Q&A with Andrew J. Graff, author of ‘Raft of Stars’

The author will discuss his debut novel, set in Wisconsin's north woods, in a virtual event on March 23.
Side by side photos of the new book Raft of Stars (on the left, blue/green cover) and author Andrew Graff standing in a black shirt with arms crossed wearing glasses
Author photo credit: Scott Huck / Book jacket credit: Ecco
Andrew Graff's debut novel Raft of Stars is set in Northwoods, Wisconsin.

Fish and Bread are 10-year-old best friends in 1994, innocently rescuing baby snappers from the ditches of Claypot, Wisconsin, when life suddenly yanks them sideways. With a single gunshot, the boys are sent tumbling down an adventure as dangerous, unpredictable and inevitable as the river they love. They’re pursued by a cast of characters — Sheriff Cal, mom Miranda, gas station clerk Tiffany, grandfather Teddy — each desperate to find the boys, but lost in their own ways, too.

Raft of Stars,” due out March 21 from Ecco-HarperCollins, is Andrew J. Graff’s debut novel. Graff grew up hunting and fishing on a farm near the Menominee River, where he guided for Kosir’s Rapid Rafts on the Piers Gorge section (“My favorite place on this earth,” he says) — all of which makes for a believable, vivid portrayal of life in the north woods and on the unforgiving river. After deploying to Afghanistan at the age of 19, Graff earned his Master of Fine Arts from Iowa Writers’ Workshop and then returned to Wisconsin to live near the Peshtigo River, before ultimately moving his family to Ohio to write and teach. On March 23 at 7:00 p.m., Graff will discuss “Raft of Stars” with fellow Wisconsin author Nickolas Butler as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival’s ongoing virtual events.

You’ve said that your entry point to this story was an image of two boys pushing bikes down a country road — when and how did it develop from there? When did you know it would become a novel?
Early in the process, I felt the story was large enough to become a novel. Once I spent some time with the boys, watched them rescue turtles, dream dreams, light off firecrackers — and learned that Bread had a cruel father and that Fish would do something big to rescue him — I felt the story had enough steam to carry its characters far downriver, particularly once the adult characters entered the story with their own hopes and fears.

You chose to set this story in 1994. Where did that decision come from and what were the advantages and disadvantages to writing from then?
I was ten in 1994, the same age as the two boys in the book. I was able to lean heavily on the sights and sounds of my own youth, the people and small towns and forests. A welcome advantage of setting the book in 1994 is that no one carried cell phones yet. One text message could ruin this whole adventure about lost people trying to find each other in a forest.

Were you ever overly-aware of writing about Wisconsin’s north woods for a national or international audience? How did you intuitively understand what makes a particular place a place while avoiding stereotypes or romanticizing? 
I love the dialects and idioms found in different parts of the country. I’m always listening for gems wherever I go, and love stories that give me a strong sense of place. I tried to include some of that flavor in “Raft of Stars” — “Coy-oats” instead of “Coyotes,” for instance. My love of northern Wisconsin and the people who live there made the story so enjoyable to write. If there is a lack of sentimentality in the story, I think that stems from my real familiarity with the place. I’ve seen the hardships in small towns, too, rather than their mere quaintness.

Writing kids can be so challenging, but you pulled it off. So much work goes into making that POV feel authentic and accurate. Was that ever daunting?
Thank you for saying so! It was daunting. In one sense I was just writing about boys the way I remember being one. I think kids feel things loudly and powerfully, and they also seem to forgive more readily than adults. But with this much hindsight, I inevitably missed the mark at times. There were several instances where it took a good reader to tell me, “A ten-year-old is not going to launch into this sort of existentialism. Why not just have him think about the black bear again?” I am deeply thankful for that help.

Without giving too much away, there are a handful of moments where I get the distinct suspicion that the author has experienced near-death experiences on the river. Those descriptions of its magnitude and power are so well done — anything to share about what you may or may not have experienced yourself?
I’ve guided whitewater rafts for years. I love whitewater rivers, but part of rafting is going for a bad swim now and again. I’ve definitely been on and in the same rivers as my characters. I once fell into a hydraulic (a sideways whirlpool) on the New River. The best way out of a hydraulic is to curl yourself into a cannonball and go down to the river bottom where the current can push you out. I remember thinking very clear, very complete thoughts while tumbling along that river bottom. That experience helped me write some of the scenes in the novel.

What captivates you about the casual cruelty and brute force of nature, whether that’s the river or a provoked wild animal or human beings backed into corners?
I think all of the characters in the story are going through a sort of transformation in which they need to shed some part of their identities — pride, wounds, fear — in order to discover their better selves. I think nature is a great leveler. Wilderness reveals our vulnerabilities, and so helps us grow. People have done this throughout time, gone off to find themselves in the woods, or at sea.

This multigenerational cast of characters intersected so beautifully and powerfully. Did you have a structure plotted ahead of time, or were the characters so real that they found their ways to each other organically?
I’ve wrestled with this a lot, and see it as a balance between agency and acquiescence, the same sort balance needed in whitewater rafting. Sometimes you go with the drift. Sometimes you need to paddle against currents. My natural tendency is to plot and plan, but I’ve been learning to increasingly relinquish that. While writing “Raft of Stars” there were many surprises which changed the larger aim. Constable Bobby, for instance, is a minor character who plays a critical part in the plot. He volunteered for those moments while I was writing the scenes. I didn’t see it coming, but was glad to hand it over to him. I learned the true fate of the boys’ fathers while writing. I learned Tiffany was a poet. I learned just how fierce and dedicated Fisher’s mom was. All of these were the characters’ own choices once I got to know them.

What has the debut publishing experience been like? What have you learned that surprised you, and what may readers not realize about how they can best support your work and the work of other authors right now?
It’s been pure fun and I’m thankful for every moment of it. Ecco-HarperCollins has given the book so much care and support, and it’s been a thrill to interact with readers at home and abroad. If a reader enjoys a book, the most powerful way they can support it is to tell others about it — in person, on social media, at libraries, or through online reviews. Reader-to-reader recommendation is the best sort of life a book could ever have. I am so excited and thankful to see this novel get out in the world.

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