BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
You are invited to the rest of your life. You know you can’t go on like this. Not for one more day. You need an interlude.
—From Willa’s Grove by Laura Munson, to be released March 3.
New York Times bestselling author and Lake Forest native Laura Munson begins her novel with the above letter, opened by three women “from coast to coast and in between, each at a similar jarring crossroads.” On her visits March 10 and 11 to Chicago area locations, Munson will explain why she wants Willa’s Grove to be not only a compelling novel but a movement as well.
Munson, daughter of Ginny Munson McTier and the late John Munson, is no stranger to starting movements. We caught up with Munson in Whitefish, Montana, where she has lived on a ranch close to Glacier National Park for over 25 years and offers her Haven Writing Retreat.
Her first book, This is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness, based on the viral essay “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear” from the New York Times “Modern Love” column, was published in nine countries by the legendary Amy Einhorn and Penguin/Putnam.
“I am lucky to have inherited my mother’s gift for gab,” Munson says. “She told me to look a person in the eye when you talk to them and all those other important courtesies. On my first writer’s tour, my initial TV interview was with George Stephanopoulos. I got rid of my butterflies telling myself that I live in a raw place and am on the food chain with grizzly bears around. I have learned deep life lessons there. Being in Montana keeps me on my knees with openheartedness.”
Set on 500 pristine acres in Big Sky Country, Haven is a movement in itself for aspiring writers, which Munson says can “answer the questions that every writer I know longs for: Does anyone care? Can somebody help me? Do I have to do this alone?” Munson has also created the Haven Foundation that serves writers from many different backgrounds. She offers retreats, advanced classes, and even Haven Wander, which takes participants to exotic destinations like Morocco.
“Willa’s Grove grew out of the Montana community and relates to our five-day writing retreats and how participants begin to depend on one another. Our writers find their self-expression but unite in their same spirit. Almost every group declares that they must be our best group—that no other group could create the same magic—but it happens over and over. Haven offers everything you need for a healthy and inspired writing practice and completion in the writing projects you desire. I’ve seen it change lives over and over again,” Munson shares.
She explained her upcoming novel’s title, message, and why it’s a movement in the making, saying it comes from the fact that aspen trees found together are really one organism—that in a grove of aspen, all the roots are connected
The sender of that mysterious invitation that opens the book is Willa Silvester, who is reeling from the untimely death of her beloved husband, preparing herself to say goodbye to the small mountain town they founded together. She is forced to ask herself, “Now what?”
“Struggling to find the answer alone, fiercely independent Willa eventually calls a childhood friend who happens to be in her own world of hurt—and that’s where the idea sparks,” Munson says. “They decide to host a weeklong interlude from life and invite two other friends facing their own quandaries. Soon the four women converge at Willa’s Montana homestead, a place where they can learn from nature and one another as they contemplate their second acts together in the rugged wilderness.”
Like many fine novelists, Munson said that there’s a point when the characters begin to write the novel themselves: “Recently, I was out walking in the snow in the woods, and I came upon an aspen grove. I pulled out my cell phone along with my reading glasses and began to try to text the photo. I then realized that these characters, to whom I was ready to send the photo, didn’t really exist. Bringing characters to life is powerful work—it creates a new dimension. I was disappointed I couldn’t send them that photo of the aspen grove.”
Munson shares a letter in Willa’s Grove, the impact of which could start a movement:
I have learned something that might just be the most important lesson of my life, and I would like to share it with you. There is a language that we crave. A language of the heart that grows from our worry and our wonder and our stories, rooted in our experience of this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life. Too many of us have trained ourselves out of speaking that language. We were all fluent in it when we were children. But somewhere along the way we were taught or conditioned to forget it. To not be honest when we are asked, ‘How are you?’ And to not really listen to the answer when we ask others the same question.
So many of us have lost our authentic voices and reduced our conversations to grocery store talk and texts with an emoji at the end. The truth is, we long to be seen and heard and accepted, especially when we are in pain—yet out of fear of judgment or rejection, we too often draw in and become islands, rather than bridging to our family and friends. I know this because, at times, I’ve made that choice. And the fallout from that led me to devote a major piece of my life to bringing people together in safe, intimate circles of self-expression. Which led me to write this book.
I wrote Willa’s Grove to capture the power of people stepping out of the isolation and self-doubt that so many of us feel in times of transition, and instead, gathering together. These women show us that we don’t have to endure hardship alone, nor should we. We have choices. If, for whatever reason, connecting with our usual community is too fraught, we can instead create temporary circles, friend to friend to friend to friend, carving out small interludes from our daily lives in order to focus on what comes next. To have those conversations we need to be having but aren’t. To move boldly outside of gossip, small talk, pretending . . . and into the connection we so deeply need.
Munson’s Haven Writing Retreat is held at the aptly titled Dancing Spirit Ranch. “Like no other place I’ve been, Montana gets under your skin and stays there even when you are far away. Its terrain, sometimes rugged and daunting, sometimes soft and beckoning, sometimes just plain heartbreaking,” she shares.
Munson says she’s designed the retreat that she would want to attend, one where everyone values the written word. Some guests are working on a project, some haven’t written since school days, but it doesn’t matter where they are in their writing journey. Haven is meant to meet you where you need to be met. The one thing everyone there has in common is that they are seekers—that’s what makes it so powerful, Munson believes. Going to Haven, she says, is like stepping outside of the paradigm of good versus bad, right versus wrong and into a world of possibility and of “Yes!”
“I fiercely believe that creative self-expression on the page should be up there with diet and exercise as a transformational tool in the realm of preventative wellness—whether or not it adds up to a published work,” she says.
On March 10, Munson will be in conversation with Val Haller at the Winnetka Book Stall at 1:30 pm and at the landmark Colvin House on Sheridan Road in Edgewater at 6:00 pm. The latter is a Creative Coworking event—visit creativecoworking.com to learn more. On March 11 at 10:30 pm, Munson will be reading for the Lake Forest Book Store at the Glen Rowan House at Lake Forest College. Reservations required. Call 847-234-4420. For more information on Munson and her retreat offerings, visit lauramunsonauthor.com.