Virginia Larsen: At 80, still energized, still writing, and now getting published
Published 6:00 am Tuesday, October 24, 2017
Austin author Virginia Larsen thought for years that she was something of an introvert.
“Quiet, always thinking deep, existential thoughts,” deadpanned Larsen, 80.
But she realized in later years, “that when I’m with people, I’m energized.”
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That vitality, we would guess, has made her a sort of conductor for friends, attracting both people and animals into her energy field.
Those relationships also proved to be fertile ground for her writing, although for much of her life, her writing was found in letters and unpublished poetry, not books.
Until this year, that is.
Larsen published her first book, “The Book of Lurch,” recounting the unusual life of her “hunch-backed, club-footed cockatiel,” named for his lurching gait.
“Lurch did not enjoy flying on his own,” she writes. “A bird’s tail is the rudder, but the unusual angle of his meant that he could not steer in a straight line. Instead, he flew left, described a circle, then more or less crash-landed behind the starting point, making contact with the wall and fluttering to the floor — or, if no wall was present, hurtling earthward like a plane without engine power in a windstorm and then skidding on the runway in a flurry of wing feathers and shrieks.”
Her book signing at Sweet Reads Books in Austin this summer was wonderful, she said.
“Three cockatiels came; two of them were in pants,” she said.
Larsen’s command of language —or rather, languages — took up much of her working life, but it was almost always used in front of a classroom, not at a writing desk. Her ability to speak French and German proved a springboard to wonderful journeys on vacations and teaching assignments, she said. Her last teaching stint took her to Riverland Community College, where she taught for 27 years. Before that, she taught at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.
Through it all, she said, she was particularly sympathetic “to the underdog; well, I guess ‘under-critter’ in this case” she joked, when talking about her erstwhile clawed companion.
Lurch was not alone in her affections, however; she regularly took in strays. She recalled being bitten by a lemur once; another time, she made friends with a tree sloth. She regularly rescued animals.
Larsen was born in Kenmare, North Dakota, a small town near Minot. Her father and mother were both of Danish heritage, although she was quick to point out that of the two types of Danes — sad or merry — her father was inclined to be more like the former, but her mother, thankfully, the latter.
“And I take after her in every way,” she said. Her mother was also a teacher who, like Larsen, “loved words, loved poetry.”
She was in second grade when her mother died, leaving her father to care for her and her brother. But three and a half years later, her father married her school’s music teacher — whose name was Virginia, too — and the young girl came to love her. Her new mother also brought her three more brothers.
Setting roots as an author
Her passion for writing came early; from a young age, she “slept with a notebook, a pencil and a flashlight.”
She worked on the school newspaper and “had wonderful English teachers,” she said.
One in particular, Anna Ackerman, was a forbidding, stern woman. But surprise of surprises, the teacher would invite some of her more advanced students to come to her class early — and would read and discuss poetry with a spirit that astonished her pupils. Another teacher — Mrs. Nagatomo — taught news writing. Larsen took to the classes eagerly, “on my way to being a world-class journalist,” she joked.
She changed career goals, however, when she attended St. Olaf College, where she majored in English and French. Upon graduation, she taught English and French at The Martin Luther Schule School in Rimbach, Germany, one of the first graduates of the college to win the award allowing her the trip. While she couldn’t read German, she made her way with dictionaries and a natural affinity for language and its construction. She admitted she often fled to the bathroom during parties to look up phrases.
“It’s also how I learned to smoke, unfortunately,” she said. She found that if someone asked her a question she did not quite understand, she could slowly inhale smoke from the cigarette that allowed her enough time to properly form a response. Fortunately, she was able to later drop the habit.
Her early experiences in Germany, and later, France, proved the best and worst of times — but the best included a springboard to a lifelong love of travel.
“I got a taste for the wider world; I became insatiable” in her pursuit of travel, a passion she indulged whenever she could over the years.
The honor of translating a book
Her love of language also formed a type of entry point for her writing. A friend gave her a book that Larsen immediately recognized as one everyone, on both sides of the Atlantic, should be able to read.
The book, “Schattenzeit Geschichten (Shadow Time Stories) was written by Lilo Beil, who also taught at the Martin Luther Schule School. Her book is filled with stories, many based on actual accounts, of how children and adults reacted to living under the Nazi regime during World War II. Larsen contacted Beil to ask if she would allow Larsen to translate the book.
“It was such an important book, and it was such an honor” to bring the book to a new audience, Larsen said. “It was my gift to the world.”
The work on the book also led her to editor Jocelyn Pihlaja and illustrator Byron Johnson, who worked on the translation, and who were then engaged to work on “The Book of Lurch.”
Importance of relationships
Relationships that formed along her journeys — both human and animal — will come together in her second book, loosely named “Encounters,” a book of short vignettes about the pets and people she has known.
She is about halfway through her new book, excited about the stories to share. Mrs. Nagatomo, her teacher from all those years ago, returns in one story — this time with her mother; in another, she recounts the often-humorous trip to America taken by a friend’s mother, from Russia.
On a more serious note, Larsen writes of a mother from Memphis, who travels to Austin to visit her son, who was serving a jail sentence — although she thought he was attending college. Larsen ends up visiting her in Memphis, andwas impressed by the vast love the woman held not only for her family, but all people.
“It was very humbling to me,” she said.
And, her recollections continue to percolate.
Larsen has had treatment for a recurring cancer; despite that, she forges ahead with an attitude that she will continue to travel, both literally and figuratively, as long as she can. She is settled and happy, in a home that she shares with her spouse, Kristen Lindbloom Larsen, and their two dogs.
After all, she hails from the merry side of her Danish heritage.
She shows a dour face when describing those relatives who, while good-intentioned, were firmly entrenched in melancholy— the Danish side, she was sure, that “must have sat down, and pencilled out the word ‘rejoice’ from every verse in their Bibles,” she said, chuckling.