She lives to write, and the writing will live on
Posted: 02/05/2012 12:01:00 AM CST
Emily Meier got the news on her birthday almost three years ago: She was in stage four of metastatic breast cancer after being cancer-free for 5-1/2 years.
Now, her bones are disintegrating. She uses a wheelchair because of a hip fracture, and she wears a big brace to alleviate pain from a compression fracture in her neck and back.
“I have lived longer than expected,” Meier says, wheeling herself into the cozy study of her condo on St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill. “In the fall of 2009, the doctors said I realistically had a year and a half to live, and I’m a year past that.”
Meier, a diminutive 67-year-old, describes her physical condition candidly. She knows it’s something she has to explain before she gets to what she really wants to talk about – her writing and her six independently published books.
“I want the fictional worlds I’ve created to have a chance at a life separate from mine,” she says of the books she has been writing most of her adult life.
Without knowing anything about publishing, Meier created Sky Spinner Press to bring out her two story collections and four novels. Although she was – and is – undergoing chemotherapy that often leaves her weak, she published the beautiful books in just nine months in paperback and e-book formats.
That feat may be unprecedented.
Mary Byers, who copy edited Meier’s books, says it’s unheard of to bring out so many books in such a short time.
“Most traditional publishers take a year to get out one book,” says Byers, a former University of Minnesota Press managing editor. She has worked for Minnesota literary publishers as well as Oxford and Cambridge university presses.
“This was a marathon,” Byers recalls. “But Emily made no big deal about it. She was absolutely focused. Bringing out six books doesn’t mean she threw them together. She’s worked on her writing for years, and it shows.”
Meier’s books are already on the shelves of Bookends on Main in Menomonie, Wis., owned by her friend Susan Thurin. The women met more than 30 years ago when they and their husbands were on the faculty of what was then Stout State University.
“It is astounding that Emily was able to publish these books in a short time, handling much of the detail and putting together an incredible website,” Thurin says. “Anyone else in her physical state is incapable of concentrating on anything. I speak from experience, having gone through surgery and chemo.”
Jeenee Lee, who designed the books, describes Meier as “fearless.”
She recalls their email exchanges this way:
“It was crazy. Emily would be like: ‘Thanks for the sketches. I just finished chemo and will be out for a couple of days. As soon as I’m feeling better I’ll be raring to go.’ ”
Meier didn’t publish her books so she could see her name in print. She already has a track record that would make many writers happy: Her honors include Minnesota State Arts Board and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and Loft Mentor and Loft McKnight awards. Her stories have been published in national literary journals, and she’s won national fiction contests at Florida Review and Passages North. One of her stories is in “The Second Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories.”
“I’ve had five agents over the years, but because of bad luck or bad timing I’d never gotten over the finish line with a big publisher,” Meier says.
“One morning I realized I didn’t have a lot of time left. and I was going to do this, start a real press. When you are sick and losing a lot of things in life you can concentrate on what you can do.”
Meier funded her $25,000 publishing project partly with a small nest egg she was saving for end-of-life expenses.
“I could probably rely on our supplemental insurance for what I’ll need,” she says, anticipating hospice care. “I decided I’d rather do the books than have a perfect last days experience, whatever that might be.”
WRITING, ALWAYS WRITING
Meier settles her wheelchair in front of a tall bookcase.
“This is my warehouse,” she jokes, gesturing to copies of her books stacked on the shelves. She’s joined by her husband, Robert, a retired professor and photographer whose work has been shown in the Twin Cities.
“I’ve always supported Emily’s writing,” Meier says. His wife adds that he’s learned to cook “a few things” so she could concentrate on her publishing project.
Friends describe Emily and Bob Meier similarly: “smart” and “literate.” But Emily Meier admits she has a hard time putting herself first, and that’s what she’s going to have to do as she figures out how to market her books.
“I was raised by my parents to be modest,” she says. “As a Girl Scout I’d say, ‘You don’t want to buy cookies, do you?’ I’m willing to talk about my cancer because that might lead people to read my books. But I like to think this wouldn’t be a story at all if my writing didn’t have merit.”
