White hair, purple hair--Charles Baxter speaks to a standing-room-only crowd at Micawber's in St. Paul.

 Charles Baxter speaks to a standing-room-only crowd at Micawber's in St. Paul.

 Before he introduced Charles Baxter to the standing-room-only crowd at his bookstore on a snowy Friday evening, Hans Weyandt said, "I wish I could read one of his reviews that didn't mention how bland the Midwest is."

When Baxter took the podium--actually, the music stand--he picked up on that sentiment, mentioning an e-mail he had recently received from a California reader. The person wrote, "You've published nine books--why are you still living in Minnesota?"

Baxter, author "The Feast of Love," "The Soul Thief," and "Gryphon," a new collection of new and selected stories, seemed bemused by the need of critics to mention that he lives and writes in the middle of the country.

"So often this Midwestern business is what's in the foreground," he said. "I think if these stories would have been placed in Connecticut, they would have been seen as universal."

His work is strong in sense of place--one of the stories he read from on Friday, "Fenstad's Mother," opens at a frozen Lake of the Isles and is an homage to his aunt Helen and her great friend, writer Brenda Ueland--but certainly it transcends its setting.

Though probably best-known for his novels, Baxter has been writing short fiction all his life, and the stories in "Gryphon" span 30 years. "One of the reasons I like the short story and cling to it is it affords the writer the opportunity to set something up that is predictable, and then run something through it that breaks it all apart," he said.

 "You don't have to establish a long history of the character. You just have to get them to start acting."

 He writes on a computer with a screen that he turns away so that he is looking at the characters and action in his head rather than "the big, stupid screen." "I always write in the morning," he said. "My bad ideas look better and better as the day goes on and by night they look great. I have learned never to write at night."

And he warned the large and welcoming crowd not to pay too much attention to the books that are hyped or are on the the best-seller list. The books that endure, he said, are "not necessarily the ones you'll hear of." He looked around at Micawber's, at its full shelves and twinkle lights and homey accouterments, and he said, "It's why you have to have wonderful stores like this, where you can prowl around."


Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter, only slightly out of focus.