We’ll hazard a guess that, at least once in your life, you’ve fantasized about packing up your life and moving to (what feels like) a different world—an idyllic small town, a bustling metropolis, a remote windswept isle… In J. F. Riordan’s sparkling North of the Tension line series, a writer does just that, moving from Chicago to a sparsely populated island in Door County, Wisconsin. Her ensuing small-town adventures are presented with enormous heart throughout this delightful series. Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Bas Bleu sat down (virtually, no masks required!) with novelist J. F. Riordan to learn more about why she chose Door County as her setting, how opera helped shape her novelist’s voice, and what effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on her writing.
Bas Bleu: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey to becoming a writer.
J. F. Riordan: In one way or another I have always been a writer. I can remember at the age of seven or so, walking home on a summer evening, keeping myself company by making up a story. But my writing self has always been entwined with a musical self, and it confused me for quite a while. I spent my young life studying music, and had a career as an opera singer. It was an unhappy time, but it seems to have resolved itself: rhythm, the sound and feeling of words, and the movement of phrases are a very big part of my writing.
I didn’t start writing seriously for myself until quite late. I had a stressful day job, and writing was something that was personal and private, and helped me preserve a sense of purpose—not to mention a little sanity. The first novel took about seven years to write, partly because of the job, and partly because there was no pressure to finish. I had no idea whether anyone would want it. Since North of the Tension Line came out in 2014, I have published five books: four novels, and a book of essays, Reflections on a Life in Exile. It has all come as a bit of a surprise.
BB: Door County, and especially Washington Island, makes such an interesting and atmospheric setting for your series. What is your relationship to the area, and why did you decide to set the books there?
JFR: I have been going to Door County for decades, and it was probably thirty years ago when I decided to take the ferry to Washington Island just to see what was there. From the first moment I set foot on the ferry it was if a spell was cast on me. I can remember standing at the railing, looking out at the water and thinking what it would be like to come there every summer, with all the days spread out before you like a blank sheet of paper. There’s a magic in the island: as if you have fallen off the edge of the earth, and all that’s left is the essence of what matters. In my books I try to capture that mystical, almost magical reality.
I have always wanted to live there, in that sense of deep authenticity, but it wasn’t practical, so writing about being on the island was the next best thing.
BB: Did you start out writing North of the Tension Line knowing it would become series, or did that plan come later?
JFR: North of the Tension Line started as a series of vignettes I sketched out while on vacation. It was my husband who read what was there and said: this is a novel. As the book developed it was very clear to me that it would be a series, because those are the kinds of books I like to read: a familiar place to return to, with a cast of characters who feel like old friends.
BB: Small-town politics play a big, often humorous, role in the series. With a national election looming, are there any characters from Door County who you think might be fit for the presidency?
JFR: Well, probably everyone on the island is way too honest to be a politician, but if I have to choose it would be Lars Olufsen, who is kind, decent, insightful, and cynical in precisely the right way. I think, however, we’d be more likely to get Stella.
BB: Exactly how much personal experience do you have with goats?
JFR: Practically none, at least at first. When I started writing, I had no knowledge of goats whatsoever. So I spent as much time as I could hanging over fences watching them, gathering a sense of how they moved, how they related to people and to one another, and what they sounded like. I got to know a few fairly well. I watched videos of them, too.
My office is filled now with books about goats, which is a bit comical, really. There were some very specific questions I needed answered—which won’t be mentioned here because they could be spoilers—but it was clearly important to get their behavior right, so there were multiple conversations with goat farmers and veterinarians concerning goat behavior and care. It was a whole lot of thinking about goats there for a while. People tend to assume that I love goats, which is not precisely true, but I do find them amusing. I certainly wouldn’t want to own one.
JFR: So…from goats to Jane Austen. To be honest, it’s a little embarrassing on the one hand, and tremendously flattering on the other, but it keeps popping up, a little bit like Stella at a town hall meeting. As a writer, you can’t pay too much attention to your press—good or bad—because it can either turn your head or wreck your confidence. Either way, it gets you thinking about the wrong things. When I was an opera singer the company would post reviews on the call board after opening night, and there were always cast members who wouldn’t read them. I was one of those.
I do, however, occasionally amuse myself by reading terrible reviews for great books. It’s highly gratifying.
