to budding fiction writers as they journey to publication?
Enjoy the journey and view the challenges as learning opportunities.
We would all love to be the next John Grisham or Jan Karon, but we need to do what we do because we love it, and celebrate the small victories along the way. That’s what the National Novel Writing Month is about. Snow Country was my NaNoWriMo project three years ago. Getting those initial 50,000 words down was an accomplishment.
Then began the hard work of revision. I sought out honest, constructive criticism. Not all of the criticism made sense initially, so I worked to get to the root of the issues with my story. For example, one of my beta readers said she didn’t really like my main character, Beth. She couldn’t articulate why, but I eventually realized it was because Beth was too timid, too whiny. I had to show that she had sisu early on, even though part of her character arc was to develop backbone.
I celebrated when I found an agent, and though he did not end up selling my novel before he retired, I learned a lot from the process. My favorite rejection letter from a publisher was, “The pacing is too slow—much too slow.” That constructive feedback gave me something to work on.
Now I am learning about book promotion and challenging myself to step out of my comfort zone. At a community event, I approached a reporter and pitched my novel as a story. That led to a radio/TV spot—a whole new experience for me. I look forward to what’s next.
Kristin Neva grew up in an old farmhouse on Copper Island in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula where the hard-working, rugged residents persevere through harsh winter weather, sustained by friendship and family, surrounded by natural beauty. As an adult, she lived in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas for seventeen years before returning to the her hometown with her husband and two children.
Kristin’s first book, Heavy, co-authored with her husband, Todd, journeys through the first year after Todd’s ALS diagnosis as the Nevas struggle to find meaning, hold on to faith, and discover joy in the midst of pain.
Snow Country: http://a.co/i1ZR7vB
It has been a pleasure to learn how Snow Country came to be.
Now for the fun part. Kristin is giving away one copy of Snow Country to a lucky winner. Post a comment asking to be put in the drawing. If you past along this blog on your Facebook you’ll get another chance and if you tweet it I’ll give you a third. Your on your honor so let me know where you posted it. I’ll post the winner on Friday.