Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight on Jerry McDonnell

Until his retirement from wages, Jerry McDonnell, writer and actor, taught school in the native villages of Alaska, was a hunting guide in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho and Montana and a bear viewing and fly-fishing guide in Alaska. Currently he has dropped hook in Anchorage, Alaska. As a member of the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges he volunteers in Refuge projects: invasive plants, walrus counts, and science camps for kids, which increases his latitude to continue his love of wild places running rivers and being out there in the out there. Before Alaska, he lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for 15 years or so working at Lake Tahoe. Somehow in his 30’s he earned a B.A. in Drama. His life has been a potpourri of occupations: gambling casino employee, wilderness guide, actor, freelance writer, newspaper reporter, dance instructor, schoolteacher, commercial fisherman out of San Francisco Bay and explorer of diverse jobs (he once took a job as a buyer for a large company in Oakland, California, but the necktie was choking him to death and he made more money than he could spend).

His fiction stories have been published in The South Dakota Review, Over the Transom, Explorations, Dan River Anthology, North Woods Journal, Driftwood. Over the years his Journalism credits include The Peninsula Clarion (Kenai, Alaska), The Anchorage Daily NewsThe Alaska Journal of Commerce, The Dispatch (Soldotna, Alaska). He wrote a weekly column in the Calaveras Enterprise (San Andreas, California) before moving to Alaska in 1990. His plays have had readings at the Valdez, Alaska Theater Conference and at the Atlantic Stage in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He has played small parts in movies; in his last stage role of 2012 he played the old guy, Norman, in On Golden Pond

The last two issues of Over the Transom are now placed in the Tate Modern in London, England. A novel is in progress as is his one-year-old granddaughter.

His blog is all wonderful liable lies: Alaska Reflections

The Interview Part II

Scroll down to read Part I

      How does being an actor impact your writing, does it change how you think about story and/or dialogue?
I’m probably annoying to be around when I’m working. I play all the parts as I’m writing whether it is fiction or plays. I’ve been accused of having a “voice” in my writing. I visualize how a piece would play on a stage or as a movie. I hear the unique voice and dialect of the characters. I smell the aromas in fiction, hear the sounds, I make it my virtual reality. I live it.

I have a B.A in Drama, emphasis in acting, of which I have played maybe 100 roles off and on over the years from stage to screen. I went to graduate school for Drama, but did not finish as I took a guiding job in the Selway Bitterroot of Idaho/Montana, saddled up a horse, loaded a pack string of horses and mules and went where cell phones can’t live, which is a quirk I seem to have between the scholarly process of writing and theater and disappearing out there in the out there for a spell in what some term as wilderness but I refer to as the middle of a very big somewhere, a place where I feel at home and safe. I never returned to graduate school. I continue going out there in the out there. That should tell a fella what his priorities are, eh? The mountains have gotten taller, the canoe beaches earlier in the day, and I carry a lighter pack, but it’s still home.

I’d venture that training as an actor is most beneficial for a writer. However, theater is a collaborative effort, very social. Writing is a very reclusive art. I am social in small doses. Ergo, being alone in the woods is a comfort and a satisfaction to me, as is being completely immersed in writing. I would say that the ability to concentrate, as an actor must do, is a snug fit for a writer. I get in a bubble, like Michael Chekov’s acting training: you place yourself in a bubble on stage and expanded and retracted it to take in one or more actors or just yourself, all the while being aware of reactions from the audience at their distance. Writing for me is much the same. Often I don’t hear the call to dinner; I’m out there in the out there with those people; we’re doing things.

You are also a photographer, do you find images prompt your writing?
I am not a professional photographer, nor do I have ambitions in that direction, but I do shoot frequently. In high school we had this great photo lab and we shot with those big 8 X 10 old box press cameras, an 8 x 10 negative, wow! Outside of a couple of ribbons at county fairs and an Alaskan winter image sold at a charity auction for a couple hundred bucks I’m just a shooter as I was as a photojournalist, with heavy on the journalist. I have thousands of images, on slides, film and now digital. I was enraptured with black and white each time I had a dark room somewhere. Now it is digital color, black and white only a click away, which also enables one to have thousands of times the trash photos one could ever have before. A bold, rational person would hit the delete button frequently. With film, especially those old press cameras, best think and compose before pulling the trigger—great training, like learning to fly an airplane using the stick.

