49 Writers Interview: Jack de Yonge, Boom Town Boy

In Boom Town Boy, Jack de Yonge delivers a witty and outspoken coming-of-age memoir. Born on Independence Day in Fairbanks, 1934, before Alaska became a state, de Yonge grows up under the influence of an idealistic German-Dutch father and pragmatic Irish mother. When the boy’s worm-picking job fails to bring in enough money to help his family during depressed economical times in Fairbanks, de Yonge’s mother has a solution for her eight year-old son. She pushes him to peddle newspapers and this leads to an early career in the news business and political-environmental activism. Jack de Yonge will be signing copies of Boom Town Boy in Anchorage on September 15th from 6-8p.m. at Barnes and Noble. Our thanks to 49 Writers member Lizbeth Meredith, who read de Yonge’s book and conducted the interview, and to Epicenter for providing a copy of Boom Town Boy for our interview team.

What sparked the writing of your memoir Boom Town Boy? When did you first know that yours was a story that needed to be told?

After writing novels and short stories that stirred neither the interest nor the tongues of publishers and editors, I decided I would write what I seem to write best, a fact piece, in this case a memoir of my youth in Fairbanks. Seventy some years of experience, including considerable travel, had taught me that Fairbanks in the 1930s and 1940s, by virtue of history and location, resonated to a different tuning fork than did the rest of the world. I hoped to recapture some of those long-ago tones so that others could experience them.

So far that seems to be the case, judging from readers’ comments. It has been especially gratifying that people I grew up with apparently think “Boom Town Boy” gives sense to a place and time long past and people long vanished.

Before writing your memoir, you were a reporter and editor. How did the process of writing your book differ from writing shorter pieces?

I write books in short takes, as we say in journalism. Reporters on deadline often write news stories in “takes” of a paragraph or two then send to editors for processing and later assembly with other takes.

My brain long ago learned that writing blocks of copy, for assembly later, results in finished work. I do not worry when beginning a chapter that I know precisely where it will go and what it will say. Getting the parts written carries more importance for me than fussing initially about form and coherence. Those arrive in the final rewriting, editing and assembly.

Each day I yoke myself to my computer write at least 500 words. Because of news training, I usually write more than that each day, but not always. And I write fast, again a reporter’s skill–or flaw, depending. I always rewrite. I always edit. Editing differs from writing. Editing requires thought, analysis, and play. How does this sentence look? How does it read? How does it sound? How to make the idea shorter, more crisp? How to junk adverbs? How to position the best and most precise verb?

The great difference between writing a book and news stories? News stories rarely afford the time and luxury of rewriting. Book writing allows no excuses for not rewriting.

In Boom Town Boy, you reveal some ugly truths about issues such as racism and religion. How did your family feel about you sharing this in your book?

To date no one in my family or out has complained about reporting the facts about racism and religion.

The literary world has changed so much in your lifetime. The way news and stories are disseminated, and how books are promoted and sold is constantly evolving. What do you believe are the most positive and negative changes you’ve seen that affect writers who want to share their stories?

I remain a bit of a novice in discussing the literary world. I’m only a trifle past being a virgin here. Much of what I know of that world derives from reading and from rejection slips. When many years ago, I reviewed books, music, performing arts in general, publishers were fewer but independent. One felt that a good book, fact or fiction, had a chance of seeing print and perhaps selling enough copies to repay an editor or agent for troubling to birth it.

Now publishing houses abound but the big and mighty among them belong to business conglomerates that also hustle movies and TV shows. So agents and editors judge a book’s desirability by how well it might bundle into a package: Book, television and movie spin-offs and logo sales on t-shirts, beer mugs, sex toys–on tattoos, for all I know.

Add to that is a drop of poison: Editors refusing to look at a manuscript unless an agent represents it. The famous transom atop the publishing-house door has snapped shut. Agents now open and shut the gate to publishing. Agents complain about the avalanche of queries that thunders in every day, thanks to the proliferation of hopeful authors in the U.S. Each year creative-writing classes and graduate programs usher thousands of virgin authors out into the wilderness of publishing. Agents say numbers force them to employ other graduates to make a first run on the queries and dish out rejection slips accordingly.

Assuming agents hire letter-and-email Cerberuses who have some knowledge of literature and of books otherwise, the temptation lures to try to devise a book and book query that might make a recently graduated English major salivate. That is one of the few temptations I so far resisted, if only because I haven’t the slightest idea what might thrill a recent graduate still palpitating from deconstructing Finnegans Wake.

I am not complaining. Over the past decade I have received a mighty nice bundle of rejection slips and many were not mimeographed. Several agents actually inked notes of regret.

For Boom Town Boy I have been lucky. The publishers of Epicenter Press–both former newspaper people like me–agreed to look at the manuscript. They correctly judged it too fat. I rewrote it. I slimmed it. They accepted it. And did a great job editing it. I am grateful.

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