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Extreme environments with author John Smolens


John Smolens

I recently caught up with John Smolens, one the Upper Peninsula’s favorite writers. He’s in Boston accompanying his spouse who’s teaching at Merrimack College. He’s been there most of the winter and compared to Marquette, his hometown, Boston has had a mild winter.

“There’s about four-inches of snow on the ground,” he said. Contrast that with the snow blanket covering his hometown of Marquette.

Smolens said he periodically checks in with a neighbor who told him that Marquette had 10 inches of snow the previous night with more to come.

“My neighbor told me he could hardly see my house from the road — it was covered with snow,” Smolens said.

He said Marquette already has more than 200 inches of snow on the ground, something Smolens pines for.

“The first winter I was up there we had more than 350 inches of snow. I like winter. I like snow,” he said.

Not to worry. It’s likely most of the snow will still be on the ground when he returns to Michigan in March.

Smolens likes snow so much it has a starring role in his new book, “Out,” which takes place in the depths of winter in the fictional Yellow Dog Township in the Upper Peninsula.

Smolens has even reprised Del Maki, a character from his 2001 book, “Cold,” also set in the Upper Peninsula.

The plot of “Out” is relatively simple.

It takes place over one night and melds the finer points of psychodrama thrillers. It will leave you tingling like the movies “Cape Fear” and “Heart of the Storm.”

In “Out,” Del has retired from his constable job in Yellow Dog Township and is recuperating at home from recent hip surgery. He gets regular visits from a physical therapist who’s in the last term of pregnancy.

Complications set in when two boyfriends of the therapist show up on Del’s doorstep. One of the boyfriends is an easy going carpenter and the other a petty thief who is always looking for a quick score. Accompanying the grifter is a mysterious woman who he discovered stranded in the snow after an accident.

“They are stuck together by a spectacular blizzard and the characters don’t mesh well,” Smolens said.

Smolens tends to that type of understatement except when it comes to the weather. In “Out” there are trees falling on the house; car batteries are dead and an electrical problem leads to everyone packing up and leaving the house into the heart of a cataclysmic blizzard. You might call them typical Upper Peninsula problems.

“I like writing about the Upper Peninsula — it catches the extremes of the environment. The U.P. characters are hardy and take it as it comes,” Smolens said.

He recalls one major storm where he happened upon a group of Yoopers clearing roads and driveways in what looked like a “block party in the center of the road.”

“There is a connection between the extreme environment and the people. They make the best of things,” Smolens said.

Greater Lansing residents will appreciate the topic of Smolens’ next book.

“I’ve been working on a book on the Bath Consolidated School Bombing of 1927. The book will be based on real historical events and evidence,” he said. “I find that period, from the stock market crash to the depression fascinating,” Smolens said.

He said he has visited the small community a couple of times and also visited the small museum located in the school.

Smolens will have a chance to fit in a couple more research visits in April when he returns to Lansing for A Rally of Writers where he will join 17 other writers in presenting workshops covering everything from “Finding Your Sleuth,” by Lev Raphael, to “Writing for Children,” by Ruth McNally Barshaw.

Smolens said his presentation will give attendees the opportunity to learn how to communicate with their inner editor. Registration for April 6 Rally is currently open. For details go to arallyofwriters.com.

Since retiring from Northern Michigan University, Smolens signed a deal with Michigan State University Press, which has them not only publishing his new books but also reissuing his previous books which were out of print.


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