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A More Interesting Period of Time: An Interview with Donald Lystra

Donald Lystra, who published his first novel Season of Water and Ice after retiring from a career as an engineer, talks about making the transition from engineering to writing, publishing with a small press, winning a Midwest Book Award, and what people get wrong about the 1950s.

Image courtesy author website

Image courtesy author's website

For Donald Lystra, the nineteen-fifties wasn’t all Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver. Instead, it was an era of bubbling change, depicted poignantly in his novel, Season of Water and Ice, through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old boy named Danny. The year is 1957. Danny’s father has given up a good job with General Motors to become a salesman and moved his family from Grand Rapids to a cabin by a lake in northern Michigan. Danny’s mother, accustomed to a more comfortable lifestyle, has returned to her parents’ home in the suburbs of Chicago because, she tells Danny, “The country’s a wonderful place for men and boys but it’s not a place for a woman.” Danny strikes up a friendship with his seventeen-year-old neighbor Amber, who is pregnant, unmarried, and facing difficult choices. As Danny tries to understand the relationship between his parents and attempts to intervene in Amber’s relationship with her abusive boyfriend, he learns how different love can be from the what standard fifties images have lead him to expect.

Like his protagonist, Donald Lystra grew up in Michigan in the fifties, and he rejects oversimplified portrayals of a decade he experienced as rich in complication. Season of Water and Ice, Lystra’s first novel, offers a wonderfully character-driven corrective. The book won a 2009 Midwest Book Award for fiction and was named a Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan in 2010. While writing it, Lystra received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony. His short fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including Other Voices, The North American Review, Passages North, and The Greensboro Review. A story called “Family Way,” which eventually grew into Season of Water and Ice, appeared in Cimarron Review in 2006, and an excerpt from the novel appeared in Natural Bridge in 2009.

This interview was conducted in August, 2010.

Danielle Lavaque-Manty: You had a career as an engineer before you started writing. Had you always wanted to write?

Donald Lystra: Yes, I did. Or at least for a long, long time I did. As you say, I became an engineer in my workaday life, and I enjoyed it. I had some successful projects over my career. But I always had the idea—like many other people—that some time I would like to try my hand at writing. And I carried that idea around in the back of my mind for a long, long time.

Then, about the mid-nineties, there were some things that opened up some time for me. My kids were off to college right about then for one thing, so I had fewer family demands. I started scribbling, and just doing things on my own. I would give myself an assignment to describe something, trying to find the best words to do it, and then I would look at it the next day and critique it. Or I would try to write a vivid sentence, and then I would look at it a day or two later and compare it to sentences that I saw in books by authors I really admired, trying to find out why mine wasn’t as good as theirs. I did that for two or three years, that sort of self-education. And I wrote some stories that I sort of liked. But I didn’t think they were perfect by any means.

Then, in 1997, I saw a flyer on [The University of Michigan] campus by someone who was conducting a writing workshop—not under the auspices of the university, but as a separate thing he was doing on his own.

Who was that writer?

His name was Josh Henkin. He’d graduated from the Michigan MFA program, and he’s since published two novels [Swimming Across the Hudson (1997) and Matrimony (2007)]. A wonderful writing teacher, just a brilliant writing teacher in terms of the insights he was able to give me about what a story is, and how to control a story to create an effect of some kind.

The other good thing about that was it brought me in contact with other people who were aspiring writers, some of them very good. So I began to have a network of people. In fact, after Josh finally left town—I took two or three workshops from him over a period of a year and a half—a group of his students got together and had our own irregular workshop every week or two. Three of the five have gone on to publish books, and two of them have gone on to their own academic careers in writing: Valerie Laken is in Milwaukee, [teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee], and the other one, Nick Arvin, is out in Denver, [teaching at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop]. They were all much younger than me. That was part of the fun of it too, frankly—to get together with people who are much, much younger than you, and to have them take what you’re doing seriously, to sort of span years that way.

Are you still in touch with any of them?

They’re not in Ann Arbor anymore, but we email and we go to each other for advice. It’s very hard to write in a totally solitary way, I found out. When I started out I was thinking, “Well, it’s a solitary pursuit, and you ought to be able to figure it out all on your own.” That’s somewhat true, but it’s certainly not entirely true. You need to have a certain amount of instruction, and getting feedback from other people is an immense help. So it went from being a solitary pursuit to a slightly more social activity.

The book itself started with a short story.

