by Roberta Olson, Melrose Beacon, February 2, 2007
Nona Caspers' mother thought she had a way with words, even as a child growing up in Melrose, Minn., in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nona, herself, "thought reading and writing literature was for people who grew up in big cities," she relates.
But she did try her hand at writing.
"I remember writing a character sketch of a neighbor girl I used to baby-sit for . . . Andrea Hughes. I wrote about her on my father's 'Write It Don't Say It' pad," says Author Caspers. "But I didn't really sit down with a pen and my imagination until much, much later."
Nona came by her story-telling naturally, as her father is a "storyteller," mostly hunting stories with great detail. And she experienced life to the fullest in a family located in the Melrose suburb of Pickville, with seven brothers and sisters, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins.
Many of those experiences, and admittedly many of the Central Minnesota good old German names, have worked their way into Nona Caspers' literature, which just now includes an award-winning November 2006 publication titled "Heavier Than Air."
The book, a collection of stories set mostly in rural Minnesota, has already been honored with the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction. The stories have been honored with an Iowa Fiction Award from the Iowa Review; a Cooper Award from the Ontario Review, a Barbara Deming Memorial Grant and Award, and a Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Grant and Award. The book is being reviewed by the New York Times Book Review and scheduled to appear Feb. 18!
But, with all the fuss going on, Nona is already at work on her next offering, "A Little Book of Days." "When I was a kid I used to sort my father's receipts by the names of farmers in his area - I often use those names for characters in Minnesota," Caspers relates. "For example one story is called 'Mr. Hellerman's Vacation' - but it's a made-up person - I just use the names because they're great authentic names for the place of the fiction, and because I learned all the names from doing the receipts!"
Into the world
Nona Caspers graduated from Melrose High School with the class of 1977. She was the third daughter, fourth child, of John and Bert Caspers, who still call Melrose home. Her brothers and sisters: Debra, Steven, Julee, Philip, John Michael, Mary Kaye and Joel, live in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
"They are all wonderful people with wonderful kids," she says.
After graduation, Nona enrolled at the University of LaCrosse, Wis. "But a year and a half later I dropped out and traveled to Mexico and Guatemala and then worked with migrant health education and at different jobs," she says. "Lived on an organic farm in Wisconsin one summer, lived in a teepee on Fort Peck native American Reservation another summer."
She then enrolled in the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree.
"I had been writing in notebooks on and off, but then, just before taking a job in social work, decided I really needed to sit down and read and write for a while to see how that went. I did this and that jobs and read and wrote and it suited me, though I didn't know what I was doing."
She decided to get a Master in Fine Arts degree in creative writing, and moved to San Francisco where she earned her degree from San Francisco State University. She is now, 16 years later, an associate professor at SFSU, working mostly with graduate students.
Nona was inspired by Melrose, "the place, the land, the Sauk River, the cows, the snow, the beauty."
She says her characters are imaginary farmers and kids and imaginary country hardships.
"Fiction is about tension - I imagined into family and kid tensions, of course partly inspired by my experience, but larger than that," she says.
Of her latest fiction, "Heavier Than Air," reviewer Gillian Engberg has written:
"Set mostly in rural Minnesota, this debut collection's stories are aching, spare studies of survival and desire. Many of the characters are exhausted by farm life's relentless labor. In 'Mr. Hellerman's Vacation,' a farmer, recovering in the hospital after a breakdown, recounts his 'numbers' - 42 cows, 25 chickens, 4 fields, 2 sheds, 1 barn, 6 children, 1 wife - and wonders if 'the weight of living is unreasonable.'"
"Characters speak with astonishing pragmatism. - - -
"Several of the central characters are girls growing up in the 1960s and 1970s who struggle with secret longings for other girls, and their passionate awakenings are an undercurrent to the adults' foggy fatigue.
"In several stories, the simplest acts - even just noticing one's breath - become wondrous moments that push characters past anguish to reclaim their 'bright, insistent, blooming' lives. Darkly funny, compassionate, and unsentimental, these quiet stories offer memorable, rarely seen views of Midwestern life."
Of Nona Caspers, her publisher says, "She is a lively, engaging storyteller - in print and in conversation. One minute she may detail her father's career as a cow inseminator in Melrose, then switch subjects to her love of San Francisco, which welcomes her lesbian identity and dog Edgar wholeheartedly, but often displays a simplistic, inaccurate view of Midwesterners."
Readers can order the book from independent or chain bookstores if it's not in stock or order it online at Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.