Osakis native Leif Enger's latest novel, "Virgil Wander," came out in paperback Aug. 20.
The novel, his third, is set in a rusting Lake Superior town and opens when its title character drives off the road into the icy lake. He emerges with some memory loss, to find the world has become slightly unfamiliar.
"Virgil Wander" has racked up praise from major reviewers nationwide, including the New York Times Book Review, the Seattle Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A Cherry Street Books clerk said the Alexandria store has the paperback version on hand.
Enger will be the featured speaker when the Alexandria Technical and Community College's "Senior College" kicks off its fall season with a free lecture on Thursday, Sept. 5 at the ATCC Technology and Information Center. The lecture begins at 3:15 p.m. in room 743 and is free and open to the public.
Raised in Osakis, Enger worked as a reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio for nearly 20 years. His lecture, Mining the Local Mythology, reveals his writing that makes the most of his Midwestern heritage and the great stories that surround us — in the epics of grandparents, the dreams of oddball neighbors and the gardens of secret insomniacs.
For more information about the Senior College's fall lecture series, contact the Customized Training Center at 320-762-4510 or toll-free at 888-234-1313, or visit alextech.edu/SeniorCollege.
It's been about a decade since Enger wrote his last novel, "So Brave, Young, and Handsome," and 17 years since his first novel, "Peace Like a River."
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 in an Osakis Review interview last winter. He showed parts of the manuscript 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."