What was the question? Oh, yeah. My images sometimes prompt a piece of writing, but more often they remind me of a detail in the midst of piece. On my office wall I have framed photos, one is of a bear holding a fish in his mouth that he had just caught. I took it sitting on the bank next to him at a distance of about 20 feet. This bear was one of the Twins, we called them that season, a pair of probably 3 year olds the first year without their mother. They were characters. They had been running salmon up the creek that day. I took a client with me and we sat on the bank watching them. This Twin caught a salmon right in front of us, looked up, fish hanging out of his mouth and said, “Woof.” Dumb luck. Great shot. I have about four stories about bears from my bear photos. Confession: I’m not a wildlife photographer; I just shoot wildlife when they show up. I prefer more abstract images and landscapes.

Gary Freeburg, who now lives back east, is a professional black and white (mainly) landscape photographer who just came out with a photo and essay book, The Valley of 10,000 Smokes, which was the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century, 1912, on the Katmai Peninsula. I was with Gary on his first trek into the Valley. We backpacked in with 120 rolls of film and spent a week in the upper end of the valley that is filled with hundreds of feet of volcanic ash and some fumaroles still smoking. I wrote a journalistic piece with photos based on the Grig’s expeditions of the early 1900’s that was published. Gary sent me my complimentary hard back; I’m in the credits. There is more story there.

      What are you working on now?
A series of flash fictions are in the work, three of which have seen print in Over the Transom. This series seems to be going back to my California days of living in San Francisco after the Navy and working in the gambling casinos of Nevada for 15 years or so. I still love the Sierra Nevada Mountains, my old backpacking haunts. The mere smell of a pine, especially the Jeffery Pine, and fir forest is a strong image. I’m outlining a novel. An agent from back east has sent me an inquiry several times asking if I’d like to write a novel, I assume he has read some of my pieces in small presses, most likely the South Dakota Review as literary themes around the west are their niche. 

Also on the list is a fiction novella with bears as the main characters, taking the reader through the life of a bear family, their habits and habitat. My idea is it could be an action fiction of use in a classroom or for pleasure and laden with facts of how bears spend their days, their food sources, their relationship to one another and us—it has fighting in it and drama and comedy. Marketing of that bear story is a crapshoot. Only teddy bears get a good review. Also on the list are more Montana stories, my grandparents were homesteaders in Montana. The first of those stories was just submitted for consideration.

I have a play in my head, but it seems be taking a back seat to fiction and the days are only so long and we now are caring for a marvelous just turned one granddaughter during day shift, Monday to Friday. My wife does most of the work. I’m comic relief.

I believe I have enough nuts stashed to keep me busy for about 50 years or so, which would beat the odds of longevity.

 Final Words of Wisdom.
      I do not profess to be wise or frugal. Where to place the work is always the conundrum. Years ago I told an experienced writer friend of mine that this one publisher had published five of my stories. He said, “Stick with him.” Sound counsel. Publishers are people who have likes and dislikes. There is several well know markets out there that will never publish my work unless I become a household name because, “I write about a planet with people on it.” I’ve had rejections of pieces from these markets that have found publication elsewhere. For years I subscribed to multitudes of small and large presses, some most prestigious, to see what they were publishing. It took a while for the sun to come up, but eventually I realized that I didn’t like the majority of what they were printing anymore than they liked what I wrote.

I have found that I’m better at writing the more I do it, and I’m better at it if I like what I’m writing. That probably holds true for all of life. Shoot for the stars but enjoy the journey even if you don’t get the Oscar or the Pulitzer Prize. Of course we want to be published, but we should be proud of what we publish. One can write for fame and fortune, one can shoot for the great American novel, and one can be a successful journalist. However, if writing is your only trail to wealth and fame, I hope you have packed your best possibles and know that winter is anon.  

Two of my favorite authors will most likely never be on the tip of a New York cocktail party tongue: Don Skiles, poet and fiction, of San Francisco and Mark Gibbons, poet of Missoula, Montana. Ever heard of them? I also met this great playwright at the Valdez Theater Conference a few years back: Elena Hartwell.   (Awww - shucks. Thanks Jerry!)

The Interview - Part I

      You work as a playwright, short story writer, essayist.... how do you know what genre a story should be written in?

I should plead the fifth on this question. I love the philosophy, but I’m a sinful practitioner. It’s all about story of course. How can I best tell it? Generally I say this is a prose story or this is a play, no second-guesses. Does it come down to description, words vs. images? Somewhere on that spectrum a decision is made.

The printed word of prose and poetry is a Buddha like search in the perception of the mind in the sense of where the mind resides. On one raft trip I pulled oar for four clients, a father and his three adult sons, running a hundred miles of a remote, fly in, fly out, Alaskan river. This was a very high tech family, all involved in computers, electronics, or special effects. At the end of the week’s float, an Otter aircraft picked us up on the river, we loaded the rafts, flew to King Salmon and boarded an Alaska Air Boeing 747 to Anchorage. As one of the sons took his seat, he took out a paper back book, began reading, saw me look at him; he looked up, pointed to the book and said, “virtual reality.” No batteries, no electronics, wireless plug in.

