Novelist and Milton Alumnus Reif Larsen, ’98, Addresses Seniors at Graduation
by The Milton Measure on Friday, June 10th, 2011
Today, Milton Academy welcomed back novelist Reif Larsen (’98) to speak about his own experiences in hope of lending everyone some helpful advice.
At a mere thirty-one years of age, Mr. Larsen has achieved many laudable accomplishments and wishes to impart the wisdom he has gained from these experiences to the class of 2011.
Primarily, Mr. Larsen is a writer. Last year, he published his first book, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, a critically acclaimed novel widely admired for its use of drawings and figures in the margins. The book received praise from Vanity Fair and was called “a treasure” by author Stephen King.
The novel follows a twelve-year-old boy living in Butte, Montana on a thrilling journey east towards New York City, where he goes to accept a prize for his mapmaking. The boy, according to Larsen, is not based on the author, but there are still some similarities between the author and the character he created.
Larsen first fell in love with the “Wild West” as a young boy when he “went on a couple river trips in Idaho” at the age of twelve. Larsen remembers, “When you’re on a seven or eight day river trip, your whole body starts to synchronize with the pace of the river. You become pretty in tune with the river, and for an eastern kid like me, it kind of blew my head open.”
Years later, Larsen returned to the western United States. In Montana this time, he became obsessed “with cowboys and why we have been so saturated with them in our culture for such a long time, and why sometimes our presidents try to be them.”
Through his experiences in the West, Larsen found his muse. “It wasn’t until really a month or two into writing it that I really found the voice of the main character and really figured out he was 12,” said Larsen. The storyteller “started off as a 50 year old drunk narrating the book in retrospect from a French prison.”
After “burning” the original story, Larsen hit his stride. When the manuscript was nearly complete, he came upon his original idea to include illustrations. After that, everything fell in place and the publishers came knocking on his door.
Like he had done with the illustrations, Larsen was also able to innovate on the technological front with an interactive website to accompany The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
He believes that “every book nowadays needs some website or web presence” and he “think[s] that’s an interesting challenge,” for people who have and have not read the book. The website can be reached at tsspivet.com.
Larsen published his first works during his time at Milton. He was the Arts editor for The Milton Paper and printed several short stories in the Magus Mabus. “I also did a lot of creative writing courses and I was really fortunate for the great teachers [at Milton] and really throughout my entire education,” he added.
Another way Larsen has improved his writing is through his practice of Zen, a school of Buddhism focused on meditation. He believes that an important part of writing is gathering your thoughts. “I’ve talked to a lot of writers and it’s just not Buddhism or Zen Buddhism. They need a sort of balance to ground their practice in because it’s very hard to concentrate on your writing. I need to calibrate the day for like twenty-five minutes because my mind will just race. Breathing sets my day on the right track so it’s just a hugely important part of my life.”
When he is not writing or meditating, Larsen devotes his time to helping out disadvantaged children in Africa. During his college years at Brown, Larsen took a semester off to teach at two African schools—one in South Africa, and one in Batswana. It was in Batswana that Larsen connected with the Maru-a-Pula school, where he now sits on the American board of directors.
“All these kids are so motivated to really exceed…They have the future of the country and continent upon them, so they are really motivated to learn leadership skills,” said Larsen.
At his marriage next week, Larsen will ask all the guests to make a small donation to the school’s scholarship fund in lieu of typical wedding gifts.
Larsen is an inspiration for many Milton students who don’t necessarily feel atop their class. “I graduated with some extraordinary people and often felt stuck in the middle.” said Larsen. “Not extraordinary at all. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing at Milton, but I was not top of the class at all. Just know that it’s not necessarily the people at the top who go on to influence people. Let it be of comfort to those who were mediocre in high school.”
Short URL: http://miltonmeasure.org/?p=1493