Saturday, November 24, 2012

Beyond Birkie Fever by Walter Rhein: Interview & Excerpt


What is Birkie Fever? Cross-country skiers are hearty folk. The compulsion to race marathon-length distances in subfreezing conditions requires an eternally optimistic and fiercely independent spirit. The fear of blinding snow or paralyzing cold does not deter them, and it has been said that skiers do not merely laugh at adversity; they are completely oblivious to its existence. America's greatest cross-country ski race is the American Birkebeiner or "Birkie" for short. Every year, thousands of people journey from all over the globe to Hayward, Wisconsin, for a world-class celebration of life, winter, and the competitive spirit. Prior to the race, local participants find themselves in the throes of a unique and natural euphoria. They thrill at the prospect of participating shoulder to shoulder with elite international competitors in a wild race through the great Northwoods wilderness. Beyond Birkie Fever is the story of how America's magnificent cross-country ski marathon can expand your horizons and be the gateway to experiences beyond anything you'd ever hoped to imagine!


was about seven or eight when I first got on a pair of cross-country skis. When you grow up in Wisconsin, sooner or later you’re going to see some skis. You’re also going to see Siberian huskies with one blue eye and one brown eye, dead and bloody deer strapped to the hoods of cars, children with bright rosy cheeks fresh in from the cold, and a few Green Bay Packer games. All of these things are equally good in their own particular way, but skis are in a category all their own.
We were living in a little rock house in a town near Madison. It was called Belleville or something like that. I remember the house because it was brown and rocky and miserable and because I once fell down the stairs. I remember thinking it would be awful to die in such an ugly house.
It was Belleville, though, that also provided my first skiing memory. The stone house we lived in was one of those little bumps in the vast wasteland of Midwest nothingness. We were surrounded by fields that were in a constant state of being tilled in the spring and sprouting corn in the summer. In the fall, we used them for flying kites, dodging the dead stalks that stood like slouched and weary soldiers as we chased the string that inevitably got away from us. Actually, I think I always used to let that string slip out of my hand on purpose because I knew it would get my dad huffing and puffing after it, sprinting through the night like a deranged gorilla that had just escaped from the zoo. It’s amazing how much effort a guy will put into getting back a fifty-cent kite. I appreciated him for that.
In the winter, the fields were desert graveyards with miles of windblown snow peaks. Over time they turned into hardened glaciers and I vividly remember the individual snowflakes skittering over them like Styrofoam. The only things that broke the landscape were the skeletal remains of the cornstalks that breached the surface and waved to you like something Melville might imagine, along with the broken barbed-wire fences that stuck out here and there leaving taut, hard lines running straight down beneath the dunes.
It was hell, essentially.
Like some scary uncelebrated level of the underworld.
But, hey! It was home.
One day, my mom whipped out her pair of blue Fischer skis that must have weighed fifty tons each and she put on her wool socks that came up to her knees, followed by her three-ring binder shoes with the big duck bill on the end. All of this action piqued my childish curiosity.
“Hey, Mom, where are you going?”
My mom sighed in annoyance because she’d been going about these preparations on the sly, probably to get away from me. But I wasn’t shrewd enough at that age to be tactful, nor would I have cared to be even if I was.[Kara1] 
“I’m going skiing!”
“Skiing,” I asked, “what’s that?”
“It’s what I’m going to do … ALONE!”
Ha ha! That’s what she thought, foolish woman, hadn’t she yet learned who ran the house?
I knew where the socks were and I’d learned the trick at least of getting myself quietly prepared without putting up a fuss and guilting her into letting me come along to do this skiing thing, whatever that was.
So upon cutely getting on my socks and looking for a pair of ski boots in the big box of boots and whatnot that had been handed down for seven generations, I, disheveled and adorable as only a seven-year-old can be, looked up at her with my innocent—those are long gone—saucer-like eyes and said with a quivering lip … “P-p-p-lease may I go skiing, too?”
She didn’t have a chance.
Lo and behold there were even a pair of pint-sized, shiny red skis in the garage next to her larger ones that looked like a couple of blue whales by comparison. Beside these rested a pair of varnished bamboo poles that were an odd sight in the snow, suggesting, as they did, the warmer climates of their tropical native home.
I pulled on my mittens and examined my poles thoughtfully and remembered a show I’d seen earlier on Disney about some guy who’d built his whole house out of bamboo and I started fantasizing about someday living in a place like that, when my mom broke my concentration.
“Well, are you coming or what?”
She was already outside breaking trail from the garage and it wasn’t hard for me to figure out that I all had to do was put my snazzy white-and-red skis into the tracks that she left behind. The miraculous thing was that even though my skis were a third the length of hers, their width fit her tracks just perfectly.