It did. As I said, I’d written a bunch of short stories, and some of them had been published. Then I got to where I thought, “Well, okay, I want to try a longer project.” I tried to think of what that would be, what would be a big enough subject or theme to warrant two or three hundred pages of treatment. I worked on a project for several months, and it wasn’t going very well and I got frustrated and I said, “Let’s go back to the basics here. Let me go back and look at the short stories I’ve written and see if in one of them maybe there’s a germ of an idea that can be expanded.”

loose endI found one short story in particular that I thought might work. It was a story I had published in the Cimarron Review. I liked the characters I had created, and I liked the situation that I had created. The other thing about it, when I looked at it again—it was a short story that ended with a lot of loose ends still unresolved. There was one thread that ran through it and came to a conclusion, you might say, to make it a short story, but there were a lot of other issues that were not concluded. I thought, “Let’s see what would happen if I tried to move these characters forward through time.”

I already had fifteen pages of text, which was very encouraging—to have a running start that way. And I already had a pretty good grasp of who the characters were, and the setting, and the situation. The first draft went pretty fast. It was a rough first draft, but I think I finished it in only about three months. Then I went back and I spent another four months revising it before I got it to the point where I wanted to show it to anybody—to an agent who would want to represent it.

That is fast.

I keep trying to find that groove again. I think part of the problem of knowing more about writing—maybe even part of the problem of having published a book—is that you always know too much, and you are too quick to critique what you do when you sit down to write, and that inhibits the process. I want to go back to that innocent state that I had when I started that last project, when I had no particular expectations, just doing it more or less for the fun of it. I think that’s the best frame of mind to do it in.

Place is really important in this novel—the northern Michigan setting—and one thing I was wondering about is the move from the city to the really small town. How important do you think the past in the big city is to the rest of the novel? It opens after they’ve moved, but we do hear about the move.

When I was growing up, my family moved several times. We moved to different sorts of places—cites, suburbs, the country, small towns. I wanted the story to unfold in a relatively isolated place, creating that kind of crucible where things were going to happen removed from society or many other people. The idea of a family moving was an easy way to implement that. The young boy, the narrator, is new to the area, so he’s socially isolated. He hasn’t been there long enough to make friends. He’s physically isolated, too, because of the decision his father made of locating them out in the country on the shore of a lake, which he thought would be a good place to be, but turns out not to be so great, at least after the seasons begin to turn.


One thing that really struck me when I was reading your book—and this might be more about my own preoccupations than your intentions—was the gender constraints that the characters operate under. So I was wondering if you were thinking about that as you were writing. Not in the sense that you meant it as a social critique, but were you thinking about gender issues consciously?

I was, yes, I was. Particularly for the women characters in the book. And I’ve thought of this too with respect to my own family and my own mother. My mother was a typical post-war housewife. She didn’t have any kind of a career at any point in her life. She raised a family of four children. But as I grew up and began to understand her a little bit as a person, other than just as my mother, I can see where she—well, she’s passed away now, she’s been dead for fifteen years—I could see where she was an intelligent woman who had some very definite talents. She always said that if she’d had the chance, she would have loved to have gone into architecture. She had an artistic sense combined with a practical builder’s sense, you might say, that drew her that way. And I thought about a woman like that being constrained in this very tight role that was prescribed for many women back then, and how difficult that probably was.

The male characters, too, operated within a pretty narrowly prescribed role—the sense of being the breadwinner and having to shoulder that responsibility. That comes into play a little bit in this book because the father is pretty much failing at this new career that he’s taken for himself, and he feels the weight of that pretty heavily.

I think the relationship between Danny and Amber is really interesting, too, because he’s younger, and yet sometimes there’s this burden of wanting to be the protector, which he’s not really in a position to do.

That relationship turns a lot of things on their heads, in a way. She’s older than he is, more experienced in the world, and certainly more sexually experienced. Yet he, coming from the city, knows things she doesn’t know and sees into certain situations more deeply than she does. Maybe that’s why I liked that relationship; it did confound a lot of the stereotypes about boy meets girl. And because it was different, you couldn’t assume anything—you had to work through the issues one by one, based on this rather unusual situation.

::Throughout life you will meet one person who is like no other,,, ::

And you’re right, as a boy he does feel this sense of responsibility. It goes towards Amber, and even towards his father. There are a couple of instances where his father shows weakness, so to speak, and Danny feels a sense of responsibility to help him out, to give him a little support, even if it’s just for a moment. So he’s being indoctrinated, you might say, into this sense of responsibility that boys were expected to assume when they grew up and became men. I think that is the reason that a lot of that is in there, that he’s aware of this burden that’s waiting out there for him to assume, and he’s not altogether comfortable about taking it on.

Before the book had found a home—when you had an agent but not yet a publisher—you were encouraged to revise the book to make it a young adult novel, which you resisted. I’m wondering how you thought about your audience when you were writing Season of Water and Ice.

