Where did you grow up?
When I was a small child, I lived with my parents on a two-family farm near Westby, Wisconsin, similar to the one in my book The Origin of Fear. When I was about eleven, my parents and I moved to the small farm next door, which I used as the setting for my book What Happened to Clara?
Are these true stories?
Yes and no. The settings are as authentic as I could remember them, but the crimes are fictional. In truth, I wanted to explore how the people of that time would behave in the face of circumstances that were out of their control.
These are Norwegian-American communities. Are you Norwegian American?
Very much so. I am still receiving comments on a blog post that I wrote a few years ago about being Norwegian American. Like most ethnic groups, we have our unique characteristics too.
Tell me about your collaboration with Chhalith Ou in your book Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss.
I had administered a sponsorship program in the 80s bringing Cambodians out of refugee camps and into the United States after the Viet Nam war ended. Chhalith was seventeen years old when he came with his family and almost forty when he asked me to help him tell his story. It took us seven years to complete it.
What were some of the problems that you encountered in writing this book?
I would say that, at first, getting into the mind of a teenage boy living in a third-world non-English-speaking country during a time of war and unconscionable brutality, as told by himself as an adult was a challenge. His and my cultures were different, our worldviews were very different, and we had some language barriers.
Do you feel that you overcame these?
Yes, because we took our time. I encouraged him to debrief himself randomly, telling me incidents as they occurred to him with me probing for details. When it seemed that we had gotten everything that he could remember, we had to put it all in chronological order, and this was harder than I had anticipated. I couldn't do it, so he had to.
In the meantime, I was reading everything I could get my hands on about this war to check the accuracy of Chhalith's recollections. I also found a set of sixteen videos that compiled English, French, and Khmer Rouge filmed resources, everything from raw communist photos and videos to television documentaries. Chhalith and I watched these together, and they were priceless.
I'm very proud of this book, and I'm convinced that Chhalith's recollection and analysis of how the Khmer Rouge work groups functioned is the only detailed record of these that exists.
You also wrote a book about a gay man. How did that come about?
I had just lost my husband, and "Rick" was one of my helpful listening ears. By the time I found out that he was gay and had issues of his own, we had become friends. The first part of the book Ambiguous is his story, much of it in his own words. The second two parts are extrapolations of what might have happened with two other characters in his story.
What are you working on now?
A couple of things. I'm working on a science fiction about the state of the world today. I'm also beginning a book about living in a retirement home.
A retirement home???
(Laughs) I'm in my 80s now and live in a lovely retirement home. It's a great place to live, but you have no idea of the shenanigans that take place when several hundred eighty- ninety- and hundred-year-olds decide they don't like something and "they're not going to take it anymore!" It will be my first attempt at a comedic novel. I will have a bit of a learning curve in writing with a new style.
Don't be fooled. This ordinary-looking Norwegian-American woman has the dark soul of a true Scandinavian, friendly and humorous on the outside maybe, but utterly serious in her observations of human behavior. She watches, she listens, and she writes it down.
Swedish Hospital School of Nursing
South Dakota State University, Brookings
Kellogg School of Business, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
Halleson's Informal Education
"Growing old is expensive. Aging is not so bad if you plan ahead for it and use good judgement in your life choices."
"Of course, we all make mistakes. It's how you recover from them that counts."