Steve Hamilton on the real, and fictional, Upper Peninsula

Steve Hamilton is a bestselling author who locates his crime stories not in the big city, but in the small town of Paradise, Mich., a dot on the U.P. map overlooking Whitefish Bay. His books include “A Cold Day in Paradise,” “Winter of the Wolf Moon,” “Let it Burn” and many more. He has won the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Award, Notable Book listings by The New York Times Book Review, two Edgar Awards, the 2006 Michigan Author Award (a lifetime literary achievement award from the state), and every major crime-writing award.

Bridge talked to Hamilton about his connections with the U.P.

What do you love about the U.P.?

In a country that's starting to all look alike, there is still something about the U.P. that makes it absolutely different from everywhere else.  I'm not even sure how to describe what that is, although I guess I've been trying for ten books now.

Why were you first drawn to the U.P.?

When I was a kid, we made a trip up the Porcupine Mountains, and I remember crossing the Mackinac Bridge and then driving forever without seeing hardly anyone. That's the first thing that really drew me to the place. The absolute isolation. For some people, that wouldn't be a big draw, but I love it.

If you could spend a full day in the U.P. doing anything you wanted, where would it be and what would you do?

Honestly, I would just have breakfast at Frank's in the Soo, go hang out at the beach along Lakeshore Drive, stop in at Paradise and have some lunch and blueberry pie at the Berry Patch, go hang out at the beach at Whitefish Point, then go back to the Soo, have dinner at Karl's, then finish the day at the Soo Brewing Company.  There's some business plugs in there, I realize, but those are just to break up a day otherwise spent hanging out with not much to do.

What do you think is the biggest problem currently facing the U.P.?

Unemployment and under-employment is obviously a huge problem. That's not new, and it's something the whole country is dealing with, of course. But we know the U.P. has been hit harder than almost anywhere else. Whatever the answer is, it can't just be tourism. It has to be something else, something homegrown. In a way, it's almost like Detroit and the U.P. have different versions of the same problem, you know?  They both have to find a way out, and they'll probably have to do it on their own.

You mix violence and the U.P. How do you see those two things fitting together – or not?

I remember, in one of Edward Abbey's books, he was describing this bar somewhere out west, with all of these really tough characters standing at the rail, and how, if this were a city bar, there'd be fights spilling out of the bar every night.  But because these were all men who worked hard outdoors, the fights just never happened.  I honestly don't know if that's generally true – it was just his observation at the time – but it does have the ring of truth to it. Now, obviously, there's violence in the U.P., just like anywhere. But as an outsider, the people who live in the U.P. seem both tougher and less prone to violence to me than anywhere else I've known.

That's my possibly naive view of things – that while the lake is incredibly violent, most of the people have the common sense not to be.

What's the most beautiful thing you've seen in the U.P.?

I had just finished doing an event at the Antique Wooden Boat Show in Hessel, just a picture-perfect summer day on the water, already about as beautiful as you'd ever want.  But then as I was leaving the show, I happened to be walking back to my car on the edge of the highway. A breeze picked up, and I could see it moving the trees a good mile down the road. See it, hear it, finally feel it as it reached me. Then it kept going, and it moved the trees down the road in the other direction. It was like a full minute of watching the wind's progress. And the most beautiful thing of all was that the wind was cold. You know, one of those August winds that lets you know that summer is almost over.  Somehow, that makes it more beautiful, because it means this thing you're seeing is only here for the blink of an eye and then it's gone.

Many Yoopers would love if you moved to the U.P. permanently. Do you think that could ever happen?

I honestly don't know if I could live there permanently. (You know, meaning winter.) But I'd love to have a place in Paradise, and of course the ultimate dream would be to actually build a bar/restaurant and call it the Glasgow Inn (where fictional character Alex McKnight hangs out). That would be perfect.

Does the way that your main character, Alex McKnight views the U.P. match with yours?

It pretty much does, yes. He's a guy born in Detroit, who comes up there and doesn't try to pretend he's a native Yooper. But he still loves the place, and it feels good for him to be accepted.

What's a funny moment you remember from a time you spent in the U.P.?

I was at the Cozy in Brimley one night, and I was trying to explain to this woman why I was visiting the U.P. (It was winter, and I wasn't up there snowmobiling, so she wasn't getting it.) I told her I was a writer who used the U.P. as a setting, and she said, “You mean, like Steve Hamilton?”

Do you have a short passage from your work that you think describes the U.P.?

It doesn't describe the U.P. perfectly, because I'm not capable of doing that, but this is from “North of Nowhere:”

It is beautiful. God help me, on a summer night when the sun is going down, it is the most beautiful place on Earth. This is why I’m here. This is why Jackie is here.

This is why we live through the long winters, the brutal cold, the blizzards that dump three feet of snow overnight, the incessant whining of the snowmobiles. The long slow melt in the spring, the black flies in June, the mosquitoes in July and August. It is over so quickly, and then the air is cold again and the lake turns back into a monster.

For some of us, it is enough. We stay, year after year. Nowhere else would feel right to us.  Nowhere else would be home.

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Kathleen Tuggle
Sat, 12/21/2013 - 6:31pm
Absolutely right on the mark. As a resident of northern lower peninsula, but a yooper at heart, I can relate to it all. I was a tourist for two weeks every summer growing up and then lived through two winters in Houghton. I still go back "up" as often as posible. Our son married a yooper in Paradise a couple of years ago. The UP gets in your blood and you're hooked for good. Steve Hamilton does a good job taking me back there when I'm curled up with one of his books. KT
Gary Wager
Sun, 12/22/2013 - 10:50am
After spending the night at my girlfriend's friend's parent's little rental cabin along Hwy 2, just west of the Bridge, we made the drive to a farm near Newberry. We pulled into the long driveway, and as we got out of the car, we were both struck at once by the "sound" that neither of us city folk had heard in years - silence! Or at least the total absence of any man-made noise. A person could get used to that tranquility, with only sounds of nature, bird calls, the wind in the trees, or not. The people we came to visit were not home, and we got back into the car, cranked the stereo and headed south.
Phyllis Bigelow
Sun, 12/22/2013 - 1:48pm
As a UP resident whose ancestors homesteaded a few miles south of the Sault in the 1870s, I, too, love this part of the country. Now that we are retired and could live anywhere, we find we still prefer to live here and just travel to other places. We do spend the long winter here because we really don't mind, at least until April when the snow lingers on, but mainly because of 3 pets who keep us from wintering someplace warm. I agree about Karl's Ćuisine-great place to eat here in the Sault.
Kathy Hoath
Mon, 03/24/2014 - 1:47pm
Thanks Steve for such a wonderful description of our beautiful Upper Peninsula. It is home to many of us native Yoopers and I couldn't have written a better description. Steve, Yoopers would be proud to have you if you ever decide to make Paradise your home.
Tue, 10/07/2014 - 10:35am
Dear Steve: My husband and my families both grew up in the Keweenaw, and moved to the Detroit areas when just married, to get work.. Both of us spent our summers in the U.P. We love your books and your description of the people that live there. We are leaving tomorrow for a color tour of the U.P. that will take us through Paradise. We wish that you really did have the Glasgow Inn, we would be sure to visit it. Thank you for acknowledging our favorite place in your writing. Looking forward to more stories. If you need ideas...I have a boat load...My father was from a poor family with 12 kids...and my mom's family had money because her father was the head of the Mines on the west side of the U.P. Pretty opposite in personalities, but it was great growing up knowing both sides of the U.P. experience. Thanks again, Chris