Family secrets, a wide sky and a dusty land fill Pam Joern's first novel
On the high plains of western Nebraska, nobody is a writer. Nobody wants to be a writer. People are too busy trying to keep their bills paid and their cattle alive. At least, that's how it was in the little town where Pamela Carter Joern was raised.
“I never thought about being a writer. To be a writer would be like wanting to be a movie star in the world I grew up in. I never knew a writer. I never knew anyone who did know a writer,” said Joern. “When I went to college, I was afraid to take creative writing. I was an English major, but I never took a creative writing class.”
She laughs, and shakes her head at such silliness, but it took her years to reach beyond the hidebound practicality of her prairie childhood. Now she has taken that very sensibility and made of it the sinews that lace together her first novel, “The Floor of the Sky.”
In “The Floor of the Sky,” sullen, cynical, big-city teenager Lila is sent to stay the summer on her grandmother Toby's ranch in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Heavily pierced and obviously pregnant, Lila feels as lost in Toby's world as she felt alone back in Minneapolis. Little by little, she becomes reacquainted with Toby's family - sister Gertie, ranch hand George, brother John - and their community; she loses some of her defensiveness and begins to understand the forces that move the people who are tied to these plains. Lila knits herself into their lives, uncovering decades-old secrets of the family even as she struggles to decide what to do with the next generation - the baby she carries and already loves.
Lynnhurst resident Joern, who has lived in Southwest Minneapolis for 26 years, chose Nebraska as the setting for her novel because she grew up in a small Nebraska river valley near the Sandhills. She still visits her mother there once or twice a year. Though she hasn't lived in the area since she was 17, it's a powerful presence in her life. “I think some of us are just really imprinted by a landscape, haunted by a landscape,” she said. “I love that part of the world - there's a peacefulness in my soul I get there I don't get anywhere else.”
Likewise, the characters that inhabit “The Floor of the Sky” have been traveling with Joern for years - or at least their prototypes have been. Her master of fine arts thesis for Hamline University's creative writing program was a collection of short stories about people in Nebraska. Joern graduated in 2000 and spent the next year or so polishing the collection and sending it out. Though a publisher never accepted the manuscript, and though she says of that year, “I was twiddling my thumbs,” her work wasn't wasted: she realizes now that writing those stories prepared her to write the novel.
“All that writing of stories was preliminary work,” she said. “None of these characters [in the novel] were part of those stories, but it was all about learning the geography and reminding myself of the kind of people who live there.”
In 2002, after years of writing short stories (and previously, six plays), Joern applied for a Minnesota State Arts Board grant to write a novel.
“I wanted to be able to do more with the context than you can do in a short story,” she said. “Also, I just wanted to challenge myself to do a longer, more complicated story.”
Winning the $8,000 grant, she says, was the best thing that could've happened because it forced her to write the novel.
“I had to actually sit down and do it,” she said. “Really, the best thing about that fellowship was it made me accountable. It isn't a huge amount of money, but it gave me motivation.”
Joern wrote the first draft of the novel in a year. With part of the grant, she hired novelist Sheila O'Connor as a mentor and spent another year revising the manuscript based on O'Connor's comments. In spring 2004, she felt she had finished and sent the book to several small presses. Nobody took it.
Joern started to doubt whether the novel was any good, and she decided she needed another perspective. A book group she knew of agreed to read the book - when they liked it, she was encouraged. She enlisted a consultant's help, compiled a list of 30 publishers and composed a new query letter.
“I had said to my husband, ‘OK, I just have to get psychologically and emotionally ready for this because it's going to take a long time, and I'm going to get a lot of rejections,'” recalled Joern. “It was hard work to get ready to do that.”
The University of Nebraska Press was in the first group of publishers she contacted. Joern knew of their Flyover Fiction series, and she thought it would be a good match since the book was set in Nebraska. Still, she didn't get her hopes up.
“I sent it off thinking that it'll take three months to hear from them,” said Joern, “and in five days, the editor there called and [said] they wanted the book. Looking back on it, it seems like it was pretty lucky and easy - but it took a whole year of sort of screwing up my courage.”
Nebraska accepted the manuscript in May 2005; a year and a half later, “The Floor of the Sky” is in bookstores and is getting national press. The novel is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and has been reviewed in Booklist, the Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. Joern is scheduled to do several local readings this fall and appear at the Loft Literary Center's Fall Fiction Festival. After that, she thinks she'll be ready to get back to the writing life.
“Somebody said to me, ‘You're going to have such a letdown in November,'” and I thought, ‘I might welcome it,'” Joern laughed.