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MN writer Leif Enger’s new book set on Lake Superior echoes Greek myth

Author Leif Enger
Robin Enger
Grove Atlantic
Author Leif Enger

Leif Enger’s new novel “I Cheerfully Refuse” takes us on a storied journey through a dystopic, not-too distant America, but is full of hope and beauty.

Leif Enger is the Minnesota author of four novels, including Peace like a River and Virgil Wander. His latest is called I Cheerfully Refuse.

The novel is described as “the tale of a bereaved and pursued musician embarking under sail on a sentient Lake Superior in search of his departed, deeply beloved bookselling wife.”

I Cheerfully Refuse is set in a not-too-distant America. The country is run by a malignant billionaire ruling class, and the people increasingly desperate and illiterate. Society is lawless, infrastructure crumbled.

During his journeys, the protagonist Rainy encounters the best and worst of humanity. Despite its dystopian undertones, I Cheerfully Refuse, is whimsical and hopeful, a beautifully crafted story.

In a recent What We’re Reading interview, Leif Enger talked with KAXE staff librarian Tammy Bobrowsky about his new book.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Listen above or find the extended version at the end of this transcript.

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Tammy Bobrowsky: I Cheerfully Refuse is your retelling of the story of Orpheus from Greek mythology — the musician and poet who journeyed to Hades to recover his wife, Eurydice. What about this tale inspired you to write this novel?

Leif Enger: I remember as a kid being given a collection of Greek mythology. And they were something entirely different than I had encountered before. I was used to reading just the regular kid stories.

I remember being very affected by The Wind in the Willows when I was 8. And I loved the Narnia stories a bit later, and then I got this collection of the myths and they did something a little bit different. They gave me a world that I wasn't sure how to think about. They introduced me to the idea of a tragedy.

For example, the story of Icarus and Daedalus. This father who gives his son wings made from feathers and wax. And I remember being so excited. This kid is flying and I didn't know what was going to happen. And then he flies, of course, too close to the sun. The wax melts and he plummets into the sea. And my heart was just in my mouth. This didn't happen in the stories that I was used to reading — they had happy endings.

Orpheus struck me the same way. He's got the love of his life and she's taken from him. And he, after a period of mourning, decides “Well, I'm a great musician. I'll go to the underworld myself and I'll play my way in,” because no one existed who wasn't charmed by his music. And so he gets to the underworld, he finds Eurydice and he begins to bring her back, but the deal he has struck with the gods of Hades is that she must follow him — he can't turn around and look at her. She has to follow him to the land of the living.

But then, of course, just before they can see the sunlight, he can't hear her footsteps so he turns around to see if she's still there, and he just sees her vanishing. I remember being 10 or 11 and my breath was just taken away. It's like, this is too cruel, and yet it got in there. So, I really wanted to write something that would have a little bit of that.

It's not a strict retelling. It's set in a slightly distant future where things have kind of gone off the rails, so it's a little bit of a dystopian story, but I felt for some reason that the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice was a good fit for a dysfunctional future America.

Tammy: Let's talk a little bit about this dystopic view that you take with the story. People in the story are increasingly illiterate. Society has become lawless, especially up on the North Shore where you set the story, and there's a ruling class of billionaires who are doing really terrible things. Why did you decide to set this novel within this dystopic view?

Leif: First of all, I do love a good dystopian story. They have always affected me in the same way that the mythologies affected me. They seem like warnings. I've always taken them to heart. But most dystopian stories are set in motion by something that we can't really affect. There's an asteroid strike, there's a nuclear war, or there's a huge pandemic. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, I thought was a terrific example.

But I wanted to write one about the kind of dystopia that we might one day just find ourselves in, just sort of sleepwalking into. You can vote your way into this kind of dystopia, and it's not at all hard for me to imagine that we wake up one morning and 16 people own everything. We're well on the way to that.

