Minnesota Freelance Writer, Editor, Co-author of Here in the Middle and founding member of ModernWell and the ModernWell writing studio, Julie Jo Severson published her second book The Secret Twin Cities early this summer.
Secret Twin Cities: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure tells of some of the rare and hidden finds right here in our own city. With a longtime passion for preserving personal histories and stories, Julie included a “treasure chest of offbeat, extraordinary gems and legacies” in her newest book. We interviewed Julie and asked her a variety of questions regarding to Secret Twin Cities – here’s what she had to say:
In a nutshell, what is Secret Twin Cities about?
I like to describe it as a whimsical tour of Twin Cities history and culture through the lens of the unusual. Through two-page vignettes with photographs, it features those offbeat and underappreciated places and legacies that truly set our region apart from the rest of the world.
How did you get involved in this book project?
The stars aligned. The publisher was actually looking for a writer to create a book like this for the Twin Cities. They initially contacted Modernwell’s very own, Julie Burton. Lucky for me, Julie was too busy to take this project on herself and also lucky for me, I was the one she recommended. I have been a member of Julie Burton’s and Nina Badzin’s writing studio ever since it first launched in 2015, and I would never, ever have had this opportunity had Julie not referred me. As we all know, Julie brings out the best in everyone around her, and she knew this would be exactly the type of project I would pour myself into. And, wow, did I ever.
How did you discover some of the hidden secrets of the Twin Cities?
It was a combination of all kinds of things. I hopped in my car and became like a tourist in my own town during lots of early morning excursions. It was heavenly having an excuse to do so. I deeply miss having that excuse right now. I also read everything from old newspaper clippings and neighborhood newsletters to information signs and little, obscure plaques. And because I wanted the perspective of many, I picked the brains of lots and lots of locals from all walks of life including neighbors, colleagues, old college friends, bartenders, food truck drivers, photographers, artists, park directors, historians, archivists, you name it. My top two criteria for what to include in the book were rich backstories and deep local ties.
What is your favorite of the best-kept secrets of the cities?
That’s always the hardest question for me to answer. As hard as I’ve tried, I can’t pick just one. For me, so many of them are wrapped up in their backstories, such as the bus stop that looks like a giant bouquet in North Minneapolis. But the places I’d go to again and again are the handful of places I feature along the Mississippi River, such as the Confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, a deeply sacred place to the Dakota people. Also, the Vision of Peace statue inside the Saint Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse literally took my breath away. You can even climb up to the third floor and stand by its head reflecting in the glass ceiling. It’s truly magnificent. When it reopens to the public, you must take your family and out-of-town guests to see it!
How long had you been working on the book before you published it?
The publisher gave me exactly one year to turn in all of the initial content and photos. Following that, I was heavily involved in double and triple fact-checking, edits, and design until it was published seven months later.
What were the biggest challenges you faced when writing the book?
For one thing, meeting the publisher’s deadline while still trying to be a solid mom to my three teens and caretaker for my mom. But the biggest challenge was determining which of my findings would be considered a “secret” or a “hidden gem” to readers. Obviously, I don’t know what other people know and don’t know. I only know what I know and don’t know. Ultimately, I had to go by gut instinct, and I guess that paid off. I continue to receive such wonderful feedback from people who have lived here their whole lives telling me that much of what’s in this book is new to them, which, of course, is super awesome for me to hear. That was the ultimate goal!
What was it like to release a book during Covid-19?
Oh my gosh, absolutely surreal. Boxes of the book began arriving on my doorstep in mid-March, the same week that my kids’ schools shut down and we were all being mandated to stay home. And here I was the author of a sparkly new travel guide with a book launch and a dozen other book signing events scheduled in the weeks following. ALL CANCELLED. I looked at my stack of books and thought to myself, “Now what am I going to do with these things?” At that time, it didn’t even feel ethically right for me to promote a local guidebook that encourages getting out and about. So I pretty much avoided announcing and talking about the book for close to a month after it was released. But as word got out, I started receiving incredible feedback from readers that this book was providing them with joy, that it was giving them a bucket list of things to look forward to, and that the stories are fun to read regardless. But also, there are many great outdoor ideas in there where you can still social distance. So with guidance and mentorship from other members of the Modernwell Writing Studio, I found a way to go public with the book, in the midst of a global pandemic and then civil unrest, and still feel good about it.
What were the most surprising things you found about the Twin Cities?
Well, I sure didn’t know that the line of latitude that circles the earth halfway between the equator and the North Pole runs right through the Twin Cities. There are even three places where it’s marked! Also, one of the most surprising discoveries for me was the current whereabouts of the famous nude statue, named Scherzo, that was created as the centerpiece for the extravagant three-day opening of the Foshay Tower in 1929. If you ever get to the Foshay Tower Museum at the top of the Foshay, you’ll see Scherzo in photos. The story of the Foshay is loaded with a fascinating history that I’ve known about for many years. And so it was really fun for me to learn where Scherzo is now and see her in real life. I don’t give that particular information away in interviews. LOL.
The book is available wherever books are sold, but for more information and to order signed copies, go to www.secrettwincities.com.
Ten percent of proceeds from that site are being donated to Open Arms Minnesota, a nonprofit that prepares and delivers nutritious meals to those living with life-threatening diseases in the Twin Cities.
About the Author:
Minnesota native Julie Jo Severson grew up dreaming of working in a newsroom like Mary on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. These days she s a freelance journalist and editor living in a Minneapolis suburb with her husband and three teens. With a longtime passion for preserving life s rich and whimsical stories before they fade away, Severson launched the blog Carvings on a Desk, cocurated the anthology Here in the Middle, and works with individuals to record their personal histories for future generations.