My blog is devoted to thoughts and comments on Books That Matter, to updates on the life of Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, and to occasional, more personal, musings. I hope readers will feel free to respond, either here or Ask a Question or Leave a Comment. To read about book-related events, please see Events and Schedule. If your book club or group would like to schedule a visit, please see Request a Visit.


January 10th, 2013

Former North Dakotan and retired academic Brenda Daly has a new blog, www.readingnorthdakota.net, that is devoted to books about North Dakota or by North Dakota authors.  Ole Rolvaag’s homesteading classic, Giants in the Earth, was the first book to be discussed.  The January selection is Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, and I have happily agreed to answer any questions Dakota readers might have.  You don’t have to be from North Dakota to join in!

A Paraphrase, Not a Quotation

December 14th, 2012

I just read, with some horror, of a quotation attributed to me on an on-line quotation-churning site.  The problem is, the words belong to Wilkie Collins (from The Woman in White).  Throughout Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For there are occasional nods and winks to Victorian fiction (to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, to George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways, to Charles Reade, for example).  These intertextual paraphrases and hints serve a number of purposes.  Most importantly, they provide a narrative link to the rich tradition of Victorian novels, which Dakota, set in the mid-19th century, hopes to evoke.  This is one way in which literary historical fiction can acknowledge both its literariness and its fictionality (in that it recognizes that it is working within a network of texts that precede it).  It is an acknowledgment of influence.

When I use the phrase, “working within a network of texts that precede it,”  I am talking about intertextuality.  Intertextuality foregrounds the notion that all literary production takes place in the presence of other texts.  Julia Kristeva said that “any text is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.”   Although Kristeva’s work is far more theoretical and complicated than I am suggesting here, applied to a literary work we might say that the work is not simply the product of a single author, but of its relationship to other texts, and to the structures of language itself.

My first book, Teaching the Postmodern:  Fiction and Theory, was a study of how postmodern fiction and poststructuralist theory were in many ways covering the same ground, albeit in very different narrative form.  Although my second novel, Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, reads as realist fiction in the Victorian vein, it also reflects, on a deeper level, my postmodern sensibilities, which are inscribed within the novel most obviously through paraphrase and allusion.

The paragraph with the paraphrase, by the way, comes at the end of Dakota‘s “Pre-Amble”:

I am Frances Louise Houghton Bingham, daughter-in-law of John Bingham, wife of his son, Percy, friend of Percy’s sister, Anna, and I mean for this to be my story.  It, too, is a story of what a woman’s patience can endure, as well as of what a woman’s resolution can achieve.  As to whether that refers in this case to one woman or two, you will have to make up your own mind.

And so, Reader, to Frances, alone in the bedoom she shares with her husband in his father’s home in St. Paul, Minnestoa.  It is January of 1874.  There is a photograph in her hand.

Now, you, lucky reader, should go right to Collins’ The Woman in White for a great read!


Especially for Michiganders

April 16th, 2012

Children’s book author Deborah Diesen has a blog, Jumping the Candlestick, on which she runs weekly profiles of Michigan or Michigan-related authors. Today, April 16, it’s my turn to talk about Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For and about life in Michigan. Thanks, Debbie!

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012): Wedding Vows

April 1st, 2012

I was introduced to Adrienne Rich’s poetry (“Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law”) when I was in my early twenties, but I first read Adrienne Rich’s poetry—it would have been Diving into the Wreck—when I was in my early thirties, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Massachusetts, where I found my life’s partner, and through her, the courage to come out. But it is Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” that became a part of my life.

My partner, Valerie, and I were married on May 24, 1986, in a chapel on the campus of Brandeis University. The officiating minister was careful to state during the service that she was not marrying us by the power vested in her by the state of Massachusetts, but rather, by the power granted by a Creator of love and equality. Valerie and I had met with the minister several times, and had shared with her the vows that we had written, each incorporating one of Rich’s love poems (II and XII). The minister chose to use these lines from XIX in the service:

two women together is a work
nothing in civilization has made simple,
two people together is a work heroic in its ordinariness,
the slow-picked, halting traverse of a pitch
where the fiercest attention becomes routine
–look at the faces of those who have chosen it.

When, 20 years later, a nephew asked me to give the toast following his wedding, I returned to that poem and to the line, “two people together is a work heroic in its ordinariness,” because I had come to understand not only the heroic labor of that ordinariness, but the joy as well.

Today, I am remembering the gifts of Adrienne Rich, the honesty and the fierceness and the intelligence, and I am remembering, as well, those two nervous, but proud, young women who turned to her for a language of dreams.

