Denfeld News

September 2, 2007
Duluth Budgeteer News

By dawn’s early light: Mark Munger writes whenever he sees a chance
By Matthew R. Perrine

Mark Munger’s parents must be awfully proud.

It’s one thing to be a judge in a court of law, but to throw on a second career as a well-received journalist?

That takes talent — and a whole lot of time.

“It drives my wife crazy,” Munger said, explaining how he balances writing with his day job, “because I wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and I’m shot by about 10 o’clock at night.”

But perhaps this level of ambition is to be expected. Munger’s uncle, Willard, served this region as a state legislator from 1954 until his death in 1999.

“One of the people that listed him as a mentor was Paul Wellstone,” Munger said. “Wellstone had four idols. One was my uncle; the others were Eleanor Roosevelt, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.”

In fact, that legendary relative is the subject of Munger’s next book.

“It’s kind of interesting because I’m doing the biography of a family member, but I’m doing it, I think — hopefully — with enough distance that it’s going to be a good book,” he said. “It’s not just going to be something for the family; it’s going to be a book that people interested in Minnesota politics will enjoy.”

Munger said he has a year and a half of research under his belt, and it will probably be another year and a half before a draft will even be written.

This comes as no surprise, as his novels, on average, take at least two years.

His first novel, “The Legacy,” was nearly a decade in the making — not just writing, but trying to get it published.

It was finally released in late 2000 by Savage Press in Superior, which published it on a cooperative basis with the author.

“We sold out the first printing, and I had to push like heck to get Savage Press to publish another printing,” Munger recalled, “with the agreement that if we didn’t sell out that second printing, I would take back the copies and figure out a way to distribute them myself.”

Although “The Legacy” had received “rave reviews” upon its release, Munger was left with some extra copies from the second batch.

“I had no understanding of how I was supposed to get these into bookstores and fulfill book orders and those kinds of things,” he said. “I decided I needed to form my own little press.”

And that company, Cloquet River Press (named after the river he lives on), is a family affair: Munger’s wife, Rene, is its graphic designer, and Matt, one of his sons, handles all of their computer needs.

It’s expanding, too. Earlier this year Cloquet River Press released its first “non-Munger” book, Susanne Kobe Schuler’s “Back of Beyond: A Memoir from the North Woods.”

Early work and influences

Though he’s a district court judge by day, Munger has dabbled in writing for some time.

The oldest creative piece he can recall, “The Pirates and the Two Men,” dates all the way back to first grade.

“Both ‘pirates’ and ‘men’ were misspelled,” he dryly noted, “so that’s kind of … spelling has always been a problem, so I work hard on that.”

During his high school years at Denfeld, he was a school newspaper editor, and this led to some work at The Statesman, the University of Minnesota Duluth newspaper. Munger was also planning to major in journalism when he got to UMD, but … that didn’t last long.

“I realized I wanted to get a better salary than being a journalist,” he said with a hearty laugh.

After pointing out that Ernest Hemingway got his start at The Kansas City Star, Munger said his experiences with newspaper writing, like those of that legendary author, weren’t without certain merits.

“I think it gives you a conciseness to your writing,” he said, “and kind of puts parameters on it, which, in terms of space, is a good thing.”

Munger also credits his love of reading for his writing career.

“I’m an avid, avid reader,” he said, “and I think being an avid reader makes you want to write.

“It’s all part of the package.”

When he started writing, Munger was heavily into works of science-fiction and fantasy, but, as he got older, he realized there was a hole in his literary knowledge.

“So then I started reading the classic authors that I probably should’ve read before,” he said, “like Hemingway and (William) Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence, and started getting into some contemporary authors, like (Wisconsin novelist) Jane Hamilton.

“… I read a big variety of things, but I do concentrate on reading the things I should’ve read 20 years ago.”

Beyond ‘The Legacy’

Considering his “day job,” Munger has remained relatively prolific.

In addition to maintaining a column at the Hermantown Star for eight years — highlights from that now-defunct column were collected in the Cloquet River Press releases “River Stories” and “‘Doc the Bunny’ and Other Short Stories” — he’s written a fair share of novels since “The Legacy.”

After that 2000 debut, the lifelong Duluthian (save for those years he and his father attended law school) released two collections in 2002: “Ordinary Lives” and the aforementioned “River Stories.”

That same year, he also unleashed his second novel, “Pigs: A Trial Lawyer’s Story.”

Next came “Doc the Bunny,” along with his first historical novel, “Suomalaiset: People of the Marsh.”

It was this tale of “Finnish immigration and intrigue” — along with Munger’s debut novel — which Anita Zager fingered as her favorite work from the local author.

“Mark is one of our top local fiction writers,” said Zager, who owns and operates Northern Lights Books & Gifts in Canal Park. “He is a great author to invite to a book group.”

In addition to selling Munger’s books, Zager sometimes looks at his story proposals and offers “creative suggestions.”

This brings us to the judge’s latest novel, “Esther’s Race,” in which he writes as a twentysomething African American woman.

“It was a lot of fun in a lot of ways,” Munger said of the first-person narrative. “I knew right off that there was no way I could make this person like an inner-city African American. I was not going to try to be a hip-hop expert, you know, that’s not my culture. I’m a white guy. I’m a middle-class, middle-aged white guy, and there’s no way I could try and identify with that culture.”

To combat this, Munger set the story in the Bayfield, Wis., area, and had “Esther” grow up in a mixed-race family where “skin color doesn’t make a difference.”

“Here they are, they have obviously different skin color than their parents do,” he said, “but they’re raised, essentially, as middle-class Middle Americans.”

Hearing this, it’s easy to understand the crux of a recent review of the novel on BlackBookReviews.net.

“It was interesting to see how an author of Caucasian descent would tackle a character who is African American,” wrote Cashana Seals, a Montgomery, Ala.-based member of the RAWSISTAZ Reviewers. “The author uses classical African American novels to help Esther learn more about her culture and history.”

Although some people called Munger “crazy” when he first proposed “Esther’s Race,” Seals found it to be “an appealing story with a literary flare.”

For more information on Mark Munger or Cloquet River Press (and sample chapters from his books), visit www.cloquetriverpress.com.

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