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By Missy Klatt
Author and native Glenwoodite, Sue Berg, entertained library patrons this past Thursday evening, September 14, at the Glenwood City Public Library about her books, the Jim Higgins Driftless Mystery series and how she goes about writing and publishing them. She also entertained questions from the group and had books available for sale afterwards. Prior to the event I had a chance to sit down and chat with her and her mom, Geraldine Luepke, at Geraldine’s home in Glenwood City.
The early years
Sue graduated from Glenwood City High School in 1969. She stated that back then they didn’t have sports for girls so she was very involved in the music and drama programs. Creative writing wasn’t even something on the radar. She was in the school plays, choir, played bassoon, tenor sax, and clarinet. She thenwent to college where she majored in clarinet and bassoon ending up with a degree in music education and started her teaching career as the Band Director at Viroqua Junior High School.
She went on to get her master’s degree and taught a variety of grades and subjects in a teaching career that spanned 30 years. So one may ask, as I did where this mystery writing got its start?
When she was younger she spent a fair amount of time in the library and was a great reader. “I read Nancy Drew Mysteries, every single one that was ever written.” stated Berg. She also admits that she still reads a lot of mysteries. She’s always gravitated towards mysteries so it made sense that she ended up being a mystery writer herself. “I know the most about that genre.” remarked Berg.
Berg’s first foray into writing was actually a memoir of her mom and dad’s (Clarence) life, “Solid Roots, Strong Wings: A Memoir of Family Life in Wisconsin” that she wrote and gave to her mom for her birthday in 2011. She’s not sure what inspired her to do that but she just decided to do it. “Then I thought that’s it” Berg laughs “I’ll probably never write anything else.”
However as her loyal fans know that wasn’t the end. Berg tells the story of when she was in graduate school, she was in the archives at the UW-La Crosse library and she read this article about a gold shipment that was supposedly stolen and nobody ever found it, which she found very fascinating. So she just tucked this in the back of her head. She does admit to telling her husband, Alan, about it and he said that would make a great mystery. She just left the thought in her head as she was just too busy. She had four kids, eight grandkids and was teaching full time at that time. She just didn’t have time to pursue that idea. However her husband said when you retire you can write that book. “And then I retired, he just kept bugging me. Like when are you going to do this? So then I got going on it.” noted Berg.
Driftless Gold became her first novel in the Jim Higgins Mystery series.
Berg self-publishes her books which also means that she is her own agent and promoter. That also means she does a lot of events, like the one at the library. She also has a Facebook page that she has to maintain and keep up to date. Even though it’s a lot of work Berg is truly enjoying her second career as writer and all the work that comes with self-publishing.
When she did the book for her mom she wanted to find a local publisher and she ended up finding Little Creek Press out of Mineral Point. Kristin Mitchell, the owner of Little Creek Press was very helpful to Berg when she did the memoir so when Berg contacted her about publishing Driftless Gold, Mitchell said yes we can do that. Mitchell has continued to publish all of Berg’s novels.
Berg has discovered that the publishing business is a complicated one. “I’ve learned a lot about the publishing industry. Not all of it’s good” she laughs.
When looking for a cover for her books Berg also wanted to find someone local to help fill that void. After doing some googling she came across Phil Addis, a local photographer in the La Crosse area who is well known there.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the Driftless area is a geographic area basically centered around La Crosse that includes southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and the extreme northwestern corner of Illinois. It’s called driftless because it’s the area where the glacier didn’t go so there is no drift. Drift is what the glacier leaves behind, the rocks and the kettle marines, etc.
The Driftless name was confusing to some of her readers so now Berg has an intro at the start of the book explaining the Driftless region.
Originally Berg wasn’t sure what she was going to title her books but then she thought, they all take place in the Driftless area so let’s do Driftless something.
More than one
As with her memoir, Berg had no intentions of writing another mystery. But then after she was all done, she thought, “I wonder what Jim’s (the main character in the book) doing now.” She continues, “I couldn’t leave it alone, I thought, oh there’s got to be more.” So she thought she needed to write another one. She is currently working on her seventh book. Although she has books five and six written they still need to go through the proofing and revision stages before they go to print. For some of her local fans that can’t come soon enough. Geraldine jokes that she better her let her read them sooner rather than later because at her age (93), she may not be around when they get published.
Basically with all the revisions that are needed to polish off a book, it takes about a year before each book is completely done and headed to press. Berg notes that there is a lot of research that goes into her books and she has a two inch binder for each book with all her research.
Book five is expecting to be released in the spring of 2024.
As most locals know, Berg has a brother named Jim but she denies that character is named after him. Jim Higgins is nothing like her brother Jim, she states. It was just a random name that suited her character.
So far all of the initial ideas for her books have come from real events. Having said that her books are works of fictions so that’s where the similarities end and her creative mind takes over.
In her books Jim Higgins is the leader or boss of a group of younger detectives but Berg likes to feel they are more of a family. She also has Poco the dog as one of her characters that has a scene in every book. Berg comments that she is not a pet person but “people like their animals, they like their cats, they like their dogs. So I thought that would appeal to some readers so I put that in there. People seem to enjoy that.”
In her first book she put in a character, Jamie, that has Asperger’s and he’s socially awkward but very smart. Berg mentions that people have asked if he is going to return in any of her other books and Berg confirms yes, he will be in two more upcoming novels. She wanted to put somebody in her books that had a disability who could get a little bit of the limelight.
Unlike a lot of writers who outline their stories. Berg just writes. She admits that she flies by the seat of her pants. “I never know where I’m going when I start these books and it’s always interesting where they end up.” chuckles Berg
Berg notes that she has one rule in writing; “people come before projects.” With eight grandchildren ranging in age from 5 to 14 (with another one due this fall) all living within walking/biking distance to her home she is often interrupted and wouldn’t have it any other way.
She admits to not getting a lot of writing done in the summer but she tries to write every day but it doesn’t always work out. She usually writes in the morning for a while but it could be for 15 minutes or three hours. Then depending on the day she may write more in the afternoon. She just lets it happen.
Geraldine interjected that one thing that she likes about the books is that she talks about the scenery a lot to which Berg states that the Driftless is a type of character in the book.
Berg states that one of the hardest things for her in writing is the ending, making sure that all the “threads” of the story get tied up in the end to make sense for her and her readers. She is grateful for the three or four people that she calls ‘first readers’ that help her go over her books to make sure that make sense and everything flows the way it should.
Some people have asked Berg to write a mystery novel for middle school age kids. It’s something that she is considering but doesn’t know what the future will hold. She has also been asked to publish her books in large print and to do audio books.
Berg’s husband, Alan is one of her best supporters and likes to ask people when they are out and about, “did you know that you’re in the presence of somebody famous?” Berg asked him not too long ago what was his favorite book that he ever read?, to which he replied, “the ‘History of Funk’s Seed Corn”. Alan who was catalyst for Berg writing her books has never read any of them. His excuse, they’re not real. Berg states “he’ll never read them.” However, Alan is very proud of Berg’s accomplishments and made sure to mention at her talk at the library that she had one some literary awards. Namely, Driftless Gold was a 2021 Wisconsin Bookshelf winner; Driftless Treasure was a finalist in the Independent Author Network, Book of the Year Award and Driftless Deceit was a finalist for the Midwest Book Award from the Midwest Independent Publishing Association.
To keep up on Berg’s latest events and book sales you can follow her on Facebook: Sue Berg, author.