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Author Charles Baxter’s back with ‘The Soul Thief’

Charles Baxter
Photo by Keith E. Johnson
Charles Baxter

One more reason ditching the car is a novel idea: Walking could help you become a better writer. It works for Charles Baxter, anyhow.

Nearly every day, Baxter bundles up and hikes from his home in Minneapolis’ Lowry Hill neighborhood to a solitary studio on Lake Street. The half-hour walk clears his mind of the actual world; by the time he arrives, his characters have become real and are ready to talk to him.

An actual character and incident, however, inspired his latest book, “The Soul Thief.”

Baxter will read from “The Soul Thief” at 7 p.m. tonight (Feb. 28) as part of the Talk of the Stacks series at the Minneapolis Central Library.

“Somebody once went around claiming to be me,” says Baxter, whose best-known novel to date is “The Feast of Love,” later made into a movie. “He was going around giving readings in Southern California as Charles Baxter. He was a friend of mine, and I didn’t know he was doing it.”

A different kind of identity theft
This bizarre violation of his identity stuck with Baxter for 27 years, and finally became an element in this latest novel, in which he explores the nature of identity to the individual as well as on a national, cultural level.

“We think of identity theft as somebody stealing your Visa card,” he says. “In the literature of the double, however, it’s much more than that. It’s somebody trying to vampirize your soul,” he says.

The book begins in Buffalo, N.Y., a traditional manufacturing city, and ends up in Los Angeles, “where images are manufactured. Buffalo is what we used to be and L.A. is what we are now.”

Perhaps that’s why Baxter is most comfortable in the Midwest. Things are more solid and immutable here, right? He grew up in the Twin Cities and attended Macalester College before heading out to explore other locales, including Detroit, New York and eventually, Ann Arbor, Mich., where he taught at the University of Michigan.

In 2003, he and his wife returned to Minneapolis, making him truly a Minnesota writer again — although, as one of the most successful novelists to hail from these parts, he has been claimed by the local writing community since he left town after college, decades ago.

His greatest success to date has been “The Feast of Love.” (He estimates it’s sold about 300,000 copies.) “The Soul Thief” is the first book he has written since his return to Minnesota.

So what happened to Baxter’s real-life soul thief? “I told him that we would never talk again, and that he would have to tell people that he was not Charles Baxter, that I was Charles Baxter, and I’ve only seen him twice since then,” he says. Does the fellow seem embarrassed? “Oh, yes. Wouldn’t you be?”

Go early
The Talk of the Stacks series has been attracting increasingly large crowds. A few weeks ago, the Erdrich sisters’ event attracted more than 600 people; the latecomers were funneled into a couple of overflow rooms to watch the reading on screens.

It just goes to show that people will scoff at the cold and turn out for a book event — especially a free one. Given the success of MPR’s Talking Volumes events, which charge $12-$15, perhaps the Friends of the Library should ask for a couple bucks, too. They need it.  

Charles Baxter, Talk of the Stacks
Where: Minneapolis Central Library, Pohlad Hall
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28
How much: Free
Phone: 612-630-6174

Upcoming pick

Poets Norman Minnick and Thomas R. Smith: Local publisher Mid-List Press has just released Norman Minnick’s collection titled “To Taste the Water,” a series of meditations that range from his domestic ruminations to observations of the natural world. Minnick and Wisconsin poet Thomas R. Smith, a frequent Loft instructor, will read at 7 p.m. Saturday (March 1) at Magers and Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis. Free.

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