John Rosengren is a prolific author, sometimes professor, and avid world traveler. His literary work and articles have been published in the likes of Reader’s Digest, The Atlantic, and Sports Illustrated, to name a few. In addition to his extensive accomplishments, such as bike-racing (and beating) Greg LeMond in South Africa, John continues to share his wealth of knowledge and experiences of journalism at the University of Minnesota as a professor.
His personal experiences of overcoming addiction and navigating life and a new identity is reflected in his book A Clean Heart. In this interview, he dives deeper into his personal story, which inspired the book, as well as some great memories abroad in Europe.
John is an honor’s graduate of St. John’s University, earning a Bachelor’s degree in English from the school. He has also completed the coursework for a Master’s in Creative Writing from Boston University.
- What inspired you to begin writing? Did it start off as a hobby or did you always know you’d choose writing to be your career?
I quit smoking pot. Seriously. I went through treatment for my alcohol and drug addition when I was 17 years old, fall of my senior year. 1981. They called us “baby dope fiends.” I had to find a new identity. My journalism teacher, Roger Mahn–one of those special teachers who truly cared about the development of his students as people not just the subject matter he taught, though he was passionate about that as well–thought he spotted talent in my writing and encouraged me to write not only for the school paper but to freelance for the community newspaper, as well. I got turned on by the idea that something I wrote could move someone else to experience emotions I had or raise awareness about important social issues. In college, at St. John’s University (in humble little Collegeville, Minnesota, not the one in New York you’ve heard of), J. F. Powers and Jon Hassler helped shape my interests in writing fiction. Later, in grad school at Boston University, Leslie Epstein, Margot Livesey, Derek Walcott, and Saul Bellow refined what I’d learned about the craft. I’ve been clean and sober since treatment and haven’t wanted to do anything other than write (and occasionally teach).
- I understand you’ve listed an array of extraordinary feats and occurrences in the ‘about’ section of your website, if you had to choose one event, which would be the one that impacted you the most and why?
After graduating from college and before I went to grad school, I lived for a year in Paris. I met a lot of people there who wanted to be writers but didn’t write. I wrote every day. That’s where I learned the discipline of committing something to the page every day. I came back with a collection of short stories that were published, Life Is Just a Party, my first book. (They were about a high school student who becomes an alcoholic and addict–you might say it’s the prequel to A Clean Heart.) That was an important lesson but I learned a lot more about art, history, the world, the United States, and what it meant to be a Minnesotan. Hemingway said, “Paris is a necessary part of a young man’s education,” and it certainly was for me.
- What, if any, life experiences influenced your book, A Clean Heart?
You mean other than smoking a lot of pot as a teenager and getting clean and sober at 17? After I returned to the States, Tom Alibrandi, a fellow writer and friend from Paris who had moved to Boise encouraged me to move there and work as a therapist in an adolescent treatment center. So I did. I met some good people and found meaning in helping kids get started in recovery, but the place was wildly dysfunctional. I got fired after four or five months. I guess that’s a testament to my sanity–that I didn’t fit into the craziness. So, the job didn’t last long, but it did give me the foundation for my novel.
- In what ways are you and Carter, the main character in A Clean Heart, most similar and different?
We are both recovering addicts, smartasses, irreverent of authority, compassionate and good-looking. He’s a much better hockey player, though.
- What did the writing process for A Clean Heart look like? Did this differ greatly or align closely with how you’ve approached your other pieces of work?
I started writing this novel in Minneapolis, after I moved back there from Boise. I spent three summers working on it in Florence (which is a pretty amazing thing to be able to do, I must say). By the time I got to Boston for grad school, I’d finished a draft. But I couldn’t get it published, so every few years I’d go back to it, revise it, and send it out again. After multiple rounds of revisions and rejections, I finally found a sympathetic editor in Brenda Knight at Mango. Thank you, Brenda.
- If you could go back in time and tell your younger, high school senior-self a one sentence piece of advice, what would it be?
- What do you hope readers ultimately take away from A Clean Heart?
I hope they laugh at the funny parts and feel the pain at the poignant ones. There’s a theme of redemption, so maybe they will be heartened by that. As for takeaway, probably a deeper understanding of the paradox of strength through surrender. That’s the whole secret of sobriety right there.
Rapid fire questions
- Favorite animal?
My dog Maya, a six-year-old Golden Retriever
- Favorite sport?
Whatever I’m playing or watching–hockey, baseball, tennis or cycling.
- Your favorite restaurant and dish of all time?
A sea bass at the Flying Fish with my wife before she was my wife in Carmel 24 years ago.
- Favorite artist?
Painting=Rembrandt; Sculpture=Rodin; Composer=Mozart; Author=Tolstoy; Poet=Robert Frost
- Most cherished tangible item?
My dad’s old Wilson baseball glove
- How do you take your coffee?
Dark and strong.
- Coca-cola or Pepsi?
- Favorite era?
The ‘70s, not for the clothes but for the music
A Clean Heart
A Novel (Alcoholism, Dysfunctional Family, Recovery, Redemption, 12-Steps)
Carter Kirchner struggles to stay sane and sober as a counselor at Six West, an adolescent drug treatment center run by Sister Mary Xavier, a hard-drinking nun with an MBA. The young Kirchner is caught between Sister Mary’s plan to rescue the center by reforming a hard-case kid and the dysfunctional staff’s clumsy plan to intervene on their boss’s drinking. Meanwhile, Carter’s mother—who never forgave him for giving up a promising hockey career to treat his own addiction—lands in the hospital with an advanced case of cirrhosis. Before Carter can help the young addict commissioned to his care or safely navigate the staff’s dysfunctional intervention effort, he must rescue himself from his family’s broken past.