And it definitely has merit, according to Paulette Bates Alden, a former University of Minnesota Edelstein-Keller writer-in-residence. Alden and Meier became friends when Meier was in the university’s writing program and Alden signed off on her creative writing requirement. For years, they have traded manuscripts and critiqued one another’s work.
“Emily did not go into this project out of vanity or desperation,” said Alden, a published fiction writer and memoirist. “She believes in her work, and she’s right to. She is a writer who’s arrived at her full talent.”
One of Meier’s most perceptive readers is Eileen Hunter, a partner in the Minneapolis law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels. They met in a poetry course at the University of Minnesota more than 20 years ago.
“Emily is a masterful short-story writer,” said Hunter, who holds a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota. “My view of her as a writer is she was born at the wrong moment. If she had been writing 60 years ago, she’d have been perceived as a gifted writer who had a lot to say about American culture. Her books are not beach reading. It’s more like Faulkner. Every clause is there for a reason.”
Hunter and Meier’s other friends are amused by Emily’s story about briefly seeing a physician – she refers to him as “Dr. Death” – who implied she should just go to bed and give up on life.
“Emily could have spent three years sitting around waiting to die,” Hunter said. “Instead she did what she loved – went to her desk. If you put 100 people in Emily’s position, she is the only one who could have pulled this off. What incredible focus and determination it took not to give in to the pain.”
Sky Spinner Press is incorporated as a for-profit business with Meier’s son, Adam, and her daughter, Whitney Meier Ferrer, as owners and officers.
“I’ve tried to put things in place for when I am not here and they can go on without me,” Meier said.
GROWING UP, GROWING A FAMILY
Meier’s parents, Mark and Marianne Moran, moved their family often when her dad worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Her mother taught English at a high school, which was “a scandal in the ’50s, to have a working mother.”
By 1955 the family was living in St. Cloud, where Moran was the first administrator of a young offenders program at the Minnesota Correctional Facility and then an associate superintendent. He also served as associate warden at the prison in Stillwater.
“One of my dad’s legacies is my sense of humor,” Meier said.
Emily and Robert, who met at Brown University in Providence, R.I., moved to Menomonie in 1968. Robert taught full time at Stout State, where Emily taught history, literature, composition and creative writing “off and on.” Whitney was born in 1970 and Adam three and a half years later. (Both are married and each has three sons.)
Adam and Whitney recall their mother was always writing, but she also tended a big garden and spent time with them after school.
“My mother is the healthiest sick person you can be,” said Whitney, a lawyer who lives in Atlanta. “She was always careful about what she eats. We had her homemade granola for breakfast. She is very focused on whatever she does. Decidedly self-disciplined.”
That self-discipline helped Emily finish compiling a scrapbook of family photos for her kids and grandkids as well as a bound collection of her recipes.
“My mom’s a great cook. I can call her anytime about how long to cook potatoes,” said Adam, who works on NGO grant programs for the State Department in Washington, D.C. “I’m especially partial to her cannoli.”
Whitney said both her parents have a quick wit: “They kept a dictionary under the front seat of the car to solve arguments about words.”
When the Meier kids left the nest, Robert and Emily moved to St. Paul in 1992.
Among the friends they made were poets Al Greenberg, then a teacher at Macalester College, and his wife, Janet Holmes.
“We met Emily and Bob at an ongoing TGF afternoon reading event for writers at a bar on Selby and Dale,” Greenberg recalled.
“Emily was always talking about family research she was doing, and that interested me because I was doing genealogical research myself,” he said. (Meier’s research was for her Civil War novel “Suite Harmonic,” inspired by the letters of her great-grand-father.)
“Emily is a good storyteller, and her writing shows the effects of her careful research,” Greenberg says. “I read an early version of ‘Suite Harmonic’ and she handled details very well – the setting, characters, context of the time.”