That didn't strike me as hard to imagine. It didn't strike me as hard to imagine that there would be a form of indentured servitude that would return or that justice might be dispensed by religious zealots. That doesn't seem at all unlikely. That seems like it's well on the way.

So, I wanted to write something that would look down the road and say, “Hey, here's where we might be headed.” Goodness, I hope I'm wrong. I'm certainly not a prophet. I would never make any such claim. I'm no wiser than anyone else. But this did seem to me to be a time of urgency and I wanted to look forward and maybe loft a little warning out there.

Tammy: Your protagonist Rainy is a man of many trades, but most notably a bass guitar player and I had to chuckle at that because in popular culture the bass player is often overlooked in a band and not the person who we typically envision as the hero. How did Rainy become the hero? How did the bass player get this role?

Leif: It was so much fun to write a bass player. In the early 2000s I started playing some electric bass because my brother-in-law, who was a pastor, asked if I would play bass in his church. And I had never played bass before and he was getting this band off the ground. And so I learned a little bit about how to do that. He's a terrific guitar player and musician.

And I remember he said, “OK, the law of the bass is first do no harm. What you do is you lock into the drummer and you play the root. You don't show off and you never disrupt the groove.” It's very much a matter of building a foundation for the rest of the song. You're right — they're the ones that we don't really notice. You don't really hear the bass all that often. The bass is more of a hum. You feel it in your chest more than you hear it with your ears.

That's a very safe place to exist if you're in a band because if you screw up and play the wrong note, most people aren't actually going to know. They're going to feel that there was a disturbance in the force. But they're not going to say, “Oh, the bass player really messed up there.” I love that.

I also really came to love the idea that you're a supporting player. Your whole job is to lay an almost inaudible foundation for the rest of the song. And so I love this character who never feels like he wants to be center stage. This guy is all about supporting his wife, whose name is Lark, who is this lovely bookseller that everybody in that community of Icebridge knows.

Lark is beloved. She's the one who is playing the melody while Rainy is laying down a bass line that people don't really notice, and that's exactly where he's happy. So, I wanted to write from the point of view of a character who isn't a natural hero — any heroism that's in him has to be dragged out. That was enormous fun and I'm glad you asked about it.

Tammy: Rainy’s wife, Lark, who as you mentioned is a bookseller and in some aspects, this is a book about books. Because of this dystopic theme of the story, bookselling seems akin to rebellion.

People are still seeking books out and there are people with great passion about preserving books and the written word and a particular fictious book comes up throughout the story. It’s also the title of your novel: I Cheerfully Refuse, by an author named Molly Thorn. What is this book? And what does the book and its author symbolize in your story?

Leif: I'm glad you asked about Molly Thorn. Lark is a bookseller at a time when bookselling can get you pipe-bombed. She is a bookseller at a time when there are really no publishers left, and the only books that exist are old ones. Her whole life, Lark has been searching for a copy of this Molly Thorn book called I Cheerfully Refuse — a book that was never actually published, except in the form of a few advanced reader copies which you see sometimes, these books that are given out to booksellers and reviewers in advance of a publication.

In the story, Molly Thorn is a writer of the middle 20th century. She was foremost a poet, but she wrote this book that people describe as a kind of hymn to the future, a promise to beings not yet conceived. She did this because she felt that there were dangerous times coming and she wanted, above all things, to preserve the future for the generations of people yet to come. It's this kind of rumored and fabled book and Lark finally comes across a copy.

The “cheerful” refusal is a refusal of despair. It's a tale of refusing ignorance in favor of curiosity. Essentially, I think it's exactly what we need: the ability to look at the world, no matter how messed up it becomes and say, “No, we'll find a way. We'll find a way through.”

People have always been good at that and that is what the book symbolizes: a kind of hope or a kind of optimism that is the main thread that runs through this little story of mine.

