There’s something going on in Mankato. Although the city has just 50,000 people and is separated from the metropolitan arts scene by a long haul through corn country, it has an unusually high number of writers. The cost of living is low and distractions are few, which may help writers keep from wandering from the page, but a lot has to do with Mankato State University’s well-regarded MFA program, and with the fact that noted children’s publisher Capstone Press keeps offices in North Mankato.
Nick Healy, a graduate of the former and editorial director with the latter, moved to Mankato from St. Paul seven years ago, and discovered his life as a writer here.
“When I lived in St. Paul, I didn’t know other people who were writing fiction. There are a couple million people in the Twin Cities, and I didn’t know how to connect with them, although I suppose in hindsight I could have taken a class at the Loft,” said the Healy, whose collection of short stories, “It Takes You Over” (New Rivers Press), is out now.
“Here, it’s a relatively small community of writers, so it’s easy for us to find each other. I’ve been in a writing group for a long time with folks like Nicole Helget, Nate LaBoutillier, and Aaron Frisch. Rachel Hanel (hose memoir is coming out next year on University of Minnesota Press) is another person I trade pages with. Writers in this town help each other out.”
In his 20s, Healy worked as a journalist with Session Weekly magazine, a now defunct, non-partisan publication that tracked bills and policy at the Capitol. “I spent six legislative sessions there, and it was an interesting time. Towards the end, the Ventura administration came in, and that was not a great time. I think collectively everybody should be embarrassed about that. There was a moment when you thought there was great potential, but that didn’t last long.”
Filed away characters, anecdotes
But he did get a great story out of it. As he moved through his 20s, Healy filed away characters and anecdotes and kept thinking about turning them into fiction. When he neared 30, he realized that if he wanted to write, he needed to get going on it. So he and his wife quit their jobs, sold their house, and moved to Mankato, where Healy entered the MFA program. All those characters, many of them young men in their 20s, came back to him, and he began putting together short stories that capture that moment during the last recession when young people were adrift.
“The job market was terrible when I got out of college. I knew a lot of people who were smart, talented, had their degrees, but were having a hard time getting any traction in life,” he says. And that backdrop is relevant once again. “I feel for people coming out of high school or college today. I see young people work really hard for not much reward and go through difficult adjustments in their 20s.
“One time I saw Douglas Coupland [author of “Generation X”] and he’d just turned 31, and he said, ‘No one ever tells you that your 20s stink. And then you hit your 30s and life gets easier.’ And I didn’t get it then, but now I realize, yeah, he was right.”
Healy writes with enormous sympathy for his characters, mindful that one’s 20s are full of natural missteps — and sometimes the following decades, too. These are real people, sometimes kind and virtuous and often clumsy and unfocused and accidentally funny.
Stories developed over several years
The stories came together slowly, over several years as Healy delved into his work at Capstone (for which he has also written 20 children’s books) and began a family. He’s never been an “hour every day” writer, but instead wrote when he could, every few days in long stretches. The short story was the perfect form, delivering all the punch of longer fiction in a length that fit his life, and he loves and defends the oft-underappreciated short-fiction world. He recently spent a two-week stint at the Anderson Center, where he began work on what just may be a longer work — but he’s not committing to anything yet.
“Talking about writing a novel is sort of like talking about quitting smoking,” he says. “You want to really be sure you can pull it off before you start talking.”