Leif Enger is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Peace Like a River (2001) and So Brave, Young, and Handsome (2008). His works offer rich and nuanced depictions of rustic Midwestern living, an experience that is far too often reduced and dismissed in our popular culture. His skilled and imaginative storytelling addresses themes of family, love, myth and self-discovery, as well as humanity’s persistence in the midst of strife. Enger is a native Minnesotan, and the Land of 10,000 Lakes functions as both the backdrop and central role in his novels. His latest novel, Virgil Wander, tells the story the eponymous Virgil Wander, who is attempting to rediscover and reinvent himself after a near-fatal car accident. Virgil’s journey intersects with the struggles of his fellow townspeople of Greenstone, Michigan, and results in a beautiful depiction of collective healing in this delightful yet meditative novel.
Your previous books have garnered much critical praise, and your last novel was released 10 years ago. Did this make you feel any pressure while writing Virgil Wander?
For a while there was pressure—an urgency to follow up—but it took a long time to tell this story in a way that made me happy, and eventually the anxiety began to crumble. Nothing frees you up like anonymity, and 10 years is long enough to be properly forgotten.
The Midwest is both a backdrop and, in many ways, a character in your work. What makes the area so special?
The easiest answer is simply the region’s generous beauty—treed pastures, woodlots, lakes full of fish, plowed fields where you can still find arrowheads after it rains, places on the shore of Superior where waves bash the cliff sides. It’s like being in a gothic novel. Alongside all this, we tend to be complicated citizens, mostly polite, with a subfrequency of gloom or injury, as though we are continually being bypassed in the race for approval, and for which we compensate by drumming up a sense of moral rightness. My reporter friends used to joke about printing up T-shirts with the slogan, “We’re Not Bitter,” which seemed hilarious to me.
“I’ve lived in or near a bunch of small towns, every one with its own big characters, war heroes, rebels, Boo Radleys and geniuses of mayhem.”
You worked as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio for almost two decades. How did this experience influence your writing?
Radio journalism is great training for fiction because it throws you among people you’d otherwise never encounter, and they are bravely telling you what’s important to them. In this situation, everything is magnified—their distinctive voices, underlying melancholy, their ambitions realized and thwarted. I had the everyday arrogance of the young man with a microphone, and it was a jolt to realize that five minutes into an interview, I was completely on the side of whomever was talking. Their politics, race, religion didn’t matter—once you start listening to people, you mainly start to like them.
On top of that, MPR had (and retains) a great staff of editors who are happy to strip out the flashy adjectives you worked so hard to employ. This was a blow to my pride, followed by the humbling realization that my writing was far better after an edit, not just occasionally but every single time. This is still the case, and now I’m lucky to have a couple of razor-sharp editors at Grove Atlantic who kindly call out my exuberance and inform me when only I think I am funny.
The characters in Virgil Wander feel very real. This is certainly a testament to your imagination and writing ability, but I’m curious: Are there parts of Leif Enger in Virgil Wander?
Since at least my mid-20s I’ve dreamed of owning a small movie theater, one of those jobs that’s always on the lip of extinction, yet here and there persists. I fly kites at every chance, which turns off the clock and unhooks the imagination like nothing else. I’m drawn in all seasons to Lake Superior, our achingly gorgeous, profoundly dangerous inland sea. And I love baseball—my dad and uncle played in various North Dakota town and semipro leagues. Both were pitchers, and I based Alec Sandstrom’s particular talent on what Dad said about his brother Clarence: He threw the hardest fastball I ever saw, and never once knew where it was going.
Alex Sandstrom’s disappearance was the central lore of Greenstone. Can you talk about the power of myth and lore in small towns? And to what extent has such town folklore influenced your writing?
When I was in junior high there were two local guys, six or eight years older, who drove across the frozen lake in early winter. These two were legendary for escapades of all kinds (stealing police cars, falling from rooftops without injury) but especially this perilous one—they’d wait until late November or early December when there was a fragile skim of ice over the water, and they’d climb in a car and go roaring across. Now, I wasn’t an eyewitness. I don’t know if they actually did this, or whether it happened just once, or whether it was a yearly event, as certain as winter itself, as we seventh graders insisted was the case. All I know is that even now when I think of a certain kind of elevated foolhardy courage, it’s still those two who come to mind. It was important, growing up in Osakis, to know we had wild men who could match anyone else’s wild men throw for throw. We were proud of them, embellished stories about them and made up new ones, too. Since then I’ve lived in or near a bunch of small towns, every one with its own big characters, war heroes, rebels, Boo Radleys and geniuses of mayhem. Setting a novel in such a place, it’s natural to start with those local touchstones. They’re like points on a map, or physical landmarks—if you spend a little time with Alec Sandstrom, whose baseball career fell apart after his perfect game, what else can you see from there?
Virgil Wander is full of tragedies, but there is an undercurrent of hope. Is it difficult to negotiate darkness and light in your writing?
A few years ago, I became an intermittent insomniac, the result of middle age and its common discouragements—illness, dying parents, the usual cornucopia of personal failures. Two in the morning is an unforgiving time to take stock of yourself, so I started getting up and reading books that reminded me of goodness. Over time, certain authors emerged as reliable songbirds whose work seemed written in the voice of friendship. It’s hard to feel despondent when you’re sharing the world with Ann Tyler or Montaigne or Melville or Hornby or Chabon. Often I will read for half the night. Eventually the sky lightens, and the crows start talking. Then I go to work.
What are you trying to tell readers about life in small-town America through your work?
Mostly I’m just trying to tell an entertaining story, but if something sticks, I hope it’s the idea that people out here are more intriguing, funny, curious and broad-minded than they often appear in the media. That would be enough for me.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Virgil Wander.
Author photo by Robin Enger.