Greensboro resident, author and photographer Lee Zacharias has won The Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction for her 2018 novel, “Across the Great Lake.”
The story is about Fern Halvorson’s adventure with her father on a big, powerful ship that he captained across the frigid Lake Michigan. The 5-year-old delights in rough language and eating with the crew, even as her mother at home is dying. Then a ghost ship appears that presages danger for all.
Zacharias agreed to answer some questions for us.
How long have you lived in Greensboro?
For 38 years, I have lived in the same old house in Sunset Hills, which was recently featured as the nicest place in North Carolina. It’s a wonderful neighborhood, and I feel privileged to live here, to sit out on my screened porch with a book come 5 o’clock in season, to sit in front of the fire with a book once it turns dark and cold, to walk the streets and to have the opportunity to chat with great neighbors.
You were born in Chicago, so you have Midwestern ties. Does that have anything to do with this book being set on Lake Michigan?
I was born in Chicago, and after the age of 5 grew up in what was then the Steel Belt, now the Rust Belt, in Indiana’s Calumet Region on Lake Michigan’s industrial southernmost side. I have never lived in Michigan, but yes, having grown up in the Midwest drew me back. I hated where I lived, but once, when I was a girl, my family vacationed for a few days in Frankfort, Mich. I was so struck by its beauty it stayed in my head.
At 12, I thought anyone who lived there would have a perfect life, but of course a novel is no place for a perfect life. I got to live out a childhood fantasy by writing this novel, but it was not the fantasy I imagined as a child. There is always an ugly side of any harbor — the side where industry used to take place — but I didn’t see that side when I went to Frankfort on vacation as a child. And though my narrator sees it only peripherally, her privilege has a devastating result.
No writer can ever explain fully what fired a novel, because there are so many factors, but I do know that I was both jealous of my narrator’s privilege and aware of what harm it would cause. I fell in love with the place years later, when I went back, but from the beginning, I knew that my narrator would live on the “good side” of the harbor and do irreparable harm to someone who lived on the “bad side.”
Your first book, “Lessons,” won The Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, too. What does it mean to have a second book win this honor?
Oh my! When my first novel won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award, I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t know it was a contest; I didn’t know my novel was entered. I was happy, of course, and I got to share a stage with Andy Griffith! But when you are young and good things happen, you take them for granted.
Nothing is for granted now. I had no idea who was competing for the award when I won it back in 1982, but I know who was competing this time around, and I am truly humbled.
Any award depends on the judges’ taste, perhaps even the life circumstances in which they read your book that day. I went through a long time of not getting my books published. It’s too complicated a story to tell here, but I kept writing. I’ve come back and to be honored in this way means more than I can say.
To be honored as a North Carolina writer, to be accepted in the community I didn’t grow up in, no grandparents, no stories, no porch swings, no sweet tea? Well, wow, just wow!
Are you planning to write more books? Do you have anything in the works already?
I am co-editing an anthology titled “Runaway” that will be released by Madville Publishing this spring. The University of Wisconsin Press will release a paperback edition of “Across the Great Lake” this spring.
Madville will be publishing a new novel titled “What a Wonderful World It Could Be” in the spring of 2021, and I’ve been working on re-ordering some chapters and perfecting every line of that. But yes, I am working on another book: It’s a memoir about my mother titled “Undeclared Wars, Unspoken Truces,” and I have a another book of essays titled “Lies and Desires” in circulation.
What else would you like for us to know about you?
I am a photographer. Words seem to have taken over lately, but I am as committed to the visual image as I am to the images I create with words. People ask me constantly about the cross-pollination, and I deny it because I think so differently when I am writing and when I am photographing. But there is a connection I can explain only in this way: Even in the most abstract photographs I make, I am documenting something.
All of my work, verbal and photographic, is to me documentary. I am so much older than I was the first time I won The Sir Walter Raleigh Award. I want to leave a record, not of myself, but what of I witnessed, what I researched, what I imagined.