Brendan Jones: Espresso Beans, Book Burning, & Writing About Small Towns

I just
got back from walking the dog. We went down Wayne Place, along Lake Merritt,
then through the park where they don’t allow dogs – Oakland police, unlike San
Francisco police, have better things to do – and back again. My first time out
of this chair in a long, long time. When I get antsy or nappy I’ve got my
natural bag of speed. Last week it was coffee beans. Four days before the
manuscript is due to the editor, I’ve switched to espresso beans.
always curious to hear whether people write to music. I do, and change the
genre depending on the character I’m writing about, or how much of a goose I
need to get the work done. The past few days I’ve been listening to Drake on
full volume. My ears throb. The dog mopes about the apartment, giving me plaintive
looks. These short walks are BS. He misses his Sundays in the Redwoods.
On the
way to the lake I came across a paperback, left on a couch in a pile of
clothes, by an empty KFC box. Leaving a book to warp in the rain and sunshine
has always seemed to me tantamount to burning it. Was it really so bad?
Couldn’t you at least have put it in storage? It was called “Population:
485. Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time.” Non-fiction stories written
by a small-town EMT. As I type I’m tempted to get up and see if it’s still
there. Probably. But once I take the blanket off my feet and get up this opens
the door on all manner of puttering.
book struck me, because it’s about a small town, which I’m writing about. And
it’s about an emergency, which I’m writing about. And of course there are
stories – yesterday a buddy I commercial fished with in Sitka warned against
using people’s stories for purposes of entertainment. I know this is something
writers much more experienced than myself have struggled with. Who has rights
to what stories? Are there universal ethics when it comes to such things? Of
course. So what are they?
with particular stories central to Sitka, I’m also grappling with whether to
rename the town. One reader suggested this, reasoning that such a move would
privilege the story of Tara Marconi, my main character, instead of Sitka. It
would allow more leeway for the imagination, and remove the staple of reality
from the work. But it would also mean renaming Baranof Island. And the Pioneer
Bar – Frontier Bar? The volcano, and the mountains surrounding town. Where does
it end?
I have
no experience with any of this. I do, however, know that Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union drove me batty. He spent two days in Sitka, had
New York Times article written (with photos of him walking
the docks in his UGGs), then wrote a novel centered on a vague Rooseveltian
concept of creating a Jewish homeland in Southeast Alaska. All well and good,
except he called his town Sitka, even though his story wasn’t set in anything
truly resembling the real place.
imaginative powers are superlative, and he’s a brilliant writer; why not just
come up with a different name for town? Because there were people living in
Sitka in that period he was writing about. Living true, complicated lives,
which he paved over with his imagination. Lives that would have been saved if
he had just renamed the town.
Maybe that’s pushing it.
On the
other hand, there’s David Guterson’s majestic Snow Falling on Cedars.
He renamed Bainbridge Island “San Piedro Island,” and placed it farther north.
This was a slick move, and it works. Of course, Guterson lives on Bainbridge
Island, so there’s no huge secret there.
small towns, books, stories – I wish I could tie it all together in some neat
blog-bow. But the truth of the matter is I’m a little manic because of all
these espresso beans. And there’s a desperate undertone to Drake’s beats. Also,
there’s that haunting vision of the book kicked to the curb. I’ll just go ahead
and say it: I don’t want that to be mine – whether because I’ve offended people
I know and respect in Sitka, or because my plot’s not entertaining enough to a
30-something in Oakland. To toe this line takes work.
Turn up
the music. Last couple espresso beans. Back to it.
Brendan Jones is from Sitka, Alaska, where he commercial fishes, and works on restoring his home, a World War II tugboat. He graduated from Oxford University, and has published pieces in Ploughshares, Fine Woodworking, Narrative Magazine, The Huffington Post, and recorded commentaries with NPR. He is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University. His novel, The Alaskan Laundry, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2015.

5 thoughts on “Brendan Jones: Espresso Beans, Book Burning, & Writing About Small Towns”

  1. Oh, I hear you on all this, Brendan. The idea of writing fiction terrifies me, but your option to protect the place and people we both love may be where I envy you. Don't think that's going to fly for me with memoir, and I definitely struggle with story ownership, respect, and potential consequences, imaginable and not. But fear's an insidious distraction, and there are drafts to write. Pass the beans, wouldja?

  2. Good points, Brendan and Tele. I kept the name of the town but changed the names of businesses, etc. But I write historical fiction, so that's a little different than what you're doing.

  3. Tele and Lynn – thanks for sharing your own struggles. To be honest, writing non-fiction terrifies me Tele. Down goes the scrim. The other day I read a Joyce Carol Oates quote: "To writes is to invade another's space, if only to memorialize it..Art by its natures is a transgressive act." I don't necessarily want to be transgressive – I just want to tell a good story. But I'm beginning to understand that comes with the territory. Anyways – I do believe Sitka is going to be "Port Anna." Thanks guys for the comments –

  4. I’m always curious to hear whether people write to music

    I think Stephen King mentioned in his book on writing — a really fine read btw, more an intimate memoir than an advice book — that he listens to music while writing, heavy metal if I recall correctly. Music wasn't his only writing aid; I won't spoil it for you by saying what else.

  5. I love Stephen King on writing. He has some wonderful things to say about the craft, and he's very basic about it as well, which is rare it seems. I had a friend who could only do fine finish carpentry to heavy metal thrash music. Who knows why these things work? Thanks for reading RKN – BIJ

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