In Conversation with Ellen Airgood
Ellen Airgood is simultaneously an author as well as a character within her own novels. In her book South of Superior, she writes about the reality of living on the shores of Lake Superior. As the co-owner of West Bay Diner in the small town of Grand Marais, Michigan, she lives that experience. We came into Grand Marais after a handful of days running in isolated and sandy backroads in the Upper Peninsula. After getting camp set up we made sure to head over to the diner to eat our fill of biscuits and gravy. While there we asked Ellen if we could sit down and talk to her about her experiences. She shared with us about small town life next to Lake Superior as only a novelist could - with emotional clarity and acute place-based specificity. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation in which Ellen shares her thoughts on the power of isolation, the importance of storytelling, and the prevalence of extremes on Lake Superior.
How did you find yourself here?
I found myself here in 1990 when I came on vacation with a girlfriend from work. I worked at the EPA, in the motor vehicle emission labs. My degree was in science so I was working in environmental policy. I already knew that I loved the Upper Peninsula (U.P.). My sister and I came camping and went to Pictured Rocks. We camped at Twelvemile Beach. We had a great time. It was cold and rainy one day. So rather than camping or hiking we came into Grand Marais, just to see it. We ate at a little cafe on the main street. I got a chocolate malt and a cheese sandwich. Back then you went to the counter and ordered. The guy who took my order, we had this instant head-to-head fun. I wanted soup and he said it was too hot for soup and I said your sign says soup and so I married him six months later [laughs].
That's a true story. We walked out of the shop and I said to my sister ‘I’m going to marry that guy.’ It was very ill-advised [laughs]. If I had been my mom I would’ve been concerned because we were really strangers to each other. He rented a building up on Main Street in those days. I married into the food business and I had no idea what I was getting into. Then we built this place [West Bay Diner] together. And we’ve been here 18 years, and in town for seven, and he was there for seven years before. So I came here on vacation and kind of never really left.
Were you writing before you came up here? When did writing become more a part of your life?
I wanted to be a novelist since I was ten years old. My parents were readers and we didn’t have a TV when I was a kid. My grandparents lived nearby and they had a TV so it's not like I didn't see anything, it just wasn’t a priority of my parents. They were busy with our little farm, my mom was a nurse, my dad was teacher and there was a farm and there were always a million things for them to do. They loved to read and I think that had a lot with me turning out to be a writer.
"If you’re a writer maybe you’re hoping you have, in this one junction, in this one moment, one small piece of insight or something to offer."
In fourth grade Mrs. Keebler gave a lot of creative writing assignments, and it just hit me and I was just hooked. It hit me first really consciously that somebody some human person wrote all those books I loved to read. They were just magical things before, I never gave them much thought, I took them for granted. But when she assigned us stories I was like ‘Holy cats! One can do this in the comfort of one’s own home!’ I always wanted to be a novelist, I studied science and I don't regret it. Writing was always a dream that was deferred. After I moved up here after a couple years I was like ‘It’s time.’ So I started writing seriously. I worked at writing for 18 years before my first book came out.
You’ve talked about how living up here has inspired your writing. Can you speak more to that?
I wanted to write about what life is like up here. The book was already written before I collected stories from the older folks of the community. In my many years of revisions on it, they helped me to inform those characters and how I wanted to try to convey the spirit of those people I talked to. They gave me a reason to keep on when it's really discouraging to write novels and publish. If I can capture something of what they’re like and share it with the world then it's worth all this misery and agony.
And I really love it here. I think it's a very unique spot on the earth. It also happens to be where I am. I really think you can write about where you are. Specificity is what makes writing interesting, right? It’s a very special world. It’s not just beautiful. It’s also very hard, it’s very harsh year round. The economy is very punishing, it’s boom or bust. It’s remote so it gets really lonely, at times in a way that's not all that attractive. There's this great community that I don’t always appreciate. It's like the extremes on either side. It’s the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. This place can be so small and backstabbing and mean, and it can be so huge and supportive and warm. It’s very interesting to me, those conflicts. And when it really boils down to it, people are here for you. I’ve never really lived anywhere else as an adult. I grew up here, I was 25 when I moved here, I had been to college and I had traveled but I would really say that I grew up here. I became a more mature adult here.
"If I can capture something of what they’re like and share it with the world then it's worth all this misery and agony."