II. (from Adrienne Rich, Twenty-One Love Poems)

I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.
Much earlier, the alarm broke us from each other,
you’ve been at your desk for hours. I know what I dreamed:
our friend the poet comes into my room
where I’ve been writing for days,
drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere,
and I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate,
and wake. You’ve kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…
and I laugh and fall dreaming again of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.

XII. (from Adrienne Rich, Twenty-One Love Poems)
Sleeping, turning in turn like planets
rotating in their midnight meadow:
a touch is enough to let us know
we’re not alone in the universe, even in sleep:
the dream-ghosts of two worlds
walking their ghost-towns, almost address each other.
I’ve wakened to your muttered words
spoken light- or dark-years away
as if my own voice had spoken.
But we have different voices, even in sleep, and our bodies, so
alike, are yet so different
and the past echoing through our bloodstreams
is freighted with different language, different meanings—
though in any chronicle of the world we share
it could be written with new meaning
we were two lovers of one gender,
we were two women of one generation.

Connecting with an Old Friend

February 17th, 2012

Skyping last night with a book club from Grand Forks, North Dakota, I had the chance to reconnect with a college buddy I haven’t seen for years. I was really pleased to get a couple of tough questions from the club, and of course I’m always happy to talk about the research that went into writing Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, as well as the process of writing itself. Sometimes I hear from readers who just aren’t sure whether they like the central character, Frances Bingham, who can be just as bad as Scarlett O’Hara, and just as driven as that famous North Dakotan, Jay Gatsby, but this crew got right behind her.

Thanks, Kim, for inviting me into your living room. It was great to catch up, and nice to talk with your club.


January 27th, 2012

I had the chance last night to Skype with a Fargo book club, and it was a real pleasure. Thanks for inviting me into your home, Michelle, and thanks to all the club members for the great reception you gave me and Dakota! I have visited with book clubs via Skype a couple of times now, and love how this allows an author and readers to connect. If your club is interested in a Skyping session, please get in touch.

2012 BookTalk at Bismarck State College

December 2nd, 2011

March is not when most folks choose to visit North Dakota. Go figure. I, however, am looking forward to a visit to Bismarck State College, March 1-4, 2012, as a Visiting Writer (with a reading/book signing at 7:30 p.m. at the Student Union on March 1). I was especially pleased to have Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For selected for BSC’s 2012 BookTalk series, along with Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and Will Weaver’s Red Earth, White Earth. I will be leading the discussion of Dakota on March 4, 1-3 p.m. at the BSC Library.

High Plains BookFest

October 17th, 2011

The three-day High Plains BookFest wrapped up in Billings, Montana, this past Sunday, and it was a privilege to to participate as a finalist for a High Plains Award for Best Woman Writer. Of course, I would have liked to have won the award, but I was simply honored to be included in this group of fine writers, and grateful to be in the company of so many serious readers. Special thanks go to Corby Skinner and Susan Lubbers for their dedication and hard work (and enthusiasm and good cheer), which made for such a rewarding literary celebration. And here’s a personal shout-out to new friends and supporters, Connie and Brian Dillon and Mike Fried. Thanks for all of your good words.

And now, after a month-long book tour, I am home. It was a privilege to talk about Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For at each event, but it’s a relief to be home.

Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota

October 12th, 2011

So here was the plan: with a handful of free days between the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood and the High Plains BookFest in Billings, Montana, I would sequester myself in some quiet spot where I would write, write, write. I chose Spearfish Canyon.

Then the sun came out and the temps went up, so I thought I’d better take advantage of the mid-October weather and go for a hike.

Okay, two hikes.

And if it’s this nice again tomorrow, I’m heading out for hike number three. This place is just too beautiful to look at through the window. Writing happens in lots of different ways.

Post-SD Festival of Books and Pre-High Plains BookFest

October 10th, 2011

The 2011 South Dakota Festival of Books ended yesterday, and I’m happy to say that the rainy, chilly weather didn’t keep book lovers from making their way to the almost-100 events (readings, talks, panels, workshops).

A highlight of the festival was meeting and talking with Joseph Marshall III, author of The Journey of Crazy Horse: A Lakota History, which was the 2011 One Book South Dakota selection. Oral history is the basis of this biography of Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witko, or His Crazy Horse). Joseph Marshall, who was raised on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation and is an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, explains that the Lakota people view Crazy Horse differently than do non-American Indians: “We don’t focus on the warrior persona that seems to appeal to other cultures….There are other aspects of him that we perceive to be just as important.”

I had great audiences for my reading and for my panel on “Reimagining the Dakota Past” with Ann Weisgarber, author of The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, a novel about an African-American woman and her family who homestead in the South Dakota Badlands in the early 20th century. I recommend it.

Next stop: Billings, Montana, for the High Plains BookFest in Billings, MT.