All the write moves: Prolific English faculty author produces first novel

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

English professor and baseball enthusiast Bill Meissner

English professor and baseball enthusiast Bill Meissner does some of his most creative writing on his vintage Royal typewriter.

The publication of English Professor Bill Meissner’s first novel, “Spirits in the Grass,” this fall was the culmination of a seven-year writing and editing process the author called daunting, sometimes overwhelming, but always exhilarating.

The widespread distribution of his book, published by University of Notre Dame Press, has been exciting for Meissner. He’s given readings at several Minnesota bookstores, local and regional newspapers have written positive reviews, and the AP wire story about it has shown up in papers in places as far away as Cincinnati and New York.

Meissner’s novel was chosen as number six on the Top Ten Books of 2008 by Susan Wilson, novelist and columnist for the Martha’s Vineyard Times.

Creating a novel was a more complex challenge than writing his acclaimed collections of short stories, Random House-published “Hitting in the Wind” and “Road to Cosmos,” and four books of poetry. “Day after day, week after week, you have to keep the central tension going in this gigantic, 300-page piece,” said Meissner, director of creative writing at St. Cloud State.

He had 21 versions of chapter one, and some subsequent chapters had five thorough rewrites. Characters were added and dropped in the book, which is part mystery, part romance, part political controversy and part search for spirituality. The novel begins with Luke Tanner’s discovery of a small bone fragment on the player’s new baseball field in fictional hometown Clearwater, Wis. – and continues with the aftermath of that fateful find.

As is often the case in Meissner’s writing, his other passion, baseball, is central to the story. “Meissner has the storyteller’s gift for creating living characters, living speech, living emotions, living drama,” wrote National Book Award recipient Tim O’Brien. “He knows his small town baseball, but beyond that, he knows the human spirit.”

“Spirits in the Grass” began with a handwritten draft and ended with editing with help from wife Chris. In between, coincidences helped Meissner keep the compelling narrative going. Early on in the process a summer grant from the St. Cloud State Alumni Association sent him on a study of Native American mound sites. In the county courthouse histories of his hometown of Baraboo, Wis., he discovered that the baseball field he played on as a boy turned out to be built on Indian burial mounds. “That to me was an amazing thing,” he said. He ended his research journey with a folder of materials two inches thick.

Putting it all together was a painstaking process. “From the beginning I had a vision of how the characters would evolve,” Meissner said. “What was most challenging was having them evolve in a compelling way.”

Apparently he succeeded. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper’s review said of Meissner’s work: “An accomplished literary writer crafts a resonant Midwest baseball novel Meissner has a gift for creating real people on the page.”

- Marsha Shoemaker

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