Each day leading up to the 2019 Minnesota Book Awards Ceremony, we’ll be featuring an exclusive interview with one of our 36 finalists. Learn more about these incredible local writers and gear up to see the winners announced live in person April 6.
Interview with Timothy Cochrane, author of Gichi Bitobig, Grand Marais: Early Accounts of the Anishinaabeg and the North Shore Fur Trade
Category: Minnesota Nonfiction, sponsored by Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota
How does if feel to be a Minnesota Book Award finalist?
Nice, unexpected. If this award is for all of us who helped produce Gichi Bitobig, Grand Marais than that’s great. I like it that it’s a book award, not an individual one. So many folks helped me avoid grammar, overwriting, or historical mistakes. A number of people at the University of Minnesota Press and editor Mary Kierstead made numerous improvements on the manuscript, often through diplomatic persuasion.
Tell us something about your finalist book that you want readers to know.
One impetus for Gichi Bitobig, Grand Marais is and was to address the unfortunate gulf between many of the people of Grand Marais and Grand Portage. Having worked in Grand Portage for twenty years, but live in Grand Marais I was often asked about this gulf. This historical work is my attempt to identify Grand Marais’ origins, its ties to Anishinaabeg, and have others recognize it as a home for the Grand Portage people. To do this, I was lucky enough to find enough documents to learn and talk about a few ‘early’ Anishinaabeg people whose actions had been lost to time. The surprising nature of the story, the diversity of the American Fur Company men or the claim of earthquakes (frost quakes?) in Grand Marais for example, was a wonderful stimulant to researching and writing.
Let us know a little bit about your writing life. What brought you to a writing career and how did you become a published author?
I’ve always wanted to write, even though I’m not particularly a ‘natural’ at it. My older brother, who first to alerted me of this book award, reminded me of my early attempts at writing in which I wrote my name backwards, “Mit” instead of Tim. But I keep at it. I started writing in my adult life as an aspiring academic. I gave that up and much of the discipline I’m trained in (folklore) to try and tell stories that reach and persuade a greater number of readers. Most often the book topics compel me to write, thus, I wrote about how Isle Royale commercial fishermen were environmental mentors not despoilers, or how Grand Portage Anishinaabeg connections to Isle Royale have been legally and historically overlooked. So, in the long haul of writing and editing, belief in the topic pushes me over the goal line of getting published.
Minnesota is often ranked highly as a state that values literature and reading. In your experience, what is it about our state that makes it such a welcoming place for writers and book creators?
I’ve had the enviable experience of being born and raised in Minnesota, but also having lived in quite a number of states for my academic training and national park service career. Thus, I have a comparative perspective of the merits of living in Minnesota. I want to live here because I am at home in the land and sea-scape of the Lake Superior basin. I feel comfortable and curious about the people and places sandwiched between canoe country and the Big Lake. (We also wanted to live here because we wanted our kids to grow up in the socio-political environment of Minnesota, not Alaska.) Writing in Minnesota is a boon because so many Minnesotans want to talk books and even talk writing. There are also some very talented colleagues and friends who inspire me – Bud Sivertson, Bruce White, Norman Deschampe (a good writer that doesn’t believe it), Karl Koster, and especially the late Doug Birk. Further, Grand Marais is a creative place which gives license to people like me to write, converse, and spend too much time at the computer doing historical “detective” work.
What is something you are good at that few people know about?
I’m pretty handy with a chain saw and hope there isn’t a tree god somewhere, because if there is I’m in trouble.
What do you love about libraries?
Librarians! I do so much searching for obscure historical documents from a “remote location” that I use interlibrary loan requests a good deal. Librarians and archivists are essential to my efforts and are typically wonderfully generous. And thank you to institutions that lend out materials, for example, the Hudson Bay Company Archives at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.
Timothy Cochrane served as superintendent of the Grand Portage National Monument for twenty years, co-managing the site with the Grand Portage Anishinaabeg through a Tribal Self-Governance Act agreement. A reluctant bureaucrat, he wrote as an aside and as a creative outlet to his park service duties. His books include Minong–The Good Place: Ojibwe and Isle Royale and A Good Boat Speaks for Itself: Isle Royale Fishermen and Their Boats (Minnesota, 2002). He lives near Grand Marais, Minnesota.