An Interview with Dan Klefstad, Author of Shepherd and the Professor

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I’m pleased to welcome Dan Klefstad, author of Shepherd and the Professor, to Linda’s Book Bag today. As Dan frequently interviews other authors for the radio, I thought I’d turn the tables and get him to tell me all about his writing.

Shepherd and the Professor is available for purchase in e-book and paperback here.

Shepherd and the Professor

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Most people take comfort knowing their family and friends will remember them after they die. For Susan Shepherd, “remembering” is bullshit. She wants an eternal shrine to her sacrifice: a book that never goes out of print.

Shepherd served her country in the Gulf War, got shot while serving her community as a cop, raised an ungrateful daughter by herself — and for what? A diagnosis of terminal cancer and she isn’t even fifty. If you were in her shoes, you might agree that nothing short of national perpetual acknowledgement will do.

She’s glad you feel that way; she just wrote a memoir and sent a flurry of query letters, hoping a publisher will memorialize her with a best-seller. After hitting Send, she waits not-at-all patiently for an editor to decide if her story will sell enough copies — that is, if her life really mattered.

An Interview With Dan Klefstad

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag, Dan. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

I’m the morning newscaster and book series editor for NPR station WNIJ. When my on-air shift ends at 9 o’clock, I interview other authors from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin – mainly novelists, short story writers, poets and memoirists. At WNIJ, we want to be the gathering place for discussion about regional literature, so we’re about to change the series from a seasonal to a monthly one. My archive is here.

And explain a bit about your writing and Shepherd & the Professor.  

While writing Shepherd & the Professor, I experimented with a couple of story techniques. First, I blend a fictional memoir with a publishing query letter. Let me explain: Protagonist Susan Shepherd is a Gulf War vet, cop and single mom who has cancer when we meet her. She feels she made extraordinary sacrifices, and is terrified people will forget about her after she succumbs. So she writes a memoir which nearly every publisher rejects. As a last resort, she converts her memoir into a letter to one final publishing editor or intern who’ll decide whether to send her manuscript up the chain. My other technique is having Susan Shepherd speak in present tense — even when she’s referring to past events. I find this reveals something about Susan’s fiery personality, but also her stressed emotional state. I hope this, combined with the memoir’s first-person POV, will engage the reader in an immediate, personal way. You might not always like Susan, but you’ll find it hard to ignore her.

You’ve also just written a short story The Caretaker that is featured in the literary journal Crack the Spine. What were the similarities and differences of writing that compared with Shepherd and the Professor?

The Caretaker is the story of a man who’s about to retire after decades of working for a vampire. Like Shepherd, it’s a fictional memoir and letter to one person – in this case, the man who will succeed the protagonist. This is also written in “first-present.” I’m expanding it into a larger work, but it will differ from Shepherd in that it’ll be a series of linked stories that’ll read like chapters in a novel. Ideally, this would allow me to publish each chapter in journals, and get a sense of how readers react to each story.

When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?

I was 16 when I saw the TV miniseries Reilly: Ace of Spies starring Sam Neill. I was totally absorbed by this story about a British spy operating in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. So I wrote a novel based on similar characters in the same period. And it was awful. Lamely derivative, heavy on exposition, and filled with spelling errors. Fortunately, my mother encouraged me to keep writing.

How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?

Actually, I start like I imagine a playwright starts. I imagine a scene with two characters, each with a specific motivation, and have them interact. Then I create another scene with two characters, and try to link these scenes together. This explains why my stories are heavy on dialog and action, and lighter on narration. After I get a draft, I do basic research on the “furniture” in the scene, such as a car or gun. But I try not to get bogged down in detail. I want to the reader to have enough information to imagine details on their own. Also, research can lead you down a rabbit hole that might consume an entire day, and you might not even use what you learn. So I urge caution there.

Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?

Well, starting is the most difficult. Staring at a blank Word .doc, trying to create order from the chaos of my imagination. What’s the easiest part? Explaining what I wrote after I finished. I actually enjoy doing public readings and answering questions about my work. I guess my radio background helps there!

