September 2, 2007
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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
“I’m an avid, avid reader,”
he said, “and I think being an avid reader makes you want
“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)
“… 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
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
“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
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.