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Local author Eric Dregni releases his 17th book, this one a memoir

Posted on 24 April 2017 by calvin

Eric Dregni 01Article and Photos by JAN WILLMS
Eric Dregni (photo right) teaches full-time as an associate professor at Concordia University, he is father to three active children, and he is dean of an Italian language camp every summer. Yet the Longfellow resident still finds the time to write, having just published his 17th book, “You’re Sending Me Where? Dispatches from Summer Camp.”

“I started writing about motor scooters,” he said in a recent interview. “Then I got into travel, so I wrote about traveling around the Midwest. I wrote about my experiences over in Italy, and I was in Norway for a year, so I wrote about that.”

Dregni grew up in Minnetonka and spent his senior year in high school as an exchange student in Italy. “I just sort of fell in love with the country, and after college I went back for six months, and then I spent three years working in Modena, Saint Paul’s sister city in Italy. I was teaching and writing over there,” he explained. “I thought ‘What am I going to do when I come back?,’ and I decided to get my master’s at the U in Italian. And because of that, I got roped into doing the Italian language camp, because how many people around here do you know who speak Italian?”

There are 15 different languages that are taught at summer camps in Minnesota, according to Dregni. “The original one was the German camp,” he said. “The first one that was built was Norwegian, and there are Spanish, French, Japanese…it’s pretty remarkable.”

Dregni said most of the camps are in the Bemidji area, but the Italian camp is near Hackensack.
“We rent a site with the French,” he said. He described it as a beautiful classic camp that has been preserved in much the same style from the 1920s, with no electricity. He said he actually prefers the rustic camp setting in the woods. “I’m from Minnesota, and that’s what we do,” he joked.

Dregni had done camp counseling in France, near the border with Spain. It was an American camp for the kids to learn English.

20170414_110814He grew up attending YMCA camps and canoeing and spending time in the wilderness. He interviewed young people from Italy to come over and work as counselors in the summer. He described how difficult it was to explain to them about the camps because the Italians don’t have that kind of camp in their country. “The idea of sending your kids off for a couple of weeks with these college students is very American,” Dregni said.

In his latest book, a memoir, he talks a little about his camping adventures as a child and then focuses on his experiences in finding Italian counselors for his language camps. The counselors come to life in his descriptions, and he has a gift for making some of the situations seem laugh-out-loud funny.

This will be Dregni’s 11th year running the Italian language camp. “I came in as the dean,” he noted. “Usually you start out as a camper and then a counselor and work your way up, but they needed someone who could speak Italian.”

And his last name ends in a vowel, like most Italian names, even though Dregni’s heritage is a mixture of Norwegian, German, Dutch and other ethnicities.

Dregni said that writing is a challenge with his busy schedule. “I just take a lot of notes,” he stated. “I have a little notebook and take notes all the time at camp. One of the fun things the counselors did on their own was that we had this big sheet up on the wall. Whenever they had something funny happen that they wanted to remember, they would write all these things up on the board. It helped out a lot.”

Dregni admitted that writing is hard but rewarding. He said that especially in writing a memoir, it is not always easy to keep the sense of things because they don’t always happen in any order. “You have to try to piece them together,” he noted. “Whereas with fiction, you can form it. With nonfiction, this is what it is. What do you highlight? What do you hold back on?”

He recalled writing a little bit of fiction in college. “You always want to write the great American novel, but then you realize there are just so many great stories already out there.”

Dregni has a small office in his basement, where he tries to do a lot of his writing. “I write at work and wherever I can,” he said. “So many people want to be writers, and they say they just need the right space and the perfect cup of coffee. A lot of that is never going to happen, especially if you have a deadline. You just have to do it.”

When he was in college, Dregni wanted to write plays, and he wrote musicals. Then his brother, who worked for a publishing company, told him they wanted a book on Vespas. Since Dregni had lived in Italy and knew something about them, he was asked to write a book. He said at the time it was not something he really wanted to do, but the book provided him with money to travel, and that was pretty great.

When he spent time in Norway, he said it was surprisingly similar to Minnesota. The landscape was completely different, but the people interacted with each other in much the same way that Minnesotans do. New York is probably more similar to Italy, according to Dregni.

He said that the Norwegians at first seemed a cold people, but once he and his wife got to know them, they were very friendly and helpful. He got to know some relatives, and they told him “welcome home.”

When he writes a book about an activity, such as fishing or roadside attractions, Dregni said he takes a lot of road trips and interviews people. When he writes a memoir, it is not so much about the research as about the writing. And he always has his notebook, taking notes just in case it might result in a book.

As well as writing the books, Dregni said he also really enjoys giving readings. “When you hear someone speak about a book, it brings it to life,” he noted.

As to future projects, Dregni said he has lots of ideas and lots of notes and will have to see what comes of it.

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