By Leslie Lindsay
A coming-of-age tale of one young man’s family tragedy about resilience, family secrets, dysfunction, and forging a new path.
WINTER LOON is a beautiful as it is stark. Debut novelist Susan Bernhard turns a graceful hand to an emotionally harrowing and highly dysfunctional family using the weather and the natural world as a backdrop.
Through the retrospective lens of Wes Ballot, we follow along as his childhood comes to a dreadful end when his mother is drowned in an icy Minnesota lake. Wes is left with his drifter father, who, for the moment isn’t really around. At 15, Wes can’t be left alone in the family’s abandoned cabin in the woods, and so he is shipped off to live with his maternal grandparents in Montana, who aren’t too thrilled he’s there.
Grandparents Ruby and Gip have remained embittered and cold to one another–and the world–what’s worse, Wes is forced to live in his mother’s old bedroom, still decorated as if she were 15 and living at home. But she’s dead and Wes misses his mother. Wes meets other kids his age who are also struggling with their place in the world–Jolene who is also grieving the loss of her mother, plus American Indian teens who must deal with not feeling welcomed in ‘white man’s land,’ thus a cultural aspect of the story is introduced. Keep in mind, too that WINTER LOON TAKES place in 1978.
The setting is stark and yet very tangible, lending itself effortlessly to the overall emotional resonance of WINTER LOON. The writing is more literary, poetic at times, and powerful, but also disquieting.
Wes learns a great deal of the family secrets, and much is resolved–though not always in the most ‘warm-fuzzy’ manner, but authentic.
Please join me in welcoming Susan Bernhard to the author interview series.
Susan, I read with such careful notes to Wes’s father, Moss Ballot—mostly because my own uncle was a drifter—leaving behind his son (my cousin) and his mother. But WINTER LOON isn’t just about leaving—it’s also about returning. Can you talk about that theme a bit and also what inspired you to begin?
There’s a sentiment about returning and regret that’s been expressed in a number of different ways—you can’t go home again, you can’t step in the same river twice—the idea being that the past is in the past. Yet we still try to recapture moments, dip into memory, try to bring the ghosts back. In some ways, WINTER LOON is all about returning since the narrator, Wes Ballot, is reminiscing about this particular year in his life, after his mother’s death. At one point he comments that he has turned that year over and over in his mind, pulled on the memories, like he’s trying to get clarity, revisit the decisions that led to his narrative moment.
In her poem Hope Is The Thing With Feathers, Emily Dickinson makes hope into something light and graceful. But Wes tells us at one low point that hope is heavy, that it’s easier to carry nothing at all. I wonder if that’s what makes Moss leave, what Wes is ultimately fighting against. WINTER LOON started as a short story about a woman fleeing with her child from an abusive relationship. I guess in some ways that goes back to what you’re asking—when do you stay and when do you leave? That goes to that idea that hope is heavy, that it can be a burden. How many people do we know who stay in loveless or abusive relationships because they hold out hope that things will get better when the best course of action may be to move on? I’m sorry that your cousin had to endure an absentee father. Like Wes said:
“Fathers should love their children right.”
I can’t help but feel sorry for Moss, though too, thinking about what he missed, the loneliness he might have experienced, his inability to fight to keep what should have mattered most to him.
And the setting! Again—this resonated—we lived in Minnesota for five years and the starkness of winter really plays into the overall tone. It’s as if it becomes a character in itself. Can you tell us how you chose Minnesota as a partial setting (also nods to South Dakota, Montana, Topeka, KS)? You’re not a native Minnesotan, right?
As I mentioned, WINTER LOON started as a short story centered around a grisly moment on a frozen lake and the call of a stranded loon. Everything about that story was cold—I was even listening to music by Lia Ices when I started writing—so the Minnesota setting sprung up organically from the situation my characters were in. I grew up in a small town in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana so much of WINTER LOON is an homage to that kind of upbringing. My fondest childhood memories are summer ones spent by lakes and rivers. One of the characters in WINTER LOON tells a story about winter and spring, the tug-of-war between the two, how one represents hope and potential, the other stamina and necessity. Maybe that’s why I loved summer so much; I knew winter would return and I needed to build up my stores. Small towns and changing seasons are as much centerpieces as which particular state the novel is set in, though Minnesota is indeed the land of lakes and loons.
One piece I liked in WINTER LOON was when Jolene is talking with Wes and she says,
“You’re always waiting for something to happen to you. You need to go make this happen so you know once and for all what the deal is. Otherwise, you’re stuck. I don’t want you to be stuck. I don’t want to be stuck with you.”
That’s powerful and insightful for a teen. Can you talk a bit about the role of agency in WINTER LOON—and in Wes himself?
