GENA KITTNER For the State Journal
What started as an MFA thesis turned into an environmental/legal thriller published in Wisconsin.
Madison author Jeffrey D. Boldt’s “Blue Lake” was published in March and is his first novel. Boldt, a longtime retired Wisconsin state attorney, draws on his legal and environmental training to tackle issues around climate change, power and corruption.
Q: “Blue Lake” was your thesis for your MFA from the University of Augsburg in Minneapolis. How has the book evolved?
A: He went through four MFA thesis drafts, then four more drafts after that. I wanted to write a literary novel about a location in Wisconsin, but with a plot that would be suspenseful and have aspects of mystery and legal thriller. And I wanted my protagonist and my characters to be more complex and rounded than in many other legal or environmental thrillers.
Q: Tell me a bit about your background: you were an environmental lawyer before becoming a writer, right?
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A: I was an attorney for the State of Wisconsin for 24 years and my title was administrative law judge. I primarily handled environmental cases and traveled the state making the final legal decision for the Department of Natural Resources. It gave me a lot of frame and intrigue for my book.
Q: How did you come to write fiction?
A: I’ve been writing since I graduated. I have published over 100 poems and dozens of short stories and essays. After losing my late wife, I retired from the state in 2016. Afterwards, I almost immediately entered the creative writing program at the University of Augsburg. The MFA program was great and really helped me take my writing to the next level. I had always thought that I would try to write books when I retired.
Q: I know lawyers write a lot in their work, but writing fiction is different. How did that translate?
A: I always thought there was a connection between poetry and the law. We lawyers sometimes debate two or three words or a sentence. But writing a brief is also a form of narrative construction. And, as an ALJ, writing a decision that would stand up to judicial review was also a kind of storytelling art. It was a pretty natural fit.
Q: How long did you work on the book?
A: I would say about five years in total.
Q: Can you talk about the premise of “Blue Lake” without giving too much away?
A: “Blue Lake” begins with a prologue where Jason, the main protagonist, regains consciousness in UW Hospital after being shot. This sets the mood for mystery and legal thriller. Jason is a divorced attorney and low-level state judge who travels Wisconsin hearing environmental cases. And that’s where he meets Tara, an unmarried environmental journalist. They are both lonely and in mid-career crisis. They are both passionate about the environment and feel discouraged because Wisconsin’s bipartisan environmental protection consensus seems threatened by the (Gov.) Walker administration. They were both English majors and are still avid readers and they decide to form a book club made up of each other. As their relationship grows, Jason and Tara discover shared passions for the Wisconsin wilderness, their book club, and each other. But Tara is married. Meanwhile, Jason becomes increasingly concerned about a strange conversation with Earl Franks, an unethical attorney and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice. Was it a bribe attempt? Jason finds himself embroiled in several high-stakes ethical dilemmas involving powerful political figures, groundwater polluters, a corrupt developer, and his feelings for Tara. And someone had him shot.
Q: Have you had this book idea in mind for a while?
A: Yes. Regarding my original vision, I wanted to explore the situation where the lives of the main characters are in danger, but they are too preoccupied with flirtation and love to realize it. Then other elements of my own experience as a judge and the times we lived in seeped into the story my characters were telling me. I had no intention of writing a book that would have political implications, but I think so. I think “Blue Lake” is timely, both in terms of the environment and attacks on the rule of law itself. But I hope it stems from the dramatic narrative and not from a preconceived program.
Q: Do you expect to write more environmental thrillers?
A: Yes. I have a sequel in mind, I’m at about 100 pages. I know a lot of environmental thrillers start after everything has completely fallen apart, but I didn’t want to go the post-apocalyptic route. I think we need some of those, but also novels that are more focused on our reality now. The famous metaphor for the climate crisis is that of the frog in slowly boiling water, only realizing it when it is too late. I want to help wake up the frog right away, before it’s too late.
Q: What can you tell me about the sequel?
A: The next one relates more directly to climate change and coal. It takes place on Lake Superior and the working title is “Big Lake Troubles”. They’re largely the same characters, and while the “Blue Lake” book launch is exciting, I can’t wait to get back to it.