photo by Julia Wendt Dahlke
Thomas Maltman’s second novel, Little Wolves, is “Minnesota Gothic”—dark, a little scary, pulling from Norse mythology and the drought of 1987 that crippled farm country.
He visits The Mother of All Book Clubs on Thursday at 5:30 pm, in the Starbucks in the basement of Barnes and Noble, Galleria. Public discussion to follow at 7:00 pm.
The creative writing professor, husband to a Lutheran pastor, and father to three little girls answers our questions here.
1. Though this book is a dark murder-mystery, let me just say: You really know Lutherans! What’s your experience with the church?
I met my wife while I was teaching middle school in southern California. I like to tell people that I married into Minnesota and this way of life. After my wife finished her Masters of Divinity at Luther Seminary, her first assignment took us out on the prairies, a small town of nine hundred souls. All of this was new to me: small town life, the divide between Lutherans and Catholics that persists in some places, and Minnesota winters. If I know Lutheranism well, it’s because I’ve lived the life and love it.
2. What’s your experience with the Norse and pagan mythology that permeates the book? Did you do extensive research (on Beowolf, on werewolf lore), and how?
My first teaching job out of the MFA program at MSU, Mankato, took us to Silver Lake College in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a tiny college where professors had to teach a little of everything. One of the classes I taught was in the history and htructure of the English language and I did my best to teach students how to speak Old English. One assignment I gave them was to write a short story that wove Old English and contemporary English—I wrote what later became one of Clara’s first chapters as a model for them. One thing I always hope for no matter what I’m teaching is that students leave with a deeper appreciation of our language, the extraordinary life of words under the surface of the everyday.
3. The books carries the heavy worry and nostalgia that farm life of the 1980s did. How did you come to understand this particular time in Minnesota history?
My wife’s family still operates a small family farm and when you marry someone you also marry into their family lore. Some of her stories of that terrible drought season in 1987 left marks on my imagination.
4. You have three little girls at home. How did new parenthood inform your writing of this book?
The original idea partly happened while reading one of those What to Expect When You’re Expecting books, when I happened upon a description of lanugo—where babies emerge from the mother coated in fur. The image of this wolf baby stuck in mind. It is a novel about parents, though. Since Clara is expecting, she longs for a connection with her lost mother. Grizz longs to understand why his son did what he did, and whether he could have prevented it as a parent.
5. A reviewer called this dark book “Minnesota Gothic.” Is that a term you like? What does it mean to you?
I love a good Gothic tale. In such stories we are transported to a mythic landscape, richer and darker somehow than ordinary reality, and stranded there for a time. It may be a dark place, but hopefully not bleak—you only can speak of the light if you were willing to go down into the dark and carry the truth you learn there back to the surface.
Bonus Question: You have an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and you live in the Twin Cities now, but you were raised mostly in Oregon and California. What is your fascination with Minnesota history?
When you grow up in a place, perhaps you take those stories for granted. Coming from outside, I was fascinated by the Dakota Conflict, by hunters, by the rhythms of a far northern seasons, by farmers and by the rural way of life. Minnesota has such a vivid and violent history, from locust plagues to frontier wars and Armistice Day blizzards. I fell in love with the place and it’s a good idea, I think, to write what you love.