Six Weeks Out/New Review

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Summer is passing in a blur and we’re already roughly six weeks out from the release of my new novel The Town Built on Sorrow (Sept 26th). The publication reading will be on Saturday Sept 30th at 3 PM at the very cool gallery Artista Bottega in St. Paul, MN. I’ve created an event page here for the reading to answer any questions you may have. Should be a great time!

Also, a glowing new review for TOWN has come in from School Library Journal:

OPPEGAARD, David. The Town Built on Sorrow. 264p. Flux. Sept. 2017. pap. $11.99. ISBN 9781635830064.

Gr 9 Up–As a serial killer runs rampant in the mountain foothills town of Hawthorn, 16-year-old Harper Spurling grows more and more fascinated by the diary of Sofie Helle, a local pioneer girl from the 1860s. Meanwhile, Olav Helle, a classmate of Harper’s, uncovers a skull in the woods, from which he starts receiving disturbing telepathic messages. In alternating chapters, readers follow Harper and Olav as they interact with their families and each other, as well as the experiences of Sofie Helle as the town of Hawthorn is settled. As Olav’s relationship with the skull grows more intense, so does Harper’s interest in Sofie, with whom she feels a connection. Grim and at times disturbing, the heavy subject matter is pleasantly leavened by the smart and interesting Harper, whose interactions with her family, including her hilarious and spunky 80-year-old grandmother, add an authentic and relatable angle. Oppegaard weaves together three stories that are very different in tone and substance but make for a unique reading experience that feels fresh, entertaining and more than a little creepy. Give this to teens who enjoyed Libba Bray’s “The Diviners” and Maureen Johnson’s “Shades of London” series. VERDICT Fans of dark, quirky dramas with a strong sense of place will love this book. A solid addition to YA collections.–Kristy Pasquariello, Wellesley Free Library, MA

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The first review for The Town Built On Sorrow is up!

From Kirkus Reviews:

A Midwestern town’s dark past meets its grisly present.

Sassy, journalism-inclined, 16-year-old Harper Spurling’s family are the descendants of her hometown of Hawthorn’s founders. The white teen runs track, loves hanging out with her friends, refers to her parents as “The Mom” and “The Dad,” and adores her best friend, Eva Alvarez, who is a mixed-race (Mexican and black) party girl. When her history teacher assigns the class to read the diary of one of the town founder’s daughters, Harper becomes entranced by her story, wondering why it ends so abruptly. Enter mysterious, Nordic, white Olav Helle, who also attends Harper’s high school. He’s also seemingly touched by the magic of the town and its surrounding woods. It also compels him to off members of the local population using various gruesome tactics; from the get-go readers know he is the town’s Tender Heart Killer. Oppegaard pens an intense, page-turning, often harrowing nail-biter that may leave readers with stomachaches as they move through the story, alternating between Harper and Olav. Some plot parts may feel stretched, but the magic is subtle enough to walk the delicate line between what could be hallucination or the supernatural otherworld. The tension that builds toward the eventual meeting of Olav and Harper, however, is very real, and that’s what will keep readers hooked until the end.

Pretty gross but pretty great. (Thriller. 13-18)

Selling Books in the Apocalyptic Year of 2017

So. 2017 in the United States of America. Some interesting stuff going on, amIright? Maybe we’ll all live to see 2018, maybe not. Check in on Twitter to find out!

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In the meantime, we’re all still hoping civilization is going to continue onward, and part of that hope in my own squirrelly little life is releasing a new novel this fall. 2017 will actually mark the 10 year anniversary of the publication of my first novel The Suicide Collectors with St. Martin’s Press. I think it’s fair to say at this point that promoting and selling a novel has been a quixotic process in my experience and I’m finding it harder than ever to gear up for another campaign, especially in a world where it seems like people read, and care about books, less and less.

Living on the road my friend,
Was gonna keep you free and clean
And now you wear your skin like iron,
And your breath as hard as kerosene
 -“Pancho and Lefty”

But then again, everybody warned me writing would be a hard road. Yet I persisted, like some kind of lunatic cat attacking a scratching post. So what the fuck did I expect, right?

