A couple of years ago, over dinner, Charles Baxter told his friend Louise Erdrich about a book he was reading on the 1918 flu epidemic. One passage described a folkloric cure that involved placing a mirror into flowing water and then washing the reflected face.
“And I told Louise about that, and she said, ‘Well, if you don’t use that, I’m going to,’ ” Baxter recalled.
He didn’t give her the chance — the mirror cure now appears in Baxter’s new novel, “The Sun Collective,” in one of the strangest and most magical scenes in a novel filled with strangeness and magic.
The novel — his sixth — is set in Minneapolis, where Baxter lives and where he taught for 18 years in the University of Minnesota’s MFA program in creative writing. The nationally renowned writer and teacher retired rather quietly in May. COVID kept things low-key, but that was fine with him.
“I didn’t want to make a big fuss about it,” Baxter said. He was concerned that a retirement tribute might have a “pre-funeral quality.” His preferred plan was to have some of his former students return and do readings from their own books to raise money for hunger relief — a cause Baxter has been involved with for years. But that idea was torpedoed by COVID, as well.
In the end, Baxter taught the last two months of his classes by Zoom from his home near Loring Park. Some of his books remain locked in his old office at the U.
In touch with the zeitgeist
“The Sun Collective” opens and closes on the light rail and it winds, just as the Blue Line does, through Minneapolis neighborhoods. The story follows a retired engineer named Brettigan, who is not very different from Baxter himself: smart, thoughtful, empathetic, nearly overwhelmed by the social problems of his city and country. The book is populated with hippies and charlatans and homeless people and people who start out earnestly hoping to do good but who end up doing harm.
In the novel, the gap between rich and poor is growing wider, homelessness is on the rise, and the country has elected a president who brags and berates and treats his job like a game show. Baxter started writing the novel about a year before Donald Trump was elected president, but he could see what was coming.
“You didn’t have to be a prophet to notice that he was getting crowds and that a lot of people both on the left and the right — more on the right, I think — were unhappy,” Baxter said.
“I gave a reading in a small Minnesota town that had once had a factory and the labor had been outsourced, and the people in the town were telling me how angry and upset they were. You put all these things together and try to find a story that will support the feelings that you’re noticing.”
That kind of noticing, he says, is a writer’s job.
“I think fiction writers try to tell what it’s like — what it feels like to be alive at any particular point,” he said. “And I guess I was just starting to feel this upsurge of rage years ago when I started this book.”
There are elements of magic throughout the novel — not just in the mirror scene, but in a surreal drive through a blizzard, and scenes where dogs and cats speak. (The dogs, as you might imagine, are kinder and more empathetic than the cats.)
Though the settings of the novel are instantly recognizable — the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minnehaha Falls, Como Park, Uptown, the Mall of America (here renamed the Utopia Mall) — the book itself teeters on the edge of realism.
“This novel, especially, is very close to the dream world,” Baxter said. “It’s running a low-grade fever. The feeling is more that of realism that sometimes bleeds into a slightly hallucinatory moment.”
Writer, teacher of renown
In addition to his six novels, Baxter, 73, is the author of six collections of short stories, three collections of poetry (though he only likes one of them) and two books of essays, both published by Graywolf Press of Minneapolis. He also edited Graywolf’s “The Art of …” series of books on the craft of writing and won a Minnesota Book Award for his contribution, “The Art of Subtext,” a book that he dedicated to his students.
His work has been honored over the years with awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Rea Award for the Short Story, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He’s won the Minnesota Book Award twice, has been included in the Pushcart Prize anthology 12 times and in “Best American Short Stories” eight times.
His novel “The Feast of Love” was a finalist for the National Book Award and was made into a movie with Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander.
“He is a deeply creative, attentive, generous and open-minded reader,” said Fiona McCrae, Graywolf’s publisher, who is editing Baxter’s next essay collection, “Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature,” to be published in 2022.
“His craft talks and essays weave in personal material in such a way as to teach you something new about the nature of writing and reduce you to tears at the same time. Quite the combination!”
For more than 30 years, Baxter also taught in Warren Wilson College’s long-distance MFA program in North Carolina, and taught most summers at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont. He is well-known for being a supportive mentor to his students, focusing on the structure of their work rather than passing judgment.
This care, he says, came from his own difficult experiences.
“I had a terrible time as a young writer,” Baxter said. “I took a lot of abuse from agents and editors in those days. I wrote three or four novels that were not published. One of them went to an agent who called me up and said, ‘You want to know what I think about your book? I hate it. Why do I hate it? You tell me. Tell me why I hate your novel. Is it the characters? The plot? What is it, Charlie?’
