Writing Around the Day Job: A Debut Novel Takes Shape
When Raymond Strom graduated with his M.F.A. from The City College of New York in 2009, he wanted to do what he’d just attended school for: write. But life had a different plan. He put aside that passion to focus on earning enough to get by in New York, taking a position as an academic advisor for his alma mater’s Division of the Humanities & Arts.
It wasn’t until his friend started a literary magazine some years later that Strom found his way back to the page. Inspired by an incident from his Minnesota high school, he contributed a story focused on a fight over the Confederate flag. “I remember in my 10th grade history class, we were watching Roots, and a number of my less-nice classmates would show up wearing their Confederate flag T-shirts,” Strom recounts. The school board stepped in and banned the symbol. “It led to a big First Amendment rights thing,” he says.
Raymond Strom, photo by Rhe De Ville
An agent saw Strom’s story and asked if he was working on a novel. “I lied and said I was,” he says. He produced a draft for the agent, landed a contract, and after three years of getting up early to write each day before heading into work, his debut novel, Northern Lights, was ready.
Northern Lights focuses on a non-binary youth named Shane Stephenson who arrives in Holm, Minnesota, in 1997 to search for his missing mother. What he finds, instead, is a complicated small town rife with drugs and narrow mindsets. Strom drew on more of his experiences growing up, but chose fiction to frame the narrative. “I wanted it to be a step removed,” he explains. “A lot of people read this and they’re like, ‘I totally see your whole childhood in here,’ but it’s not so true. Keeping people guessing, that’s nice.”
Strom is already working on his follow-up. It will focus on J, one of the characters from Northern Lights. “He has some crazy life in Minnesota for the next number of years that includes jail and drug treatments and college,” he says. “But he ends up in New York in 2005 or 2006, around the same time I did. It’s going to be something about him living in New York, so we’ll see.”