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Thomas Maltman's dreams become fiction

Thomas Maltman
Thomas Maltman

A lot of writers have told me their book started with a dream. This makes those who don’t have that creative advantage more than a little jealous; after all, wouldn’t it be easy to have a story and characters delivered to you when you were snoozing? But it’s not so easy, it turns out, in the waking hours.

One night, Thomas Maltman heard the voice of a ruined man in his dreams. He woke up, wrote a couple of pages in that voice, and showed it to his wife. “She said, ‘This is the story you have to tell,’ but it was not an easy story to hear. The character was carrying a heavy weight, and the writer takes on that weight,” says Maltman.

That character, Grizz, turned out to be the devastated father of a teenaged boy who changed his town’s history with a gun. A familiar story, but Maltman tells it through the father, through a troubled teacher his son liked, and even through a pack of coyotes the boy raised from puppyhood after their mother was shot by Grizz. The sum is "Little Wolves," a heavy novel indeed, but one lifted by Maltman’s lush imagery and careful, evocative language.

This contemporary story is also adorned with fragments of mythology, as Maltman draws on Beowulf and centuries of wolf legends, as well as the distinct lore of rural Minnesota, to give his tale an otherworldly beauty. The Dakota-U.S. War of 1862, which featured prominently in Maltman’s first novel, "The Night Birds," has an enduring presence in this small-town setting, as does the more recent drama of the corporatization of family farms and the impact that has on farming communities.

“I was raised mostly in Oregon and California, traveling a lot because my dad was in the military. He really instilled in me the importance of understanding and appreciating the history of every place we lived. Even if it wasn’t our place, we needed to be aware of their stories,” said Maltman, who grew up devouring books and wanting to “give back to the world of literature by writing one.” He ultimately ended up in Mankato, where he completed an MFA at Mankato State University, and wrote much of what became "The Night Birds."

Today he teaches at Normandale Community College. “I found myself fascinated with Minnesota history, and living in a place near where so much happened," he said in an interview. "The War of 1862 is still very much remembered there; many Dakota people refuse to set foot in that town even today.”

Book's themes resonate

"Little Wolves" draws more from dreams than from history, but its themes resonate with current events. It was written before the shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newton, Conn., and it’s actually set in the 1980s, in a small Minnesota town. “It’s not a new story. It has happened again and again. The novelist’s job is not to provide answers to why these things keep happening, but to remind us that they will happen again and again until we confront the factors that make it possible,” said Maltman.

"In the meantime, fiction helps us process, if not understand. Why does evil happen? What do we do in the wake of something terrible? A story doesn’t provide answers, but it does provide experiences and catharsis. And it helps us remember. People have already largely forgotten Newton. But we need to face that boy with the gun. We can do that in fiction.”

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