Solensten, John

John Solensten has published three novels and two short story collections. He has also published more than 20 individual short stories and memoirs and more than 80 poems. His plays have been produced by theaters in Minneapolis, Duluth, St. Paul and Oklahoma City. His novel Blue Wing was inspired by his frequent visits to the famous Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA, the scene of Buddy Holly's final gig.


Interview John Solenstein


Shelley Munro

1) John, congratulations on your new release, Swing. First tell us a little bit about yourself.

I'm a retired college American Studies teacher. I live in Ames, IA in what I often call my "bucolic exile." I love the Dakota prairie and would live there, but Brenda is on the faculty at ISU so we'll be here a bit longer.

2) What inspired you to write this unique story set during the depression?

I think that, most directly, it was the recent death of my twin sisters which inspired me to write SWING. They were a couple of bright Swingsters who, in spite of the grim economics of the Great Depression, reveled in the life and music of the late 1930s. My parents were sometimes completely confused by them. I, their VERY SERIOUS younger brother, delighted in watching them defy some of the staid mid-western pietisms in our town.

3) What special research did you need to do?

In researching SWING I went through many aspects of pop culture and history and, of course, my own family history--including letters. I worked hard to let my sisters' voices prevail in dialogue.

4) Tell us about your main character in SWING.

My main character, Margo, is really my sister Margaret, who amazed her high school teachers with her intelligence and self-assertion. Later in life--much later and between bouts with alcoholism--she wrote scripts for radio programs like The Whistler and The Shadow. She was considered to be somewhat eccentric--an "odd girl out" who rejected marriage and headed out to the West Coast shortly after finishing high school. I had the GI Bill so I could go to college. She did not have the kinds of opportunities I had.

5) What do you enjoy most about writing for the Young Adult genre? Do you write other genres as well?

I must say, I do not really claim to be writing Young Adult fiction. I seem to have this somewhat perverse habit of doing fiction (Like my GOOD THUNDER, which won the AWP Award in the novel) which is "on the edge" with main characters who are late in their teens, but with motifs and style which are not quite Young Adult. I've been reading sections of SWING to adults mostly and to mostly older audiences. But Margo is, after all, a young woman with many of the same concerns young women have today.

6) What does your work space look like?

My work space looks like hell--duck decoys, books, Turkish flags from the Korean War, memorabilia from my journeys into South Dakota and the big river areas.

7) What is the best advice you have received as a writer?

The best piece of advice I received as a writer came from, of all things, a marketing director at American Express in Minneapolis: "Find a voice and then break it up into a lot of voices. That's the way to get at things." So, I call it "self-division." In my novel, IN THE BELLY OF THE HORSE, I speak through a Lakota boy, a Jewish interpreter with the Turk Brigade in Korea (l951) and Kiro (a centaur figure and mentor of soldiers).

8) What interests do you have outside of writing?

I don't really think I can make a list of other interests. I practice what my Norwegian ancestors called "livsglaed" or joy in living, in accepting the new day in the New Creation.

9) What’s next for writer, John Solensten?

I'm now working on a memoir of my life --Watonwan: A Boy's Life On The River. I'm avoiding chronology in this work, focusing on topics like carnival shows, the blue heron, etc. I am writing this because, sadly, so many beautiful people I grew up with, worked with in the fields, were never heard, their lives essentially silent fugues playing out and dying away. I try to give them voices.

10) Do you have a website, and how can readers contact you?

I don't have a website. I'm a bit of a Luddite (though I don't destroy machinery) living in the 20th century. My email address is