Q & A with Sonja Hakala

TRU-2015 front cover onlyThe following is a question-and-answer session between writer Kim Gifford and author Sonja Hakala. It’s the basis of an article that appeared in Upper Valley Life magazine.

Q & A—Kim Gifford and Sonja Hakala

The Road Unsalted is a unique book – a novel that captures the realities of small town life and even features some real life artists and locations. How did the idea to write this series come to you? And, why did you choose to include actual artists in the book?

The idea for the Carding novels first came from my work as a newspaper reporter for the Valley News.
My first assignment for the newspaper was as a beat reporter covering the five Mascoma Valley towns—Enfield, Canaan, Grafton, Orange and Dorchester, NH—with forays into other parts of the Upper Valley. This gave me a ringside seat to observe local politics, and how much personal interactions impact a town’s governance.
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With pad and pen in hand, I watched drama after drama after drama unfold in school board meetings, town meetings and selectboard meetings. I learned that the most contentious issues in a town are roads, land use, and school budgets.

And I met some pretty eccentric characters along the way.

I also gained an appreciation for the hard work and time that people give to make their towns good places to live. I don’t think there’s a more difficult volunteer job than being on a town’s selectboard. Unless it’s being on a school board.

Sooner or later, every reporter with a regular beat forges relationships with the people they’re covering. You chat and pass the time of day. You get information. You ask questions. You learn how things work and don’t work. And then, without trying to make it happen, you often become a confidante.

Most reporters I know will tell you of being on the receiving end of lots of personal information, information that has nothing to do with the story you’re writing. I’ve come to believe that good reporters are viewed in some of the same ways as therapists. We listen, we often keep our own opinions to ourselves, and people want to be heard. So when you give them the opportunity to talk, they do.

So the idea of creating a town full of people with lives to explore was a bit of natural selection. I love series with continuing characters such as Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street novels. It gives an author the simultaneous advantages of a fixed setting but a large enough cast to play with so that you can change your focus from book to book. I think I would get bored if I limited myself to writing about the same character over and over again.
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For example, in The Road Unsalted, I focus on the town postmaster, Ted Owens, and the unanticipated arrival of his young niece, Suzanna. They both appear in the second book, Thieves of Fire, but they are not the central story. Instead, my focus becomes a character who plays a very minor role in Road, a woman named Lydie Talbot.

Cover art by Judith Freeman Clark
Cover art by Judith Freeman Clark

In the third novel, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, I change focus again (which is one of the reasons I enjoy writing about a town) to investigate Carding’s vulnerability to outsiders with less-than-honorable intentions.

As for the artists, there are two inspirations for that. The first is that I wrote a lot about the arts for the Valley News. It’s amazing the number of painters, writers, sculptors, quilters, knitters, woodworkers, singers, cheese makers, beer brewers, dancers, theater folk, and music makers who choose to live in this wonderful place.

You use the device of blog posts to launch a number of your chapters. I know you’re an avid blogger. How does the blog work as a literary device in your story and what made you choose to include it?

Years ago, I read Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. She had two story lines going on in that book in two time periods and she used the device of a gossip column in a local newspaper as a way to show readers how the town in the novel changed. I loved the way she used that column to add color to her story, and I’ve long wanted to do something like it.

But it’s not really a new idea. Jane Austen used letters to forward the action in her books or to comment on characters. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used letters and telegrams in his Sherlock Holmes novels to do the same. To me, the modern equivalent of Fannie Flagg’s local news column was a blog devoted to local news.

You choose to introduce a dog, Nearly, in the novel and allow the reader to see the goings on in Carding from Nearly’s eyes. Why did you choose to do this? Will we be seeing more of Nearly in the future? I understand Nearly is based on your own dog Goldie. Can you tell us a bit of Goldie’s story?

The inspiration for Nearly was our cocker spaniel Goldie. Like all dog lovers, I think our little girl was special. She charmed my husband and I from the moment we brought her home, and began training us to do her bidding.

If you watch dog owners, you’ll soon realize that they talk for their pets. Our son nicknamed that activity “dog balloons” like the dialogue balloons that appear in comic strips. That’s what led to me looking at the world of Carding from Nearly’s perspective. What cracks me up is how much people respond to that. It seems that everyone loves Nearly, and gets how funny the world of people can look from a dog’s perspective.

By the way, Nearly’s name is an homage of sorts to one of my favorite characters, Nero Wolfe in the Rex Stout mysteries. (Nearly’s owner’s name is Edie Wolfe.) It’s also something of a comment on the origins of dogs since they are all “nearly wolf.”

You’ll also notice that Nearly’s best buddy is named R.G., a beagle owned by Ruth Goodwin. In the Rex Stout novels, the smart-mouthed narrator is named Archie Goodwin.

What can readers expect in the sequel?

Thieves of Fire picks up on questions that were left unanswered in The Road Unsalted.

Carding, Vermont would be just another little town in the Green Mountain state if it wasn’t for the Carding Academy of Traditional Arts. The academy’s main building is in the former home of a famous painter named Joseph Stillman Croft.

Now Croft was a great painter but a fairly lousy human being. In his will, Croft stipulated that the school had to keep a large painting called ‘Thieves of Fire’ in the building’s foyer. If the painting is moved by anyone but “its rightful owner”, the school forfeits its right to use Croft’s home.

No one knows what Croft meant by rightful owner except that that person’s last name is not Croft.

The painting is gloomy, filled with the gray light of November in Vermont. The main body of the piece is a stubbled cornfield. On the right stands a young woman, her face turned away from the viewer. On the left sits a large, ominous crow on the branch of a large tree. Thieves of Fire is unlike the colorful folk art that made Croft famous, and everyone who sees it takes an immediate dislike to it though they’re never sure why.

Thieves of Fire is about the story behind that painting and a whole lot more, of course, because there’s always something going on in Carding.

In the last book you experimented by including a dog’s perspective and using a blog to introduce us to the town, are there any new devices or techniques you try in the new book?

I’m playing with time and personal history in Thieves of Fire, not in the sense of time travel á la Dr. Who but in the sense that our pasts form our presents. It’s not just Joseph Stillman Croft’s past that haunts Carding but Edie Wolfe’s past as well. Who was the father of her children?

You self-publish your books. Did you ever consider going a more traditional route?

I consider myself an independent publisher. My definition of self-publishing is someone who pays for author services through a company such as iUniverse or Author House, something I would never do.

Publish Your Book Your Way
Publish Your Book Your Way

This is a huge question but my answer boils down to this: creative control.

I’ve been a professional writer since 1987. I started in newspapers then moved into magazines and then into book publishing. My career in book publishing coincided with the last years of traditional publishing’s dominance of the world of books. I left traditional publishing just as the new publishing paradigm, author controlled publishing, was made possible by changes in printing and book selling.

I’ve published three books with traditional publishers—one with St. Martin’s and two with Wiley Publishing. I had great people to work with in each case. But I know enough about how the industry works to understand its very real limitations.

I design book interiors and book covers. I know how to hire good editors and work with them to make my books the best they can be. I know how to manage distribution and sales. I’m comfortable with marketing my own work.

I never considered making my Carding novels available to traditional publishing because I didn’t see any advantage to doing that.


Author of the Carding, Vermont novels, quilt books, and book publishing guides.

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