The way Megan Marsnik sees it, there’s nobody stronger than an Iron Range woman.
“The women up there can shovel through 12-foot drifts of snow with a baby on their back,” she said. “They can make 500 pasties in a single morning to feed the firefighters, and canoe through pristine waters without getting tired.”
So when Marsnik set out to write a novel, she knew that it would be set on Minnesota’s Iron Range and that the protagonist would be a strong, courageous woman.
“Under Ground,” her debut novel, is steeped in Minnesota history and is this year’s Star Tribune summer serial. It will begin May 24 and run daily throughout the summer. The story centers on a young woman named Katka, a Slovenian immigrant who gets involved in the miners’ strike of 1916. While Katka is a fictitious character, many of the incidents in the novel are closely based on real events.
Marsnik grew up in the Range town of Biwabik, the daughter and granddaughter of union activists. Her parents held fundraisers and rallies at their home, and her grandfather, an immigrant from Slovenia, was blacklisted from the mines for his union activity.
During the long northern Minnesota winters, Marsnik’s mother made her seven children read from “The Norton Anthology” of literature and compete in poetry recitations on Friday nights. She also “read me all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays when I was in first grade.”
Marsnik got her first job at age 16, being paid 25 cents per column inch to write a teen column for the Biwabik Times. She went on to study English at Hamline University in St. Paul and gender studies at the University of York in England, and earned an MFA in creative writing at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Colorado. She is married with two children and a dog named Harper Lee. She lives in St. Paul and teaches at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.
Q: Where did you get the idea for “Under Ground”?
A: When I began researching the 1916 strike, I was flabbergasted. There were murders, shootouts in broad daylight, chicanery, famous labor organizers feared for their “militancy,” secret bunkers, scandalous love affairs and underground newspapers touting revolution.
Every newspaper article or report I discovered read like a suspense-filled action thriller. And in nearly every photograph I saw, there were women, not in the background, but at the forefront. I had found my story.
Q: The book is fiction, but it is based very closely on real events. What kind of research did you do?
A: Since Katka is a sharpshooter, I had to take shooting lessons to write her character. Guns terrify me. I forced my sister to come along. She is 90 pounds and even more of a pacifist than I am, but when she put that rifle in her hand, she turned into a different person. She was like Annie Oakley — an amazing shot. I had never seen anything like it. Katka’s first shooting lesson in the book was inspired by my sister, Shannan.
I also spent a lot of time in the underground mine in Soudan, Minn., where my father once worked. The main characters are from Slovenia, so I traveled to Croatia and Slovenia to write the opening scenes of the book, and to get a better feel for Slovenian culture and traditions.
But mostly, I read everything I could about the strike of 1916, labor history, women on the Iron Range and immigration in the early 1900s.
Q: Are there characters in this book who are based on real people?
A: Nearly all of the characters in the book are inspired by real people. All of the Iron Range names have been changed except for Dr. Andrea Hall. I thought the world should know her name. Many famous leaders of the Industrial Workers of the World were on the Range during the strike, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Arthur Boose.
Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs makes a fictionalized cameo appearance, but the dialogue I use in the book is taken almost verbatim from an essay Debs wrote about the Iron Range protesters who inspired my book.
Q: Where did the character of Katka come from?
A: Katka is entirely fictional, as is the anarchist Wobbly organizer with whom she falls in love. I wanted the protagonist to be of my own creation, one who was an archetype for Iron Range women — someone who is deeply connected to the language and culture of the Old Country, yet committed to improving the new country and making the American dream a reality for the next generation.
Q: How did your work as a collector of oral histories on the Range influence you?
A: My job was actually to conduct genealogical research for patrons. But the research center was understaffed, and there was a backlog of oral histories that had been conducted but not transcribed. I volunteered to transcribe the tapes. The stories I listened to were fascinating (my own grandmother’s story is there) and gave me a good sense of what the people of the Iron Range had experienced.
Transcribing those tapes taught me how to write dialogue, particularly the dialogue of nonnative English speakers. I wanted to be as true to the speech as I possibly could, while preserving the integrity and acute intelligence of the people being interviewed.
Q: You write with a very strong sense of place. How important is place to you in your writing?
A: I do love the land where the book is set. I know it so well that sometimes I forget to describe the obvious. An early reader had to remind me to “add more weather.” It was great fun trying to describe, in prose, what 40 degrees below zero feels like — what it does to your bones.
Q: You have a full-time job and a family. When, where do you write?
A: I write mostly during school holidays, or in the summer, when teachers have nine weeks off. I look at my children’s schedules for each week, then compose my writing schedule around that. I prefer to write in large chunks of time. It is not unusual for me to write for 10 hours a day in the summer.
But there are days where I do not write at all, because my family needs me, or because I need to read. One winter, I checked myself into a convent, at Clare’s Well in Annandale, and wrote for 36 hours straight. The nuns gave me a basket of bread and left me alone. It was awesome.