A few years ago, Leif Enger came to speak at Hutchmoot, the annual Rabbit Room conference. That year, he and I had both gone through sudden medical crises. We bonded then over recovery stories and continued that friendship in the form of a fairly regular correspondence. When I was preparing to release Struck, a memoir about my experience, I asked Leif if he might be willing to read it and write an endorsement. He graciously obliged, providing one of the true high points in my career as an author—support from a literary hero.
Recently, as he was in the home stretch of finishing up his wonderful new novel, Virgil Wander, I asked for an early copy so I could write about it for the Rabbit Room. Once again, he obliged, and sent it with the following note: “Proofing the final edit it seemed that Virgil might be my most Christian book, and least evangelical.”
After I read Virgil Wander, Leif and I talked about it a bit, and about that note in particular.
Russ: Leif, I loved this novel. Absolutely loved it. One of the key characters in Virgil Wander, I would say, is the town in which the story takes place. Greenstone does more than serve as the setting for the story. It contains its characters. It facilitates certain necessary interactions. It frames back-stories in ways that really help the reader understand your characters. What role do you think place plays in the work of telling a story, and how do you approach constructing your settings?
Leif: The simplest answer is that I only set stories in landscapes I love. When you love a place you look more closely at it, and then it is a matter of describing it in your cleanest words and allowing it to inform your characters, action, weather, and so on.
Russ: How did this work itself out in Virgil Wander?
Leif: This mostly happens subconsciously. I didn’t foresee that setting Greenstone on the edge of Lake Superior would translate to most of its characters existing on various other edges, but sure enough they do—Virgil lives on the borders of faith and doubt, speech and silence, lucidity and confusion, civilization and wilderness (bears walk the streets), order and chaos. The inland sea is also a constant reminder that life is unpredictable and fog-shrouded and that tragedy is tethered to beauty and in fact joy. Everything is raw in a place like this. Damage is right out in the open. I’d wanted to write about a character like Virgil–the owner of a failing movie house–since the early 90s, but it wasn’t until I spent some time on the North Shore that I knew where he’d be at home.
Russ: You recently moved to Duluth, right? What was that like?
Leif: Robin and I had a lovely, strange summer. We sold the farm where we raised the boys, bought a house in Duluth a few blocks off the water and, since we couldn’t close until August, we lived for weeks on our heavy old creaking sailboat at the edge of the Apostle Islands. Mail was unreliable and internet sporadic, so there was an insular feel both sweet and temporary.
Russ: In Virgil Wander, I noticed that there are no true “bad guys.” What we have instead are people who have difficult things between them, and must find a way to live in community with each other. I was challenged to see so many of these characters not simply move past their relational struggles to mere civility; instead, your characters seem to be drawn closer to one another by way of what’s broken between them.
Leif: That’s a good observation and one I hadn’t thought of—that our flaws can be a point of contact or friendship, a bridge instead of a wall. One of the things Virgil finds himself doing more easily after his injury is listening, to his unexpected houseguest Rune, to Bjorn, to the unlucky handyman Jerry, and ambitious Ann Fandeen. Virgil is simply more accessible than his earlier self knew how to be. Maybe his diminished language gives him forbearance. In any case he hears those around him in a more unguarded way, and because of this they seem to share more of themselves than they might have before. Interesting that it takes actual brain damage for Virgil to act on this capacity! Of course what happens when you listen to people is you are beset by empathy, by a wish to suspend judgment. You don’t see this in the media because argument sells commercials, but in real life it’s common. We’ve all had the experience of meeting someone we expect to dislike, only to be disarmed when they start talking about their kids. It’s a cliché but a true one that more joins us than divides us.
Russ: Perhaps this is a good place to ask you to elaborate on what you meant when you described this novel as your “most Christian book, and least evangelical.”
Leif: Now, especially, there’s a chasm between that freighted label (Christian) and its origins. I was lucky enough to grow up when “Christian” referred (logically) to a reliance on Jesus, who forgave tax guys and prostitutes, appreciated little kids, pointed out the futility of wealth, and saved his hottest anger for religious leaders who thirsted for power and had no doubt of their own rightness. Now the word Christian (and its cousin Evangelical) is used to describe a dependable Republican voting bloc.
What a hijacking. This book doesn’t concern itself with either orthodoxy or politics but with decency, which is faith’s unsung expression. Decency allows a person to say: What if I’m wrong here? I’ve come to suspect that faith needs doubt in order to be real, as there’s no courage without fear. I’m drawn to pilgrims and skeptical of zealots. Years ago I felt differently, but as the song says, I was so much older then–I’m younger than that now.