author, AUTHOR!

Minneapolis writer Norah Labiner creates a brainy first novel about writing a first novel. Who's in charge here?

The shores of Lake Superior, Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's the coldest winter the U.P. has seen in 50 years. Norah Labiner holes herself up in her friend's secluded cabin. Her mission? To finish the magnum opus, her first novel, five years in the making. And where else to do it, really--what more apt way could there be to produce the exquisite despair that is a first novel than to re-enact The Shining?

The cabin is heated by two wood stoves. The only other warm-blooded creature is her dog. Provisions consist of bread, frozen vegetables, and Alpo. The radio stations are full of school closings and snowmobile swap meets, the newscasters all have big hair, and the TV only gets one channel: CBS. Labiner wages battle against the muse while Tonya squares off against Nancy in the battle royal that is the Winter Olympics. Not much else to look at up here. Labiner is surrounded by the frozen lake and a blank horizon. She doesn't drive, and there's nowhere to go on foot.

Norah Labiner is in her element.

Alone, Labiner can write without distraction. She eats and breathes her book. Her regimen is that of a fully self-actualized masochist. She is to write a new chapter every morning and rewrite an old chapter every afternoon. It's about 60 pages a day, and as January turns into February the routine becomes harder on the typewriter than on Labiner. Soon the typewriter can only type in ALL CAPS. Letters begin to fall off, so she sets a code for herself: X=P. Two months pass. Labiner runs out of typewriter ribbon and heads back to Minneapolis--manuscript in hand.

Four years later and Our Sometime Sister has just been published by Minneapolis's Coffee House Press. Norah Labiner has joined the ranks of the few, the penurious, the published. She isn't quite sure what to make of it. "After five years of writing and three years of editing, I didn't ever really think it would get published," she says with a shrug.

She's thrilled, of course: When the book finally hits the stores, Labiner leaves work early to pick up a copy. And she makes a fairly conspicuous customer, as her own mug peers out from the front cover. When the author walks into bookstores, people smile and point: "We knew it was you right away." This is a difficult adjustment for a woman whose demeanor practically begs you not to notice her. Suddenly, the very private Norah Labiner is finding herself a little public.

That is the peculiar nature of writing. The act is deeply personal (see: fevered analogies likening a novel to a child, limb, or vital organ), the refuge of some pathologically solitary people. Yet in order to succeed, you must publish--which involves, by definition, exposure. Labiner says, "I'm pretty thin-skinned. I'm a private and secretive person but then I put this book out. It's not about me, of course, but it is the things I think."

Though Labiner has written all her life, the publication of Our Sometime Sister means that she is now an Author: Her thoughts are in the public domain, and her success depends on other people's judgment. And what they are judging is the core of her being. "I don't think I ever told people I was writing a novel," Labiner says. "It's so self-contained. I didn't tell my parents it was coming out until six months ago. It's bad, I know, but that's just who I am. I think I tend to compartmentalize my life--work, family, writing. Writing is what I do and everything else is auxiliary. The idea of people reading it is pretty terrifying." She grins. "It would take me years of therapy to uncover why."

1989. Norah Labiner is a senior at the University of Michigan where she studies creative writing and critical theory. She's been encouraged to apply to a graduate writing program, which is quickly growing in reputation. As decision time comes around, she reports, a professor calls her. She has been wait-listed for the program, he tells her. But there is still a chance. And he could, perhaps, see his way clear to admit her if she could (lean in closely, soften voice)...ahem, prove she wanted to be in the program. Know what I mean?

Norah Labiner does not attend this writing program.

Instead, she writes. What other way to deal with a world where dirty old men hold your fate in their hands--and, tenured as they are, seemingly have the discretion to do with it as they please? What emerges from this frustration is "Butternut," the first chapter (in chronology, not sequence) of Our Sometime Sister. The Butternut chapter is a reaction against authority, against the "wisdom" of elders and the injustices of being young and powerless.

The story chronicles the life of young Butternut, trapped in boarding school and subject to the inane advice of careless adults. To comfort her after a traumatic assault, Butternut's guidance counselor sermonizes, "Sixteen is very young. You will see that what happened to you is very small. It will pass and when you understand life better it will seem, this small incident, very trivial." Butternut responds, "Understand life? But I've read Hamlet. What else is there to learn?"

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