Questions & Authors: Hal Prize Fiction Judge Nicole Helget

This summer, fiction writers who submit to the Peninsula Pulse’s 2016 Hal Prize will have the chance for their creative works to come before the eyes of multi-genre Minnesota writer Nicole Helget.

Helget is the author of The Summer of Ordinary Ways, The Turtle Catcher, Stillwater, Horse Camp (co-authored), Wonder at the Edge of the World, and the forthcoming Fern’s Grove. Her work has been awarded a People magazine Critic’s Choice, Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and has been nominated for three Minnesota Book Awards. Helget has received two McKnight Foundation writing grants.

She currently teaches fiction at Augsburg College in Minneapolis and is a Master of Public Affairs, concentrating in higher education and rural development, at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She lives on a farm in southern Minnesota with her family.

I caught up with Nicole to talk about her writing career, what makes a good fiction story and her tips for aspiring writers. For more on the Hal Prize contest, visit


Alyssa Skiba (AS): When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Nicole Helget (NH): I’m not sure I ever decided that I wanted to be a professional writer. Some days, I definitely do not want to be a professional writer. Some days, I want to be completely anonymous to the world. The great big irony in publishing is that you can only do that if you’re already independently wealthy or already a bestselling author. That’s not me. So, when I publish a book, I have to promote. On the other hand, I am a person who interacts through writing every day. Writing is my preferred way of communicating with the world. I hate leaving my home. I have to really, really prepare myself mentally to go out and engage with the world outside the farm.


AS: You have written a memoir, historical fiction and children’s fiction. Is one of these more challenging than the others?

NH: By far, I find writing for children to be the most challenging. There are many, many stakeholders between the writer and the reader, so there are a lot of opinions to consider and a lot of pressures on the writer and editor, which limits creativity, I think. I can’t help but think that this is related to our ridiculous testing culture. Others, I’m sure, see this differently.


AS: What is the single biggest challenge of writing fiction?

NH: Finishing.


AS: You will be judging the fiction contest for this year’s Hal Prize. In your view, what makes a good fiction story?

NH: A brave and believable point of view. A bold idea. Unexpected details. A fresh voice.


AS: What is the most important part of your writing process?

NH: This is different for everyone, but I think the first page is the most important. I can often “tell” if what I’m working on will have legs based on that initial instinct, those first sentences opening the story.


AS: What advice would you give to a budding writer?

NH: Define your audience. Who are you writing to? Ask yourself why someone out there should read your work. What are you doing to attract them? What are you doing to also surprise and agitate them enough to feel a full emotional and intellectual experience?

Article Comments