Andrew J. Graff ’09 speaks of gratitude as he watches the buzz grow for his debut novel, Raft of Stars, released today by Ecco-HarperCollins.
Gratitude for his experience as an English major at Lawrence University, gratitude for the instruction and guidance that led to his acceptance into the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and gratitude for lessons in and out of the classroom that helped him keep his dream alive when the waters got rough.
“I’m thankful for it and just really enjoying everything that is happening,” Graff said.
What is happening is that Raft of Stars has arrived as a much talked-about novel, standing tall among the spate of spring releases. It has been highlighted as a must-read by Parade Magazine and USA TODAY, was chosen by HarperCollins as its lead spring title, was named a “Indie Next” pick by the American Booksellers Association and a “Read This Next” pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and has drawn rave reviews from the likes of the New York Times, Kirkus, and PopSugar.
Set in northern Wisconsin in the mid-1990s, Raft of Stars tells the story of two 10-year-old boys who flee the scene of a shooting and embark on a wild adventure through forests and along rivers while being pursued by law enforcement and family, all with varying motivations and conflicted histories.
The Boston Globe says Graff’s detailed landscape and harrowing tale of boys on the lam has echoes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn while neatly finding its own path: “The art and craft of this narrative, apparent from the first page with its sublime constellations of images, offers brutal beauty, the glinting edge of truth, and the possibility of redemption for the fifth-grade boys, and also for the adults chasing them.”
The excitement surrounding the book’s release comes six years after Graff found himself at a daunting crossroads.
Before embarking on Raft of Stars, Graff had spent seven years writing a novel that was set in post-9/11 Afghanistan, where he had been deployed as an aircraft mechanic with the U.S. Air Force. He began it while a student at Lawrence and continued with it as he earned his master’s degree at Iowa.
He was back living in northern Wisconsin when his agent sent it to publishers. Graff eagerly awaited the offers.
“I thought, boy, here I come world,” he said. “And no one wanted it. No one. It was pretty unanimous.”
It was the rejection that his professors warned him would come. He remembers Lawrence English professor David McGlynn, himself an accomplished author, telling him that if you’re talented, passionate, and diligent, you can find literary success but it will most likely take 10 years or more. Embrace patience and hard work, McGlynn told him.
And yet there was no bracing for the rejection of seven years’ worth of work, Graff said.
He stopped writing for a year and a half.
But then it was the voice of McGlynn in his head that brought him back and ignited the spark that would become Raft of Stars.
It was late 2014 or early 2015, in the dead of winter, and Graff and his wife, Heidi Quist Graff ’10, were living in an old house on the banks of the Peshtigo River. Graff had started a teaching job at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.
As he rummaged through boxes in the basement, he came upon an old college assignment from McGlynn.
“I wasn’t writing,” Graff recalled. “I had failed at being a novelist, you know. I was lighting fires in the wood stove in my basement, and I was using old notes from college to light the fire. I had saved every single note and every handout from my time in college. I was hoping I would do something great with them but I ended up lighting fires in wintertime. I was about to put this one essay into the fire; it was called The Nature and Aim of Fiction by Flannery O’Connor. I remembered how much David loved that essay. So, I didn’t burn it and I set it aside instead.
“In the essay, Flannery O’Connor says it takes three sensory strokes to bring something fully to life on the page, like smell, taste, and touch. That night is when I wrote the first lines of what later would become Raft of Stars. I just wrote about two boys pushing their bikes down a gravel road and there was a blackbird hanging onto a cattail stalk and there were some bees in the ditch clover. I didn’t know who those boys were and I didn’t know where they were headed, but they are Bread and Fish, the two boys from Raft of Stars.”
Thus began a five-year journey that would land Graff a book contract with Ecco-HarperCollins in mid-2019.
