An author’s error in sending a manuscript to the University of Minnesota Press, instead of to its intended recipient – Minnesota Historical Society Press – has resulted in a first for a publisher best known for publishing scholarly books on current events and regional nonfiction for adult readers. This fall, the University of Minnesota Press will release a hardcover YA novel, Frozen by Mary Casanova. According to the press’s director, Douglas Armato, the press has reissued “a couple” of YA novels in the past, just to keep them from going out of print, but has never before published original YA fiction. The initial print run for Frozen will be 7,500 copies; it will also be available simultaneously as an e-book.
“[Casanova] came to us,” Armato recalls. “She made us reconsider our policy not to publish original fiction or poetry. What won us over was how well researched Frozen is. We couldn’t believe an author like Mary Casanova would approach us with a book like this.”
According to Armato, Frozen actually fulfills the mission of the press of publishing books about the people, history, and natural environment of Minnesota – even though the press rarely acquires fiction or YA, much less YA fiction. “We were all impressed with how deeply Casanova dug into the state’s history,” Armato says. “We got this manuscript, and we asked ourselves how could we not publish this book. It’s what we were already doing – just in a different way.”
Frozen, which is set in a small town along the Minnesota-Canadian border, is the tale of a girl who hasn’t spoken a word in the 11 years since, as a five-year-old, she was found almost frozen in a snow bank the same night her mother, a prostitute, died under strange circumstances. The story is based on an actual incident that happened in northern Minnesota in the early 20th century.
Casanova says the story has percolated for the past 20 years, since she read of the incident in Koochiching by regional historian Hiram Drache, in which he relates a story about the body of a prostitute found dead in the snow in Koochiching County being propped up in a town council room before a meeting.
“I could not let it go,” she says. “Even in death, her life was treated with such little value. A friend of mine finally told me to write the damn thing. I’ve worked on it for the past 10 years.”
Frozen represents a first for Casanova herself: this is the first time she has published a YA novel, and it’s also the first time she’s gone with a regional publisher. Casanova is the author of 30 picture books and middle-grade chapter books, and novels, all published by major houses. Most recently Casanova wrote McKenna and McKenna, Ready to Fly, published by American Girl in January (a TV movie adaptation of McKenna will air on NBC on July 14).
At this point in her professional career, Casanova says she’s more concerned that her books find their audiences rather than worrying about sales numbers. After approaching commercial houses, where editors expressed their concerns that Frozen does not fit into any of the genres most popular with YA readers – paranormal romances or dystopian novels – Casanova decided to submit a query to regional publishers. Thinking she was sending the manuscript to MHSP, which has previously published regional fiction under its Borealis Press imprint, upon her instruction, Casanova’s agent sent Frozen to Todd Orjala, the acquisitions editor at the University of Minnesota Press – who happens to be an expert on Minnesota history, including the history of the Rainy Lake region in the early 20th century, the time and place in which Frozen is set.
Casanova explained that MHSP had also published Keeper of the Wild by Joe Paddock in 2001, a biography about Ernest “Ober” Oberholtzer, a Minnesota activist who was prominent in the American conservation movement in the early 20th century. A fictional Oberholtzer is one of the characters in Frozen – another factor in her decision to submit a query to MHSP.
“Despite my mistake,” she said with a laugh, “It turned out to be a perfect match. It was serendipity. I didn’t know [Orjala] knew as much about my topic as he did. He was the perfect editor, who asked probing questions no editor in New York would have thought to ask.”
Armato says that working with Casanova on Frozen has been such a positive experience that the press is considering branching out into publishing more fiction with regional appeal and a national audience. Next spring, Vacationland, an adult novel by Sarah Stonich (These Granite Islands), also set in northern Minnesota, is scheduled for publication by the University of Minnesota Press.
“We won’t do a lot of it, but we’re definitely open to it now,” Orjala said. “Booksellers know the quality of our list. It’s not that big of a leap for booksellers to buy fiction from us.”
Frozen will launch on September 27 in Duluth, Minn., with a party at Norway Hall for both Frozen and for Shadow on the Mountain by Margi Preus (Abrams/Amulet), a YA novel about the Norwegian resistance movement during World War II.