John Enger's first novel, 'Radium,' was inspired by his own teenage experiences
John Enger will introduce his novel, "Radium," with a reading and book signing event at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 23, at Bemidji Brewing.
BEMIDJI — You could say John Enger was born to be a novelist. It just took him a while to get to it.
Enger, 31, spent 10 years as a journalist, including seven years as a Bemidji-based reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.
In 2019, he started his own woodworking business, Enger Grove, on his property east of Bemidji. John and his wife, Emily, have two children, ages 4 and 2. So there hasn’t been a lot of free time for writing.
But Enger found the time, and his first novel, “Radium,” is out this month. He will introduce it with a reading and book signing event at 7 p.m. on Monday, May 23, at Bemidji Brewing. The 400-page book was published by North Dakota State University Press.
“I just wouldn’t be a novelist if I didn’t have a dad who was a novelist,” John said. “There are so many things that feel insane to do if you don’t see someone do them. I grew up seeing my dad write, and so it seemed very possible to start with a blank piece of paper, and in a number of years make a coherent, compelling story.”
This compelling story began when John was in college at Moorhead State, now known as Minnesota State University Moorhead.
“The initial seed of the idea I had in a short story in college,” he said. “I wasn’t working on it this whole time. But in the last handful of years, I sort of got back into that story.”
The story is about two brothers, Jim and Billy. They live in a trailer house outside a bad-luck midwestern town called Radium. Billy gets into trouble and they go on the run. The main issue at hand is the relationship between the two brothers.
That’s a story John can relate to. He and his older brother, Reed, were homeschooled and spent most of their formative years together.
“So for my entire childhood basically my only friend that I spent any meaningful amount of time with was my older brother, Reed,” Enger said. “When you’re only around your brother, they’re like gods, man. That relationship between an older and a younger brother is kind of like dangerous magic. It doesn’t really lend itself to good decision-making.”
He also spent a lot of time with Reed’s buddies, and that inspired part of the “Radium” storyline.
“They were all nice, but they were just wild,” John said. “They could just do anything. They’re so nice, but they’re all about three bad days from the federal manhunt.”
A family operation
Writing fiction has been cathartic for Enger, especially compared to reporting news stories.
“It’s so much easier, it’s like therapy, to write fiction,” he said, “because you know how the story is, you can envision it. And all you have to do is write it down. You don’t need any proof. It’s not like a verified truth; it’s like a truth to how a character you have imagined is.”
John’s wife, Emily, has her own business as a book marketing coach. She says marketing this book has been a joy since she knows the “client” so well.
“In some ways, it’s a lot easier because he’s right there,” Emily said. “When I need something I just yell across the yard. Also, I feel like I have a little bit of ownership with his book, so I can make judgment calls on his behalf.”
She has been impressed with John’s ability to juggle his woodworking projects and his writing.
“Writing any novel is a huge accomplishment, and watching him prioritize his writing despite how busy we’ve been was a huge lesson to me,” Emily said. “I was blown away by his dedication to the project. The book is incredible. I think he makes a certain world come to life.”
John is in the process of recording an audio version of “Radium.” He plans to then begin writing a follow-up novel.
“It’s very difficult to just say goodbye to characters,” he said. “So I’m not saying goodbye to one of them. I joke with my wife that I know some of these characters better than I know my friends because I spend so much time with them.
“My plan is to get up early in the morning and do woodworking until it kind of gets too hot. Then I’ll spend the hot hours of the day in my shady, cool writing cabin. Then I’ll go back to woodworking for a while, and then hang out with Emily and the kids in the evening.”