So there I was, shuffling along in the bitter cold, getting rosy cheeks and shouting, “Mom … Mom … wait! Wait for me!” To the point where it must have gotten extremely annoying, but, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t understand the concept of “annoying” when I was seven.
So we skied along for awhile in the pastures and the cornfields and the wind blew us and the bits of snow that had somehow gotten picked up upon the breeze cut our cheeks like they always did and in the distance my mom got farther and farther away and I just continued on in my tracks, huffing and puffing like some little abandoned engine, when, all of a sudden, my mom started to get bigger and bigger until I realized she had turned around and was now standing right in front of me.
“What’s up?”
“Come on, we’re going back.”
“Going back?” I said, surprised. I glanced around at my surroundings. I did this not because I was actually looking for anything, but because I had seen adults do it as they reflected on things. It always annoyed me when adults did this because it seemed as if they were only performing the act to waste my time. In vengeance, I was wasting my mom’s time. In a surprise twist, however, the contemplation actually produced a thought, and after a just-longer-than-reasonable delay, I stumbled across an idea. “Actually,” I said, “I am ready for some hot chocolate.”
There was a moment of silence as my mom digested this. It was that moment when you could tell she suspected I was about to become unreasonable, but she wasn’t quite sure yet so she wasn’t quite angry, but if experience was any indication, she knew she was about to be.
“You can have some hot chocolate when we get back to the house.”
I glanced around again in mock reflection. The tension began to rise.
“No,” I said flatly, “I want my hot chocolate now. Skiing is fun, but I’m tired of skiing.”
My mom’s voice went thin as she responded. I had her full attention now and, as any kid will tell you, that’s an intoxicating thing. “Well, you have to get back.”
“Carry me,” I said simply.
The two-word request echoed across the snow-swept field and was met with a reception even frostier than the sub-freezing temperature.
It was the potential utterance of those very words that had provoked my mom to try to sneak out of the house without my knowledge in the first place.
“I’m not going to carry you, you have to ski back.”
The response was hard-lipped and absolute, but I wasn’t about to back down. At seven, being unreasonable was my prerogative.
I swiveled my bundled body, with the six layers of clothing that were all too big for me, and as I looked into the distance, I could hardly make out our ugly stone house. It must have been a kilometer and a half away.
“I can’t make it,” I said. “You have to carry me!”
First blood had been drawn in what I assumed was about to be a delightful one- to two-hour argument. I was just settling in to enjoy it when the old bird gave me one heck of a surprise. She didn’t even answer me, she just shuffled on by, hopping out of the track—I’d foolishly believed I could block her progress by occupying the trail she had made—and continuing on her way.
“What?!?” I said collapsing to the ground in exhaustion like Madame Bovary.
“I can’t make it, it’s too far … CARRY ME!”
She just retreated into the distance, leaving me alone to freeze to death with the cornstalks. The wind was already starting to pick up, my little nose went red as the heat began to leave my body.
As the coldness crept into my fingers, I couldn’t help but reflect on my life. It had been a good life for the most part, except for that part about falling down the stairs. I hadn’t liked that. I also had a complaint about the time I had knelt down next to the exhaust pipe of a car, took an extended whiff and nearly passed out. There was also the time my dad had decided to teach me to play football. His brother had come over and they were in the backyard throwing the leather ball back and forth and I, innocent and excitable, came running out and said, “To me, to me!” and my dad had thrown the ball high in the air, apparently thinking it would be safer that way, and I remember watching it descend, descend, descend, like some wingless bird growing bigger and bigger until it crashed into my face and knocked me flat on my behind with a bloody nose to show for it.
Nope, I didn’t catch my first pass.
So I had those three or four solid regrets as I lay there, abandoned by the womb that had carried me, awaiting my death, holding out for my turn to take up my place along the long line of dead cornstalk soldiers … .
“Would you get up and get moving!” my mom screamed from the distance.
Gosh, couldn’t a kid even die in peace?
So I struggled to my feet—it was easy back then. Going vertical isn’t that difficult when you’re four feet tall. And I shuffled forward, sniffling back my tears and heartbreak as I made my way down the weary path. The return journey took longer than the outbound one, and at one point I became fearful that, during the confusion, I might have pointed myself in the wrong direction on the trail. But all it took was a quick glance upward to realize I was nearly home.
The sight of the house excited me and I finished the journey in a rush. I ran inside, bubbling with excitement over my achievement.
“Mom, Mom, did you see that, I must have skied five miles!”
“Yup … ”
“That was amazing, did you see me cut through the drifts?”
“Yup … ”
“How’s my hot chocolate coming along?”
“Right here.”
She gave me a mug with two of those tiny little marshmallows that nobody ever uses except in hot chocolate.
It had been a good day.
Any day you get to ski is a good day.

