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Continued: Author Stonich creates memorable cabin characters

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.”

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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    What: Readings and music to fete Sarah Stonich’s new story collection.

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