Susan Koefod is the author of the Arvo Thorson mystery-novel series, from North Star Press, and also a widely published poet. She was a recipient, in 2013, of a $25,000 McKnight Artist Fellowship for writers. Just this week she received the news that her first YA book, a coming-of-age novel with an element of mystery, entitled Naming the Stars, will be published in September of 2016 by Curiosity Quills Press. Susan’s second story for EQMM will appear in this year’s December issue, on sale October 27. One would expect such a varied writing life to have many different sources of inspiration; in today’s post she talks about one important thread that runs through it all.—Janet Hutchings
Minnesota has a well-known reputation of “Minnesota Nice”—the natives friendly and helpful—but transplants quickly learn that while we smile, say hello, and are polite, we keep our distance. If you’re hoping we might drop over with a casserole when you move into the neighborhood, you better be patient. We won’t do that right away, possibly not even in the first six months, or even years after that. But we’ll always wave when you walk by. Just don’t expect us to ask you in.
Minnesotans consider it rude to be direct. If you ask us whether we like the meal we share at a restaurant—if a momentous occasion like that comes to pass—we’ll probably say, “It’s different.” What we really mean is, “I don’t like this.”
Minnesotans remain such a mystery to outsiders that you need to have the skills of a sleuth to get to know us. Let’s invent one for the sake of this post. We’ll call our detective Minnie Hartahknowya.
Minnie’s first lead comes in with the infamous Minnesota weather. The joke around here is that if you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes and it will change. She wonders where’s the humor in that joke after she spends her first winter in Minnesota, which lasts eight long months, but feels much longer. Every month but July has seen snow. She discovers that wind-chill is not something you endure for a mere fifteen minutes, hoping things will quickly warm up. Wind-chill means to keep your distance from winter or you’ll freeze to death. Padded by layers of parkas, sweaters, hats, scarves, and thick boots, a Minnesotan does not look very human outdoors in winter and there isn’t much time for a teeth-chattering chat before even the hardiest locals dash indoors.
Minnie wonders if brutal winters have taught Minnesotans they need to survive without much contact with other humans, possibly for three-quarters of the year. This seems too obvious, especially to a sharp detective like Minnie. She knows that mysteries earn their keep by throwing out false leads. If it’s too obvious a solution, it probably isn’t the solution.
So Minnie looks elsewhere, and analyzes the available physical evidence, going directly to the DNA. She learns that over 32 percent of Minnesotans have Scandinavian ancestry—most of us have Norwegian and Swedish heritage coursing through our veins.
Following the hard physical evidence, the sleuth quickly develops a hunch. And because she’s a character in a 1,500-word blog for short-story mystery-fiction readers and writers, she’s in a hurry to solve the case. She figures there must be something that connects this brooding Scandinavian ancestry, and possibly the weather (maybe that first lead wasn’t a false one), to mystery writing.
Next stop, the library information desk.
The Minnesota-nice librarian tells her that Minnesota is home to award-winning bestselling mystery authors, including Kent Krueger (his recent novel, Ordinary Grace won the Edgar, the Anthony, the Barry, the Macavity, the Dilys, the Squid, and the Silver Falchion), Ellen Hart (winner of many Lambda Literary Awards), Julie Kramer, Erin Hart, and David Housewright; newcomers Allen Eskens (winner of a Rosebud for his debut, and finalist in the Edgar, Anthony, Barry, and Thriller Awards) and Kristi Belcamino (also a first-novel finalist for a Macavity and an Anthony); and many more established and upcoming mystery authors.
Minnesota is also home to a Raven Award winning mystery bookstore, Once Upon A Crime, nestled in a thriving independent bookstore scene (over 50 in the Minneapolis area alone), a vibrant community of writers and readers, and one of the nation’s largest literary centers, the acclaimed Loft Literary Center.
Is there something deep in that Scandinavian heritage, so deep that it hitched along for the ride, crossing the Atlantic into Minnesota culture? Minnie browses at one of the library’s computers, noting an article by Nathaniel Rich of Slate reporting on the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction. Speaking of Henning Mankell, Peter Høeg, and others, he said that what “distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility.” By sublime tranquility, he was referring to the bucolic settings of Scandinavian crime—something that is so pronounced that it appears in the titles of novels (Smilla’s Sense of Snow, anyone?). Is this at the heart of the Minnesota mystery?
I happen to be sitting nearby Minnie, working on a mystery blog post. I invite her to coffee at Fika, a cafe in Minneapolis’s American Swedish Institute. Fika takes its name from the Swedish tradition of “fika,” a coffee break with food.
She asks me about my heritage, the name Koefod. I tell her my husband has one hundred percent Scandinavian heritage and the name originated in the island of Bornholm (off Denmark), home to the most bloodthirsty Vikings, the Jomsvikings. I have some Swedish and Finnish heritage.
She asks me what inspires me as a native Minnesotan with Scandinavian ancestry in writing mysteries.
I tell her the varied landscape and moody climate inspired me as a child. I used to skip home from the bus stop, imagining myself as a character in a novel. To this day, that mix of moodiness and landscape inspires me in my work. My novels are set in a small Minnesota town along the Mississippi River. My detective has Scandinavian heritage. And there are many coffee breaks—fika—in my novels. I agree with her when she cites her personal evidence—which she’s felt as an outsider and learned as a sleuth—that it’s hard to get to know us.
I tell Minnie that even a Minnesotan’s friends and family don’t pry too much into each other’s personal business. A now close friend of mine told me it took me ten years to open up to her. The family continues to befuddle my Parisian-born sister-in-law. The writer in me follows those leads, wondering what motivates behavior, good and bad. Mystery writing is the natural outlet for such a passion.
Minnie thanks me for our interview and asks to have fika together in the future. After I give her the famed Minnesota Long Goodbye and make Minnesota mystery novel recommendations, I answer her invitation with a firm “maybe.”