 [Kara1]It was grammatically correct before this correction.


Does travel play in the writing of your books?

Yes, travel is a huge component of “Beyond Birkie Fever.”  When I was growing up in Northern Wisconsin, I had very little contact with the outside world.  Wisconsin is a great state, but it's fairly remote and you just don't have the interaction with foreign born individuals like you do in bigger cities.

However, once a year, thousands of people would come to a nearby town to compete in America's greatest cross-country ski race, “The American Birkebeiner.”  Because of that event, I was able to meet people from all over the world, some of whom even invited me to come and stay at there homes to compete in events in their countries.  I actually took many of them up on this offer, which started a long series of adventures in international travel.

Had it not been for the existence of the Birkie, I doubt I would have seen as much of the world as I eventually did.  I'm very grateful for those experiences.

Tell us about your next release.

I'm currently working on a memoir of my time living in Lima, Peru.  As you can probably imagine, I collected some pretty good stories after living there for close to a decade.  Living in South America was an absolute blast, although now that I have children I find I can't take the chances I used to when I was younger.  For example, the book begins with a bus trip I once took to Ecuador.  We'd just crossed the border when a bunch of soldiers came pouring out of the jungle to stop the bus.  They clamored on board and started pushing all the men around with AK-47s.  It was a little nerve-wracking.  I got out of it, but you'll have to pick up the book to find out how.

Who are your books published with?

My books are published with Rhemalda ( out of Seattle.  They're a small, traditional publisher.  Rhemalda does a great job with editing and cover art.  They've also been very active in finding creative ways to get exposure for their writers including selling international rights and releasing audio books.  I believe I was the second author to sign a contract with them just after fantasy author J.S. Chancellor.

How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula?

I used a different approach when I was writing “Beyond Birkie Fever.”  I had a bunch of high quality stories I wanted to tell, so I sat down and wrote each chapter without thinking of how they would fit into a greater whole.  When I was done, it was more like assembling a puzzle than it was writing a novel.  I was able to find a kind of natural continuity that I strengthened with transitional introductions.  This was the first book I ever wrote where I focused more on the readability of each chapter than an overarching theme.  However, what I've found is that the theme kind of came into existence naturally.  I've had a very positive response from this book, and the experience has really underscored the philosophy of not overworking your writing.  Instead, you have to get out of the way and let the writing happen.

Do you have any suggestions for beginning writers? If so, what are they?

It's possible for anyone to have a career as a writer, it's just a matter of doing the work.  I think the first step is to develop a strong online presence.  Start up a blog and use it as a sort of “sketchbook” for your work.  On my “Streets of Lima” blog, I try to scribble out a few paragraphs on a daily basis.  This keeps my writing sharp, keeps me motivated, and keeps me in contact with my readers.  There have been times when I've made more money on “Streets of Lima” (through advertising, etc.) than with any other of my endeavors.

After you've established a blog, I suggest that you do some work as an editor for other publications.  This gives you the opportunity to see a whole bunch of query letter, and you quickly start to see what query letters are effective and which are not.  Plus, being an editor gives you another platform to showcase your own writing which publishers are always excited to see (it's important to excite publishers).

What are the most important attributes for remaining sane as a writer?


Why on Earth would you want to remain sane?

Tell us about the absolute BEST fan letter you have received.

I once had a reader tell me that the first chapter of “Beyond Birkie Fever” reminded her of Calvin & Hobbes.  Of all the books I've ever read, I think it's only the work of Bill Watterson that made me think, “wow...this guy's so good I should just quit.”  Watterson has such a natural, effortless balance between youthful joy and existential philosophy that it's simply a pleasure to behold.  Receiving the comment that I'd managed to capture something similar to that in my writing is really inspiring.

I've also had quite a few people tell me that they read through “Beyond Birkie Fever” in one sitting.  It's great when people are excited about your work like that, I can't think of a more sincere compliment.

Walter Rhein was born in Wisconsin.  After earning a degree in English literature, he moved to Lima, Peru.  There he spent 10 years working as a writer, editor, teacher and translator.  After getting married in 2009, he returned to the US and resumed cross-country skiing.

His novel “Beyond Birkie Fever” was published by Rhemalda in October of 2011, and is about America's greatest ski race, the American Birkebeiner.  Walter also writes fantasy novels, and moderates the Heroic Fantasy group on Facebook ( ).

He also maintains a blog about Peru called “Streets of Lima ( ).  Walter Rhein can be reached for questions, comments or interviews at:
Twitter  |  Facebook  |  Blog

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