GENA KITNER For the State Gazette
Patti See is no stranger to Chippewa County’s Lake Hallie. She grew up in nearby Chippewa Falls and in her 40s bought a house on (almost) the lake. The movement inspired and connected her to many of the people highlighted in her collection of essays, “Here on Lake Hallie: In Praise of Barflies, Fix-I Guys, and Other Folks in Our Attown,” published this summer by Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
Since publication, she has traveled from Madison to Merrill, reading in coffee shops, bookstores and bars, sharing essays that, while focused on the Chippewa Valley, are relatable to anyone who has ever fished, drank or shared a fire. with anyone in Wisconsin.
Q: As part of your book promotion, you’ve held “author happy hours” at various taverns in and around Chippewa Falls. Do you read the same essays every time?
People are also reading…
A: I actually change it. I’m always thinking about audience and purpose, so when I’m in Merrill, a small town, I picked two stories really related to Chippewa Falls. When I go to bars I read the Shake-a-Day section or a tavern section. I will read the part, but I will also tell the story behind it. Because I wrote most of these pieces for the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, often the back story I didn’t write about was very interesting, (but) I either didn’t have room or didn’t want to embarrass people. So (in the course of events), I show how I managed to write it.
Q: I know you’ve written a lot and published widely. Is Here on Lake Hallie your first book? How was he born?
A: It’s not my first book. I published a book of poetry, The Bluff of Love, in 2005, but I also did an anthology/textbook, Higher Learning: Reading and Writing for College. I did three editions of this. This is really the first collection of prose that is entirely my own. I am very excited about this. My husband and I moved to Lake Hallie in 2010 and I grew up coming to Lake Hallie. I swam in the lake and played here throughout my childhood and adolescence. I knew some of the neighbors, but not all of them, and I knew them and I’d come home after kayaking on the lake and I’d tell (my husband) Bruce these great stories and he’d say, “Somebody’s got to do something with this.”
I ended up getting a grant at UW-Eau Claire to hire two public history students, and for two months we collected the oral histories of the people who lived longest in Lake Hallie. What the students did was create a short video about Hallie Lake (using) still photos and excerpts from oral histories. Then I was offered this column in Leader Telegram (where) once a month I write about something. I really focused a lot on Lake Hallie. I could only look out my window and there is something I can say 1000 words about.
Q: You mention in some of the essays how even though you grew up in Chippewa Falls, near Lake Hallie, you never thought you’d live there as an adult. However now you do. How did you come to turn back; and what was the attraction?
A: What’s funny is that I grew up in Chippewa Falls and moved all the way to Eau Claire – the big city of Eau Claire – 15 or 20 minutes away. I lived there for a long time. My not-yet-husband and I both had a dream of living on the water and we both owned homes in Eau Claire. At the time Bruce was retired—he’s a retired English professor from UW-Eau Claire—and we looked at sites on the Chippewa River, the Eau Claire River, and I reached out to Helen Sabaska (who owned land on the lake) and said, ” I would love to live in Lake Hallie.” She said I would like to sell you land but I have three children and I have to save it for the children but I will find you a house on Lake Hallie.
A week or two later, (she calls and says) “I found you a home.” So I cold called this 80 year old woman and told her about myself. She said, “My guys are handling (the sale) and we’ll have an open house in two weeks.” We made an offer … they accepted our offer. It is simply a truly unique property. The foundation is actually in the water, which really shocked Bruce.
Q: Many of your essays are about small, everyday occurrences—the joys and struggles of aging parents; the guy who empties your septic tank; the feeling that you have a ghost in your house. However, when you write about them, they become humorous or poignant or both. How do you decide what to write about in your life? How do you find the bigger story?
A: Because I have a once-a-month deadline, I’m always looking (for story ideas). I never feel like (the deadline) looms over me. I am always working on three or four columns at the same time. I often start with a scrap – it can be anything. For example, I spent two months preparing Bruce’s old family home for re-renting after the same tenants moved out after 10 years. I think of all the people who loved that house and how I worked in silence for 8 hours a day – it was truly a meditation. I knew I wanted to do something with it. As soon as you sit down to write about something, you realize you have a lot to say about it. I do a lot of ideas. I live with a great editor who doesn’t let me get over my sentimentality. He takes me inside.
Q: Collecting oral histories—of your family and neighbors in Hallie Lake—seems to be an important part of your life. Why is this so important?
A: My mother was dying of Alzheimer’s and … I knew she would lose the ability to speak and smile. I just turned on the recorder while we were doing things… I did an interview with my dad and one of my mom’s sisters. I just want to hear my parents’ voices. In many ways it’s more intimate than having a video. For a while I was very into recording. My best friend would come over and we would have a drink and retell some of our stories. We’d listen to it the next day and be like, “We’ve got to delete this, they’re so terrible.” (But) at some point, they too will be a treasure.
Q: Did you find people were happy to sign up?
A: I had to change my technique. My student assistant Pa-Nhia Xiong and I went to two houses every Saturday morning. Everyone wanted to feed us. We had to pace ourselves. Helen was so chatty and tells the best stories, but we just hit the record on the laptop (her answers were) “yes” and “that was good”. I realized what was scary was being recorded. I invested in a handheld tape recorder … and started holding the recorder in my hand. It still picked up our voices perfectly, but it wasn’t as heavy and obvious for the number of people (who were) very guarded.
Q: Are you the official – or unofficial – historian of Lake Hallie?
A: People may want to call me that. I know my neighbors so well, but Helen Sabaska – she really is the historian. Nellie Dutton Erickson, she is certainly the historian. My check-in with her only lasts about an hour, but she has a story about everything at Lake Hallie. The books and projects I’ve worked on … people may want to give me that name, but really there are others more worthy.
Q: I saw that in addition to being a counselor at UW-Eau Claire, you teach a creative nonfiction course—which describes your essays perfectly. For non-university types who want to write about their families in a creative, non-fiction way like you, how do you get started?
A: I have worked there since 1993 and hope to retire next year. Bruce and I teach memoir writing together at the Heyde Arts Center in Chippewa Falls. I teach an online writing class for adults. For those audiences, one of the things we advocate is starting small. The last time we held this memoir writing class, we had a 95-year-old woman and her 92-year-old sister-in-law. When they wrote, they tried to be really big, they tried to give an insight. Trying to get people who have so much lived experience to start with the minute (can be a challenge). What I think is helpful in terms of a jumping off point is to describe something very small … one day in the summer, describing what your kitchen looked like.
Q; What are you writing now? Interested in writing another book?
A: I’m just starting to think that Here on Lake Hallie is not just a book, but maybe a brand. I could write many, many more stories about living here. Or a script. I’m already thinking about (a book called) Still on Lake Hallie. I definitely have that manuscript in the works.
“I could just look out my window and there’s something I could say 1,000 words about.”