“I felt dizzy and my mouth went dry. My wife was pregnant, my mother was dying, and there this woman was, telling me to explain to her why she hated my book.
“To the extent that I have tried to help young writers it is partly because I had these traumatic experiences. I just felt nobody should have to go through this.”
Writer Ethan Rutherford moved to Minnesota specifically to study with Baxter. “That was, and is, his reputation; people spoke of him so highly,” said Rutherford, who graduated from the U’s MFA program in 2009 and whose second story collection will be published in 2021.
“When I arrived here, he was welcoming, open, kind, and somehow I knew then — as I know now — that it would be my great good luck in life to have had him as a teacher. He didn’t treat those of us in his classes like his students, he treated us like the writers we so wanted to be.”
After Rutherford worked, in vain, on one story for three years, Baxter “gently put his hand on my shoulder and said: ‘Sometimes art doesn’t work out, sometimes you have to let it go.’ I dropped that bomb of a story right then and there, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for that. Not every idea is a good one.”
Fighting hunger through art
Before COVID, Baxter rode city buses all over Minneapolis and took light rail each morning to the U. Anything he saw or overheard was fair game for his work.
“You use what’s around you,” he said. And what was around him was people. Conversations with panhandlers and street people found their way into his book, nearly verbatim.
“If somebody seems to want to talk to me, I’ll talk to them,” Baxter said. “It’s not as if I’m always in conversation with the homeless. But sometimes they seem like they want to talk and so I do.”
One man told him that he slept most nights on the light rail. Another man he encountered in the skyway was in distress, on all fours, unable to rise. Both appear in “The Sun Collective.”
Hunger and homelessness have been important issues for Baxter for years. His annual U readings to benefit the Second Harvest food shelf raised more than $15,000 over 11 years.
Parts of “The Sun Collective” arose, Baxter said, “from the feeling of ‘What should a person do. What should we be doing for these people?’ It sort of arises from the first page of the novel and it just goes as preoccupation all the way through.”
A life of ‘lordly solitude’
Baxter was born in Minneapolis and grew up outside of Excelsior after his father, an insurance salesman, died and his mother remarried. It was a lonely place to grow up, he told Belt Magazine in a 2015 interview.
“We lived in lordly solitude,” he said then. “My stepfather had these grand ideas of living out in the country on an estate. My brothers and I were the poor relations who happened to live there.”
He attended the Blake School and Macalester College in St. Paul and later taught school in the small town of Pinconning, Mich., before earning a doctorate at the University of Buffalo. For years he taught in the MFA program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, some years running the program, before moving back to Minnesota in 2002 to become the Edelstein-Keller Professor of Writing in the U’s MFA program.
“Hiring Charlie Baxter in 2002 gave our creative writing program a prominence it would otherwise never have gained; it lifted us from ‘very good’ status to the ranks of the very top,” said Julie Schumacher, who also teaches in the program.
“There are a lot of excellent writers in the U.S., but very few of those excellent writers are also excellent teachers and generous mentors and colleagues. Charlie has been all of the above. We will miss him so much!”
Mirrors and chickens
Louise Erdrich doesn’t remember the dinner conversation about the flu pandemic and the mirror. “Maybe it was pushed aside by Charles Baxter’s knowledge of chickens,” she said.
One of her daughters had rescued a rooster that had been abandoned in a park. It crowed every morning at 5 a.m., “and I was desperate to move it to the garage, but I didn’t know how to keep it warm during a cold snap,” Erdrich said.
“Charlie said to use a light bulb, one of the kind that warms up. I ended up using a string of old Christmas lights. Every night I fell asleep knowing that thanks to Charles Baxter I had a rooster in my garage enjoying colored lights in a coop beneath a blanket.
“This was the most useful bit of advice I’d ever been given by a writer, but more than that, Charles Baxter’s work has given me quiet direction and infinite literary satisfaction.”
Charles Baxter, renowned author, teacher, friend to the poor and savior of chickens.
‘The Sun Collective’ book launch events
What: Charles Baxter will debut his new novel, “The Sun Collective,” in a virtual appearance with his former student Mike Alberti, who will launch his debut collection of stories at the same time. The event will be moderated by V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell.
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 17.
Where: Moon Palace Books. Register at bit.ly/3eoHTj8.
More: Baxter will also have a virtual event at 7 p.m. Nov. 23, hosted by Next Chapter Booksellers. Register at bit.ly/34QCdLF.