UMN graduates debut their first books

Weisman’s First Books Reading on Thursday will showcase former students.

Maraya King

Three graduates of the Creative Writing MFA program will return to campus at the University of Minnesota to share their first-ever books. 

Sally Franson, Jon Lurie and Isaac Butler will be at the Weisman Art Museum this Thursday at 7 p.m. to read from their books. Here’s a preview of what to expect from the event.

“A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out: A Novel” by Sally Franson 

Franson’s debut will be released April 10. 

“A comedy with crying,” is how Franson describes her debut novel, which tells the story of a book-loving English major who repeatedly compromises her morals for a paycheck at a top-tier advertising agency. 

Franson graduated from the University’s MFA program in 2013 and began writing her novel a year later.

“I had her voice … the sound of her by the last year of graduate school,” Franson said of her main character, Casey Pendergast. 

Casey’s integrity is continually tested as her insatiable boss sends her out to poach other book-lovers. She tells herself it’s just to pay the bills — until it isn’t. 

While Casey does stumble upon a romantic interest, Franson said she wanted the main love story to be one of friendship.

“By the time I was finishing writing, Trump had been elected … and I was like, what can I stand for? Girlfriends, they make life better,” she said.

Franson taught as a lecturer for the University for two years after completing her master’s degree, then as a professor at St. Olaf College.

Originally from Wisconsin, Franson moved to New York for her undergraduate degree and then to Minnesota in 2010, where she has lived ever since.

“The winters are so cold here, what else are you going to do except write a book?” she said. “You’re going to write a book or you’re going to develop a drinking problem.”

“Canoeing with José” by Jon Lurie

“Canoeing with José,” written by Jon Lurie, tells the true story of two men canoeing over two thousand miles across the country to save each other from themselves.

Lurie’s book, released in 2017, was inspired by “Canoeing with the Cree,” by Eric Sevareid, who first made the canoe trek from Breckenridge, Minnesota to the Hudson Bay in 1930.

“I was fascinated by the idea that you could paddle north out of Minnesota and make it to the ocean,” Lurie said.

After learning about Sevareid’s journey, Lurie sprinted across campus to Coffman Union where he found “Canoeing with the Cree” on a Minnesota-interest table next to “The 10 Best Casserole Recipes.”

“I went home to my apartment, and devoured [the book],” he said, “I vowed I was going to do the trip someday.”

15 years later, at a low point in his life, suffering from depression, recently divorced and unsure of his future, Lurie decided then to embark on the adventure.

His co-captain of choice was 15-year-old troublemaker, José Perez, whom he had met four years earlier while teaching a Native American youth journalism program.

“José had been getting into extreme trouble on the streets,” Lurie said, adding that Perez had a sawed off shotgun and was seeking vengeance.

“I led youth canoe trips for many years, and I knew the kind of healing that could come from spending time in the woods and on the water,” he said. 

The two men went on to complete the 10-week trip in the summer of 2006. 

Lurie, who is now working on his third book, previously taught creative writing at the University but currently teaches in the Youth Studies department of the School of Social Work. 

“The World Only Spins Forward: Angels in America” by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois

“The World Only Spins Forward” by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois was released just last month on the 25th anniversary of Broadway’s “Angels in America.” 

Isaac Butler is a current New York resident, and a graduate of the University’s MFA program. 

Butler’s book is a continuation of Tony Kushner’s hit two-part Broadway play, “Angels in America,” which examined homosexuality and AIDS in America in the 1980s through the lives of four different men.  

“My parents took me to New York and bought me a ticket … and it was a completely and utterly life-changing experience. It’s still one of the greatest things I have ever seen,” Butler said. He was 14 when he saw the play on Broadway.

“The World Only Spins Forward” is essentially a biography of the original play, compiling interviews with over 250 people, including Meryl Streep, Tony Kushner, Nathan Lane and Mary-Louise Parker, Butler said. 

“When [“Angels in America”] premiered on Broadway, it won the Pulitzer [for Drama], swept the Tony awards and radically changed the conversation about gay representation in the arts,” he said.

“I am not gay … but when I was a kid, I was a child actor … a lot of the people I came to know through that were gay men,” he said. “Two people I came to know eventually died of AIDS.” 

For Butler, “Angels in America” demonstrated how art and politics could intertwine.