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Author's battle with illness reshapes second novel

Aug 30, 2019 06:38AM ● By Editor

By Emma Vatnsdal from - August 28, 2019

When starting out as a writer, there's one rule that gets repeated over and over: "Write what you know."

For Osakis, Minn., author Leif Enger, writing a version of what he knows brings new life to his first novel in over a decade, "Virgil Wander."

Following the hero of the same name as he pieces his memory back together after an accident involving a car, a road and a freezing Lake Superior, Enger weaves together his story through intelligent humor and captivating whimsy to create a portrait of a region of Minnesota — and its residents who never quite made it out.

"(Virgil) has been living a modest, quiet life in a North Shore town called Greenstone for 25 years," says Enger. "He drives off a cliff on Highway 61 into Lake Superior and is rescued by an acquaintance. He sustains a head injury and loses part of his language and certain names and faces. The story is really about him trying to put his life back together and to make something better of it than it was before."

Growing up in central Minnesota's Osakis, Enger says his family trips always brought him westward. He says he didn't even see the North Shore until he was in his 20s. 

"I've always loved (the North Shore)," he says. "I love all the Upper Midwest. So when I was in my early 20s and was sent to cover a story up the North Shore for Minnesota Public Radio where I worked at the time, I got my first glimpse of Lake Superior and fell for it. I've always wanted to write a book set in the hard luck towns up there, and this was my opportunity to do it."

Virgil Wander by local author Leif Enger was released in paperback on Aug 20 Grove Atlantic  Special to The Forum
"Virgil Wander," by local author Leif Enger, was released in paperback on Aug. 20. Grove Atlantic / Special to The Forum

Long process

It takes a while to write a book. It takes even longer to write a book twice, something Enger says he doesn't recommend doing.

"I wrote a draft (of the book) and it took me three or four years," Enger says. "Then I got really sick."

Before sending his final draft for editing, Enger began his battle with a rare strain of fungal meningitis, seeing his work get interrupted by fever and weakness. 

"For several months, I didn't have the ability to concentrate enough to read a book, let alone write one," he says. 

After several months of healing and not thinking about his book, Enger came back to discover he hated it. 

"When I opened it up and read it front to back, I was horrified," he says. "I didn't like it. It was told from the wrong point of view and it didn't work for me, so I came to the horrifying decision that I was going to have to start over again."

Highlighting the entire manuscript and hitting the delete button was the only way Enger says he could begin again, eliminating what he says would have been his crutch during the rewrite and forcing him to completely re-evaluate his idea for the story.

"It's not the way I recommend doing it," he says. "I hope to never take that long again. It's dreadful; it's a terrible feeling. But the great thing is I really came out of it with a book that I like. This one I can happily support with a clear conscience."

Enger says his illness also helped shape his main character, giving him clarity when it came to what the book needed and giving Virgil a sense of purpose. 

"That idea of having a second chance was suddenly very dear to me," Enger says. "I went through a time with the sickness where I didn't know if I would have another chance. I didn't know if I would have the time left to write another book. And then you write differently, or whatever you do when you go through something like that. You're going to have a different outlook when you come back to it."

Leif Engers latest novel Virgil Wander was released in paperback on Aug 20 Robin Enger  Special to The Forum
Leif Enger's latest novel, "Virgil Wander," was released in paperback on Aug. 20. Robin Enger / Special to The Forum

Upcoming appearances

"Virgil Wander" was released in paperback earlier this month. Leif Enger will be appear at several cities around the region in the coming weeks for readings and discussions this fall. 

  • 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27, Empire Arts Center, 415 Demers Ave., Grand Forks, N.D.
  • 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, Fosston (Minn.) Public Library, 403 North Foss Ave.
  • 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15, Crookston (Minn.) Public Library, 110 North Ash St.
  • 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, Moorhead Public Library, 118 Fifth St. S.
  • 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, Hawley (Minn.) Public Library, 422 Hartford St.
  • 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, Detroit Lakes Public Library, 1000 Washington Ave.
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