Field Notes
Field Notes

Minnesota writers discuss using stories to both entertain and educate

Monday, November 27, 2017
Posted by
Greg Seitz

Originally published in the Forest Lake Lowdown:

Sarah Stonich and Shawn Otto believe stories can change the world. The two authors talked about how their work is infused with cultural and political issues at a recent event at the Hardwood Creek Library in Forest Lake.

The event on Nov. 9 was titled “Novel Activism,” and featured the two writers asking each other questions about their work and writing process, and the political and social problems which are woven through their stories, and discussing questions from the audience.

Whether it’s the troubles of a tourist economy or the weak legal system on an Ojibwe reservation, their novels bring complicated social issues to life. They have seen firsthand how this can reach across cultural divides and change readers’ ways of looking at things.

Stonich is currently in the middle of writing her “Vacationland” trilogy about a fictionalized northeastern Minnesota wrestling with its future in the face of economic changes. Otto’s last published novel was “Sins of Our Fathers,” which showed slices of reservation life such as harvesting and processing wild rice while exposing how the legal system leaves Native Americans vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. (He says he hasn’t had much time to write since Jan. 9, when his wife, state auditor Rebecca Otto, launched her campaign for governor.)

His recent nonfiction book “The War On Science,” which won a Minnesota Book Award this year, also relied on narrative. He told the audience he writes as a main character exploring the issue, bringing readers in through his own discoveries.

In the process of researching that book, he discovered a decades-long and well-funded public relations and “propaganda” campaign that has weakened the role of science to inform the American electorate. He believes it has made it difficult to effectively govern in our democracy. He thinks his work can help cut through the noise and help readers use skepticism in the face of charismatic and convincing voices on the side of the fossil fuel industry.

“I’m not trying to convert a climate denier,” Otto said. “I’m trying to warn and forearm the rest of the public, especially people who haven’t dedicated a lot of time or attention to the issue. I can inform them and to a certain extent inoculate against propaganda.”

Part of that job is explaining the science supporting problems like climate change, which he says emphasizes questions and probabilities, and don’t always make compelling arguments.

Stonich spent a month last summer as artist in residence at Pine Needles, the historic cabin on the banks of the St. Croix owned by the St. Croix Watershed Research Station. She spent most of her days finishing work on the second installment of her trilogy, which will be titled “Laurentian Divide,” named after the height of land that separates the Hudson Bay watershed from the Mississippi River basin in northern Minnesota.

She said her work seeks to humanize complicated issues, like controversial copper-nickel mining proposals in that part of the state. “We hear a lot about northern Minnesota landscape, its beauty, but not the people,” she said.

Both authors agreed that connecting people is the key to better understanding of the challenges facing society. Stories “create culture,” Otto said, and cut through ideology to change not only our brains, but our hearts.

“Novel Activism” was sponsored by the St. Croix Watershed Research Station and Washington County Libraries.

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