Arts and Culture

Leif Enger’s ‘cheerful refusal’ to accept despair infuses his new dystopian adventure novel

Leif Enger stands for a portrait
Leif Enger with one of his kites along the shore of Lake Superior on Park Point in Duluth on March 4. Enger’s latest book, “I Cheerfully Refuse” is set against the backdrop of Lake Superior and kites are a common theme in many of his books.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Updated 9:57 a.m.

A trio of bemused surfers bob on their boards in the water just off Park Point beach in Duluth. They are watching a denim clad figure in a white wooly hat tear across the sand. He’s trailing a huge kite. But try as he might Leif Enger can’t quite catch the wind.

“I have a host of other kites that probably would have been better for today. But this one was so big and impressive. How can I lose?” he says with laugh.

There’s some ominous kite flying in “I Cheerfully Refuse.” And some laughing. But we are really here on the beach to discuss another presence in Enger’s new novel: Lake Superior.

“Was it a character in the book? Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I wanted to write a book where the lake felt on those pages the way it feels in real life, which is incredibly impressive. And unimpressed by yourself. And also irresistible, kind of alluring.”

Leif Enger begins to fly a kite
Leif Enger runs to get his kite into the air along the shore of Lake Superior on Park Point in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Enger scribbled notes for years before writing “I Cheerfully Refuse.” Sitting down on one of the sand-scoured logs characteristic of Lake Superior south shore beaches, he said many of them were about the big lake, a body of water so big it makes its own weather.

“I don’t even know if people realize how much the mood of the lake affects the mood of the people who live near it,” he said. “But it really, really does. If I go out and the lake is in a confused mood, and it’s kind of angry and roaring and the clouds are moving this way and that, then I feel that way too. And conversely, if the lake is peaceful and beautiful, how do you not walk around in a fabulous mood?”

Then politics dropped something into his musings.

“In 2017, we all got introduced to the concept of alternative facts,” he said. “I wondered what the world was going to look like, if in fact, that was a path that we followed.”

Leif Enger talks
Leif Enger talks to MPR News regional editor Euan Kerr about his latest book, “I Cheerfully Refuse.”
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

He saw a society with more extreme differences between the haves and have-nots, where order breaks down, just a little.

He saw a Duluth where supplies and services become scarce. Road repairs stop. And the satellite communication on which Lake Superior sailors now depend for navigation is just gone.

“And it occurred to me that the lake could once again become that frightening thing that it always had been previous. That it might become a place where you went if you were afraid or desperate, or pursued. And you went out and took your chances on the water.”

Then, the pandemic hit. Followed by George Floyd’s murder.

“It was a very anxious time, it was an anxious moment,” he said.

Enger dealt with his personal unease by writing. The first scene he got on paper was how his hero Rainy, a large quiet man with a fertile internal dialog, meets the love of his life.

Listen to Leif Enger read from his novel "I Cheerfully Refuse" as his hero Rainy describes how he met the love of his life

“At noon, one winter day, I left my job detailing a stucco high under with hardwood moldings and a crenelated roof like a battlement, embarrassed to eat near the meticulous homeowners, I strolled a few blocks to the library for a covert lunch in a study carrel. The carrel was around the corner from the Help Desk where a woman with a quiet radiant voice explained technology to ancients. There didn’t seem to be any non ancients in the library that day, only her at the desk and me who just wanted a warm place to eat a cheese sandwich. Crane as I might I couldn’t catch sight of her, which only made her voice more arresting.”

In the story, Rainy lives in Duluth making a living painting houses and soothing his soul playing bass around town. And he’s married to Lark, the woman with the radiant voice he heard from the carrels.

But then Rainy experiences a calamity and sets off on a small boat across the big lake. It’s a desperate, almost impossible quest, in the face of evil incarnate.

“And I literally got up every morning in the dark and went down the hall to my office, and it just seemed like Rainy was in there waiting. And, you know, lighting his little paraffin lantern, putting a little light out in the world,” Enger said. “And I just found that it was really comforting to me to write this story and to say, ‘Yeah, his world is bleak. But he’s gonna find a way through it.’”

Leif Enger reacts to his kite landing
Leif Enger will celebrate the April 2 launch of the novel at Ursa Minor Brewing in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Enger is known as a writer who takes his time. There can be years between his novels. But “I Cheerfully Refuse” was different.

“The first draft took 100 days, which for me is sensationally fast,” he said. “I then spent another two and a half years rewriting it.”

And Enger said that rewriting is where the joy lies for him.

“In fact, this is the first book I ever finished and was really sad to finish. I didn’t want to leave it. I wanted to keep working on it. I wanted to do six more drafts because it felt so good to spend I'm in that world with those people. Any book, for me that that pulls me and gives me a world I don't want to leave,” he said. “And now I miss it terribly.”

Leif Enger will celebrate the April 2 launch of the novel at Ursa Minor Brewing in Duluth.

“I Cheerfully Refuse” takes its name from the title of a book in the story which is important to some of the characters. It’s a nod to Enger’s belief in the importance of reading. Also to the way writing lifted him through the tough times in recent years.

Leif Enger stands for a portrait
Leif Enger along the shore of Lake Superior on Park Point in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“And the only way that I could get through it with a smile on my face was to kind of actively refuse despair,” he said. “I guess that means refusing ignorance if knowledge is available.”

And so, just like Lake Superior, hope is a character in the book too.

Correction (April 1, 2024): An earlier versions of this story misstated the title of Leif Enger’s novel. It has been corrected.

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