Donald Lystra – engineer turned writer who divides his time between a home and Ann Arbor, Michigan and a century old farmhouse in Leelanau County, and a Great Lakes, Great Reads author.
Born in 1945 and raised in different parts of Michigan, Donald Lystra received degrees in electrical engineering and sociology from the University of Michigan. He worked on electrical power plants before beginning to write fiction in the mid-1990s and his writing reflects the unique perspective of an engineer turned writer.
His first book, a novel set in northern Michigan in 1957 entitled Season of Water and Ice, captured both the Midwest Book Award and the Michigan Notable Book Award in 2010. His second book, Something that Feels like Truth, was released in September. It’s a collection of sixteen stories set in the cities and countryside of Michigan over the last half-century. The American Library Association’s Booklist called it “luminous….a stellar collection of masterfully-crafted gems” and the Kansas City Star said: “Lystra draws the bleak, beautiful landscape of the Great Lakes region in quick, sharp strokes, and brings its inhabitants to life with compassion and tenderness.” In October, Something That Feels Like Truth was selected by the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association as a fall fiction selection in its “Great Lakes, Great Reads” program.
Lystra has received writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacDowell Colony. He and his wife divide their time between Ann Arbor and a farm near Omena in Leelanau County, where he does his best to keep a 122-year old farmhouse and barn in good repair. He has two grown children.
How did you become a writer?
I was an engineer for most of my working life but I loved language and literature and I knew that some day I would try my hand at writing fiction. Then, in 1993, I had an operation that required a long period of recuperation. I suddenly had a lot of idle time, and I decided it was a good opportunity to finally try to write. (Having an operation may have also made me aware that time is not endless.) So I began to write and then I found that I enjoyed writing to the point of wanting to make it a permanent part of my life. When I went back to work I made some changes that allowed me to write on a regular schedule. It required a pretty drastic, and downward, career shift but in retrospect I’m happy I made that decision.
How do you write? What is your process?
I write in the morning and I like to write in places that are rather stark. I don’t want things around me that provoke thoughts or memories because I want to concentrate on the characters I’m writing about. Most of the stories in Something that Feels like Truth were written in a carrel of the Hatcher Library on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, which is the town I live in most of the year. The final revisions were made last year while I was living at our farm in Leelanau County. There’s an old pump shed on the property that I’ve cleaned out and turned into a writing studio. It has a small but beautiful view of Grand Traverse Bay, which violates my rule about starkness, but I manage to deal with that.
As for the interior process, in most cases I start with a situation or characters I’d seen or experienced firsthand. Usually there is something in the situation that feels unresolved or out of balance, something that maybe is not apparent but that you feel is slightly wrong. Then I move the characters forward, seeing how they interact and deal with each other and with their circumstances. If I can do that honestly, a point will usually come when something gets revealed; a character will have some insight that gives him or her a better or more honest grasp on their life, or allows the reader to have that insight. Someone said that the ending of a story should be “surprising but inevitable” and I think that’s a good way to think about it. Something is wrong but it’s not clear what that thing is until a character has struggled for a while to uncover it.
Who are your favorite authors?
I’m drawn to books that deal with everyday life in a more-or-less realistic way. The books I read tend to have quiet stories and the challenge for the writers of such books is to find ways to make the ordinary seem compelling. Some authors who do it especially well are Alice McDermott, Richard Ford, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Bausch, and of course Jim Harrison. There are many others.
What authors have inspired you?
In high school and college I read the big names of the day—Hemingway and Faulkner and Steinbeck—and I’m sure I took something from each one of them. I suppose I had a particular affection for Hemingway, since he was a Midwesterner and spent his early summers at a lakeside cottage in northern Michigan, which was something I could relate to. The final story in Something That Feels Like Truth is a fictional account of an old man’s visit to Seney Michigan—the setting for Hemingway’s famous short story Big, Two-Hearted River—in an effort to understand the hold the story has had on him throughout his life.
What books are on your bedside table?
I’m always buying more books than I can read. Right now there are 24 volumes in four stacks on my bedside table. At the top of each stack, and thus the most likely to be read, are Alice MacDermott’s new novel Someone, Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, Out Stealing Horses, a wonderful novel by the Norwegian author Per Petterson that I’m reading for the third or fourth time, and Coming Apart by Charles Murray, an examination of the social segmentation that’s happening in America, which I take to be our country’s biggest problem.
What writing projects do you have planned next?
I have an idea for another novel that I’m working on, but I don’t want to say too much about it. I guess you could say that it’s still in a fragile, formative stage, and I don’t want to jinx it by assuming it’s a done deal. But it’ll be set in Michigan and grow out of experiences I’ve seen close up, and can speak about with some authority.
What advice do you have for young writers?
There’s so much that could be said on the subject. One thing I would say is to try to read the writers you like with a cold, calculating eye. Try to see how the author uses the different tools of narration—description, dialogue, scene, summary, voice—to build a story. (I’m speaking here of fiction.) Try to stand outside the story—not be swept up by the emotion of it—and view it as something that had to be put together piece by piece. And then try to bring that same cold-blooded approach to your own work. Try to see your work with the eyes of an outsider.
Lystra’s latest book is a story collection entitled Something That Feels Like Truth (Sept. 2013, softcover, $15.95). Published by Switchgrass Books, a fiction imprint of Northern Illinois University Press. It’s a collection of sixteen stories most of which are set in different locales in Michigan. In general, the stories deal with ordinary people confronting rather commonplace troubles, though Lystra says he would like to think he has found the moments of grace and courage and wisdom that lift the situations, and the characters, above the ordinary. Available in most independent bookstores in Michigan and also on Amazon and other online sellers.