“Suite Harmonic” is Meier’s biggest novel (535 pages) and the first to be published by Sky Spinner.
SKY SPINNER IS BORN
After Meier’s second cancer diagnosis, Adam suggested his mother look into self-publishing.
“At first, I didn’t want to do it because too many self-published books screamed ‘homemade,’ ” Meier recalls. “But after a senior literary agent turned me down, I began thinking I might not spend any more time looking for agents but just do things myself.”
Eileen Hunter thinks Meier has been ignored by New York publishers because she doesn’t put herself at the center of her writing.
“Emily is not a memoirist, not a confessional writer,” Hunter said. “In the last 20 years, publishers have been drawn to writers who open a vein on the page where they can publicize their personality. That is not who Emily is and not what she writes.”
The first thing Meier did as an independent publisher was put together a team of “serious professionals” who could help her create the highest-quality books.
Byers signed on as copy editor, joined by graphic designer Lee, who has created covers for books such as Graywolf Press’ “Out Stealing Horses.” Richard Molby helped set up a Web presence, on which Meier talks in-depth about her writing process and her books. (Go to emilymeier.com/media-kit/faq.)
Byers and Lee see Meier as an example for would-be self-publishers.
“Emily’s project proves that you can do this if you are passionate enough about what you have created and willing to put time into it and make it beautiful,” Lee said.
Meier also offers encouragement to rejection-weary writers.
“Many artists and writers who’ve tried hard to do good work go to their graves feeling like failures,” she said. “More should leave some kind of record of their work. If they can’t sell it, put it in a book. I am passionate about the importance of having art in our lives.”
Meier thinks the name Sky Spinner popped into her imagination during a second course of radiation, and it says something about her vision of her future.
“I was lying in this lead-lined room and the tech forgot to turn the light on,” she recalled. “In the dark I looked at this sky scene on the ceiling. I don’t have much idea of eternity, but I wouldn’t mind if I was floating the galaxies, seeing what’s out there in the universe.”
Mary Ann Grossmann can be reached at 651-228-5574.
EMILY MEIER TITLES
“Suite Harmonic: A Civil War Novel of Rediscovery” – In the 1850s, a young Irishman who has abandoned his studies for the priesthood arrives in New Harmony, Ind., and finds himself in love with the town’s most alluring woman and immersed in the violence of war.
Meier: “Cuts a wide swath through the 19th century – Irish-American immigration, life in a community that was founded to be a utopia, the western and eastern theaters of the Civil War and life on the homefront.”
“The Second Magician’s Tale” – A young woman rejoins a colorful group of traveling players as a replacement for her deceased magician husband; her precarious state imperils the entire troupe, including a strongman, a snake tamer and a clown.
Meier: “The most unusual and fully imagined of the novels.”
“Time Stamp” – How parents’ lives affect their children through their untold or barely told stories. Told in alternating narratives that open in 1911 when 11-year-old Will is on the periphery of a lynching and in 1997 when Will’s daughter is attending a London retrospective of her photos of refugee camps.
Meier: “At a time when America is again in political foment and in a war its citizens are uncertain about, this novel tells the story of one family altered by world events.”
“Clare, Loving: A Novel in Three Novellas” – Traveling from present-day Chicago to the bicentennial summer of 1976 and to Minnesota in the late 1950s, this is the story of Clare McHenry, whose estrangements from her mother and daughter are shaped by religion, men, silence and time.
Meier: “This book and ‘Time Stamp’ have unusual chronology and would be good book-club choices.”
“In the Land of the Dinosaur” and “Watching Oksana”
(Short story collections)
Meier: “Story collections for those who don’t have a lot of sustained reading time. The stories in ‘Dinosaur’ are linked by the landscape of rural Wisconsin; the Oksana stories are linked more by theme, with characters whose stories are humorous, exciting, revelatory and heartbreaking.”
Text © and courtesy St. Paul Pioneer Press, 2012
Pictures courtesy Sky Spinner Press
Sky Spinner Press Note: All books are available in ebook editions for $9.99.