For lifelong Wisconsinite and second-year law student Jacob Gardner, formative childhood experiences in Northern Wisconsin as a self-described “poor rural kid” served as inspiration for his debut novel, North of Highway 8.
The novel features protagonist Matt Harris’s return to his small hometown, where a once robust blue-collar economy has declined. Buildings are boarded up, schools are under-resourced, and poverty has increased. North of Highway 8 explores the plight of rural America, our inherent connection with nature, and the importance of tolerance, friendship, and ethics.
“This book grapples with questions like how far will you go for your pride or your career, and what does it really mean to love your home,” said Gardner. “I explore the tension between people’s prosperity and the Earth’s welfare.”
Loosely inspired by real events in Wisconsin—such as the Foxconn deal—the novel allows readers to “truly reflect on how to best ‘save’ small town America, and it proposes extra tolerance as the way to bridge the rural-urban divide,” he said.
Accolades are already coming in for the novel, including two awards from the Speak Up Talk Radio Firebird Awards: third prize for Contemporary Fiction and first prize for Young Author (under 25 years old).
We sat down with Gardner to discuss his writing career, UW Law influences on his work, writing a novel during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.
Q&A with Jacob Gardner
This is your debut novel. What encouraged you to pursue writing a novel?
I have enjoyed writing my entire life. Usually focused on poetry and short stories, I always dreamed of writing a full-length, albeit a little short, novel. My first time published was for a simple nature-oriented poem when I was 7 years old. Since that time, I have written countless poems and short stories.
In the spring of 2020, just before COVID-19 took the world by storm, I was invited to participate in the Creator’s Institute program for first-time authors. While I originally deferred participation, in the fall of 2020, with a vacuum of a social life, I finally dove in. The program was focused on teaching first-time authors how to write a book like a second-time author. In short, it was designed to build both writing competence and confidence. I ended up working with a super developmental editor and finished the first draft of the book by January 2021. At that time, I was introduced to New Degree Press, a publisher partnered with the program and focused on new authors.
What spurred your desire to write this particular story?
Having worn both hats—that of a rural Wisconsinite and that of a Madisonian—I hated the divide in our state. From politics and economics, that amount of hate between the ruralites and the urbanites in this state astounds me.
Moreover, I have a lot of love for both settings. I wanted to write a story that addressed division, as well as the economic plight of the rural rust belt.
Did your experiences at UW Law play into this story or into your desire to write a novel?
I actually wrote the book entirely before starting law school, but I did juggle the editing and proofing with my first semester of law school. It was fun. I will say that the process of publishing added an extra interest in intellectual property and the legal side of the publishing industry.
A lot of the inspiration for the story came from my experiences in Northern Wisconsin, as well as witnessing the rural-urban divide as a poor rural kid. From my time as a ‘trailer trash’ and ‘weird queer’ kid, as branded by peers growing up, I couldn’t wait to escape my small town. As a Madisonian, I miss the nature found in the rural areas. One of my escapes from Madison is all the way north of Highway 8, around the Brule River and Bayfield areas. My fiance’s grandmother lives in that rea, and my experiences visiting the area helped me to connect my personal experiences with the different culture found north of Highway 8. That same cultural shift can be seen in the main character of my novel, once he crosses the threshold to the north.
How would you describe the process of writing, editing, and publishing a novel during a pandemic?
It was tough. So many times, I had major imposter syndrome. I still sometimes have a hard time recognizing that I did do it. In some ways, the pandemic helped me write it. Since I was holed up inside, I followed the common wave of trying out new things. I made homemade mozzarella, baked bread, signed up for Tik-Tok, and spent my nights drafting a novel. It really helped pass the time. Additionally, a big theme of the book is the winter isolation that comes every year, especially in Northern Wisconsin. I tried to infuse my own frustrations with social isolation to that of being an outsider in a small town in the northern winter.
Are you working on other projects at the moment? If so, care to plant a teaser?
Yes. I recently helped my mother publish her first cookbook, and I have started planning and drafting my next novel. The next one—not a sequel to North of Highway 8—will still explore the role of business and business ethics in our society, but it will also touch on the military-industrial complex and explore the ‘cans vs. shoulds’ of technology. That is, we can create a certain device, but should we? It will also highlight the intersection of mental health and professional success.
North of Highway 8 is available for purchase at most major retailers, especially through online order.
Favorite Underappreciated Novel
Skipping Christmas by John Grisham. It’s his light-hearted, lesser-known, non-legal fiction. I read it every holiday season just to relax and laugh.
Caleb Carr. Even before they made it into a series, I loved his The Alienist novel/universe.
Favorite Book While in Law School
I recently read These Silent Woods by Kimi Cunningham Grant. It was also a character-driven novel of an imperfect protagonist that you wanted to love, and a well-intentioned antagonist you wanted to hate. Really a good one.
By Kassandra Tuten