A play is visual, movement, lights, scenery, and did I say movement . . . beyond stage pictures the actors’ movements are tools to move action, to send emotion, create illusion. Dialogue can be abundant or sparse. Perhaps this Buddha perception of the mind is outside the body as opposed to prose being the perception of the mind inside the body. Whoa, how about that from cocktail party space filler to the doctorial thesis, or maybe we are overthinking this whole shebang.

I’ve taken a giant step away from the realism school. If I’m on my best the dialogue will be poetic and laden with images. However, I’m currently entranced with movement and minimal sets, that give the actors more responsibility, a challenge in this age of movie technology and special effects. This idea has been latent in my mind since college. I wrote, produced and directed my first play in my senior year. It was a rather sophomoric idea of the fourth wall trapping the actors with vague references to Shakespeare entitled Vomitorium Continuum. Gad! It was surrealistic to a dangerous edge and one audience member, who was not a Drama major, walked out halfway through: my first honest critic. However, my favorite college professor applauded the effort. Since then I have experimented to various degrees; how can it be done with simplicity, cheaper, and put more voltage into the aesthetic distance, give a booster jump to that willing suspension of disbelief.  

In 2010 in association with Alaska’s National Artic Wildlife Refuge 50th Anniversary I was part of bringing an original play entitled Wild Legacy (based on the novel Two in The Far North, by Margaret E.Murie) north for it’s debut and an Alaskan tour. Written and produced by the Voices of the South, under the direction of Gloria Baxter (recently retired) out of Memphis, Tennessee, a company that has a history of creating stage productions from novels, I saw the sunrise on the power of movement on stage and how scenes can change and magical things can occur on a bare stage with minimum props, simple costumes and lights used only if you got ‘em. Jere Dye, artistic director and actor needs be mentioned here, he is a genius. As chauffeur and co-trail guide and booking agent the troupe played three Alaska locations and carried everything in their hands and sound effects in their throats with the exception of one guitar. With six books, two Fort Nelson Backpacks, and a sheet they created a tent, a caribou herd migration, a steamboat, and all the bird and animal sounds! I was in the midst of writing a play and stuck in a structural quagmire. The performance of Wild Legacy inspired me to walk out of that bog. My play, Engines of Time, a one act, has had two readings, one in Alaska and one in South Carolina. I’m hoping for a production. It’s in the mail . . . again.

Essays are facts and/or opinions that may wade the shores of rants: one can be rational and introspective or shout out big words—vituperate one with invectives. When I hear the term creative non-fiction (please forgive me) I can’t help but think fresh-frozen, an unfair judgment.

I do not have a graduate degree in creative writing. I found my first publication in high school back when a World War II General was president, which awards me zero credits. It was a surprise, as was my first role in a play as a senior after dropping a chemistry class, but both opened up worlds I hadn’t considered. Since then I have written more journalism (which by golly may sometimes be creative non-fiction) than any other category of writing mainly because it pays in negotiable currency. I drifted away from freelance journalism when I got a job that paid a monthly salary with benefits and a retirement plan. Economically it was a good move and a retirement coup. Recently, in one of those introspective casual conversations a director I frequently work with asked, “What would you be if you had to do it all over?” Without thinking, I said, “I’d be a war correspondent.” It must have been my gypsy subconscious taking roll call. How would Buddha instruct to that outburst? I’d be a horse and mule trainer between assignments. Next life?

Describe your writing process.
I’m a catastrophe. I keep journals in sections: character sketches, names (I have hundreds of names logged, most all true) ideas, potential titles, images on backs of envelopes, scraps of paper, in tiny note books I carry in my shirt pocket, larger notebooks come on trips, coat pockets. It’s a disaster. I’m like a ground squirrel hoarding for winter for a large family, all these little nuts stashed and then I take a time to put them in the big journal, the cache. And then reading: Bears are omnivores they eat almost anything storing up fat for the winter hibernation. I’m seasonally the opposite; I spend winters devouring text like I’m putting on fat to get me through the summer as I spend much of the summer in the bush. History, fiction, magazine articles, philosophy, the bloody news (which is a rich lode of comedy), I nibble through winter like a man who was found starving to death after surviving a shipwreck and now in the land of plenty he steals and hordes food because in his crazed mind all this food can run out, but I have a bun in my pocket and some nuts in my coat. Thank God for winter.

