Photos by Caitlin Abrams
Nicole Helget, author of The Summer of Ordinary Ways
Nicole Helget and her children at home in St. Peter.
There’s a small white farmhouse, dating from 1858, on a back road in St. Peter. It’s close to a vegetable patch, hard by a creek that sneaks through a small but steep ravine, and right by two towering pines that look like their tops were sheared off by an amused god of the skies. Laundry flaps on the line. Cats stalk grasshoppers, dogs seek the shade, and nothing about this domestic scene gives it away as the home of one of Minnesota’s most prolific and interesting authors.
On the porch sits Nicole Helget, smoking Camels as her cats slink in and out of the space between her high suede boots. Helget, 39, landed here after her second divorce as well as her controversial ousting last December from South Central College in Mankato, where she taught composition. She says she resigned from SCC but then was retroactively fired for criticizing the administration for what she saw as its new culture of Koch brother–led privatization of education. The farmhouse is her sanctuary now, home to her six children who, conveniently, are able to come and go from their fathers’ houses nearby (she has three kids from each marriage).
Helget’s publishing debut came in 2007 with The Summer of Ordinary Ways, her memoir of growing up in southern Minnesota near Sleepy Eye. The book caused a stir thanks to its gorgeous writing and the fact that some of Helget’s family members claimed they didn’t remember the past the way the fledging author did. But things with her kinfolk are all patched up now. “We’ve moved on,” says Helget. “Time passes, events pop up that are more important, babies are born, people die, people have crises they need help with, and we just love each other, so we decided to move on.”
Helget took a circuitous path to professional writing. After having a few babies, waitressing, and teaching high school, she returned to college, earning an MFA degree in creative writing from Minnesota State University in Mankato. “I had always noodled with writing,” says Helget, explaining the root of her passion. “I’m not all that quick on my feet with words, but I really like to listen and think about what people are saying, and then really believe what I’m saying before I say it. I think that must be how it all started.”
After it all started, it kept coming. Next she wrote The Turtle Catcher (2010), a novel that the Star Tribune said marked her as “the most promising Minnesota writer in a generation. . . . More accessible and less artsy than Louise Erdrich, she’s also more dangerous and less sentimental than Leif Enger.” Two years later came Horse Camp, written with then-husband Nate LeBoutillier, father of her three youngest children. The novel for younger readers focuses on twins dislocated by divorce. Next up was Stillwater (2014), also about twins—in this case abandoned ones surviving in the hardscrabble 19th-century incarnation of that riverside Minnesota city. Her most recent work, Wonder at the Edge of the World, debuted in April. It’s also for younger readers, an adventure about a science-minded young girl and her best friend, a runaway slave. And as of this writing, she had just sent in her manuscript for the forthcoming Fern in the Grove, a novel for middle-school readers that follows a girl who loves foraging in the woods.
Six books in 10 years is a lot by any measure. That Helget wrote them while raising six kids is nothing short of newsworthy (for the record, she has Isabella, 19, Mitchell, 18, Phillip, 13, Violette, 9, Archibald, 7, and Gordon, 5). So how did she do it? “A lot of it is just a blur,” Helget admits. “Sometimes, I’d get up at 5 am and write before the kids got up, then be thinking of a character all day and save it for the next morning. When Violette was an infant, I’d have her in the bouncy chair, tapping it with my foot [to rock it]. I dictated a lot of Horse Camp [to LeBoutillier] when I was nursing Archie. A lot of the writing happened in the mornings.
“Sometimes I think I must be mosquito-brained,” she continues, touching her short, curly hair as if it’s a hat she put on and isn’t sure about. “I write five sentences and need to get up for a cup of coffee. I think I’m a little more distracted than I should be. [The kids] ask me questions, and I’m not very much in tune with whatever’s going on. ‘Can I have a candy bar?’ ‘OK.’ Ten minutes later, I’m asking, ‘Why are you eating a candy bar?’"
That’s fairly typical parenting. But parenting while raising six kids and writing six books is particularly atypical when you consider what Rebecca Mead memorably summed up in The New Yorker as our ongoing cultural debate about female writers’ “optimal child count spectrum.” The terms of the debate: Most of the greatest female writers in history had no children, including Jane Austen, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Harper Lee, and Joyce Carol Oates. This fact has led to a full bookshelf of scholarship insisting that women writers can’t possibly succeed if they breed—for more, see Henriette Mantel’s No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood, and Meghan Daum’s Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.
After none, the most popular amount of children for a woman writer to have is one. There are books on that, too. Alice Walker once explained why it’s the ideal number: “With one you can move,” she said. “With more than one you’re a sitting duck.” Helget doesn’t merely rebut the one or none argument—she demolishes it. She married her first husband at 19, and had her first child at 20. She says she’s been good at motherhood, adding “as the oldest of six, it just felt normal and comfortable to be a mother at that age. Yes, I have two ex-husbands, but they’re both great dads. I’m probably pretty difficult to live with. I can’t be told what to do. But I do know you can have both [a writing career and kids]. I’ve never been so happy as I am right now.”
Some of that contentment can be attributed to her new partner Erik Koskinen, a musician and radio engineer. And, of course, she has her kids. “There are times when writing feels like you’re touched by the muse, and times when your kids make you feel like that,” Helget says. “When one world isn’t working, there’s always the other.” Occasionally, the two worlds intersect. “I’ve been mining their lives for years,” she says of her kids. “I constantly have these scenes to draw on . . . and language at hand, all around me. What it’s like to get your first period, to be humiliated by a boy or girl that you like—that stuff is always happening here.”
What’s next for Helget? More writing, but this time around it’ll be different. Her kerfuffle at SCC and her essays about trends in education—published on her blog and Facebook before going viral—helped her gain acceptance to the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where she’ll study what she calls the “forces that are changing higher education in Minnesota in ways that make it easier for corporations to profit off of poorer and more vulnerable students.”
Helget has plans for a book that tackles the subject, which she says is so big that it demanded she stop spouting off about it on Facebook and address it in a longer format. “I’m not good enough to be Jon Krakauer,” she adds, “but I am going to do it: nonfiction. Muckraking.”
And with her youngest heading into kindergarten, Helget will have some time to write a little fiction, too. Take that, Virginia Woolf.