Minneapolis author Sarah Stonich is adept at plumbing the complicated relations between townies and tourists. She should be — she's observed them all her life.
Stonich and her siblings spent every summer at their grandparents' place on White Iron Lake near Ely, where her parents' large clan grew up. She now has a cabin nearby.
"I'm kind of an anomaly on the Iron Range," she said. "My surname is known by anyone over 50, yet I'm a city person, an outsider."
She found out just how much of one in 2008, when she resisted a proposal for Hwy. 169 to be rerouted through the land where she built a cabin between Tower and Ely. The project was favored by many residents, who saw Stonich as a "612-er."
She got two conflicting pieces of advice from locals: "One person suggested I put my name on a piece of wood on our road so people would know it's local and not vandalize the property," she said. "Later, someone said I might want to take it off."
Still, she says, "If you can get past the country mouse/city mouse assumptions, we all have more in common than not."
That philosophy flows through "Vacationland," a collection of intertwined stories imbued with such a strong sense of place that anyone who's ever spent time "Up North" will experience a frisson of familiarity. Despite having published three well-praised previous books, two of them set in Minnesota, Stonich has flown somewhat under the radar in her home state.
Early reviews suggest that "Vacationland" — out this week, just in time for cabin season — may change that.
Changing seasons, life cycles, generational connections and mortality are strong themes running through the book. Its central character is not a person, but Naledi Lodge, a dilapidated resort on fictional Little Hatchet Lake. Caretaker Vac, an immigrant whose wife abandoned him for a Nazi, winds up rearing his granddaughter Meg, whose parents are killed in a plane crash (the harrowing subject of one chapter). Over the years Naledi and Hatchet Inlet play host to a variety of guests and residents, among them the returning adult Meg, now an accomplished painter (whose dog brings home a severed human hand in the first story).
Todd Orjala, senior editor at University of Minnesota Press, which published "Vacationland," grew up in northern Minnesota. "Sarah nails the people, capturing the essence of small-town life without romanticizing it or making them sound like hayseeds," he said. "She doesn't peddle in stereotypes, just quietly authentic characterizations."
Stonich (pronounced STOH-nitch), who at 55 looks more like 40, seems to be one of the lucky few in her profession who don't suffer from writer's block.
"I don't understand people who can't make themselves sit down and write," she said. "To me it's a treat. I'd rather do it than watch 'Downton Abbey' with ice cream."
She only has one rule: "It has to sound OK when I read it aloud. I didn't do well in school, and I don't think I'd be a writer today if I'd gone to a writing program. I'd have been paralyzed by the rules."
Stonich's first memory of feeling awe-struck by nature was "what psychologists call an oceanic experience," she said.
"I was too young to describe it in words, but it's that instant of feeling you are a part of everything, with the trees and their roots and the water in the lake. I've had it a couple of times as an adult, triggered by water, but it can only happen when you're empty enough to take it all in. It's much harder for people to feel now, because of cellphones we're always on."
She grew up the fifth of six siblings in Proctor, Minn., a railroad town abutting Duluth. Her alcoholic mother divorced her father, an accountant for an oil company, when Sarah was 6. Mom was subsequently excommunicated from the Catholic church, quite a scandal in those days, and the family lived on food stamps for a time. At 14, Stonich went to live with her father.
As a girl, she devoured her household's main source of printed matter, Reader's Digest and its series of condensed books.
"I loved deprivation stories, the kind where a guy builds a shelter with his one good arm after he flips his Chris-Craft. I'm kind of a MacGyver in that I love fixing problems with whatever is at hand."
Because she was dyslexic, she was pushed toward the arts rather than writing by the nuns at her school. After studying art and fashion design, she worked in accounts at a medical oxygen-supply company ("these sweet people had to fire me because I'm no good at math") and painted backdrops at a Dayton's photo studio. Then, in her early 30s, she got a job reading manuscripts, and decided to try her own hand at fiction.
She got noticed with her very first attempt, a short story about her father that she brought to a writing seminar in Fargo, where it was singled out for praise by a representative of the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
At another conference, this one in Ireland, she recalled Frank McCourt telling her over a pint that what she'd chosen to call her first book, "These Granite Islands," was "a dirge of a title."
"Well, so is 'Angela's Ashes,' I thought, but he was such a lovely man," she said.
"Islands," about a 99-year-old woman recalling her life and in particular one friendship, drew international praise when it came out in 2001, after Stonich secured a two-book deal with Little, Brown & Co. in the low six figures. It was translated into nine languages, but her publisher "didn't have a feel for marketing to the Midwest," so "more people in Germany read the book than in northern Minnesota, where it was set," she said.
When her second book, "The Ice Chorus," about a filmmaker who flees to Ireland after an affair, didn't do as well, she was considered a flash in the pan. She feels it was a better book than "Islands," but was not promoted properly.
"The large New York houses have a puppy-mill mentality," she said. "They'll snap up first-time writers, but not nurture them."
"These Granite Islands" is being reissued by the U of M Press in tandem with "Vacationland." Her third book, "Shelter," a memoir about building her cabin, was published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2011.
Alter ego Ava
Stonich has an adult son, Sam, whose father is her previous husband, Ken Smith, a TV cameraman. She is now married to Jon Ware, an IT professional and musician, whom she met through an online dating site in 2005.
Stonich indulges her playful side with an alter nom de plume, the mischievous Ava Finch, "a younger, hipper" woman who writes what she calls "elevated chick lit that allows me to have a completely different voice, and doesn't bleed into my serious work." Ava isn't published yet, but has signed with an agent.
Her next "serious" book, a novel titled "American River," is a family saga set in a Minnesota river town in 1968 during the Vietnam cease-fire, then 20 years later in Greenwich Village during the AIDS crisis. Despite her innate ability to evoke authentic Minnesota locales, she says she's leaving them behind after this one, because "I love going other places. When I read, I always want to go somewhere else."