The idea for "The Author's Studio" came to Edina mystery writer Colin T. Nelson from watching Bravo TV's "Inside the Actor's Studio," which features candid interviews with actors before a live audience.
Nelson, a trial attorney in the Hennepin County public defender's office, set out to create a show in which local authors would be heard from in a similar fashion. He interviews them before an audience at the Edina Art Center, while their conversations get recorded for airing on the local cable access channel. (They're also archived online.)
The series, which is entering its fourth season, runs monthly from October through April. Nelson tries to bring in a mix of local authors, from the well known to the emerging. Their genres vary from memoir to mystery to cookbook writing.
Nelson, who formerly served on the city's arts and culture commission, saw "The Author's Studio" as a way to expand on the art center's creative offerings. In the past, the place has been more focused on visual arts, he said.
Since then, the center has separately partnered with the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis on writing classes. Nelson had a hand in that, too.
Michael Frey, who heads the arts center, has attended all but one of the author events. "They're fascinating," he said — so much so that he usually buys the authors' books.
His favorite talk so far was a session with Bonnie Blodgett, a gardener who reflected on temporarily losing her sense of smell in "Remembering Smell." Frey said he was struck by "how she dealt with that transition and her life at the time."
The candid back-and-forth, which also allows for audience questions, offers insider information about writing and publishing.
"That's the piece I really love," Frey said. "A lot of people get to hear how others do it. It gives them hope" to pursue writing interests of their own, he said. That's helpful given that writing is such a solitary pursuit, he said.
The free morning events are well attended, with up to 50 people in the audience. The talks underscore the wealth of talent in the Twin Cities, Frey said.
This fall, "The Author's Studio" will begin on Oct. 11 with Dean Alger, who wrote a biography of blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson titled "The Original Guitar Hero and the Power of Music." Johnson's early blues style influenced much of the rock music in the 1960s, said Nelson.
Then, Lois Greiman, whom Nelson describes as "a prolific author," will be featured on Nov. 8. Greiman has written a dozen titles that cross into all different genres, said Nelson.
On Dec. 13, Bernie Saunders will talk about his nonfiction book "The Grace of Ordinary Days." Saunders, a nature photographer, collaborated on it with his mother, poet Kay Saunders, when she was dying.
Kristin Makholm has written an autobiography of American Indian painter George Morrison. She'll be at the art center on Feb. 14. (The January program is still coming together.)
A group of editors from Minneapolis' Nodin Press will share about an anthology of local crime writers, "Festival of Crime," on March 14. It includes Nelson's short story "Corn on the Cob."
Finally, mystery writer Cary Griffith rounds out the series on April 11.
Getting people to open up
Nelson's work has provided plenty of fodder for his creative writing. Over the past 30 years, he's worked on thousands of cases, ranging from speeding tickets to first-degree murder. He's loved the mystery-thriller genre ever since his grandmother handed him a copy of "The Hound of the Baskervilles," by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which is part of the Sherlock Holmes series, when he was 10. Nelson consumed it in two nights.
He's currently wrapping up his fourth book in a series titled "The Amygdala Hijack," with "a battered but ambitious lawyer" at its center. "It explores the possibility of a new legal defense of mental illness," Nelson said.
Nelson's experience as an attorney comes in handy as an interviewer. He said he talks with writers ahead of time to find out: "Are they open? Funny? Do they have some effervescence about them?"
"I always tell people, you tell me what questions you want to address," he said. Once someone gets to talking about something they're passionate about, "You don't have to ask questions. You can sit back and nod."
During the event, Nelson also looks for "some emotional aspect of the writing" that speaks to the audience, he said.
Nelson also encourages the authors to use visuals or props to make the event more interactive. The discussions have included original pieces of music, dried peat samples and watermelon radishes. "We're such visual people because of TV," he said. "It brings another sensory thing to the talk."
Along the way, Nelson has picked up tips and tricks for his writing. For example, one guest said that when she gets blocked in a chapter, "rather than trying to force things or worse, stopping, she simply jumps ahead," returning to that spot once the material is flowing again. Nelson has since adopted that strategy.
Connecting with readers
Golden Valley resident Mary Logue, who's had five books come out in recent months, was a guest on the Author's Studio last year. Nelson does his homework, and he asks thoughtful questions. It results in a far more interesting dialogue than a typical speech, Logue said. Nelson's examines "the life of a writer, what's it's like. It gives a bigger sense of the body of work."
Cookbook writer Beth Dooley, who lives in Minneapolis, also appreciated the fact that Nelson gave her cookbooks a close read. He also took the time to gather plenty of background information, Dooley said. "I write cookbooks that people want to read at night in bed," with colorful narratives sprinkled in. She writes about "how sourcing food close to home provides you with amazing flavors and a wealth of stories." Often, she tries to connect readers to place, something that Nelson seemed to understand, Dooley said.
For the authors, the program is an opportunity to engage new readers. Julie Kramer of White Bear Lake, who worked in TV news before penning fictional accounts about the industry, said that major publishing houses don't promote titles the way they used to. Nowadays, it's up to individual authors to get their work on the radar. "The Author's Studio" was a nice opportunity to do just that, she said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.