Interview with Nancy Minor, author of Malheur August
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Nancy Judd Minor Interview
By Aura Martin
Nancy Judd Minor was first introduced to literature as a child. She was raised on a small farm and spent her time reading whatever she could get her hands on. She was quite enamored with the classics, including Little Women, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights. “As a kid, I inhaled all of those.” Minor laughed. “And from there it became a lifelong habit and career.”
After retiring as a teacher, Minor’s new career is writing, and she recently published her novel, Malheur August, a story about a rural Oregonian family that spans two generations.
No one in Minor’s family wrote before she did; her parents were not college-educated. The other family member who is a writer is her daughter, Elissa Minor Rust, who also helped edit her novel. Minor has never really thought of herself as an author, but she always wanted to publish a book. She worked with poetry while she was an English teacher, but she was not able to write her novel until she retired. She drafted a small story about a hermit while she was a teacher, and his story was one she had been mulling over for years. A version of that hermit appears in Mahleur August. He dies at the beginning of the novel, and the protagonist, Jean, discovered a picture of him with her father, and her banished aunt; that launches an investigation into how the hermit knew her family, who he was, who Aunt Cloris was, what her parents had been like as young adults, and why Cloris had left Vale.
Minor’s granddaughter Chloe Rust is also a writer. At age 10, Rust wrote a 300-word essay which won the 2010-2011 Legacy Project's national “Listen to a Life” Contest. In it, Rust described her grandmother’s alcoholic parents and wrote that Minor’s own father had dismissed her decision to go to college. Minor said that a great deal of information can be shared with children, and that people often make the mistake of not being honest with their kids. (Still, she said, one should spare children from truly horrendous things.) “Children can understand if we’re honest with them, and that means they can face challenges because they gain resilience. I always learned from my parents and grandparents by listening to their stories. I think stories are important because they carry history.”
Minor started writing Malheur August when she retired from teaching five years ago. She considers herself to be a very meticulous writer. “I would spend a whole day on maybe a couple of pages, massaging the words. I would also set the book aside for a whole year and just come back to it.”
The setting came before the characters, she said, because Malheur August was a place novel. Minor wanted readers to get a sense of that place. Vale is located on the Eastern side of Oregon, right next to Idaho, and it has suffocating summers and biting winters. Vale is rural and set in the high desert, a sharp contrast to what people would expect in Oregon, stereotypically known for pine trees and ski lodges. Minor said that it would be a completely different story if it had been set in a different place. “I don’t think it would work because the place is so much a part of the people. It’s that harsh country that affects the characters and the people who live in it. If you were to drive to Vale today you would see that it looks pretty much like it did in my book.”
There are some characters in the story who are similar to the people she knew in her life. Two principal characters in the story, Oleta and Clete, were actually based on Minor’s own parents. “Oleta certainly has some characteristics of my mother and Clete is certainly a little nicer than my father,” Minor said. “I’m sure my father wouldn't like the way he was portrayed, but my mom, I’m sure she’d be alright with it.”
Minor did not set out to structure her novel in fragmented pieces. The story is told through multiple perspectives and jumps in timelines. The college-age protagonist, Jean, comes home for the summer in August 1971 and tries to discover the history of her parents and why they became bickering alcoholics. Vale residents, including Cass, Virgie, and Leroy all carry different pieces of that history from back in the 1930s and 1940s--fragments of stories about friendships, love interests, betrayals, and heartaches. (There is also a pivotal discovery of the true identity of Jeans’s sister, Mae.) Minor says that the fragmented structure provides an advantage in realism--because stories are usually told out of order. Jean and Mae come to understand their parents because they listen to fragments of their lives from people who knew them when they were young. The daughters come to understand what had formed Clete and Oleta, how they became the people they were in 1971. “Stories and histories are hard to tell chronologically, and you don’t get that same sense of going back and reliving those memories if you make the story chronological,” Minor said. “Everyone in the novel has a piece of information. We all don’t have the same story, even though we could have been raised by the same parents. I think that’s why I told it that way.”
The hardest part to write in Malheur August, she said, was the tragic scene where twin boys drown in a river. “It was hard to go emotionally to that,” Minor said. “I had to show it without making it too painful to read, and yet I had to make it real.”
While researching for her book, Minor traveled back to Vale twice because she could not rely solely on memory. She returned to her childhood town to jog her memory. She said that she was fortunate because the theater she and her parents had known was under renovation - - but she was allowed to go inside. Thus, she could remember vividly and write realistically about how teenagers had behaved there. “I went to the country and visited the farms, too. I smelled the plants and the grasses when it was dry in autumn,” she said. She also revisited the siphon, a monstrously long pipe which brought water from river or reservoir to cropland. The siphon played its role in the story as a place where high school kids like Oleta, Clete, and Cass would hang out and party, back in the day.
Once her field research was done, Minor typically set aside four days a week during which she would sit down at the kitchen table and write for the next six hours. “I would just shut out the world and do that piece until I had a section or several chapters written, and then I would go back and rewrite them,” she said. She rewrote the entire book a couple of times, revised, and edited some more after that. The book was quite different by the time she was finished with it, she said, but she is a big believer in the writing process, and sensed that she just had to keep working at it.
Minor plans to write another book, about her love of Oregon. It would not be written like a travel book, but about the various people and places that exist throughout the state. It will be a combination of memoir and non-fiction. “I want to share them with the world. Not a novel in that sense, more like a series of pieces.”
Minor says that it is never too late to start writing, even after raising kids and retiring. What advice does she have for writers? She pauses and reflects: “Understand that writing also requires sacrificing characters. Writing requires a willingness to go back and throw things out if they don’t work, and a willingness to rewrite and revise. To write well requires doing it repeatedly, and considering it a job that has to be polished. So keep working at it.”
Her novel, Malheur August, is available for purchase via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Alibris and other online book sellers.