It's hard not to feel empathy when you read the opening of Tom Fate's new memoir, "Cabin Fever." Here he is, a man who always thought of himself as simple, non-materialistic, stripped-down, kind of woodsy, and he's in his garage, maneuvering among boxes of old toys and clothes, bicycles, strollers, grills and patio furniture, trying to get to the tools he needs to bring to his cabin where he can, he hopes, live more simply.
Fate lives with his family in suburban Chicago, where he teaches at the College of DuPage, but he spends a lot of time at the small cabin in Michigan that he built with the help of friends and family. There, he watches nature, intensely; reads (Thoreau, of course); and tries to breathe more slowly, tries to understand how to live more deliberately.
He will be at Magers & Quinn in Uptown at 4 p.m. on Sunday, reading from his book. His brothers, who live in St. Paul, will almost certainly be there, too. Anyone with an interest in cabin life or the woods or slowly down and simplfying should also come, although that would pretty much be the entire population of Minnesota.
We subjected Mr. Fate to our ten standard questions. Here are his answers:
1. Describe your writing room.
I used to write in our basement early in the morning--from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.
The only one who would visit at that hour was Rosie, my loyal feline muse--a 20-year -old deaf tabby. But now, with three kids at home, our house wakes up at 6:00 am.
So I write in intense little getaways—at a cabin in the Michigan woods about two hours away—in a 10 by 15 room with large windows that look out on a meadow full of birds and weeds and trees. This view somehow always keeps me awake enough to write for an 8 or 10 hour stint before returning home.
2. What is your writing strategy—do you have rituals that you maintain?
Writing time is a rare gift and I don't waste it. I’m usually able to clear my mind and focus on the project at hand fairly quickly. I presume that I’ll write some crap. And I do. But in the revision I usually find one or two charged moments/images that feel thematic, and I work these hard, pushing for more and more emotional acuity. Then I step back for a day or two, before returning to the moments/images one more time for a final honing.
These little nuggets are usually around 500-600 words, which I then slowly build out to a 3000-5000 word essay or story. (This is how I first started doing work for NPR, as these short pieces were the perfect length for radio essays.)
3. How do you get past writers’ block (or the distraction of the Internet)?
One benefit of our little cabin is that there is no internet. And I like Thoreau’s strategy at Walden. For most of his two years at the pond he wrote every morning for 3-4 hours and walked for 3-4 hours every afternoon. For me too, rigorous physical activity often loosens mental blockage, or clears the distractions and preoccupations that so frequently drift into my consciousness. So I try to balance long writing stints with long walks or other physical work. Splitting wood is good too.
4. Do you have a favorite book from childhood?
Yes-- Make Way for Ducklings (and all the other books by Robert McCloskey). Last summer my family and I visited the pond in the Boston Commons and rode the swan boats that inspired that story. How magical it was to relive that narrative with my kids, having read the book to them, just as my parents had read it to me.
5. What books do you re-read?
My Antonia (Cather), Gilead ( Robinson), Walden (Thoreau) Blueberries for Sal (McCloskey), Black Elk Speaks (Neihardt) The Way it Is (poems, Stafford)
6. What’s on your desk?
Blue pens and silver paper clips and pink post it notes and a half-full cup of coffee. Next to the coffee is a big bowl of lake glass—which I’ve collected over the years walking along the shore of Lake Michigan. These pieces of broken glass were turned into frosted jewels by 20 or 30 years of tumbling around in the lake—amid the rock and sun and rip tides, and the lateral tug and pull of the waves. Sometimes, while writing, I pick a piece of the glass up and try to imagine its story, and the kind of time that can’t be measured…
7. Where are you right now? Describe what you see.
I’m in my office looking out at the college soccer field, which is full of Canada Geese, who are having a late afternoon coffee break and loudly reminiscing about the days when they used to fly south this time of year—the good old days--before they found the heated retention pond and all the grain nearby.
Behind the soccer field is a wooded subdivision that is full of raccoon and coyotes and possums who are waiting for the darkness so they can go hunting. And behind the subdivision is a huge shopping mall that is full of soccer moms and thirty-something yuppies who are having a heck of a time deciding where they want have dinner in the food court. And behind the mall is the whole state of Illinois, which is mainly highways and corn and soybean fields.
8. What are you reading right now?
9. What’s been the best place so far to do a reading?
10. What authors have inspired you?
Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Scott Russell Sanders, Willa Cather, William Stafford