"Essentially, I think it's exactly what we need: the ability to look at the world, no matter how messed up it becomes and say, 'No, we'll find a way. We'll find a way through.' People have always been good at that and that is what the book symbolizes: a kind of hope or a kind of optimism that is the main thread that runs through this little story of mine."

Writer Leif Enger on what his new novel "I Cheerfully Refuse" symbolizes.

Tammy: I Cheerfully Refuse is a grand journey. We are along the way introduced to a myriad of characters and with your storytelling craft and character descriptions, I feel like you could have taken any one of the characters and created a whole new story based on them. Can you talk about creating this cast of characters?

Leif: Well, a character sort of comes up in terms of voice for me. I think first about the way that somebody talks, the idioms that they use. The way that I developed those before they go into the story: I follow a craft called “the morning pages.”

I don't know if you've run into a book by Julia Cameron called The Artist’s Way, but she wrote it 25 or 30 years ago and the practice that she espouses in that book is called “morning pages.” You get up in the morning, you sit down for 30 minutes and you write three long-hand pages in a notebook about whatever comes to your mind. It's just a way of clearing out the cobwebs so that you can think about your work. Sometimes nothing comes to my mind — I feel foggy and I just write about the weather, what I see outside of the windows, or I write dreams for my next camping trip up the North Shore or whatever it might be.

But sometimes when I'm thinking about characters and I'm laying out stories, I kind of interview the characters. I mean, it sounds a little dorky, but I was a journalist for 20 years before I got into doing this so it's natural for me to ask questions. If there's a character that's come into my head, I just let them talk. I ask them a question. I write down their answer.

And sometimes I'll do that for a week or 10 days about a single character, just so I know how they speak. And once I know how they speak and I know what's important to them, I know what they want out of life. I know the difference between what they hoped for and what they receive. It makes them feel like there's a life lived off the page.

And that's what I enjoy when I'm reading other people's books — the sense of, “Oh, the book is just a little section of their world. They also exist over here. And they've got this whole other thing going on and alternate reality almost.” That's kind of how they take shape for me is through the sound of their voices.

Tammy: I find that in stories where someone is on a quest or a long journey, food plays a really important part in the story for me. I'm always worrying about where they're going to get their next meal. Or, did they bring enough food?

Food, I'm realizing is also sometimes a really good narrative device like it is in your story. Rainy at one point on his journey has just a small chunk of cheese left, but finds a small town with friendly folk and is able to stock up with a sack of potatoes and cans of beans. And that is just so comforting to read in a story like this. Is that something you feel as well? Or is food just kind of a narrative device for your story?

Leif: You know, it's funny. I don't think of myself as a foodie or anything like that, but one of the real pleasures of life is having a nice meal. It's always been enjoyable to me to be able to write a fictional character who makes a piece of toast and slices down some good sharp cheese and lays a ripe tomato over it and peppers it just correctly with a little bit of salt. There's just such an incredibly human and visceral pleasure in having something good to eat.

And I think if you tie food to a person's well-being because our well-being is tied to food — we need it. We have to eat to survive. If you can tie that into a story somehow, and of course, Rainy departs on a sailboat and his next meal is not a sure thing. That was a very particular thing that I wanted to do — to bring food into it as an indicator of how life is going for him. How he's keeping his spirits up.

That moment when he's out of everything except cheese — there were times during the story when I had to go back and rewrite some earlier food things because I realized he didn't have enough food to keep him on the boat. He's on the boat for weeks. I always thought if I were to be one of those sailors that that went across an ocean, which I never have, how would I pack? How many oranges? How many eggs? How many bottles of wine down in the bilge, where it stays cool? That is a lovely thing to think about.

Tammy: We can't talk about this book without talking about Lake Superior. This is the lake that Rainy sails across. In your story, Rainy seems to have a really healthy respect and fear for the lake. And the lake itself — it is a mood. It is sometimes very calming and beautiful. And then of course you get very terrible storms. What is your relationship to Lake Superior and what does it represent for you in this novel?