We don’t get to see the conversations Jolene has with Mona, her aunt, but I imagine Mona trying to rebuild her sister’s daughter, this girl who has endured so much. I could almost imagine Mona saying something like this to Jolene, then Jolene repeating her own version of it to Wes. One of the themes in WINTER LOON is about what we inherit and what we learn from our parents. Wes has had to live in the tumult of his parents’ marriage, bounced around there with little control over his direction or destiny. When Moss strands him with Gip and Ruby, he’s not tied to anything. Will he continue to let other people, outside forces, dictate where he goes and when? Can he become his own person, his own man, stepping out from the shadows of his parents and grandparents? For me, the three characters who most dramatically express their agency are Wes, his grandmother Ruby, and his father Moss. They each make crucial decisions they think are “what’s best” for themselves and maybe for the people they love or at least should love. When I was writing WINTER LOON, I didn’t always know what the characters would do once I put them in a particular situation. There’s a scene near the end of the novel, when Wes is sitting on a bed preparing to go down a familiar and inherited path. That moment of clarity for him felt so real for me. I imagined him looking into the past, then toward the future. He became a man when he stood, his decision made.
“I lost myself in WINTER LOON, its rugged heart, its dark secrets, the honesty and vulnerability of its characters. With prose both taut and lush, Susan Bernhard has created the quintessential coming-of-age story: raw, tender, and completely spellbinding.”
— Mira T. Lee, author of EVERYTHING HERE IS BEAUTIFUL
Moving over to genre: I was describing WINTER LOON to my husband who said, “So it’s YA?” No, it’s not. The narrator is older, but reliving his youth in a retrospective story. There are adult themes, but most of the characters are younger. How do you reconcile the two genres: YA and coming-of-age?
WINTER LOON is Wes’ bildungsroman so naturally readers who gravitate toward stories about the journey into adulthood will be drawn to it. And of course, coming-of-age stories have long been a part of adult fiction. I never put much thought into where the book would land on a bookshelf. What I set out to do was write with an emotional honesty I hoped would resonate with readers. There have been so many successful novels recently with young characters that probably could have been marketed as YA but also fit squarely in adult literary fiction. I’m thinking specifically of books like The Round House by Louise Erdrich, Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward, or The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. It’s important to note that children and young adults in these novels often deal with difficult circumstances and themes because that reflects what’s really happening in the world. I don’t think it’s necessary to shield readers from this kind of truth. In fact, I think exposure to these kinds of narratives helps create empathetic adults. My writing style might be a little off brand for a young adult audience—the reminiscent narrator, the economy of language, the sometimes bleak tone. But if WINTER LOON crosses over and appeals to traditional YA readers, that works for me.
I have to ask about houses, because they are my all-time favorite and encapsulate so much of a character. WINTER LOON describes Ruby and Gip’s house and I so enjoyed this description,
“I knew the cracks and warts of that house, the gurgles in the pipes, the droop and creak in the hallway outside the bathroom where leaking had warped the floorboards. I’d grown accustomed to heat that didn’t always work in the winter and the damp, medicinal smell of mold in the summer.”
Was this a house familiar to you or excavated from collective memories of multiple homes?
Gip and Ruby’s house was kind of an amalgam of places I knew growing up. I married floor plans with details to come up with a place I thought Gip and Ruby might live, how they might live. Same for some of the other houses in WINTER LOON. The Hightower house was a mashup of a couple of places I knew—the outside of one house and the inside of another. The sweetest house for me was Mrs. Blue’s. When I was little, one of my best friends was an elderly woman who lived across the street. She had an organ and a piano and her house was always so tidy. She would give me hard candies and I would sit in her living room and listen to her play. And she had an amazing horse chestnut tree in her front yard. Other neighborhood kids and I would wait for the spiny pods to drop from the tree, then peel the chestnuts out and corral them like horses. I still love chestnuts and think of my friend whenever I find a chestnut tree.
Susan, I could probably ask questions all day, but alas we both have other things to do. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Like—what’s it like working with the GrubStreet Novel Incubator Program, what it’s like being a first-time novelist, what you might have done differently, if you’re working on anything new, how you’re spending the holidays….
You fired off questions so I’ll fire off answers!
- The GrubStreet Novel Incubator Program is intense, frustrating, illuminating, humbling, and rewarding. I was exhausted at the end of it and would do it again in a heartbeat.
- I’m so grateful to have the experience of holding my published novel in my hand and I understand how rare that is. Quite amazing, really.
- If I had it to do all over again, maybe I would have committed to writing earlier in my life. But I’m not one for regrets. This is my path and I’m happy to be on it.
- I have a new novel in the works about four people whose lives collide when a child suddenly appears in the small town where they live.
- I love Christmas and but it does make me a little melancholy, too. A lot of my ornaments and decorations remind me of my mom who passed away in 2006. One of the traditions I keep alive from my childhood (read: force upon my kids) is a brisk walk on Christmas Eve. We usually stop by our neighbors’ house for the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. Christmas Day we spend at home with family and friends, eating lots of food and drinking lots of prosecco.
Thank you, Susan. It’s been a pleasure!
It’s clear from your questions that you’re a devoted and careful reader so the pleasure was truly mine!
For more information, to connect with the author, or to purhcase a copy of WINTER LOON, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Susan Bernhard is a Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowship recipient and a graduate of the GrubStreet Novel Incubator program. She was born and raised in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana, is a graduate of the University of Maryland, and lives with her husband and two children near Boston. WINTER LOON (Little A, December 2018) is her debut novel.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image retrieved from S. Bernhard’s website on 12.15.18. Author photo credit: Miles Bernhard. Cover image photograph designed by L. Lindsay and can be accessed via Instagram @LeslieLindsay1. Footer image retrieved from S. Bernhard’s Twitter page, 12.15.18]