Richard Horberg suffers from short-term memory loss, but he can still quote lines from Henry James’ “The Aspern Papers” verbatim. The 89-year-old former University of Minnesota rhetoric professor’s eyes light up when he talks about his favorite novelists and stories, and he says he writes only to fulfill an innate inner need to tell a story.
He has written over a dozen manuscripts, but none of them were ever published.
“Stone Lake,” which Horberg wrote over 10 years ago, is this year’s Star Tribune summer serial, which starts next Sunday. In the book, young teacher Allen Post moves to Stone Lake, Minn., to redesign the high school English program and teach students how to fall in love with literature.
Horberg grew up in north Minneapolis and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English and Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. Like Allen Post, his first year teaching was in a small town — Fosston in northern Minnesota. After that, he spent the rest of his career as a professor at the university.
“Most of his students that I’ve talked to said he was the best professor they ever had,” Horberg’s son John Horberg said.
Horberg loved his students as much as they loved him. He highlights the value of positive student-teacher interactions in “Stone Lake,” which is based almost entirely on his experiences as a teacher fresh out of college in small-town Minnesota.
Q: You spent your entire career teaching. What did you love about it?
A: I loved being in a classroom situation, sitting and talking to students. It was a beautiful experience and one of the high points of my life.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for “Stone Lake?”
A: I felt compelled to write it. I didn’t write it to make money, but rather for my inner need. I don’t know what that is. Creativity, I guess. It was important to me to get the story down on paper. So much of what happened in that story is true that I felt like I needed to tell the story.
Q: The book is fiction, but it is based on your experiences. How closely does it reflect what really happened?
A: It’s pretty close. I remember several of my students very well, especially in the talks we had in the classroom. The classroom conversations are some of the best parts of the book and I like them very much. The facts of the novel are true, too. I did not have to do much research to write the book because I remembered it so clearly.
Q: The book has several literary references and excerpts as Allen Post attempts to teach his high school classes. Have you always loved literature?
A: Yes, I’ve always been a reader. I had a very good professor, Robert E. Moore, during my freshman year at the University of Minnesota. I was inspired by him and he was the reason I decided to become an English major. He was a brilliant lecturer. I tried to imitate him in the classroom, but I couldn’t do it as well as he did.
Q: Many of the characters in the book are based on real people. Is Allen Post’s alcoholic father based on your father?
A: I invented some things, but most of it was true. He really was an alcoholic artist who worked in the meat market as a butcher. He couldn’t make it as an artist. He got into trouble with the police often and drank heavily. My father had an older brother who was also a heavy drinker, but I never saw him drunk. I saw my father drunk many times growing up.
Q: Max Winter, former owner of the Minnesota Vikings, turns up in the book. Why did you decide to include him without changing his name?
A: I kept the name because it gives the book more historical context. People might think it’s interesting that the former owner of the Vikings once wrote for the Shopping News. I used to deliver the Shopping News, too, when I was growing up in north Minneapolis.
Q: What motivated you to keep writing books even though it wasn’t until now that one is being published?
A: I always thought that if a publisher read one of my novels and asked if I had any more, I’d have lots to give. I started writing them when I got out of the army in 1945. I wrote “Stone Lake” at least 10 years ago, but I’ve been revising it ever since.
Q: What was your favorite part of writing the book?
A: I loved writing the characters. Many of the students are based on students I taught, including the girl Allen Post takes walks with in the evenings. That really happened; I went on several lovely walks with that girl. I often wonder what happened to her.
Q: Who are you hoping enjoys this book? Teachers? Students? People in small towns around Minnesota?
A: I think anyone who intends to become a teacher would benefit from reading this book. I think they would enjoy it, too.
Madison Bloomquist is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.