When I was writing, I didn’t really think of an audience. But I guess I thought I was writing for an adult audience. I might not even have known there was such a thing as a young adult category of fiction, at that time. But when I found an agent, he was curious about considering it as a young adult novel because, I’ve since learned, this is a category of fiction that’s quite active and quite profitable.

So in the first round of submissions he sent it out to six editors who were adult fiction editors and six who were young adult editors. None of the six adult editors were willing to take it. They liked the book, many of them, and some of them seemed to like it quite a lot, but it just didn’t fit into their lineup of books or something. But a couple of the young adult editors indicated that they would take it if it was revised and made more clearly a young adult book, which would have required, oh, simplifying some of the language, and trying to make it more of an in-the-moment narrative style. The way I had written it the first time, there was quite a lot of reflection and thoughtfulness on the part of the character. Maybe to a fault. That can be tedious to a reader even in an adult book, but I guess it’s not appropriate for a young adult book, at least not to the degree that I was doing it. So they wanted that taken out, or greatly simplified.

And I tried to do it. I remember spending a good month because I wanted to sell the book. I was a little disappointed that my agent now was talking more about trying to sell it as a young adult book, but I figured, well, that’s all right, I’ll write other books. So I spent a month trying to make the changes, and at some point I just didn’t like the changes I was making, or the way it was turning out. I remember writing my agent an email and probably spending two or three days composing it, because I thought it was probably going to be the end of our relationship. I basically told him that I’d thought about it and I’d concluded that I didn’t want to do it. I gave him the reasons why, and tried to make as good a case as I could. Somewhat to my surprise, he said, “Well, that’s all right. We’ll go ahead and see if we can sell it as an adult work.” We made some changes to it still before we sent it out the second time, but they weren’t for the purpose of turning it into a young adult book.

I’m glad you didn’t lose the richness of Danny’s thoughts. I think that’s one of the real strengths of the book.

I’m glad, too. I was at the McDowell Colony a year and a half ago or so, and one of the other colonists there was a fellow in his thirties or forties, who I think graduated from the MFA program at Iowa. He’d written a novel and had gone through the same experience I had, where the agent, when he looked at it, thought it should be a young adult novel. And he actually did go through and make the changes, and they sold the book as a young adult novel. After he told me the story, I said, “Well, how did you feel about that?” And he looked at me and said, “I felt terrible.” Which is a heartbreaking thing to hear. This person has gone on to publish another book that has had quite a bit of critical success, so his career wasn’t over, and it wasn’t a blow that he wasn’t able to recover from, but that particular experience left a bitter taste in his mouth.

Am I remembering right that when Switchgrass took it, yours was one of the first works of fiction they’d published?

Yes.  Northern Illinois University Press, which is the main press, is a scholarly publisher. They got a new director two or three years ago who had the idea of starting a fiction imprint and having it focus on Midwest themes and writers. The first two books they published in 2009 under the Switchgrass imprint were mine and another novel called Beautiful Piece.

What has it been like working with Switchgrass?

The editorial process was good, in the sense that they gave a lot of suggestions but let me have the final word in each and every case. And some of the things we had fairly sharp differences about. I don’t know if a larger publisher would have done that or not. They might have insisted on calling more of the shots.

The thing about a small press, or a university press—and you know this going into it—is that they don’t have the marketing resources that the New York publishers have. And yet, you sort of wish you could be sent on a round-the-country tour, or have ads taken in different places. But I can’t really fault them. With the constraints they had, they did a good job, and the book is finding its way to an audience.

One thing that is very good about a university press, or small presses in general, I think, is that they do stick with a book. Mine has not had great sales, but it has been steady, and it has been steadily increasing. In fact, just a few days ago, I was talking to the publisher and found out that they’re going to do a second printing. I mean, we’re not talking about huge numbers here, you understand, but still, it’s a nice milestone.

What have they been able to do, publicity-wise?

Michigan Theatre

They introduced the book at a bookseller’s conference, The Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. They had me set up to do a signing, which was kind of ridiculous, I thought, because nobody knew me or the book at that point. But still, quite a few booksellers came by and got to know about the novel. And they sent around press releases, and a certain amount of publicity to newspapers and magazines, mostly in the Midwest. The idea was that it would get a foothold in the Midwest and maybe spread farther, but the first emphasis was in the Midwest.

And I threw myself into the marketing to some extent. I found out that that’s not uncommon even for authors who are published by New York houses. The expectation now is that authors will do things to promote their books with their own time and their own resources. Which is kind of crazy, I think, because their time ought to be better spent writing another book. But that’s starting to be the norm. You know, they want an author to have a web site, and if they can have a blog that’s even better. I don’t have a blog. I drew the line there. But I did put together a web site last summer.