I don't know how the rest of the world works but I like extremes - the weather is extreme, the wonderfulness is extreme. I love the tourism in many ways, it brings people like you here. I don't know if I would like it as much if this was a place that didn’t get people flowing from the outside all the time. I meet the most interesting people all the time. I’m not sure I would love it as much if I didn't. But I also love, love the locals and I’m fascinated by people that grew up here and are older. And then I look forward to the dead times when there's nobody here and nothing. I like the extremes. I like the contrasts.
What are some of the challenges to living in this community?
This is a retirement village, really. When I moved here there were eighty children aged K-12, now I think it’s like twenty-five. I’ve been here 25 years in that time its decreased that much. Its very hard to make a living here. I feel very fortunate in so many ways between my husband and myself to manage and make a go of it here. I feel really fortunate but I’ve paid a steep price. We've worked really hard. 10, 12, 16, 17 hour shifts in the tourist season, seven days a week. Even in the off season you’ll still work 8-10 hour days. It’s a little bit easier now. I’m 50 and my husband is 60, our crew is teeny. They are wonderful, I love them. There’s not enough of us to go around anymore. So that’s a challenge.
It can be lonely, it can be really, really lonely at times. You can’t do anything without getting talked about in the community. There's just not enough going on in a small town, people see everything. People might really wonder what I’m doing out on the deck talking to you guys![laughs] Small town life is that way anywhere.
"I don't know how the rest of the world works but I like extremes - the weather is extreme, the wonderfulness is extreme."
I miss my family downstate. The bottom line is I never went back. I come from a close family and missing things like Christmas because the weather's bad or because I’m working is really kind of heartbreaking the older I get. Did I do the right thing? I’m still here, I’m still happy but it’s still a high price to pay. The older I get the more I realize the people you love is what you have in life. And there's a lot of people I love here but there’s nobody like your family of origin, there's no one like that. So I paid the price and I’m becoming more and more aware of what that means.
And there's something about the water. It's not just beautiful, there's something about the big horizon that can give you a big perspective. I get quite anxious after just three four five days away. I just miss it, I miss that big water, there's something very spiritual about the big lake. I don’t know, it’s even more than spiritual, it’s like food or water, you get used to it and it’s very hard to be away from it for very long.
For all the times I’ve thought that I should have more secure work or less strenuous work or maybe I should be nearer my sisters and brothers….here I am. I'm not unhappy about that either, there's a price to pay but I'm not going anywhere. The air is clean. How much is that worth in terms of your health and well-being?
Why the impulse to tell stories? Why do you feel the need to write and share?
I’m sure for a lot of novelists it's probably a humanitarian impulse, it's an impulse to try to make the world better for somebody for some way. With South of Superior I so wanted to share the spirit of this place and the spirit of the people I see as survivors in the most positive sense of the word. My second book Prairie Evers is about a little girl who moved from North Carolina to New York state. She has always been home schooled, she doesn’t want to go to public school but her parents said she should. Prairie came to me as a voice in my head talking.
The book I’m sure in retrospect was inspired by a student, a fifth-grader who I met who had just a really tragic story to share. So Prairie makes a friend named Ivy in the course of the story and their friendship is very central to the story and Ivy is very inspired by the boy who had a tragic life event to share. He seemed so gracious and courageous at age eleven, I could never forget about him. I met him when I was doing a writing workshop in a school in Ste. Sault Marie and it was just one of those life moments that you don’t forget about. And I’m sure that that's where the propulsion for the voice that started talking in my head came from.
"Look for that thing that moves you so much that you can't turn away from it."
I read a lot of times for help in figuring out how to cope with life and if you’re a writer maybe you’re hoping you have in this one junction, in this one moment, one small piece of insight or something to offer. Must be that urge to communicate. I think we're hardwired to look at stories and live vicariously and wonder if that happens to me how would I deal with it. Sometimes you get great ideas from what you read like ‘I never looked at it like that.’ I think it's that quest to express something in just the right way.
Do you have any advice for us as storytellers as we go around the lake?
Look for that thing that moves you so much that you can't turn away from it, the specificity of the moment. I'm trying to teach myself to write about what people did more than what they thought, if that makes any sense. My agent gave me some advice - she said, ‘Just love your character.’ I can see how that helps me novel-wise, as long as you truly love your character things will work out in the end. And I think telling stories and telling others stories helps you live your life more deeply. Even if you don’t write it, if you’re just thinking about really experiencing the moments.
I’ve been reading a lot of poetry since the spring. I really think that poets are very important to the human race. It's the worst paying, worst benefits job that is the most important to have. Poets are really boiling our experience down and getting at what really matters a lot of the time. They’re unsung heroes in my book.