“You have to be willing to give plenty to it and be willing to fail,” said poet, and now novelist, Paul Zimmer of the writing craft.
Zimmer’s newest book, ‘The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove,’ has just been released. While not his first book, it his first published novel.
Zimmer has twelve books of poetry, two books of memoirs, and a book of essays to his credit along with a long career in publishing.
“I kept working at novels, they shipwrecked and went away,” the author said humbly. “I tried five or six novels before I hit on this one.
“I think part of my problem about fiction was that (before) I tried to base it upon my experiences,” Zimmer recounted. “But this time, I invented the people and I reinvented Soldiers Grove – I love the name and size Soldiers Grove – so this story just kind of unfolded itself.
‘The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove’ is a quirky tale of love, old age, individuality, hope and humor. While the two primary characters, Cyril and Louise, are in many ways opposites of each other, they complement each other as well.
Louise is a beautiful woman with cultured tastes transplanted to the remote hills of the Kickapoo Valley as a young bride. She has lived a full and happy life, but is no longer able to maintain an independent life on her isolated homestead. Cyril is an ugly and awkward man, who grew up in a violent unhappy home and has never know how to talk with others except through the biographical facts he has collected over his many years. Yet, the two find in each other happy companions and a blooming love.
“A British friend read the story and said it brought up the ancient Greek idea of the hermaphrodite,” Zimmer said. “The idea that a man and woman, two separate people, who live their lives, looking for each other, coming together at some point to complete each other.”
This trim and bearded octogenarian with rosy cheeks and an easy, if slightly shy smile is a romantic, who readily admits to loving the innocence of the characters he created.
“They don’t have any baggage, they have left it behind,” Zimmer said. “It is almost like young love. They are starting fresh.”
Despite the desire to avoid drawing too directly from real life – after all, Zimmer avoided setting foot into Soldiers Grove’s Sannes Skogdalen Heim Nursing Home until recently because he was using a nursing home in his story — echoes of his own experience do appear, though stripped to the barest essentials.
The character of Louise received inspiration from the tale of a Soldiers Grove library patron who moved from post World War II Europe to live in the hills of the Kickapoo.
“I avoided asking Cele (Wolf, director of the Soldiers Grove Public Library) questions of about the woman because I didn’t want the details of her life, I wanted to invent her,” Zimmer said. “I can’t even remember where Cele said she was from. But, I was enchanted by the idea of this sophisticated European coming to the Kickapoo Valley, living in this rural place, away from everything she had known.”
So Zimmer took the barest sketch of a real woman, a single lonely fact from her existence, and invented upon that framework a woman of his own making, Louise.
Zimmer also drew lightly upon his experience living in France with his wife Suzanne. They used to travel to London for a week each year on business and afterward would often use London as a jumping off point to travel to other European countries. Eventually, the couple bought a modest home in France with another writer and would visit for a few months each year, despite Zimmer never learning the language. The experience traveling and living abroad helped provide the landscape sketch upon which the later portion of the story plays, much as the steep hills and narrow valleys of the Driftless region provide the backdrop to the meeting of Cyril and Louise.
“This (story) rolled like no other piece I had tried before,” Zimmer said. “The others I had hammered at, worked at. But this just came once I knew the characters.”
Zimmer noted that writing the novel was probably helped by retirement and having the time to sit and work for longer stretches of time. Still, it took two to three years to write.
Prior to retirement, he worked on his poetry and essays in the mornings before work and on his lunch breaks, working in bits and pieces until he felt it was ready.
“You start things, stop and work on some other thing, come back to it,” Zimmer said of poetry. “Poetry is visionary in some ways. It can come together so easily at times and so maddeningly at other times.”
Zimmer had known from a young age that he wanted to be a poet. And it didn’t hurt that in high school he discovered the girls liked a poet. As an adult, he found its malleable form fit around the needs and demands of his life.
“I was fortunate that I needed to make a living,” Zimmer said of his art and situation.
Zimmer was born in Canton, Ohio in 1934. His first attempt at college was not a success.
“I don’t want to discourage someone from going to school,” Zimmer noted. “I was not a good student. I didn’t like it.”
After serving in the military, Zimmer found his way into publishing. He began at a bookstore, moved on to working for a publisher, and ultimately directed three university presses; University of Pittsburg (1967-1978), University of Georgia (1978-1984), and University of Iowa (1984-1994).
During those years, he married his wife Suzanne, raised a family, and honed his craft as a poet.
“I didn’t try to put on a sweater and go into a cold room to write,” Zimmer said. “I had a wife. In those days, it was the man’s job to earn money to support his wife and family. The women worked too, but once they had children, it really was the man’s job to provide (financially).
“I knew I wanted to be married and to have children and to be a poet,” Zimmer continued. “So, I had to work for all of those things.”
It was during his time with the University of Iowa Press that the Zimmers found their ridge top home in rural Soldiers Grove. With an amazing vista of the Kickapoo River, as it wends southward toward the Wisconsin River, Zimmer has tellingly placed his library office faced away from the beautiful distraction he loves. It was in that cozy book-lined room where the books characters, Cyril and Louise, came to life. It’s also the room from which Zimmer sought, and found, a publisher.
The Permanent Press from Sag Harbor, New York accepted the manuscript. Zimmer is pleased to work with the small publisher, which puts out 20 to 25 books per year.
Having the book accepted and published by a respectable publisher is a significant validation to him. Zimmer had no intention of self-publishing and getting in with the large publisher requires either an agent or company contacts.
“Living in Soldiers Grove doesn’t set you up to have industry connections,” he said with a smile.
“I didn’t say I was a novelist before,” Zimmer explained. “I was a failed novelist until I was accepted.”
It took far longer before he was comfortable calling himself a poet.
“What the hell, if people want to write poems, there are worse things they could be doing, but calling yourself a poet…,” Zimmer trailed off.
He and his poetic peers grew up looking to poets of vast reputation—Frost, Keats, and such. It was the works of masters to which they aspired. It took years before Zimmer felt comfortable identifying himself as a poet. But at 81, with six decades plus of work, publication, and acknowledgement, he is ready to call himself by his avocation—poet, novelist and writer.
“You have to be ready to give your life to it. You have to be ready to fail,” Zimmer said of writing. “I fail all the time. I still do. It’s part of the process.”
You can hear Zimmer read from his book ‘The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove’ in person this Saturday at the Ark, 104 E. Jefferson Street, Viroqua at 7 p.m.
The event is sponsored by the Driftless Writing Center and Bramble Bookstore and is free and open to the public.
Copies of ‘The Mysteries of Soldiers Grove’ will be available for sale (cash or check).
For more information about the reading event, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Edward Schultz at 608-624-5155 or Bramble Bookstore at 608-637-8717, bramble email@example.com.