Last night I stood by a table for 4 hours in attempt to sell copies of my novel The Firebug of Balrog County and handing out free bookmarks.  I don’t mind talking to people, but selling something as personally meaningful as Firebug, much less anything at all, tends to make me a little queasy, even after a decade of practice. I started out the night feeling proud and cocky, wondering aloud to my buddy how many of the authors gathered at the event were published by mainstream presses (as if it really fucking mattered, right?) and ended the long night with a grand tally of three books sold. Ah, the swift reality check that is trying to sell your work to the public! No matter how many great blurbs and reviews it may have garnered! No matter how cool you think the cover is!

I often tell beginning writers that they better love editing as much as the initial process of writing or otherwise they’ll be bound to burn out long before the process of polishing their work is complete, not to mention the process of becoming a good writer. So does it follow that if you want to be a published author who makes a decent income (through product sales) that you must love promoting your work (and thus yourself) as well?

By necessity, a novelist spends a lot of time alone and withdrawn from the world. Even the ones who write in a coffee shop, surrounded by keyboard clacking and the ritualistic banging of espresso machines, are still very much alone in their inward process. Either by natural inclination or through the learned habit of repetition, a novelist embraces the solitary side of their nature, which, you’d think, would cause you to drift further and further from the more extroverted traits a good salesperson calls upon.

(Is it just me or  do the authors who are very slick, with shiny hair and gleaming lupine smiles, often write forgettable schlock? Is there some kind of correlation between how good you are at sales and the level of authenticity in your work on the page? Does the blunt relentless self-assessment that aids good writing detract somehow from your sales ability? Or is this just my own bias speaking? My own jealously at how slick and best selling these writers tend to be? Probably. Though I think there’ some kind of kernel of truth here, nevertheless.)

Of course, there are plenty of great writers who are also great at the promotional side of bookselling. Personally, I’m still a promotional work in progress. (Or maybe I’m just kind of lazy?) If my publicist Megan is reading this, I just want to say thanks for bringing the new The Town Built on Sorrow bookmarks to the event last night and chatting with me far longer than required by your profession. I promise to pull my share of the publicity load as much as possible, writing all the blog posts and interview responses required, pestering my long suffering friends and family (hey, this will be book #5, I get it folks!) and standing in front of an audience or two, wondering in the back of my mind how it was again that I ended up here, reading a book with my own personal feelings in it to a crowd as if I’m asking a longtime crush if they’d possibly, maybe, perhaps, want to go on a date with me, the sweaty bumblefuck.

 

I’ve sold my 5th novel!

I’ve been sitting on this news for a while, but I’m finally signing and mailing the contract today-I’m happy to announce I’ve sold my 5th novel THE TOWN BUILT ON SORROW to Flux! Currently, the release date is slated for sometime this September. Big thanks as always to my literary agent Jonathan Lyons. Here’s the rough copy I’ve written for the book:

The Town Built on Sorrow
By David Oppegaard

Welcome to the strange, haunted foothills town of Hawthorn, where sixteen-year-old Harper Spurling finds herself increasingly obsessed with the diary of a 1860s pioneer girl while a serial killer runs unchecked through the area, dumping his victims into the town’s dark river. When Harper’s curiosity eventually leads her into the Tender Heart Killer’s company, she’s forced to think fast or join the killer’s growing list of victims…

Because in Hawthorn, a town built on sorrow, the barrier between life and death is as fragile as an old forgotten skull.

The Canary

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Beloved local musician and storyteller Jack Pearson died yesterday at the too-young age of 63. I first met Jack in 1998  through his son, Peter Pearson, my friend and fellow Great Con student at St. Olaf College. In the summer of 1999 I went to an outdoor Bob Dylan and Paul Simon concert with Pete, Jack, and Kari, Pete’s sister. It was a great concert (Paul and Bob played “The Sound of Silence” together!) but one of my favorite memories from it was Jack pointing out after the show that, from a technical perspective, Dylan was a crappy harmonica player. It was an eye-opening revelation about the importance of craft to me, no matter how famous you were, and also the only unkind thing I ever heard Jack, who was like a Twin Cities musical version of Mr. Rogers, say about anyone in all the time I knew him.

