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Northern Muse

Elizabeth Buzzelli - April 26th, 2010
Northern Muse: Petoskey’s literary scene
By Elizabeth Buzzelli
Ernest Hemingway came to Walloon Lake from Chicago and fell under the
spell of the North Country. He married his first wife, Hadley, in a
tiny northern church. His Nick Adams short stories became
classics—explorations of fishing and hunting and discovery in the
Upper Peninsula. Hemingway’s novella, “The Torrents of Spring” began
at the railroad station in Mancelona, his two men dead drunk and not
sure where they were. Except they were in Northern Michigan, which
seemed to be enough.
Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Walloon Lake, and now reaching much further
north, writers are inspired by the woods, the animals, and the freedom
to be who they are, with the freedom to live a life of the mind.
I went on a quest to find writers successfully working this North
Country and found more than I could possibly interview. I wanted
different kinds of writers: a poet, a non-fiction writer, a children’s
writer, and a writer whose work approaches philosophy. I found them.
Women and men who have given up other lives to be north. Women and
men who have done the impossible, found writing niches their own way,
and sing the praises of a north country that, as Walden Pond did for
Thoreau, taught them to live as their souls dictate. Some came and
carved out a living young. Most found that life in the North Country
has to be earned.

Mary Ellen Geist, now of Walloon Lake, was a successful journalist
working in Los Angeles and New York. Always, no matter how far she
traveled, Michigan’s North Country was there in her head, behind the
violent hustle that is the media. At first she tried to live at the
family cottage on Walloon Lake but found she couldn’t make a living.
“After graduating with a degree in English/creative writing form
Kalamazoo College, I headed north (at critical times in my life, it
appears my compass is always set to Northern Michigan, in particular
Walloon Lake, and that is where I flee) and got my first ‘real’ job at
WPZ radio in Petoskey. I sang in several bands in Northern Michigan
while pursuing my career as a broadcast journalist.”
To make money she was forced to head for Los Angeles and eventually
worked for 13 years at an ABC News station in San Francisco.
“My heart was always here, and I have always been thinking of a way to
get back.”
In the meantime, Geist remained a journalist, covering stories for KGO
radio and ABC News. “When I got home to my computer though, I wrote
fiction and poems . . . maybe I just wanted to write a story without
someone dying at the end.”
After her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease she began
coming home more often to help her mother take care of him. She moved
to WCBS in New York to be closer to Michigan but finally, as her
broadcasting career reached its peak, decided to return to Michigan to
help her family full time. True to her reporter’s training, she kept
notes on the progress of his disease and on his new therapies, such as
music therapy. All of her notes, research, and journals eventually
became her well reviewed and well received, awarding winning book,
“Measure of the Heart,” published in 2008.
Geist now lives full-time on Walloon Lake. She writes and is on-air
at Interlochen Public Radio; writes for; and Traverse
Magazine. At the same time, Geist is working on a second book, a novel
based on a family legend. “Allowing myself to write fiction and let my
imagination go wild is fascinating and freeing after being a
journalist for so long.”
She credits her father for helping her get back to the life she has
always wanted to lead. “...he helped me write this book that has
helped people across the nation—caregivers as well as people living
with Alzheimer’s disease.” Geist adds, “I am now lecturing about
creative care giving and working on several projects and grants
related to Alzheimer’s and music therapy. But whenever I travel to
other cities, I can’t wait to get back to this lake and this land.
Perhaps best of all—for me—my father led me home to Northern
Ending the interview on a poignant note, Geist says, “Funny, isn’t it?
I wanted to write a story without someone dying at the end. But
that’s what happened. My father just died on March 17. I am still
coming to grips with this.”
You can catch Mary Ellen Geist on IPR radio or singing this summer in
the Noggin Room at Petoskey’s Stafford’s Perry Hotel.

