JACKSON — Although author Nathan Jorgenson now lives the Minnesota Northwoods, he made a weekend visit to his hometown of Jackson — a place that still inspires his writing — as part of a tour for his newest novel, "Contrapasso."
"Contrapasso," Jorgenson explained to a group of supporters at a Saturday event at the Jackson Library, is a concept from Dante's "Inferno," referring to the idea that in the afterlife, people are punished proportionally to the sins they committed on earth. This theme affects the characters throughout the novel, although Jorgenson assured the audience that his hallmark offbeat humor lightens the mood of the story.
The now four-time novelist emerged as a writer in 2004, which came as a surprise to Jorgenson himself.
Growing up in Jackson, Jorgenson had what he described as "a Leave it to Beaver childhood" — two loving parents who were married to each other, a supportive small-town community and well-funded academic and athletic programs.
Jorgenson didn't prefer English class. Memorization was easy for him, so he gravitated toward the sciences. Even in college, Jorgenson took what he called "bonehead English." He spent his career in health, becoming a dentist in 1978.
It wasn't until the death of his father that Jorgenson realized his gift for writing.
While his dad was in a nursing home in declining health, Jorgenson began to make up stories on the fly to entertain his dad. Eventually he started to write down the narrative, getting 30 pages in before his father died.
Continuing the story was part of his grieving process.
"I wrote until I got closure with my dad," Jorgenson said, "and I rediscovered the written word."
His first novel, "Waiting for White Horses," won him the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Fiction in 2004. "White Horses" and Jorgenson's subsequent novels take inspiration from his upbringing.
"Jackson made me who I am," he said. Nods to the town and its residents are usually found in the names Jorgenson chooses for characters and places in his books.
He reflects often on the lessons he learned from playing sports as a kid — specifically "dealing with getting beat." Learning to lose is an important skill, Jorgenson noted, and that theme surfaces throughout his work.
Since he began writing, Jorgenson said he has noticed that words are like art — they're subjective, appealing to different tastes. Just like no two people look at a painting and feel the same way about it, a book's readers will disagree about its meaning and value.
Jorgenson shared a few tips for aspiring novelists: "Tell the truth. Work on dialogue. Use a better verb. Keep working hard. Have a thick skin."
The author's short talk Saturday at the library was followed by a Q&A and meet-and-greet. About two dozen people asked questions about where he gets his ideas and the process of writing and publishing.