All the copies of all the literature ever written about Lake Superior wouldn’t fill one small cove of North America’s largest lake. And that actually says as much about the size of the oeuvre as the size of Superior. Given the vast forces, the many shipwrecks, the strange life and stranger deaths attributed to the lake, you’d think it’d be the backdrop of more stories. Luckily for Danielle Sosin, that isn’t the case.
Sosin grew up in South Minneapolis but visited the lake on family vacations. “It was my first ocean,” she says metaphorically. She talks more like a poet than the novelist, landscaper, and day-care worker that she is. And perhaps that’s because she’s spent so much time recently thinking about things that metaphors are best able to express: time, love, connection to a place.
In May, Sosin’s first novel, The Long-Shining Waters, pulls all of these threads through one big question: How might disparate lives, across several centuries, be connected through location—specifically, Lake Superior? She talked to us about the work she did to tell this story, and her own life beside the lake.
You moved to Duluth several years ago to research and write this book. Where do you live there?
I bought a house on Goat Hill, which, even in Duluth, is a neighborhood unknown to many people. There’s no street right by my place, actually. It’s an old farmhouse, and I have a big fire pit outside. It’s sparsely populated up there; Duluth has a lot of little nooks like that. I call it a poor woman’s paradise.
Your mother is a painter. You grew up surrounded by art. Did you think you’d become an artist as well?
I was surrounded by art. My mother had a studio at home. She taught children’s art at the Walker Art Center. And that’s made my very susceptible to imagery: turtle tracks on the beach, that sort of thing. Finally I took some classes at the Loft Literary Center, and my first short stories were assignments—try and write a story that’s mostly dialogue, that sort of thing.
What were your first attempts at telling the story of the characters in The Long-Shining Waters?
I tried a short story about Grey Rabbit, the Ojibwe woman in the book, and it was a pretty big failure. The story was just too big. I wanted to answer the question—what is it about Lake Superior that’s so haunting, so mysterious, so powerful? So I kept at it—I’m not one of those writers who has a million ideas and not enough time.
You moved to Duluth to research the lake. Did you think you’d be there still?
I was planning to stay for a year. That was 2003. At the time, I was living in a warehouse in St. Paul—not a legal living situation. So I needed someplace cheap, with a view of the lake, and found this old school—Washington School, with four huge windows—that was being rented out and I lived there for five years.
The lake is a big place, obviously. What attracts you to Duluth itself?
I love the old, rusty muscle of industry here in juxtaposition with this gorgeous, pristine lake. I’m never crabby about getting bridged [the local term for waiting as the Aerial Lift Bridge is raised and lowered before being able to cross]. To have the lake there daily, it puts things in perspective: There is something bigger than you out there.
You have three characters: Grey Rabbit, Nora, and Berit. How did you decide on those three women?
The Native American piece was essential—I needed to go back that far. I needed to demonstrate that the lake is holding its history. I also needed a modern-day story, which is Nora’s. And then I needed someone like Berit, who’s less self-conscious. At one point, I had five stories going and realized that was way too much.
After all, the lake is a character in itself.
There’s human time and then there’s lake time, and I look at it like two transparent sheets on an overhead projector—they can coexist. The water, though, is holding all that history in.
Read more from our interview with Danielle in “Deep Love.”