Brendan Jones | Q & A with Deborah Kalb

Brendan Jones, author of The Alaskan Laundry, penned four original posts for us in May as our Featured Author. Low and behold, though, this fine month includes five Tuesdays. This week we re-repost his recent Q&A with Deborah Kalb, which originally appeared here. Look forward to next month’s weekly guest posts from author Miranda Weiss. 

Q: You’ve noted
that you didn’t originally choose to write from a female point of view. How did
you end up creating the character of Tara?
A: Tara was
initially a character named June who housesat for an anthropology professor at
University of Michigan, watching over his pet rabbits. Very minor in the
pantheon of the 10 original folks I incorporated into my multiple POV mess of a
manuscript. It was only through many revisions that she became Tara.
I dated a Melissa
Marconi in Alaska, and loved the last name. It also fit with my
Italian-Catholic South Philly protagonist – who only became such after many
Q: Do you think
this novel could have been set somewhere other than Alaska, and how important
is setting to you in your writing?
A: Alaska
represents both end of the line, and land of new beginnings. It is a gateway
that some don’t quite step through. Each country (even state) has similar lands
where the imagination plays strongest. Bretagne in France, Galicia in Spain,
Scotland in Great Britain, Siberia in Russia, Inner Mongolia, and so forth.
So this novel
could have been set elsewhere, but not in the United States. If the novel
played out in Montana, I couldn’t have taken advantage of that same
end-of-the-lineness, if that makes any sense.
Q: Did you know
how the novel would end before you started writing, or did you make many
changes as you went along?
A: No, I didn’t.
Many changes, many revisions – and my editor Jenna Johnson and fellow Stegners
were hugely helpful in this process.
The ending,
however, came very late to me. And I realized – spoiler alert! – that this was
my worst fear (as my family lived on the tugboat) and so it had to be written
out and through.
Q: What other
novels set in Alaska would you recommend?
A: Strangely
enough, there aren’t too many novels set in Alaska. It has “yet to be imagined”
according to Robert Hass – although of course this is incorrect, as indigenous
people have been imagining the land for thousands of years. But the form of the
novel has yet to take hold.
Maybe this will
change. Reality shows have already caught on to the fact that 1. People with
fraught pasts + 2. Challenging physical situations – 3. The better manners of
the Lower 48 = very good drama.
John Straley
writes beautifully, and hilariously, of Southeast Alaska – I’d recommend in
particular The Music of What Happens, especially if you’re into fast-paced
detective novels.
Seth Kantner’s
Ordinary Wolves is an extraordinary book, and Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child
enchanting. I should also mention the short stories of Melinda Moustakis,
darkly poetic and sexy and funny, Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories.
Literature in
Alaska, as others have said before me, is certainly going through its own
Q:  What are you working on now?
A: I’ve been
working on a number articles, and recently published an op-ed in The New York
on the dangers transboundary mining presents to Alaska salmon rivers.
Just finished a piece for the Smithsonian on sailing our tugboat 200 miles
south to haul her out to do plank work. And working on a second novel, in the
throes of it, although taking a break now to let the pressure build.
Q: Anything else
we should know?
A: I believe with
all my heart that there are stakes in the work we’re doing as fiction writers,
and I worry that literary fiction is devolving into a decorative art,
accessible to only a few versed in subtle narrative cues. I cried when Jim
Harrison died, he’s one of the last voices in writing. Richard Ford has it,
Annie Proulx.
I think there is
a responsibility the writer has to get dirty, to engage, to bear witness, then
report back from the wild edges. To turn away from difficulty suggests a
faintness of heart not conducive to the wider project.

–Interview with
Deborah Kalb

Brendan Jones is the author of the novel The Alaskan Laundry, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. A recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Fundacion Valparaiso, and Ragdale, he is currently a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He has had work in the New York TimesPloughsharesNarrative MagazinePopular WoodworkingThe Huffington Post, and has recorded commentaries for NPR. Raised in Philadelphia, he took the Greyhound west at the age of 19, ending up in Sitka, Alaska. He graduated from Oxford University, where he boxed for the Blues team, then returned to Alaska to commercial fish. He was a general contractor for seven years in Philadelphia, before heading back to Sitka, where he now lives, commercial fishing and renovating a WWII tugboat. |
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