Times gone by: Nostalgia shapes novelist's work

Author Rebecca Rasmussen, who will give the keynote address at this year’s Central Coast Writers’ Conference, sets her novels in past eras

slinn@thetribunenews.comSeptember 13, 2013 

Rebecca Rasmussen will be the keynote speaker at the Central Coast Writers' Conference on Sept. 20.

COURTESY PHOTO

Novelist Rebecca Rasmussen is rooted in the past.

“When I was growing up, I always had this nostalgia for old things,” recalled Rasmussen, who frequented antique stores and hung out with older folks absorbing their stories.

Now the Midwestern native, who teaches writing at UCLA, channels her love of hope chests, house dresses and tender, flaky fruit pies into her work.

On Friday, Sept. 20, the author of “The Bird Sisters: A Novel” and the upcoming “Evergreen” will deliver the keynote address at the 29th annual Central Coast Writers’ Conference at Cuesta College, a two-day event featuring workshops, table talks, face-to-face consultations with editors and more. Other presenters include literary agent Andrea Brown, radio host/screenwriter Dave Congalton, book designer Joel Friedlander and grammar expert Constance Hale.

Conference director Judy Salamacha said Rasmussen, whose talk is titled “Why We Write,” is the perfect choice to speak to aspiring and established authors alike.

“Having somebody that is one of these instant successes that has been writing forever is what we’re all about at the Central Coast Writers’ Conference,” Salamacha said. “You work at it and work at it and suddenly you hit on the right one.”

Unlike many of her peers, Rasmussen didn’t discover a desire to write until college. But after she took her first creative writing course, she said, “I just knew this was where I was supposed to be.”

She started work on her debut novel while attending graduate school at the University of Massachusetts. “The Bird Sisters,” published in 2011 by Crown, centers on the enduring bond between two spinster sisters, beauty Milly and tomboy Twiss, whose lives are changed forever in the summer of 1947 when their golf pro father gets into an accident, their priest denounces his faith and their cousin Bett comes to visit.

Rasmussen said she based part of the book on her grandmother Kathryn, who as a child resembled the adventurous Twiss, and her relationship with her sister, Virginia. Like Milly and Twiss, they were dealt a painful loss at an early age.

“In the book I wondered what would (have) happened if they stayed close together, instead of getting married and starting a new family,” Rasmussen said.

Other elements of “The Bird Sisters” stem from Rasmussen’s own past. When her parents divorced, she and her older brother spent their time shuffling between her mother’s home in the Chicago suburb of Northfield, Ill., and her father’s home in the farming community of Spring Green, Wis.

“It didn’t seem like we could express ourselves in (Illinois) in the way we could when we were in Wisconsin,” Rasmussen said, adding that she always thought of Spring Green as “home.”

By setting “The Bird Sisters” in a fictional version of Spring Green, Rasmussen said she sought to capture “the spirit of the place. … That’s what I was most interested in.”

Rasmussen introduces readers to a different corner of the Upper Midwest — the woods of northern Minnesota — in her upcoming novel “Evergreen,” which will be published by Knopf in July 2014.

“It was liberating to be in a new landscape,” the author said. “It’s beautiful but it’s a little more dangerous, it’s a little more wild (than southern Wisconsin).”

“Evergreen” opens in 1938, when young bride Eveline follows her husband, Emil, into the wilderness to live off the land with their infant son, Hux. When Emil leaves to care for his ailing father, a stranger arrives and Eveline becomes pregnant. She gives birth to a girl, Naamah, who she gives away.

Years later, Hux decides to find his sister and bring her home to the cabin.

Rasmussen said “Evergreen” taps into the enterprising spirit of the pioneers who settled the region, exploring “how liberating and how frightening that would be at the same time.”

“I’m very interested in how people create community wherever they are, even if it’s as stark a place as the northern wilds of Minnesota in the ’30s,” she explained, adding that “Evergreen” shares “the same sense of sharedness and love and community” as “The Bird Sisters.”

Rasmussen acknowledged the attraction of setting stories in the romantic past.

“Since I live my life in the present and I navigate it every day, it feels less fresh and exciting for me to work with that material,” she said. But, she added, “I might step out and surprise everyone with a novel that’s set in the present day. … I’m finding that there are all these pockets of beauty.”

Central Coast Writers’ Conference

When: 2 to 8:45 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21; keynote address 6 p.m. Friday

Where: Cuesta College, Highway 1, San Luis Obispo

How much: $125 to $150 Friday, $165 to $190 both days, $80 teen writers program

Information: 801-1422, www.communityprograms.net/wc/wcindex.htm

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