Book asks what peace means to us

johnnoltnerJohn Noltner of Bloomington speaks about his new book, “A Peace of My Mind: American Stories,” during a release party in September. (Submitted photo)

It was a simple question, and one that intrigued John Noltner of Bloomington.

He’s been asking the question for more than five years, and the answers have kept him busy.

“What does peace mean to you?” It was a question he started asking in 2009. He has shared the answers through podcasts, a traveling exhibit and two books, the latest having been released this fall.

His first book, “A Peace of My Mind,” collected stories and portraits of Minnesotans who answered Noltner’s question. The book was the evolutionary result of his question, and spawned a second book with a more ambitious scope. “A Peace of My Mind: American Stories” is a nationwide collection of stories asking the same question that took Noltner to 46 states. It was released on Sept. 21, the International Day of Peace.

The book chronicles stories of transformation, forgiveness and hope from survivors of violence, refugees, civil rights activists, artists, ranchers, veterans, former prisoners and others. It is aimed at revealing insights into ways people can work toward common good and create a world where everyone lives better together, according to Noltner.

The cover of “A Peace of My Mind: American Stories.” (Submitted graphic)
The cover of “A Peace of My Mind: American Stories.” (Submitted graphic)

The question

Noltner is a freelance photographer who works for national magazines, corporations and nonprofits. The economy curtailed his freelance workload in 2009, and that gave him time to pursue a project of personal interest. The polarized nature of our dialogue intrigued Noltner. There were a lot of angry voices in the world, and we are often asked to focus upon what divides us. He wanted to spend time showing what people have in common, he explained.

His first interview about peace resulted in a fascinating conversation, so he interviewed a second person. He recorded each interview, and when he completed a dozen, he began sharing them through a podcast. After gathering 50 stories, he received a state arts grant to create a traveling exhibit showcasing the stories and portraits of the people he interviewed. He then took edited versions of the stories and compiled them for his first book in 2011. It didn’t take long after the first book was complete for Noltner to consider a second edition, this time with a national scope.

“I realized it was still interesting to me,” he said.

The second book’s interviews were compiled during the course of nine road trips throughout the country. It was a self-funded project, so Noltner scheduled his trips during gaps in his freelance employment assignments. The trips were from one to five weeks in length, and totaled more than 40,000 miles of driving. He interviewed about 100 people during those trips, and 58 of those stories are included in the new book, he explained.

He interviews were pre-arranged in most instances. Noltner would typically contact organizations and advocates in cities he planned to travel to in an effort to connect with people who might have an interesting background or perspective about peace. In Oklahoma, for example, he wanted to speak with a person affected by the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Once contacts were established, his journalistic instincts would take over, he said. If he found a person’s story interesting, he assumed it would be interesting to others. The interviews were typically about one hour in length, which he’d transcribe afterward and eventually edit down to about 500 words for inclusion in the book. It took about a year to edit stories for the book. He included stories that offered the widest variety of interesting and unique perspectives.

“It’s more of an art than a science,” he said. Podcasts of the interviews are also available online, he noted.

Having compiled stories from across the country, Noltner sought a publisher for the new second book. The book includes photos of the people he interviewed, making it an expensive book to produce. His lone offer came from a faith-based publisher, which would seem like a logical publisher for a book about peace. But the company was unwilling to publish the book if it included stories from gay and lesbian subjects.

“I couldn’t in good conscience do that,” he said. “I couldn’t justify silencing other voices.”

So Noltner turned to self-publishing, and he did so with the support of a funding campaign that resulted in the release of the end product this fall.

What has Noltner learned after compiling interviews for two books about peace? Be patient with others and try not to jump to conclusions. Instead, look beyond the labels that we’re quick to apply to others.

The timing of his second book turned out to be rather serendipitous given the current political climate.

“The world could use this message now more than ever,” he said.

An exhibit based upon the second book is being developed and is booked in several venues across the country beginning next year. Noltner also speaks to service clubs and church groups about his projects, often with a message of civic responsibility and social change, he noted.

The new book is available at Ten Thousand Villages and The Bibelot Shops in St. Paul and online through Noltner’s website,