Before she became a Newbery Honor-winning author, Margi Preus spent 25 years as the artistic director of Duluth’s Colder by the Lake Comedy Theatre, where she wrote, produced and directed sketches, operas, plays and adaptations. So why the switch to children’s books? “I had kids!” she says with a laugh.
“Something really happened to me when my older son [now 26] discovered the magic of books at age 2 or 3. He wanted me to read him book after book, and he’d watch my lips and . . . eyes, look at the page, then back up at my face and mouth. I could see he was putting it all together, that those little squiggles on that page are making her say words that have meaning to me. This magical thing is happening to me, and a story is happening somehow. That was a big part of my inspiration, of wanting to try [writing books].”
Her new book, West of the Moon, was another new writerly adventure for Preus: It’s inspired by the writings and art of her real great-great-grandmother, Linka, who came with her husband to America from Norway in 1851, but the story and its characters are not as tied to history as in her previous works. Preus spun a mere few lines of text from Linka’s diary into a magical mix of folklore, myth and adventure set in the sometimes beautiful, sometimes forbidding mid-19th-century Norwegian mountainside.
The heroine in West of the Moon is not unusual for Scandinavian folktales. "Girls can be very strong; even if a boy comes to rescue them, they tell them what to do.”
It’s the story of 13-year-old Astri, who (in today’s parlance) kicks some serious butt. She’s smart and savvy, and ably navigates strange, stressful situations even if she’s sad or scared—which is fairly often, considering her mother’s dead, her father is somewhere in America, and her aunt has just sold her to a filthy, mean goat-herder, thus separating her from her younger sister Greta.
Astri strives to maintain her safety and dignity, recalling favorite folktales and memories when she needs a mental lift, and using all her guts and wits on a daring escape-and-rescue mission that’s often as funny as it is suspenseful. And the mission continues on—ill-intentioned pursuers and bridge-trolls be damned—because Astri decides it’s time to go to America.
While many details of her ancestors’ own immigration experience informed West of the Moon, Preus says her great-great-grandmother’s brief mention of a girl she met on the ship to America revved up her imagination.
“As I read over [those lines in the diary],” she says, “I wondered . . . what kind of girl would get on a boat alone and go to America, not knowing anyone? I thought I’d see if I could figure out a story for her.”
But, she adds, this “was a bit scary for me. . . . I had so many ideas, and it was hard to settle on what should happen next. [When] writing the two earlier books based on real people . . . I couldn’t go off in a direction too far afield from what actually happened. With Astri, I just had to decide or feel how I wanted it to be.”
One important decision: Preus infused Astri with the strength and smarts typically found in Scandinavian folklore, as well as in the pages of her great-great-grandmother’s diary.
In Astri’s favorite folktale, “the girl goes three days past the end of the world to rescue a guy,” Preus explains. “That’s not an unusual heroine in Scandinavian folktales and fairy tales. Girls can be very strong; even if a boy comes to rescue them, they tell them what to do.”
She adds, “I was thinking about that, looking through the diary again. The night before [Linka] got married, she wrote . . . ‘A human being is a free and independent creature and I would recommend every woman consider it, and I insist that every maiden owes it to herself to do so.’ That is a fairy-tale heroine. . . . She kind of got in trouble as a pastor’s wife, because they were supposed to be submissive.” (At the book’s end, readers may peruse Linka’s actual drawings and a handwritten excerpt from her diary.)
Lucky for readers, Preus’ great-great-grandmother didn’t stop writing and drawing in her diary because others disapproved, and Astri wasn’t meek because dastardly people wanted her to be. That drive for independence, the belief that something better lies ahead, is an inspiration for readers of any age—and, perhaps, an impetus to read Scandinavian folktales.
For now, though, Preus has put folktales aside to work on her next book, a companion to Heart of a Samurai. “It picks up where that book left off, historically.” She’s working on it in her backyard writing house, built for her in 2009 by her younger son (artist and furniture designer Misha Kahn) and her husband, a designer and contractor.
Preus' backyard writing house, where she crafts her stories and wears fingerless gloves as needed.
“It’s a wonderful place. I love it!” she says. “It’s got a real wood stove, great big picture windows looking out over a frozen creek, all birch inside. . . . I’m sure if I looked hard I could see a deer in the woods behind it.” The little wooden house has become vital to Preus’ writing process, now that she’s left the comedy theater (and teaching, which she also did in previous decades) and has been transitioning to writing full-time.
But her years spent focusing on laughter have served her well, as evidenced by the bouts of humor that buoy West of the Moon and in the way she approaches her stories.
“[At the comedy theater], I didn’t write the funny stuff. I just took all these ideas everybody had, all these little scripts and pieces and improv bits, and made them into a show. I feel like writing a novel is a lot like that, with all the different themes that have to come together to make a whole story.”
While she does miss collaborating on comedy productions, “I don’t miss the ego things, which are rampant when doing theater. . . . I have very little patience for that now.” It works out nicely, then, that the woodpeckers and chickadees—and the occasional black bear—in her yard aren’t likely to bicker over personal issues. They’ll do their outdoor things; Preus will write indoors; and Astri will journey on.
Writing house photo courtesy of Preus.