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Front Row Seat: Poignant young-adult novel draws on author's history with Prince

Vanessa L. Torres, whose debut novel was inspired by her own youthful experiences in Minneapolis, is working on a new book set in Duluth.

A hand holds a hardcover copy of "The Turning Pointe" novel, featuring illustration of smiling young girl dancer on the cover.
Minnesota Ballet students might relate to much of "The Turning Pointe," even if they're not studying alongside any rock stars.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Vanessa L. Torres lives in Olympia, Washington, but she knows our city well. "I love Duluth," the writer said over Zoom during a recent conversation about her new novel, "The Turning Pointe."

"Every time I go back to Minnesota," said Torres, "I make a point to go up there. I love the kind of ethereal spooky quality that Duluth has — to me it does, anyway. The water, the ships, everything."

That made Duluth "the perfect setting" for a contemporary fantasy novel that Torres has written — but more on that later. Her book that's out now is set in a different Minnesota city, one known for its association with the late music legend Prince.

"I grew up on the south side of Minneapolis," said Torres. "I was one of the few inner-city kids dancing at MDT (Minnesota Dance Theatre) for the children's performance division, under a scholarship. I would come home from school, drop my stuff, get something to eat, then get on the bus all by myself. I think I started doing that at 11, going downtown to Hennepin Avenue by myself."

MDT was a crucial connection to Prince's most iconic era. The version of the song "Purple Rain" heard on record and in the movie of the same title, the track Pitchfork named best song of the 1980s, was recorded live at First Avenue during a 1983 benefit show to support MDT, where Prince honed his dance moves.

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"He was obsessed with learning how to pirouette and all that," said Torres. "He was friends with (MDT founder) Loyce Houlton. He showed up to a couple of our 'Nutcracker' rehearsals, just to watch. ... Once we heard he was taking class up (in a studio), I dragged a couple of my friends up there to watch. Sometimes we'd get kicked out, and sometimes they totally let us stay."

Torres has channeled her youthful experiences in "The Turning Pointe," the story of a girl named Rosa who desperately wants to dance in the benefit concert. Aside from practicing her form, though, she also has to grapple with family challenges — and negotiate a new, hot and heavy relationship.

The boy Rosa falls for, Nikki (a familiar name to "Purple Rain" fans, albeit in a quite different context), is a refreshing contrast to typical YA love interests. Nikki shares a powerful physical connection with Rosa (there's a reason "young adult" includes the word "adult"), but his gender expression is as fluid as that of MDT's most famous student.

"Nikki was very inspired by Prince," said Torres, "but he was also very inspired by someone who I knew actually knew growing up as a teenager — who's no longer alive, but I felt like I really wanted to give him a better ending than than what he actually had. So I kept him in mind. He was a dancer who I knew. I really love that character so much. He was just so much fun to write, and heartbreaking to write."

Although "The Turning Pointe" is the author's first published novel, Torres has been writing for a long time. She studied screenwriting in college, and she first drafted the Duluth-set fantasy novel while working as a flight medic in Portland, Oregon. She sent it to various literary agents, who expressed interest, "but no one really was ready to take the leap."

As it happened, Torres and I were speaking exactly six years to the day since Prince's accidental death at age 57. "I was just devastated," said Torres about hearing the news in 2016. "But that was really the spark to write ('The Turning Pointe'). I had always wanted to write something about my experience at MDT."

A tidy arrangement of colorful paper squares was visible on the wall behind Torres; she explained that it was the book's "storyboard."

"Each character is assigned a color of Post-It notes, so Rosa is obviously pink. And then I just put them in every chapter where they appear ... their conflict, their arc in each chapter." Torres said the practice "helps me with flow. I'm a visual person."

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The combination of a fresh, compelling story and the fascinating music history made "The Turning Point" an easy sell to publishers. "My book went to auction because more than one publisher wanted it," said Torres, "which is where you want to be as a writer! It was a really surreal experience."