A lot of people loved Jack, who recorded many albums and traveled around to schools and other locales and entertained children, bringing the joy of live music to their lives with a rare mixture of skilled craft and happy exuberance, but what always struck me most about him was the philosophy of kindness and acceptance he embodied. I’ve long surrounded myself with a thick shield of dark humor and sarcasm, most likely hardened and significantly enhanced during my mother’s long battle with cancer during my teenage years, but Jack didn’t need any of that. He was naturally earnest. He was open to all the currents. We’d discuss philosophy, me playing the nihilistic devil’s advocate, and he’d consider everything I said carefully, even though I was a hotheaded college student. He was a strong Christian who didn’t necessarily believe, or need to believe, everything in the Bible was literally true. The idea of practicing kindness was all the truth he needed.

Kindness is a hard truth to truly learn and practice-being kind to both myself and others is something I struggle with on a daily basis. It’s something our country, and the world, is struggling with to a seemingly greater extent than ever. It’s hard, on this cold January day, to not think of Jack’s sudden passing as the embodiment of the old “canary in a coal mine” (old-timey miners would take a canary with them down to the deep underground mines they worked in-if the canary stopped singing and died it would alert them to the presence of poison gas in the mine). On the eve of a Trump presidency, with the prospect of so much hate and toxicity before us, Jack has stepped out and left the room (he coincidentally passed away in the same cancer ward as my mother). It’s up to the rest of us, even the damaged snarky fuckers, to step up our game and keep the torch of kindness and generosity burning.

Some New Q & A About Writing

I just did this little written interview with Alex Kies, a faculty assistant at Metropolitan State University, and thought I’d post it.

To whom would you recommend graduate school?

That’s an interesting question. Getting your MFA in Writing (or PhD) isn’t cheap but I found it invaluable in refining my skills as a writer. I suppose I’d recommend it to anyone who feels like a structured format, with writing workshops and professional instructors and deadlines, would help advance your writing. Going through an MFA program, like the one at Hamline University, allows you to join a great community of writers and thinkers as well. My big caveat is don’t expect you’re going to be a big time published author just because you get your MFA, though it is reasonable to expect your chances for landing a writing-intensive teaching job of some kind will increase.

What is your experience with the Twin Cities’ so-called literary scene?

Everyone I’ve met has been very nice and inclusive and the Loft Literary Center serves as its heartbeat. You can attend several literary events a week around here if you feel like it and there’s actually very few cities in the U.S. where that’s possible. To truly be a part of the local scene you need to put your time in, attend various events, and try to be sociable with strangers, even if sociability doesn’t come naturally to you.

You have a regularly updated blog.  Has this helped or hindered your writing?  Is having a consistent, non-promotional web presence beneficial?

Well, I’ve been blogging for over a decade now and my urge to post regularly has died down considerably. I’d say for a long time it helped me as writer in the sense that I don’t keep a private journal so it both allowed and encouraged me to work out my thoughts on writing in a public space and made me feel like I was contributing to the general writing conversation. Nowadays my mind has quieted down a lot in this respect-maybe I worked out what I needed to work out and can move on now without blogging much.

Blogging hasn’t done much for me career/professional wise, but I’ve enjoyed it.

Now you’re a writing professor.  Have you seen traits, good or bad, that students share? 

I think the biggest issue the writing students I’ve taught (which isn’t that many in the grand scheme of things) share is a difficulty with detaching themselves from their writing. They live and die with every story they write, even if it’s only their second of third story ever, and I do my best to encourage them to look at the bigger picture-improving your writing is such a long and laborious process you shouldn’t worry too much about an individual story, or even a novel, failing from a technical standpoint, as long as you worked as hard as you could and can detach yourself enough from what you’ve written that you’re able to learn from your mistakes. If you’re writing and writing without learning from your own work, good and bad, you’re just treading water instead of moving forward.

