Nicole Helget

Author of Stillwater

Please join me in welcoming historical fiction author Nicole Helget to Books & Benches for a 5 Question Q&A.


“A wonder of a novel, rich in history, humor, and heart, with prose that flows and sparkles like a sunlit river.” 

Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon

If you could be any character from literature, who would it be?

I like Clara Allen from Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. In the first place, she doesn’t even show up in the book until the last third of the novel, but all the while, the reader knows of her and about her via the other main characters, Gus and Woodrow. When she finally makes her appearance, she’s every bit as remarkable as the two of them had suggested. She’s strong, running a horse outfit in the middle of the West while her husband whithers away in an upstairs bedroom. She’s also tender, taking in abandoned or lost travelers and healing their wounded bodies and hearts. She’s witty and high-functioning, and she’s my kind of woman. 


What appeals to you most about your chosen genre?

I like to learn about historical events, and I have a fairly easy time recognizing connections to modern events. I feel a deep connection to the domestic lives of women from the past. I spend a lot of time cooking, cleaning, and caretaking. These themes appeared in my earlier work of literary historical fiction, The Turtle Catcher, too.


Also, I also think that—had I the opportunity or choice to participate in the creation of a new place, like the characters in Stillwater—I would have taken it. I would have been the one to step forward with all my kids dripping off me like sap. I would have been the woman who would have gotten in the boat to cross an ocean. I would have been the woman who then piled the children into a wagon. I would have been the one with the pioneer spirit, the one looking west.


What has been your greatest pleasure in writing Stillwater?

I have a great time researching the past. I like to poke around libraries and cemeteries and historical societies and places. I try to smell and taste and see what life must have been like for pioneers, especially women. I did a lot of that kind of visceral research for Stillwater.


Do you have to be alone or have quiet to write?

Occasionally, I do. I have six children and I teach full time at a community college. I write while the kids (or the students) are all around me usually. But, often, near the end of a project, I will need some concentrated quiet time to have an overall look at the book. Then, I sometimes go and sit at a local pub called Nakato in a back bar booth for a few hours. And, some other times, I’ll take a weekend away to a place called the Anderson Center, which is in Red Wing, MN, and is absolutely quiet. No tvs or anything there. I move between the desk and the bed with my laptop and write pretty much constantly for two or three days. I even sleep with the manuscript and computer on the bed and leave the light on. At night, I wake up every couple of hours to continue working. It’s almost like nursing a baby again!


What is your favorite non-writing pastime?

I do some painting and photography and a bit of needlework, too. My absolute favorite thing to do, though, is be outside with my kids. I have six. My oldest in 17 and my youngest is almost 4. We go for walks and hikes and wade in the river a lot.


Born in 1976, NICOLE LEA HELGET grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota, a childhood and place she drew on in the writing of her memoir, The Summer of Ordinary Ways. She received her BA and an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Based on the novel’s first chapter, NPR’s Scott Simon awarded The Turtle Catcher the Tamarack Prize from Minnesota Monthly. 


Nicole Helget shares her thoughts on writing and her influences, as well as beautiful photos of her family (including six children!) at her blog.



“Lyrical and humorous . . . Helget deftly weaves political and social history into . . . a rich and intricate novel full of compassion for these pioneers and the place they live.”

—Saint Paul Pioneer Press

Clement and Angel are fraternal twins separated at birth; they grow up in the same small, frontier logging town of Stillwater, Minnesota. Clement was left at the orphanage. Angel was adopted by the town’s richest couple, but is marked and threatened by her mother’s mental illness. They rarely meet, but Clement knows if he is truly in need, Angel will come to save him.


Stillwater, near the Mississippi River and Canada, becomes an important stop on the Underground Railroad. As Clement and Angel grow up and the country marches to war, their lives are changed by many battles for freedom and by losses in the struggle for independence, large and small.


Stillwater reveals the hardscrabble lives of pioneers, nuns, squaws, fur trappers, loggers, runaway slaves and freedmen, outlaws and people of conscience, all seeking a better, freer, more prosperous future. It is a novel about mothers, about siblings, about the ways in which we must take care of one another and let go of one another. And it’s brought to us in Nicole Helget’s winning, gorgeous prose.


Publication Date: February 4, 2014
Publisher: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Hardcover; 336p

Formats: E-Book, Hardcover, Paperback
ISBN-10: 0547898207 

Stillwater by Nicole Helget
Stillwater by Nicole Helget