BB: How (if at all) has this year’s pandemic affected your writing, either in content or in daily practice?
JFR: My husband and I had already been working from home, and other than the traveling we both used to do, our daily life is essentially unchanged. We are some of the lucky ones, and I am not ungrateful. But I am puzzled by the peculiar fatigue we both feel. Theoretically, this should be a time of great productivity, but somehow it isn’t. It’s not a happy dreaminess—I don’t know how it could be—but it’s not unhappy, either. It’s a sense of unreality; as if time is over.
So I get up before dawn to write as always. It’s a habit I began when I had a regular job and was working on my first few books. There’s something about rolling out of bed and sitting down to write in the dark that seems to access an element of the subconscious. But my schedule depends very much on where I am in the process. When I’m in the thick of things, with the plot lines swirling around my head like a cloud, and I’m racing to meet a deadline, I can’t be so particular, and then I may be writing all day long.
What has changed is the odd sense of unreality that the pandemic has brought. While those on the front lines are in a desperate battle, the rest of us are necessarily removed from it, offering support where we can, looking out for the vulnerable in our own lives, and feeling helpless. There is a peculiar sense that we’re all living in a state of suspension. But whatever sadness or inconveniences we have personally—missing distant family, or feeling homebound—seem incredibly small compared to the grief and sacrifice of so many others.
When I was about seven my grandmother gave me a thick red book of fairy tales. I’m sure she never knew how important that book would be to me. I have written elsewhere about the moral code embedded in fairy tales, and it’s one that has stayed with me all my life. About a year later—in second grade—someone gave me Harriet the Spy. You say Jane Austen? In retrospect, I say Louise Fitzhugh for grown ups. I wish I could say how many times I read that book and its sequel The Long Secret.
I also loved P. L. Travers’s Mary Poppins books—another series!—and the Doctor Doolittle books—still another series. I’ve begun reading those to my grandsons. My father read the E. Nesbit books aloud to me: The Phoenix and the Carpet; The Railway Children; Five Children and It.
I had a big brother who was an English major, so I also read—and had read to me—a lot of poetry, and it really stuck. Theodore Roethke, Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden. Even some of the Old English and medieval stuff. I had fairly baroque reading habits pretty early on. Some of my favorite writers today were those I read first as a child, including [Willa] Cather and [Ray] Bradbury.
BB: Which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
JFR: I’m more likely to recommend authors than particular books, but sometimes there is only one. Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt would be one example, although Niehardt’s poetry makes for an interesting ramble.
Ray Bradbury. I love almost everything he’s written, but after an interval of some years, the ones I sought out first were I Sing the Body Electric! and Dandelion Wine—although the lyrical melancholy of The Martian Chronicles is incredibly beautiful. In my opinion he is an underrated literary great.
Willa Cather—my favorites are Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock. I don’t understand why My Antonia is her best known. So many of her other books are better, and they taught me to love the grasslands and big skies of the Great West. Her collection of short stories published by University of Nebraska Press is one of my favorites, and I will pick it up again and again. I think it may be out of print now.
The essays of E. B. White. He has such a wonderful presence in his essays. They are endlessly engaging, amusing and comforting.
Madeleine L’Engle. Not A Wrinkle in Time. But her essays are beautiful and thoughtful, and her adult novels, The Small Rain, and A Severed Wasp, about the same character as a girl and as an old woman—written by L’Engle at the beginning and ending of her career—are deeply satisfying and moving.
Ernest Hemingway’s short stories—all of them.
Alexander McCall Smith—but especially the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series. It’s roll on the floor funny.
Miss Read (Dora Saint) and her Village School series. A reviewer described her as having “a beery sense of humor”, and that’s one of the wonderful surprises about these books.
Barbara Pym. She has a Cather-esque sense of the quiet passage of time which I find moving and real.
And of course, well, Jane Austen.
BB: What future projects can our readers look forward to seeing from you?
JFR: A Small Earnest Question, the fourth book in the North of the Tension Line series, just came out. I am currently shifting back and fourth between developing three novels—all quite different—and waiting to see which one catches fire. There may also be another book of essays in the interim, as well.
BB: Thank you, J. F. Riordan, for taking time out of your writing schedule to chat with us. Be well!
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