Christopher Knight, better known under his literary pseudonym
‘Jonathan Rand,’ is another writer who began on Petoskey/ Charlevoix
radio, on KHQ, doing top-40 for six years. Writing commercials led
him to consider creative writing, especially for children, ages 8-13.
He drew on scary stories he remembered loving as a child and the
Michigan Chiller series was born. “Michigan Mega Monsters” came out
in 2001. After that it was a short leap to “Poltergeists of
Petoskey,” “Gruesome Ghouls of Grand Rapids,” “AuSable Alligators,’
and even “Sinister Spiders of Saginaw.”
Knight says, “The books took off right from the beginning.”
They haven’t stopped since.
Eventually kids around the country asked him for books set in their
states and the American Chiller series was launched with books such as
“Mississippi Mega Odon” and “Florida Fog Phantoms.” Not able to find
a publisher for his series, Knight, who is a fireball and tireless
entrepreneur, took on publication and marketing himself, bringing so
much dedication and hard work to the project that he is now on the
road, making appearances, about 180 days a year, and has close to
2,000,000 books sold.
Other writers are going to groan, but he claims he writes a book a
month, using travel time for plotting, and any other time he has for
Knight first moved up north with his dad, when the family settled in
Grayling. He’s lived up here ever since, from Petoskey to Topinabee to
a cabin deep in the woods and now adds running a writing camp for kids
to an almost impossible schedule of writing and marketing. His camp,
Author Quest, is for kids 10-13, who want to write. It meets at Camp
Ocqueoc, near Millersburg. For information on the writing camp, go to

Poet Marla Kay Houghteling lives north of Harbor Springs. Although a
Michigan native, growing up in lower Michigan, it wasn’t until 1996
she came north to write. She attended college in Illinois, she said.
Then taught for two years with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, and
landed in Pennsylvania, where she lived for 26 years.
“In 1996, with an MFA in writing under my belt, I moved to Northern
Michigan. I considered Muskegon, but on a drive north to Petoskey, I
knew I had to live in this area. The hills, trees, bay, rivers,
lakes—they all seduced me. Plus,” she adds, “there was the promise of
a job, and later meeting a man who had also moved here from
Pennsylvania . . . I was home.”
Houghteling feels the sense of this new place has influenced her
writing. “I’m reminded daily that I’m part of nature, and living on
acres of conservancy land brings me face to face (sometimes literally)
with non-human residents.”
Her poems come from daily life, she says. “I’m putting the finishing
touches on my second collection of poems “Assisted Living,” ...really
a narrative of my mother’s life, including the last several years of
being afflicted with dementia. Writing this book has been a different
journey than putting together “The Blue House” (2008), whose focus was
poems written after my move from Pennsylvania to Northern Michigan.”

Toby Jones, of Petoskey, is truly one of those liberated spirits whose
life has been dedicated to study and a deep understanding of religion
and his place in the world. Describing himself, he says, “I am a
writer, a musician, a professor, an education administrator, and an
odd-jobs man.”
By his own description, Jones is a Renaissance man, a free-thinker, a
free writer, whose first book “Gospel According to Rock” is devoted to
the Christian ethic proven through not only scripture and through the
lyrics of enduring rock songs such as U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What
I’m Looking For” and the Police’s “Message in a Bottle” with it’s
“profound sense of loneliness.”
“This is where I can begin a conversation on rock music and connect it
to matters of the spirit,” Jones says.
How Jones got to Petoskey is a familiar story. His family came,
throughout his childhood, to the Methodist enclave of Bay View.
Though the family moved to other homes, Bay View remained the vision
of home he carried with him. After 32 years as a traveling guitarist
and singer, he settled in Petoskey.
“I came here full time eight years ago. The area is a great place to
write: close to the earth, with always a quiet place by the bay or in
the woods.”
He is now teaching two writing courses at North Central Michigan
College, is the new director of education for the Bay View
Association, and has become an ordained minister in the Presbyterian
Because of his deep and original beliefs, Jones says he is now
starting a group in Harbor Springs. He describes such a gathering as
being “spiritual seekers who desire non-institutional and
non-traditional forms of community.” More information on this
“exciting experiment” can be found at Jones’s blog: or by reading his newest book: “The Way of
Jesus: Re-Forming Spiritual Communities in a Post-Church Age.”

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