Probably the best thing we did, though—and this was a joint decision—is that we submitted the book for award competitions. One was in the state of Michigan, what they call the Michigan Notable Books program, something the Library of Michigan has been doing for twenty or twenty-five years. They designate twenty books as being “notable books” from the standpoint of Michigan and Michigan history. Season of Water and Ice was selected, which was a nice accolade. A few months later we submitted for another program, which was the Midwest Book Awards, a program run by an organization of independent publishers in the Midwest. Season of Water and Ice was selected as the winner in the general fiction category, which was another nice round of publicity and attention.

What has the experience of having the book come out been like? You said it hasn’t been exactly energizing for your current work.

It’s the accomplishment of a long-term goal, and all the satisfaction that comes out of that. It is different in some ways than you expect. And I’ve talked to other writers, other first-time authors, and there’s a degree of anxiety you experience, particularly in the early days, because all of a sudden this thing that has been so private is out there in the big wide world, and anybody who wants to can pick it up and read it. Or, if they don’t want to, they don’t have to pick it up and read it. And if they do read it they’re free to like it or not like it, or think it’s stupid, or find some glaring error that you’ve overlooked. That was the initial fear, in spite of the fact that I’ve been very careful in writing it myself, and have gotten feedback from other writers, as well as the editor who I worked with. Yet I had this gnawing fear that took a while to go away that there was just something terribly wrong with it that had not yet been discovered. It’s crazy, it’s kind of irrational, I guess, because the book had been carefully handled by me and by other readers and by the publisher. But that went away after a month or two, that anxiety.

I think the reason I haven’t been productive with new writing is because of what we were talking about a few minutes ago. I did get caught up in the marketing of it. It’s surprising. It didn’t seem like it was a great effort, but it did seem like every day there were a few emails I had to send out or answer, or I was coordinating going to some event maybe, or maybe just thinking about what I could do to help my book along, what I could do that I hadn’t thought of yet. And all of that ate into my day, and maybe ate into my energy, to the point where I didn’t really have a lot left over to work on new writing.

So you’ve been going to all these readings and having all these people ask you so many questions. Is there a question you wish they would ask you that they haven’t yet?

I don’t know that there is. People ask you all sorts of things: How you work, what time of day you write, whether you use a notepad or a computer, where your ideas come from. At Nicola’s Books, the owner told me ahead of time that there are two things people always want to know about a writer. One is, “Where did you get the idea for this book?” And the other is, “How do you write?” Which are kind of the two extremes. A lot of people want to know whether it’s an autobiographical novel, and it’s not. But there are parts of it that I’ve drawn from things that I know, obviously. I had the experience when I was growing up of living in a lakeside cottage during the fall and winter. I remember that it turns into a fairly forbidding place as the season turns and all the cottagers go home for their winter months. Most of those places are summer-only communities. So that idea probably came out of that experience I had when I was young.

The Cabin

I don’t know. No one has ever asked me, I guess, “What did you think you were going to accomplish?” Or, “What do you want to have accomplished with this book?” And I’m not sure I can answer that. I mean, in the larger sense, why write a book, why put it out there, what do you think is going to happen as a result of it? You hope that people who connect with it will take away some insights they might not otherwise have had. Does an author want them to be better people after they’ve read his or her book? I guess maybe one thing I did hope—this is more mundane than that, and I’ve said this several times already whether I’ve been asked it or not—I did think that the period of the nineteen-fifties has kind of been relegated to a notch, a little place in history, and as someone who lived through it, I saw it as a more interesting period of time. It led to all the things that came ten years later—the big societal changes that broke things apart in the late sixties. The origins of all the things that were going to happen later were starting in the fifties. The conflicts, and the confusions, and the cross currents that people were caught in and trying to work their way through, I think, started in the fifties and people started to try to deal with them then. So I guess oLeave it to Beaverne thing—though maybe I thought this afterwards—I was hoping that people would think it was a more interesting time than what you see on Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best. That there were families that were caught in difficult situations that they didn’t quite know how to deal with and feeling pressures that were new to them.

I suppose everybody hopes they grew up in a time that was interesting, or significant, but whenever I hear somebody refer to the fifties disdainfully, it makes me react, because I was there and I thought it was more complicated than that.

Is there anything else you want to say?

Gosh, I don’t know. We covered the ground pretty well. You know, one thing we talked about early on—and it’s true—is that transition I made from being a solitary writer to being a more sociable writer, which was an important step. It’s hard to say how much I appreciate that and do it justice—the little things you get, and big things, insights into what you’ve done. I have a sense of gratitude to all the people I’ve worked with.

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