“I felt like I had mourned the first book long enough and I knew I still wanted to write, and these boys seemed interesting to me,” Graff said. “So, once I got to know them and watch them kind of ride their bikes around town a little bit and light off firecrackers in silos, I thought, yea, there’s something here. And eventually the story formed, the drama came in, it became apparent that one boy had an abusive father and the other, his friend, would do something very big and drastic to rescue him. At that point, I felt like the story had enough pressure to get them deep into the wilderness, especially once the adult cast of characters came onto the scene.”
Raft of Stars is set in a space Graff knows well. He grew up in Niagara, a rural city of 1,600 located near the Menominee River in Marinette County. He hunted, fished, and explored amid the beauty of the Northwoods, landscape that would become central to his story of the two runaway boys as they navigate terrain that is both dangerous and soothing.
Graff enlisted in the Air Force shortly after graduating from high school. When the attacks of 9/11 happened, life took an abrupt turn. He was deployed to Afghanistan.
“I just remember how surreal it was, to be sort of dropped off at this desert combat airfield,” Graff said. “We worked at nighttime, catching C-130s, these inbound cargo jets, to see if they needed any maintenance.”
After four years of service, he moved to Appleton and enrolled at Fox Valley Technical College to train to be a paramedic.
He was being practical, he said. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He yearned to be a writer. He’d drive past Lawrence and wonder what might be.
“After a year at Fox Valley Tech, which was a great start and I’m thankful for that place, it just became really clear that I have to do this,” Graff said.
He applied to Lawrence as a 22-year-old non-traditional student, got in, and immediately impressed. McGlynn, who joined the Lawrence faculty in Graff’s sophomore year, said the talent was noticeable, even if his writing at that point was a bit “young.” When he turned in an essay about a moment during his time in the Air Force, McGlynn said he could see Graff’s confidence growing.
“He began to believe he could become a writer and set his sights on graduate school,” McGlynn said.
Graff joins Madhuri Vijay ’09 (The Far Field) and Callie Bates ’09 (The Waking Land series) as former Lawrence classmates who have landed debut novels with major publishers, a point of pride for an English department that recently added a creative writing major. The three have built on the writing success of Lawrence alumni who came before and provide a relatable window to what’s possible for current and future Lawrence students who want to pursue creative writing, McGlynn said.
“He called me the day Raft of Stars sold, in July of 2019, and it was a big moment for us both,” McGlynn said of Graff. “His work is a testimony to the fact that inspired, artful writing happens over time and is not the product of a flash of genius or a single good idea. A Lawrence student might not publish a novel while a student, but our record shows that something foundational is happening here. They begin the long journey toward the larger goal.”
Graff, now on the English faculty at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, said he’s thinking frequently of his Lawrence experience as he savors the excitement surrounding the book’s release.
“Without Lawrence, I wouldn’t be writing, hands down,” Graff said. “It was an interest of mine. I loved books; I always loved reading; I loved daydreaming. But it was at Lawrence where I thought, yes, I really want to try this. I got so much guidance from professors like David McGlynn and (former Lawrence professor) Faith Barrett and others that I couldn’t have done it without those years. It was absolutely informative.”
Graff said he will join one of McGlynn’s virtual classes as a guest during Spring Term. And, if pandemic protocols allow, he’ll pay a visit to campus in October when he’s back in Appleton to participate in the Fox Cities Book Festival.
Meanwhile, he’ll celebrate the release of Raft of Stars on March 23 by taking part in a 7 p.m. online launch event hosted by the Wisconsin Book Festival.
Graff said he’ll happily share with viewers what he took from his time at Lawrence, the joy of getting into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the hard work from then to now. And he’ll speak to the emotions that overwhelmed him on that summer day in 2019 when his agent told him the book had sold.
“It was raining that day and I was parked on the side of the road, and after the phone call I just sat in my pickup truck and cried,” Graff said. “It felt really sweet. I spent seven years working on the first book and five years working on this one. I thought, oh boy, if this one doesn’t sell, I will start again, but it’ll be hard. I’m thankful for every bit of attention the book is getting. It’s been pure fun.”