With just her debut novel, “South of Superior,” Ellen Airgood garnered the most loyal fan base of any author in the U.P. since Steve Hamilton. She’s also authored a young adult novel, “Prairie Evers,” and has a second coming out in 2015, all while working insane hours at her very own West Bay Diner & Delicatessen in Grand Marais, a restaurant with such specialties as "whitefish filet sandwich with a root beer or vanilla cream soda float."
What do you love about the U.P.?
The U.P. can be harsh and hardscrabble and has a gritty edge of "real" that I like. I love Lake Superior – its long horizon, the sense of adventure and possibility the big water sparks, the light and the weather it makes. The north tends to be challenging – economically, physically, emotionally – and I like a challenge. Also I love how down-to-earth people tend to be here. I often find a generosity of spirit, a warmth, in people here that is hugely appealing. Plus, in many parts of the U.P. it’s still pretty much okay to be markedly imperfect, and while I don’t want to romanticize that, I find it refreshing.
Why were you first drawn to the U.P.?
I fell in love with the U.P. when I was in seventh grade. I spent a week with my girlfriend at her family’s summer cottage on an inland lake near Curtis. It was perfect, like something out of a book. There was an outhouse, an old cook woodstove, a fireplace, a dock and a teeny boathouse. We read books and worked on a puzzle in the evenings. Every day we swam and waded and rowed a dinghy around. We were able to be very independent and safe and happy roaming along the shore and the nearby woods; those were all my first feelings about the U.P.
If you could spend a full day in the U.P. doing anything you wanted, where would it be and what would you do?
It would depend on my mood. If I was in a solitary, outdoorsy mood, I’d pack a sandwich and an apple and walk the beach of Lake Superior between Grand Marais and Deer Park looking for agates and listening to the waves crash. If I was in a writing mood I’d spend the day in Calumet at a coffee shop there that’s in an old remodeled service station; I’d have a mocha and sit with my notebook and try to write a story that I’m preoccupied with. If I felt urban, I’d wander the streets of Houghton or Sault Ste. Marie or Marquette, looking in shop windows.
Along with Steve Hamilton, you have the strongest fan base of any writer writing about the Upper Peninsula. Why do you think that is?
I know that Steve has a strong fan base because he’s written a series of good books. His mysteries are entertaining, accessible, and well written; he’s a pro at the art and craft of writing. There are other names that come to mind when I think of the U.P. and contemporary writers: Jim Harrison, John Smolens, Ingrid Hill. All are very different in material and tone, but all write a good story, which is not nearly as easy as it is meant to appear in the end.
What’s the most beautiful thing you’ve seen up here?
So many things come to mind. I’ll choose a display of northern lights over the bay in Grand Marais in late October one year. The lights were low in the sky, curving around the bay in bright pinks and greens, moving like chords on a piano. It went on for a long time, and that was like a piece of music too.
Does the way that your main characters view the U.P. match with yours?
I started to say that my characters all have different views of the U.P., but as I thought about it, I realized that isn’t as true as I’d assumed. The characters in South of Superior seem to love the U.P., or at least take it for granted as their home.
What about the U.P. makes it so appealing to writers?
This question came up at a library talk in Newberry, part of the U.P. author tour last summer, when I appeared with Steve Hamilton, John Smolens and Bonnie Jo Campbell. I remember that Steve and I both felt a big part of the appeal is that the U.P. does not seem homogenized to us. There aren’t tons of big box stores or endless tracts of suburban housing. Lots of people are like me and live pretty far from any stores at all. A strong thread of Finnish identity – food, language, holidays – runs in many parts of the U.P., and there’s a vibrant Ojibwe culture, too. Also a pretty strong Italian heritage, especially over in the Keweenaw, where mining brought so many people from so many places for a while.
There’s a lot of woods and undeveloped places; there are hermits and people who live off the grid. People do interesting things here. They run sled dogs; they make maple syrup and wild berry jam they peddle from stands on the side of the road; they hunt and fish, snowmobile and snowshoe. There are real characters and unique stories here, and characters and stories drive fiction.
What makes it appealing to you?
At our best – and no one is ever always at their best, of course – we are realistic and undemanding, curious and amused, kindly and strong. We are provincial in a good way. We have good values without being judgmental; we are stoic but not humorless. We realize that life offers very few guarantees, but are up for the adventure anyway.