SUPERIOR, Wis. — Carol Dunbar stepped through the woods as fallen leaves crunched beneath her feet. Her homestead south of Superior includes the main residence, her husband’s workshop and a water tower. Living off the grid, the structure is a necessity for the homestead’s water pressure — and for Dunbar’s work.
“Me getting into this water tower was finding a space where I could shut a door behind me to create,” she said. “I wouldn’t want any other kind of office, but it definitely has its challenges.”
The novelist and freelance ghostwriter’s computers, manuscripts and books all reside under what some might consider to be their worst enemy: “There are literally two 250-gallon tanks of water over my head right now,” she said.
Yes, her office has flooded several times.
“It’s like being in a room that’s pouring rain. It’s awful, and I’ve had to make peace with that.”
To see her work be so vulnerable makes it that much more endearing. “I know there’s a really interesting metaphor about art and risk,” she added.
There’s no other space on their 80 acres where she can work the way she’s able to here. After numerous floods and years spent working from the living room, her husband redid the space and built the staircase for better access and heat circulation.
Originally intended as a guest room, it’s a 10-by-10 space on the second floor of the water tower. She calls it the cockpit.
There’s a porch on the back and windows on all four sides, so “I feel like I’m writing in the treetops,” she said.
While she hears water moving through the pipes around her, “The view that it affords me and the peace that I have here in this little space, and it is little … I wouldn't trade it for anything.”
Light floods in from every angle. Her sitting and standing desks, compliments of her husband, rest at the center and in a corner, an ancient-looking podium holds one of her numerous dictionaries; she likes to compare decades-old definitions to those of today.
There are several aloe plants, drawings on the wall, and a storyboard with pinned photos of a sculpture and an Irish skyline — inspiration for future works, she said.
An assortment of candles, one of which she lights daily before she begins. “It keeps me mindful that I’m trying to capture the best light, the best in human nature,” she said.
She keeps a collection of notebooks, color-coated for whatever novel she’s writing, in her office, in the car, by her bed, to help her document inspiration when it strikes. “I got very frustrated when I got a good idea or I’d hear a piece of dialogue or I’d finally know how to describe the snow on that day, and I would write it down and never find it again,” she said.
It has helped, but she still has scraps of paper pinned to her notebook pages. “It’s like leaving yourself love letters,” she said, sorting through a pile.
She wrote her second novel in long-hand on paper. It’s an accessible way to create away from a screen, she said.
In the corner rests a red cushioned chair that came from a Minneapolis alley. Around her desk she has taped quotes and reminders. “In the end, it all comes down to what we think we deserve,” reads one.
Also a piece of wood with words: “You just have to trust your own madness — Clive Barker.”
Dunbar cherishes a writing award and remnants of work kept on paper scraps, memorabilia from an ancestor who emigrated from Italy. While Dunbar’s relative wasn’t supported in pursuing writing, Dunbar feels her work today honors herself and her ancestor.
Her book shelf holds works by Joyce Carol Oates, Jesmyn Ward, Barbara Kingsolver, and a treasured copy of Eleonora Duse’s “The Mystic in the Theatre.” Duse strove to eliminate ego, Dunbar said. “Forget the self, it’s purely about the story.”
This is guidance she takes to heart in her craft.
Dunbar describes her ghostwriting work as producing books but remaining invisible. “My name is not on the cover at all,” she said. “As far as not getting credit, that’s what the money’s for.”
This removal of ego serves her well and she has a talent and experience adopting another’s voice.
Before focusing on writing, Dunbar was an actor performing in theater and commercials. She and her husband traded the bustle of Minneapolis to live off the grid south of Superior 18 years ago. “We found this property and just went for it,” she recalled.
Born in Guam, Dunbar graduated high school on the east coast. The daughter of a Navy man, she moved around a lot. Living south of Superior is the first home she has chosen, a home where she has remained the longest, where she intends to stay.
Where she’s positioned in the water tower and the time of day can determine what she’s writing.
“Sitting is usually where I’m laying track, new ground; and standing for me is editing, email, more active work and interviews,” she said.
And, she writes every day because it’s easier to keep her own stories alive if she touches them daily.
Dunbar wrote her novel “The Net Beneath Us” over 12 years of child rearing, several office debacles and more. It’s inspired by her home, and more specifically, the skeleton of a second story in their main residence.
She wondered why the previous owners didn’t complete the project, and crafted an answer that turned out being more interesting than the truth, she said.
Working on this piece created a safe space for her to be vulnerable and learn about herself. After a family accident, Dunbar split firewood for their home out of necessity. The first time she did it, she got a black eye — an experience she included in her work.
“I put it all in my novel. It was a really safe place to explore things emotionally,” she said.
After 28 rejections, Dunbar landed a two-book deal, and “The Net Beneath Us” is set for a fall 2022 release.
Writing a novel is a leap of faith, she said.
You invest hours on something you don’t know will be of value to anyone else, but you keep at it because it’s of value to you. And, it has to be a sacred thing, she said.
Sitting in her red chair, Dunbar spoke further of her craft, paraphrasing a quote from poet William Stafford. “He believed writers didn’t write because they have something to say.
“Writers write because they’ve discovered a process that, had they not gone through it, they wouldn’t have found what they found. You wouldn’t have arrived at essential things.
“The reason I didn’t give up on my novel is because it taught me what I think about this place. “My novel’s fiction, but it’s very much telling emotional truths.”