Hi Everyone, I am thrilled to bring you an interview with Hometown Track Minnesota Author in the Spotlight, John Reimringer. His book Vestments won the Minnesota Book Award for fiction in March of 2011.
- Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Fargo and grew up in Kansas; my wife and I moved to Saint Paul in 2001. But my father’s family had lived in Saint Paul since 1857. My great-great grandfather became a citizen here then, and ran a saloon and grocery downtown. My great-grandfather died at the second-ever Saint Paul Winter Carnival in 1887, when he got drunk, fell off the back of a sleigh, and cracked his skull.
- What inspired you to write Vestments?
It started off as a father-son conflict between a barfighter father and a spiritual son. In the original story, I made the son a seminarian to heighten the conflict with his father; when I decided to turn the story into the novel, I made the son into a full-fledged priest to raise the stakes even further.
- Usually an author puts some of his own life experiences in the book. Did you do that? Do you have anything in common with your characters?
If you imagined the whole of a writer’s life as a statue that looks like the writer, what a fiction writer does is to shatter the statue with a hammer, then pick up the pieces that suit the story. So there’s a nose here, and a big toe there, and maybe an elbow.
- I am wondering why you chose a priest for your main character? Are you a religious man?
I was a pretty devout Catholic as a young man. I split with the Catholic Church over its view on women’s roles and gay rights, and my wife and I attend the Episcopal Church now, which has taken a courageous and moral stand on the latter issue. But I grew up during the progressive flowering of the Church following Vatican II, and I wanted to explore that time, when the Catholic Church defined itself by the positive changes it could make in the world, not the people it wanted to exclude. The novel is a bit of an elegy for that hopeful moment in Church history.
The book was initially set in Kansas, where I grew up, but that draft wasn’t going anywhere. Then we moved to Saint Paul. My father, who was from here, had just died, and when we arrived I fell in love with the city and felt very much as though I had come home. So I was exploring this very Catholic city, and thinking about my very Catholic father’s life (the grandfather in the novel is loosely based on him), and it seemed natural to set the story here. Once I did, the book really started to come together.
- What are some of the important issues in Vestments that you hope your readers will interpret as integral to the story?
Relationships between different generations of men are a big part of the story. The priest’s father, Joe Dressler, is a profane and violent man, and many readers really dislike him (though an equal number tell me he’s their favorite character). But a lot of Joe’s actions are prompted by fear, and if you look closely, there are hints that his father, the generally sympathetic grandfather, Otto, wasn’t necessarily very kind to Joe when he was growing up. So there’s a cycle of meanness and violence, and along with that, the necessity of grace—unearned forgiveness.
- This is your first book. Can you tell us why or when you decided to become a writer?
I read a lot as a child, and I started trying to write at age ten, imitating the science fiction and juvenile sports novels I was reading then. But I had no idea how one went about becoming a writer, so as an adult I worked around writing and books in the only ways I could figure out how, as a newspaper editor and a library assistant. Then, around age 30, I read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and that renewed my interest in being a writer. I learned what an MFA program was, and started writing and applying.
- Is it hard to juggle writing, teaching and parenthood? How do you carve out time during your busy day to write?
It’s a constant struggle to carve writing time into your life. It changes from semester to semester depending on classes and schedule and teaching load. I imagine it will change again with parenthood (we’re still expecting as I write this). When I win the struggle, it’s usually because I manage to write first thing in the morning, before the rest of the day intrudes.
- Do you like to read? What authors or books influence you?
I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t love to read. Some creative-writing students don’t, and you always wonder why the hell they’re taking a writing class.
Hemingway was a huge influence for me early on. Like Hemingway, most of my other favorite writers are strong short-story writers: John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, John McGahern, Andre Dubus. I could go on and on.
- Are you currently working on a second novel and will you share part of the plot with us?
Yes. It’s set in Saint Paul during the 1920s, when the city had a corrupt police force and was full of gangsters.
- Vestments won the Minnesota Book Award for fiction this year. Can you describe your initial reaction when they called your name at the awards ceremony? How do your students react to your success?
It was the first category announced, which was terrifying because I hadn’t gotten to watch anyone else get up to the stage. And I’d never had to say anything in front of so many people before. So I found myself on stage, trying not to drop this glass-and-marble award that weighs like seven pounds, and say something gracious and witty. It was overwhelming, because there were so many good books among the finalists and nominees.
- In one sentence tell readers why they should read Vestments?
One of my professors said, about One Hundred Years of Solitude, that it was a book that left you feeling good about the world; I hope that’s true of Vestments.
If you would like to enter to win a copy of Vestments please enter here: Vestments Contest