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Best-selling author grew up in Osakis

Leif Enger's latest novel features the owner of a small-town movie theatre named after the Empress Theatre that once stood in Osakis. (Contributed)1 / 3
Leif Enger poses by Lake Superior, which figures prominently in his latest novel, "Virgil Wander." (Contributed)2 / 3
Book jacket from Leif Enger's latest novel. (Contributed)3 / 3

You may well learn some new words by reading Leif Enger's long-awaited third novel, "Virgil Wander."

The title character suffers a concussion and loses part of his ability to communicate. As he recovers, adjectives slowly drift back to him, lending something of the feel of a thesaurus to the 300-page book. Manky. Contrapposto. Mordant.

In a way, storytelling has drifted back to Enger, too. It's been 10 years since the Osakis native last published a novel, the best-selling "So Brave, Young, and Handsome," and 17 years since his first novel, "Peace Like a River," charmed reviewers from coast to coast.

The 10-year gap didn't exist for lack of effort.

"It had been a long time between the first and second books and I didn't want it to take so long so I jumped right in," said Enger, speaking from his Duluth home where he'd just returned after weeks on the road promoting his book.

But jumping in didn't pay off. He ended up spending five years writing a 400-page manuscript that he threw away. It was set in Greenstone, the town he writes about in "Virgil Wander," but it was told third person and never seemed to hang together, he said. He showed parts to his wife, Robin, before trashing it.

"I just thought, Oh no, I've written a book that I don't like,'" he said. "There was this sinking feeling."

Also during those 10 years without a novel, he and Robin cared for their elderly parents, who have since died. Plus, he struggled with an illness that lasted several years and says he was too sick to work

"I didn't read. I didn't write. My eyes didn't work correctly. It was all I could do to watch TV."

Finally he was diagnosed with meningitis, which proved treatable. When he got back to writing, it was to channel the voice of a middle-aged owner of a small-town movie theater named the Empress Theatre. He took the name from the old Osakis theater where in the 1960s he watched Disney's Dean Jones star in comedies as a kid. By then, it had aged and didn't hold many people, but Enger confesses he and half of his friends had a desire to own a theater.

"That's always been a dream of mine, to have a theater in a small town," he said.

Writing first-person from theater owner Virgil Wander's perspective helped the book come together, he said.

"It completely worked," he said. "All the cylinders seemed to fire when I was writing in the voice of Virgil Wander. It was more fun and it was a sustainable project at that point. At that point I wasn't afraid anymore because I knew it was going to work."

Wander is a loveable sort who nearly dies when his car plunges off a bridge and into Lake Superior. He suffers a concussion and loses some of his language. Enger based the character's symptoms on the experience of a friend who had been in a car accident. When he visited her, he found her with the dictionary, jotting down words.

"Are you copying the dictionary?" he asked.

"Only the adjectives," she replied. She was trying to recover her descriptive abilities, which had strayed as a result of the accident.

"Virgil Wander" has drawn mixed reviews. The New York Times praised it as a novel that "brims with grace and quirky charm," while the Washington Post lamented that it is "another small-town tale that struggles to be something more than merely charming."

Enger signed books at Cherry Street Books in Alexandria last month. He last signed books at the store in 2009. It was a joint event with his brother, Lin Enger, who had also published a novel. Their parents came, as did friends and former teachers from Osakis.

"It was fun," Pohlig recalled. "They're very nice small-town guys and very easy to talk to."

Enger's dad, Donald, was the band director at Osakis High School. His mom, Wilma, was a devout Christian, a former teacher who Enger said had lots of friends.

"It was a good place to grow up," he said. "I had a good childhood. I really did. It was remarkably free from oversight and it was the time as well as the place. ... You got up on a Saturday morning or a summer morning and just ran around and people didn't worry about you."

As it is now, the town was hopping with tourists fishing and boating on Lake Osakis. He recalls laughing at them with other local kids, for, among other things, putting sunscreen on their noses.

Enger said he started writing at age 8. He wrote poetry just for fun.

His teacher at the time, LaRayne Johnson, encouraged all the kids in her class to be writers.

"I never felt like it was anything that was out of my reach," he said. "Teachers I had just seemed to expect all of us to be good readers and to have a handle on the language because we would need it all our lives."

In 10th grade, teacher Karen Sinotte pulled him aside after a creative writing class and suggested he enter a novel-writing contest for high school students. S.E. Hinton had recently written "The Outsiders" at age 16. He went home, wrote eight pages, and realized he did not have novel-writing chops.

But a seed was planted. He worked for Minnesota Public Radio before publishing "Peace Like a River," when he was about 40. Now 57, he intends to speed up his novel writing.

"You don't want to write one book a decade," he said.

Enger writes in the morning until lunch. While some writers set a goal of writing a certain number of words, he doesn't. He's thrown away so many words, he said, that he would rather write words he can keep.

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