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Meet Minnesota writer Dave Kenney, accidental historian

He did not even have a passing interest in History until he began working on his first book, “Northern Lights: The Stories of Minnesota’s Past.”

Dave Kenney
Dave Kenney

Dave Kenney didn’t know much about history. He wasn’t a history major in college, or even a minor. In fact, he admits, he did not even have a passing interest in the topic, right up until  the minute he started working on his first book, “Northern Lights: The Stories of Minnesota’s Past,” a high-school textbook that covers Minnesota history from the Ice Age to the present.

And then he found the career he didn’t know he’d been looking for, buried in the archives at the History Center.

“I really enjoy digging into dusty old boxes and looking through old documents and finding the pieces that allow me to create a story,” says the writer, who by necessity became a rigorous researcher, although he also relies on a team of Minnesota Historical Society historians for insights. “There have been a lot of times when I have felt that what I was doing was almost akin to being a private investigator or an investigative journalist.”

That’s the direction in which Kenney, who was actually a political science major, originally traveled. He graduated from St. Olaf in the early 1980s and sought a career in TV journalism, working in Virginia, North Carolina, and eventually Atlanta, where he moved out from behind the camera and became a writer for CNN. In 1997, he returned to Minnesota with his family and tried to make a living as a freelance writer.

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“I was struggling with that when I heard that the Minnesota Historical Society wanted to put out a revision to their Minnesota History textbook. I showed up at the information meeting, and there were about 40 desperate writers in a room in the basement. To be in the running for the project, they asked us to write, on spec, a full chapter of the book,” said Kenney. “I had no other work and was maybe more desperate than most, so I gave it a shot. I’d never written a book before and had never written about history. But I must have listened well to what they were asking for, and I ended up getting the job.”

The book went on to win a Minnesota Book Award and other recognitions, and Kenney is now wrapping up a new revision and accompanying e-book of the history. He’s written several other Minnesota history books, including “Twin Cities Picture Show, The Grain Merchants, and Minnesota Goes to War: The Home Front During World War II.” While there are probably more copies of North Store out there, read by — or at least assigned to — legions of schoolchildren, “Minnesota Goes to War” has been the book that Kenney gets the most response to from readers, many of whom want to talk with him about their own experiences during that time.

Northern LightsThe Minnesota Historical Society books have established Kenney as a deft writer of history, but he admits these projects aren’t terrifically lucrative. Instead, he makes his living by writing institutional and corporate histories. One of those titles, “Honor Bright: A Century of Scouting in Northern Star Council,” won the Reader’s Choice Award in the 2010 Minnesota Book Awards.

Kenney, along with Mary Lethert Wingerd, author of “North Country: The Making of Minnesota,” will appear on TPT’s Prized Writers series, airing for the first time on Aug. 26, discussing their research and writing processes, which Kenney says are quite different.

Meanwhile, Kenney is back in time again, working on a history of Minnesota in the 1970s. “The ’70s are ancient history now.  But this is sort of my wheelhouse — I graduated from high school in 1979,” says the writer, who hopes his book will come out next year to coincide with the iconic 1973 Time magazine cover featuring Gov. Wendell Anderson and “the Good Life in Minnesota.”

“There was a lot going on in that decade that explains how we got from late 1960s and everything that was happening then, to the early ’80s and the rise of conservatism. We got there through the 1970s. It’s a lot more interesting than disco balls and polyester suits. You’ll see.”

Event: Prized Writers, TPT-MN, Aug. 26, 8 p.m.