At college, Fredrick Soukup was told, many times, he was below average as a writer. That didn’t stop him setting his sights on a book deal when he left. Writing was what he wanted to do. He took fill-in jobs, sent work out, received hundreds of rejections, but his commitment paid off because his debut novel Bliss won several awards. He’s just released his second novel, a family drama, Blood Up North. We talk about his journey to authorhood.
Were your family creative in any way?
I have cousins who write. One does poetry; I’m not sure about the other. And one of my uncles has written historical works about the relationship between the US government and Native Americans in Minnesota in the 19th century. Soukup is a Czech name, so I suppose I have Bohemian roots. I certainly love Czech beer.
I’ve always loved to create, and since I couldn’t paint or draw or sculpt, I fell in love with music at a young age. That and American football. After breaking my leg during a game in my senior year of high school, I was left with only the music. Unfortunately, I never had much talent for guitar or singing or song-writing, although I wrote a ton of songs in college. I felt I had some nice lyrics, though.
I fell in love with the literary greats when I was a freshman in college, read a lot of Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Morrison, Austen, Stendhal, Tolstoy, etc… and thought that fiction would give me the best opportunity to do the best creative work I was capable of.
Your website says you came out of college and took a succession of fill-in jobs. Why did you choose that path instead of a more conventional graduate job?
My biggest asset has always been my immense capacity for self-delusion. The summer after I graduated, I moved home to chainsaw oak for my parents’ woodstove and write full time. I figured I’d have a book deal by the end of the summer. Seriously. I was nuts. But I guess I still am. I always thought that whatever I was working on would be successful.
You were a meat-slicer in a deli, a ‘personal care’ advocate in a care home and a guard at a juvenile detention centre…
Yes, I worked a ton of jobs. At a deli, with differently abled adults, in a call centre, in a correctional facility for three years.
But all the while, I was writing new material, new drafts, and sending them out to editors and agents.
I had a ton of rejections. Hundreds and hundreds.
How were these formative for you?
All my experiences informed the things I felt comfortable writing about, but I was never trying to find a subject or experience a world which I could then fictionalize (ala Hemingway, or whatever). I just needed money to pay off my loans and pay other bills.
However, I was always turned off by stories whose main characters were themselves writers (novelists, columnists, and so on), or editors, or aspiring writers, all that. I dreaded the thought of becoming someone who could only write from that point of view. I’m grateful for the freedom of the past decade. Sure, I had to learn a lot on my own and work a handful of jobs, some of which were quite lousy, but I also had the luxury of living a unique life with a ton of different experiences. Now I’m a stay-at-home father and am still writing full-time, and the time I spend with my two-year-old daughter and wife at home has had a major impact on me, personally and professionally.
You have two novels. Bliss, a love story across societal boundaries, and Blood Up North, a mystery and family drama. Where did they come from?
The juvenile detention centre, in particular, had a formative impact on me. That’s where Bliss entered the picture. Blood Up North stemmed from a couple of things. First, I wanted to see if I could develop my skills producing plot-driven material. Second, I had such powerful emotions regarding the setting (Cass County Minnesota) and the venal, mendacious characters I had in mind—characters who, by the way, bear no resemblance to the people of rural Minnesota—that I was compelled to explore them.
How long did the writing take you?
Usually, a 60,000 novel takes me about eight months. Two to plan, six to execute the vision. Of course, I always put the work aside for a while and come back to it, so, ultimately, I spend years on it. From seed to stem, it’s typically three to four years.
Is there a common thread to these novels? What are your main concerns and curiosities?
I’m not sure there’s much to compare between the two novels, although as a writer, and a person, it’s impossible to be anyone other than who you are. The core conflicts in life, the things that really interest you, interest you for a reason. So I’ve found there are a few issues that constantly crop up in my writing. Socioeconomics, domestic strife, powerful female characters, mental illness, trauma and violence.
Whose writing do you enjoy?
I really liked The Round House by Louise Erdrich and Cherry by Nico Walker. Mostly I read non-fiction so as not to distract myself. World War I and II, American history, etc…
Have you had any formal writing training?
My degree is in philosophy, and I only took one creative writing course in college. I was an average writer back then. Multiple professors told me I was below-average. Here, again, my delusion took over. I ignored them.
I am considering getting my MFA in the next few years, because I feel I’m on solid footing in terms of understanding my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, my subject matter, my goals. I think I’d learn a lot in a master’s program.
How did lockdown treat you?
My family is extremely blessed. My wife has a great job, we’re expecting a second daughter in April, and we’re all healthy. It’s been sad to see the struggles so many families in Minnesota have had with food and income insecurity. Regarding my own situation, I have no complaints.
I have other manuscripts I’m always working on. Two are set in rural Minnesota, the other in the Twin Cities.
If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.