Danielle Sosin has always been fascinated by Lake Superior. So fascinated, in fact, that she decided to leave the Twin Cities and relocate to Duluth, Minn., for a year to live next to the largest freshwater lake in the world while researching local archives for a novel that she felt compelled to write.
That was eight years ago. The novel is The Long Shining Waters (Milkweed Editions), and Sosin, 51, still lives in Duluth.
Sosin admits that moving to Duluth to write a book isn't the first time she's been pulled along by forces beyond her control. Growing up in Minneapolis, Sosin "always hated writing in school" and never took English classes during the three years she spent at Carleton College. But after "hanging out with writers" in the late 1980s while dating a creative writing professor, she took a writing class at Minneapolis's Loft Literary Center taught by the author Patricia Weaver Francisco. Sosin was hooked. "I thank my lucky stars I walked into [Francisco's] classroom," Sosin says. "She became my mentor. The relationship began and never ended."
Sosin, who holds a master's degree in psychology, has since worked only part-time jobs so she could write. Currently she works for a landscaping company, designing and building residential gardens.
Disclosing that, to this day, she finds writing "extremely difficult, even excruciating," she also finds it essential, "a way for me to order things so that they make sense." Her work isn't plot driven, but, rather, explorations of the inner lives of her characters and their kinship to their natural surroundings. "I'm more interested in seekers than finders," she explains.
After Coffee House Press editor Chris Fischbach saw some of her stories, he published her collection, Garden Primitives (2002).
"I really needed that," she recalls. "There was a legitimacy in publishing my first book."
About the same time, Sosin tried to write a short story about Lake Superior. It was a failure, she says, "The topic was too big to do in short form."
Writing a novel, however, presented formidable challenges: "How do you keep a character alive for 300 pages instead of 30? How do you hold tension in a story arc for 300 pages instead of 30? How do you try to have three story arcs and a central voice?" (which was exactly what she ended up with in The Long-Shining Waters).
The Long-Shining Waters follows three women through the changing seasons of a pivotal year in their lives: Grey Rabbit, an Ojibwe Indian disturbed by dreams portending some unknown threat to her tribe's way of life; Berit, the Scandinavian-American wife of a fisherman who goes out on his boat one morning and never returns; and Nora, a bar owner whose life is upended when the bar burns down, prompting her to take a road trip around Lake Superior. Their lives are separated by centuries, their most obvious link a common experience of living on the shores of the huge body of water that Grey Rabbit calls "Gichigami" in 1622. Berit in 1902 and Nora in 2000 refer to that same body of water simply as "the lake."
"We're all connected to each other across time, through nature." Sosin says.
"It's so haunting, this lake. This whole book is my attempt to answer the question: what is it about this body of water? Because I've been on a lot of bodies of water."