In the "Purple Rain" era, the section of downtown Minneapolis on and near Hennepin Avenue was dense and lively, with some landmarks that remain (First Avenue, the Gay 90s nightclub) and others that are long gone. Those included Shinder's newsstand and Moby Dick's — now remembered as "Minnesota's most infamous bar." That era comes to vivid, specific life in "The Turning Pointe."

"That was very intentional. I wanted Minneapolis to become a character," said Torres. "All of those wonderful businesses that aren't there anymore, I felt like I needed to pay homage to them, because they were such a huge part of my upbringing."

Torres drew on another chapter of her life experience for her next novel, another book for young adults: "It does center around firefighting, which is my other passion." She's also planning to revise the fantasy novel set in Duluth to give publishers another look.

"Most people are pleasantly surprised" by "The Turning Pointe," said the author. "Some people were caught off guard by how it's a bit on the gritty side. You know, they hear 'dance book' and people automatically (think of) movies like 'Center Stage' or 'Save the Last Dance' — you know, things like that where it's a little bit more lighthearted. This book is definitely not that. There are (lighthearted) moments, definitely, but it also it deals with some pretty heavy issues."

One of those lighthearted moments involves Rosa sharing an elevator with Prince, and being so awed that ... well, nature takes its course.

"I figured out when he was coming down the elevators and I would run down a couple of floors and push the button," Torres remembered. "The scene in the elevator with Rosa peeing is very autobiographical."

Short cuts

Book cover: Mabel Seeley, "The Chuckling Fingers," featuring a stylized painting of Lake Superior shore rocks
"The Chuckling Fingers," a Mabel Seeley mystery novel originally published in 1941, was republished in 2021.
Contributed / Berkley

Molly Young, a book critic at the New York Times, shares her favorite reads from yesteryear in an email newsletter that's become so popular, a recommendation from her can cause the prices of used titles to skyrocket. In last month's newsletter, Young recommended "The Chuckling Fingers": a 1941 novel by Minnesota's own "Mistress of Mystery," Mabel Seeley. Young reported "gulping" the novel, which she described as "Nancy Drew for adults." It's set at a North Shore resort that's fictitious, yet entirely familiar to anyone who's spent time in Cook County. There's a macabre Paul Bunyan legend, a smashed motorboat, a mysterious founding family, and dialogue like, "See a bear?" "I'd rather see one than be one." Fortunately "The Chuckling Fingers" is not out of print: It was recently republished and is available in all formats.

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The hits keep coming for Gaelynn Lea. While director Sam Gold's "Macbeth" production has received mixed reviews on Broadway, Lea's original music has significantly raised the Duluth artist's already considerable national profile. Lea got another boost when she and Michael Stipe revealed that she'll appear on the former R.E.M. frontman's highly anticipated solo debut album. On Rick Rubin's podcast, Stipe said that his voice and Lea's "meld together beautifully"; Lea shared a photo of the two at the "Macbeth" premiere. Some of Lea's "Macbeth" music has also now been made public for the first time outside a theater: via iHeartRadio Broadway's YouTube channel, where Lea demonstrated how the characters' themes are "interlocking."

2022 marks the 40th anniversary of "Frances," the 1982 biopic about Golden Age of Hollywood star Frances Farmer. While Graeme Clifford's film sensationalized Farmer's life — including a horrific depiction of a transorbital lobotomy, a procedure not actually performed on the institutionalized actor — the movie features a sensational performance by Cloquet's Jessica Lange as an independent-minded, casually flirtatious young woman crushed by a patriarchal society. "Frances" is available on multiple streaming platforms including the Criterion Channel, where it's part of a series inspired by critic Michael Koresky's book "Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son, and the '80s Films That Defined Us." As the book points out, the decade of Rambo and Rocky also produced a steady stream of complex dramas showcasing powerhouse performances by some of the greatest actresses ever to grace the silver screen.

Jay Gabler covers arts and entertainment for the Duluth News Tribune. Contact him at 218-279-5536 or  jgabler@duluthnews.com .

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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