Your work has been exclusively in genre literature.  How does this market and audience differ from literary fiction, and does that alter your creative process? 

Actually, my fourth novel The Firebug of Balrog County is what you’d call literary fiction and I’ve written a few other literary novels that never got published. My process is the same no matter what genre I’m working in (and indeed in my work the genre lines blur a lot) but I suppose when writing in horror or sci-fi I tend to find myself constrained to maintaining a tighter, faster plot to some extent, while in literary fiction I focus more on unspooling the characters in the story and allowing the plot to serve this purpose.

You’ve written both “adult” and YA fiction.  How did that effect your writing process?

It doesn’t really change much for me, process-wise. Whatever I write I try to make interesting for all age levels (down to about eleven years old, I suppose). I’m always worried about boring my audience.

You’ve mentioned before that you have several novels you decided not to publish.  What about them makes them unpublishable when compared to your other works?

Well, with my earlier unpublished work it simply wasn’t good enough to be published, along with a few later works as well (and now I’m glad they never were published). Undercooked characters, bad dialogue, etc. However there’s two or three I still think deserved to see publication but simply never found a publishing champion. One of the hard lessons I’ve learned is that a good book doesn’t always see the light of day. Hell, I know lots of good writers who never get one book published. Writing can be as rough as it is rewarding.

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Mid-Summer Drowse

It’s hard to work in the summertime, isn’t it? Right now I’m typing this while the window AC in my office/bedroom roars three feet away from me and my cat slumbers on the cool floor. Along with the summer weather has come a slight summer writing slump, at least compared to my normal twenty-five pages a week habit when I’m really cooking. I’ve turned in novel #16 to my agent, who liked it but asked for a rewrite with more overall world building, and instead of doing that I’m futzing around with the beginning of a different novel and trying to figure out how this new work might go. I’ll get back to the other novel, no doubt about that, but sometimes taking a step back and doing something else for a while can be helpful.

Well, usually.

There have been plenty of days this summer when I haven’t written at all, or only written 300 words, or only changed a character’s name. I used to feel like a useless human being on these non-writing days but somehow I haven’t been as bothered about them this summer. Maybe it’s just growing older, maybe it’s just realizing the world doesn’t end if you don’t produce. A dangerous notion, though, isn’t it? Nobody else is going to write for you. No one else is going to create for you, or notice if you’re not creating. Writing is a self-starting field and even as the sun beats down and it’s scorching hot outside you better remember to bring it as much as you can.

Because both life and summertime don’t really last all that long.

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Dostoyevsky

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Dostoyevsky

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I’ve had this poster of Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) hanging above my toilet in every place I’ve lived since 2000. I purchased it at a museum in Staraya Russa, Russia, which was actually the summer house where Dostoyevsky wrote Demons and The Brothers Karamazov. The poster looks ancient now but the water stains are actually from a bathroom pipe leak and the tear in the lower right corner is from when an old girlfriend of mine thought it would be funny to stick a maxi pad on it (when she removed the pad its adhesive side ripped off a big poster chunk).

Dostoyevsky was by no means a perfect man—for instance he hated Jews and basically all foreigners and he also gambled like a fiend—but if nothing else he was a true Grinder. He worked and he worked and he worked. He followed his dark visions and he wrote for money. His mother died when he was fifteen. He endured a realistic mock execution, ten hard years in a Siberian labor camp, the onset of epilepsy, and came out more inspired to write than ever. He was a man of faith, but it was not an unexamined faith by any means. Dostoyevsky knew what he was about and went about it. He worked at night while the world was sleeping.

I like having his dark Russian eyes staring at me every time I visit the bathroom. They remind me that no matter how tough life may be at times you can always be a little tougher yourself. New characters and worlds are always sitting inside you, waiting for extraction. You can find them if you’re willing to put the work in.