Leif: I grew up in Minnesota and so you would think I would have seen the lake when I was a kid. But I didn't until I was in my early 20s and I was starting a job for Minnesota Public Radio in Bemidji and they sent me over to the Duluth station for a seminar on doing radio journalism because I was quite new at it. And I remember coming into Duluth on Central Entrance and you arrive at that hill, the copper-top church is right there and you see the harbor and it spreads out below you.

I had just never seen anything like it before. It was a remarkable thing. I remember looking out over the lake and seeing there were two or three different storm systems that were headed in different directions. And it just seemed immense. It seemed sort of mythic. It felt like everything happens here. There was sun, there was rain, there was hail. It was all coming at once.

I was taken aback, and I was incredibly impressed. Much later it worked out that I was able to crew on a boat for some friends and spend a week in the Apostle Islands. And at that point, I thought, “Oh, man, someday I really want to sail more here and I want to write about the experience of sailing on this lake.” But I didn't know enough to do it well until after my wife Robin and I bought a heavy old boat in 2007 or so and we put it in the Apostle Islands at a marina and every summer for 15 years we spent as much time as we could on Superior.

And what I really noticed about spending a lot of time on the lake, either out in the middle of it, sailing and trying to dodge storms or in the Apostle Islands is that the lake began to feel like it was conscious or sentient, and this is partly just imagination. Maybe whimsy.

But there is something that genuinely happens when the lake is benign and there's a beautiful west wind at 15 miles an hour, and you set the sails and the boat balances and kind of puts your shoulder down and you don't even have to touch the helm, it just sails for miles and miles — you feel like the lake just loves you. You feel like it's a god and you're in its palm. It's a lovely feeling.

Conversely, when things turn and suddenly you need to get back to port and it's the wrong direction and the wind is coming right on the nose, and it's terribly hard to make any way against it — you feel like the lake has it in for you. It wants to foil my plans and maybe it wants to kill me.

I mean, it might. It just doesn't seem like it cares about you at all. Or maybe it actually is antagonistic. It really could feel either way. Though, even at its worst, it's incredibly alluring. It's beautiful. It feels like the end of the world or the beginning of the world. Hard to say which. It throws a spell for sure and I cannot imagine writing a story now that doesn't include it in some way.

"Though, even at its worst, it's incredibly alluring. It's beautiful. It feels like the end of the world or the beginning of the world. Hard to say which. It throws a spell for sure and I cannot imagine writing a story now that doesn't include it in some way."
Writer Leif Enger on experiencing and writing about Lake Superior.

Tammy: I noticed in the story you intermittently refer to Lake Superior as a lake and a sea, and I was curious to what that distinction is to you.

Leif: When I was still with MPR, I had a chance to go aboard a Bulgarian freighter to interview the crew and the captain. It was a 680-foot ship. Pretty big. I was on the ship for 24 hours. They left Duluth and I went through the Soo Locks and got off on a pilot boat in DeTour, Michigan.

But I remember sitting with the captain on the bridge. He had graciously consented to do an interview and one of the things that he said was, “You guys call this Lake Superior? This lake is a sea.” He'd been doing this for a long time, and he said that he had been frightened for his life on every major water in the world. And that included Lake Superior. It can kill you as easily as any of the great oceans.

And I was so impressed by that. It really struck me that here's a guy who's been around the world, who has all this experience, and he calls Lake Superior a sea. So, I latched onto that for this book. I wanted to write something that would resemble a mythology and with a mythology you don't need a lake — you need a sea. Lake Superior is a beautiful and deadly and harrowing inland sea that once you've experienced it, you never forget.

Learn more about Leif Enger’s books at his website. An extended interview with Leif Enger is available below:

What We're Reading with Leif Enger, extended interview.

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What We're Reading is made possible in part by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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Tammy works at Bemidji State University's library, and she hosts "What We're Reading," a show about books and authors.