Writing Minnesota

Nicole Helget: "It's not just me."

Nicole Helget grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, and that's the backdrop for her debut publication, a memoir called "The Summer of Ordinary Ways," published in 2005 by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. The book details Helget's childhood on the farm, and the characters that populated her rural upbringing near the small town of Sleepy Eye, Minn. But this is no pastoral memoir—images sometimes violent and disturbing are rendered almost transcendental by Helget's lyrical prose.

Nicole HelgetPhoto: Nate LeBoutillier

The depictions of her childhood caused quite a stir upon publication. Members of Helget's own family waged a campaign against the book to the press. But Helget defends her book, and her choice to write it as memoir, not fiction. "To be the highest literary writer that I wanted to be," she said, "I had to write this as memoir. To call this as fiction, I would've been able to talk about the things I wanted to focus on, like characterization and plot and conflict, but to be an artist you have to take the heat sometimes. I did. I made it through."

Richly detailed and charged with emotion, the landscape of Minnesota is essential to "The Summer of Ordinary Ways." In one particularly intense scene, where Helget describes her father beating a cow to death with a pitchfork, she uses beautiful images from the farm in surprising ways. The sound of the pitchfork hitting bone on the cow's nose was, she writes, is the sound "of the rush of millions of soybean grains, winding in a golden vein, breaking through the gate, and flying off into a grey heaven."

Helget self-identifies as a Minnesota writer and doesn't think the label puts her in a box. "I don't think it limits me in any way. I think my stories or thoughts can speak on a national or international level if they're good enough, and if they're not, they won't. I don't worry about it." Overall, she believes the state is a supportive place for artists. And though her accounts of farm life have not drawn complaints from state boosters, she jokes that she also hasn't gotten any job offers.

Helget has since published a novel, "The Turtle Catcher." A young adult novel co-authored by her husband Nate LeBoutillier is currently being reviewed by their agent.

She's been writing an essay a month on her blog.