Friday, September 9, 2022

Q&A with Jill Stukenberg


Photo by Emma Whitman



Jill Stukenberg is the author of the new novel News of the Air. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and she lives in Wausau, Wisconsin.


Q: What inspired you to write News of the Air, and how did you create your character Allie?


A: I visited a northwoods Wisconsin fishing resort with my family–my parents, my aunts and uncle, my husband, and with my 3-month-old baby in tow.


When we were there, I started thinking about having a baby in the woods, and about someone who had gone there to hide with a baby or small child. I think there were also some older children leaping from the dock and calling their “dives” or “jumps,” which is the start of chapter one still.


But the novel is in part about a woman who retreated from the city–in the novel, that city is Chicago–and how her response to new parenthood was to hunker and hide from the world with her child.


Of course, once you become a parent, you also realize immediately—or I had this thought—that raising a child, from exit from the birth canal on, is also the story of that child leaving you. So that’s also something that powered the book: Allie’s fears of her (now 18-year-old) daughter leaving her and leaving the woods.


Allie is not me–she’s not what I’m like or what my own mother is like–but in some ways she’s this summation of my early emotions about motherhood.


Q: The author Nickolas Butler called News of the Air “A book about regret and loss, love and friendship--all set in and around a familiar Wisconsin lake resort where the visitors and locals comprise a compelling cast of characters.” What do you think of that description?


A: I am such a fan of Nickolas Butler’s novels (check out Little Faith or Shotgun Lovesongs). I admire how complex his characters are, and that he brings real contemporary Midwesterners to life. We don’t always see ourselves represented with complexity on the page like that.


So I was pretty overjoyed when–after I worked up the courage to approach him–he asked to read a copy of my manuscript and then gave me that blurb, and said that he thought my characters were “compelling.”


There is certainly regret and loss in my book too. Not only does Allie face her daughter growing up and leaving (in both real and metaphorical ways) but also the novel is about a loss of a way of life on the planet as the planet changes right underneath us too.

There is also love and friendship, as the characters learn to reach out and make connections with each other, while they still can, or with whom they still can.


Q: How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: It’s everything. I grew up in Wisconsin, and though I didn’t always live here I’ve been back now for the last 10 years. It’s meaningful to me write stories that are set here and are about people here–and that I hope will be read by people here, but also read by others who know and love the Midwest, or who know and love rural places. You know, there’s more here than flyover country.


In this novel too I was taken with the magic of a resort setting. The deep woods of Northern Wisconsin are both beautiful and a little terrifying. It’s a wild place–and there aren’t that many wild places left.


The setting of this book also includes its time frame–an indeterminate near-future. As I wrote and explored why Allie left the city, I realized she was driven by climate change–and more so by the other changes in human life that are already happening and will happen more due to climate change.


So in the novel there are also signs of change in the environment, most based on real changes happening already, and that’s part of the plot; it’s a driver of the decisions the characters must make. For that role of the environment in the book, I think some might read the book as Eco-Fiction, or because of that theme as Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi).


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I did not know. I wrote many, many pages of this novel over a period of about six years, maybe more. I wrote to figure out what would happen, and then I revised to figure out what order to give the information in–how to layer it between the characters’ points of views–and then whenever I’d change my mind about something I’d have to revise again.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m writing a novel in stories set in a small fictional town central Wisconsin. It also has rotating points of view from different members of the same small community. And I’m afraid it takes place during 2020, and so the first year of the pandemic.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Only that I hope anyone who is listening and working on a writing project knows that they should keep going, and not give up. It took me a long time to write News of the Air, and then longer to publish it. I graduated from an MFA program 18 years ago, but this will be my debut novel!


Along the way, I had a kid, I moved several times, and I taught a lot–I taught full time. I’m proud of all of those things, in addition to the writing, but there sure were times I didn’t think I’d ever be here, with a book actually published. It takes luck to get published–yes. And it takes work. But it also takes faith in yourself.

On Facebook: Jill Stukenberg author

On Twitter: @JillStukenberg


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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