What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?

I usually write and edit in my den. I live in a Victorian-style home in Illinois, but also have a small place in Wisconsin where a good hike in the woods helps clear my head after a long work week. If you’re looking for The Muse, I spotted her once or twice in the Kishwauketoe Nature preserve in Williams Bay. Now I need to go looking for her again.

You’re a book editor at NPR station WNIJ. How does this influence the way in which you write?

I’ve interviewed dozens of authors and each conversation was a master class in storytelling, and the creative process. One author, Robert Hellenga, mostly uses first-person female narrators. He gave me the courage to write from a woman’s point of view (in Shepherd). Another, poet Amy Newman, inspired the query letter aspect of my novel.

Susan in Shepherd and the Professor is a complex character. How did you create her?

I borrow two aspects from my wife, also named Susan. She was a cop in a small village in the 1980s. Also, she’s fiery and passionate, and sometimes words fly past her lips without her knowing it. I love this about her because it shows how nakedly honest she is. I wanted to give Susan Shepherd this trait because I want the reader to trust her, even during those moments of intense pressure when she goes off the rails. The other traits – cancer, survivor of war, gunshots, abuse, and a difficult relationship with her daughter – are things I added.

To what extent do you think that we all want to be remembered as does Susan?

Maybe it’s symbolic of a midlife crisis, but I began to ponder this question in my mid-40s. My wife and I are childless (by choice) and I don’t have millions of dollars to endow a building or scholarship. So who will remember me when I’m gone, and why does this matter to me? I’m still searching for the answer, but feel much more comfortable leaving a book or two as a legacy. Something that tells the story – however fictional – of the place I come from, with characters that preserve traits from most of the people I know.

If you could choose to be a character from Shepherd and the Professor, who would you be and why?

Oooh, that’s a tough one because nearly every character other than Susan is unlikeable. I’ll admit I share some aspects of Susan’s onetime lover, Daniel, and radio reporter Guy Severson. And I was a little like Chris Leifheit when I was a student. I guess I’ll go with Guy because, well, he’s a colleague J

If Shepherd and the Professor became a film, who would you like to play Susan and why would you choose them?

Whoever it is must have fire in her eyes and channel someone with very few filters. Also my model for Susan is 5-foot-3 so…Is Charlize Theron too tall? Maybe Natalie Portman. Yes, she’d be great if she’d be willing to go blonde.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I find poetry gives back a lot in exchange for relatively little time. I’m reading Susan Porterfield’s book Dirt, Root, Silk again (this is one of my featured authors for February). I love how she puts so much meaning into every word – which is an important lesson for every writer. Porterfield’s poem, Chicago Killings Fall, is a punch in the gut – but one I’d be willing to take repeatedly. It’s a truth bomb in 57 words.

If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?

I was a drummer for many years, so I guess I’d be in some jazz or blues combo. In a divey club with dim lighting and poor ventilation. Yeah, that’d be all right.

What can we expect next from Dan Klefstad?

I’m keeping my radio job, but I plan to keep writing and publishing long after they move me into the old folks’ home. I have a grand-dad who lived to 91 so that gives me 41 years to make my mark in literature. Guess I’d better hurry!

If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Shepherd and the Professor should be their next read, what would you say?

Looking for different? Try a fictional memoir that’s also a publishing query letter. Flawed narrator.

Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions.

Thank you, Linda, for the opportunity to speak with you and your readers.

About Dan Klefstad

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Dan Klefstad is a writer and broadcaster. He works on WNIJ providing the latest news, weather and other information, with the goal of seamlessly weaving this content into NPR’s Morning Edition.

Dan is especially interested in literature from the WNIJ area, and interviews writers for Morning Edition and records them reading excerpts.

You can follow Dan on Twitter and find him on Facebook. You’ll find much more on Dan’s YouTube channel here.

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