Then, oh dear, what does one do, not next, but now? It’s like having your fully loaded pack string of fifteen mules attacked by ground hornet, packs are scattered in the woods like confetti; it’s a train wreck. You calm down, catch the animals, calm them down and get to work putting the string together.

The ritual: I sit down and step into the world of the story and shut out the world around me. I work five to ten hours at a stretch, initially turning on some light jazz or classical music to work that first sentence that first paragraph to sharpen the hook—the music and the immediate environment slowly fades and then abandons me and I hear only the story. If the hook is evading me I write until I find the beginning. Occasionally, but not often, the beginning could be in the middle of page three, in which case I delete the first two and a half pages and I’m back on the trail dancing like Zorba. The next day I read what I’ve written and edit, edit, edit and continue on. At completion, my wife proofreads.

There is madness in my method.

Having something to work on has never been a problem. I’m always working on something even if it is just in the mind (I text in the mind, not into a telephone).
I constantly recall memories, see images: A homeless woman wearing a garbage bag raincoat walking downtown San Francisco pulling a Louis Vuitton Suitcase became a flash fiction—I entitled the piece “Louis Vuitton in Deer Hide.” It was published in Over the Transom #22; an issue which is in the Tate Modern in London, England.

You live, work, and travel to remote and unique locations, how does your environment impact your writing?
Years ago I was asked that question all writer’s are asked, “What do you write about?” It was a question that the first time I heard it, took me back. As opposed to romance or science fiction, etc. I always thought I wrote literature. One day I said, “Most writers write about people on the planet. I write about the planet with people on it.” Is that a satisfactory answer? Maybe not, but it grounds me. Environment of a place is primary in my work. It’s up to me to find a publisher who agrees with me.

I have a series of short fictional stories based on Alaskan natives (published in The South Dakota Review). I taught school for a few years in the bush, in a Yup’ik village and in an Inupiat village. I also coached basketball teams and biathlon teams with whom I traveled to different villages. I find Alaskan Natives culture instructional to ours. We both have our faults but I think we have more. I don’t see a problem in one’s writing about a culture different from one’s own as long as one is respectful and educates oneself about said culture to the extent that they can. Granted, one will never understand another’s culture to the extent as someone native to it, but we are all equally human. The widest gap between our western culture and the indigenous culture of native Alaskans is how we view our relationship on the planet and our responsibility to each other. In short: Alaskan natives respect the land, know they are a part of it and they respect the creatures on it, we see land and animals as a commodity: manifest destiny, a term I detest. Alaska natives are a sharing culture; our western culture preaches, “I’m number one.” Now, I’m not a new wave, rainbow child, but If I am to be faulted in my Alaskan native stories that weigh heavy toward a sharing culture who consistently help each other as opposed to a culture who mainly come together temporarily when disaster strikes I vote for the former. So far, I’ve not had any complaints from the natives and these stories have seen print. A couple of them are based on true events. I rest my case.

Other categories come from my experience as a packer and guide in the Selway Bitterroot of Montana and Idaho: guiding elk and goat hunters. A couple of years I was a bear viewing and fly-fishing guide in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park and Reserve. It seems my bear stories would be more marketable if they were essays or journalistic as they do not follow the trend of being about the big, bad bear that attacks anything it sees like an alien beast in a horror movie. I’d like to debunk the myth that the brown/grizzly bear is not the serial killer as advertised. Brown bears are adventurous and curious; their actions are directed by reason and sometime by instinct. They have superior brainpower and guide their day with plan and forethought. They also have a sense of humor. Any one who has scientifically studied these animals will agree, like Enos A. Mills and the Craigheads.

I once fished several hundred yards of a stream with a bear that I had knowledge of for a few months. We were in the stream together and she, we had named her Little Bear,  (most likely a 3 or 4 year old) shoved salmon to me and I to her. I did not, repeat: did not, do this as a plan. She came casually into the stream with me. Having knowledge of this bear and knowing the body language that display a brown bear’s temperaments, I went along with the situation, not wanting to disappoint her dance card. Not that I encourage anyone to approach a brown/grizzly bear with idea that they are not a wild animal at the top of the food chain and quite capable of ripping your head off with one paw while they are yawning with the other. One person, who came to Alaska and whose name I won’t mention, became a celebrity due to his ignorance; he was taken in by their intelligent and curious nature but found out by dying that you don’t be an annoyance in a bear’s grocery store or camp on their freeway. It also helps if you can read bear body language and know a bit of bear talk. I think brown bears are great actors. They have great moves. Maybe a play . . . naw. 

Check Back February 15th for Part II