Brendan Jones: A Schnauzer Eats a Chocolate Bar & a Novel to Submit

days ago, just before midnight,
I landed in Oakland airport – Burger King dark and gated, antiseptic smell of
the bathrooms, harsh sodium parking lot lights – after three weeks home in
Sitka, on Baranof Island, in Southeast Alaska. My days were spent doing chores
on my old tugboat (where I lived before receiving a call, on a Friday night last April, while nursing a beer
at the local bar, from a Palo Alto area code – a woman’s accented voice
informing me that I had been awarded a Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford),
nursing a Schnauzer who tore into a midnight espresso chocolate bar and went
semi-catatonic, suspending four Sitka blacktail’s from a 12-foot ladder,
convincing a marine safety detachment crew from the Coast Guard that convicts
weren’t camped out in the fo’c’sle of my boat, singing pagan songs at a
solstice palette fire in the rain, pouring boiling water over a frozen boat
throttle, night of boat poker with the boys, Settler’s of Cataan into the wee
hours of the morning, and writing my brains out – I have a novel due to
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, oh lemme check what is it now, in twelve days. My
book is called The Alaskan
, and I had a list of things to check and verify in Sitka, making
sure I wasn’t just California Dreamin’ when I wrote, for example, about the
particular difficulty of sawing out a deer’s tongue cleanly.
Arriving late that night back to the apartment, in the
Lake Merritt section of Oakland, on the bottom floor of a 70s-era porch-heavy
building, a place I could easily imagine Erik Estrada from the show CHiPs
repairing to each night, I stacked vacuum-packed venison into the freezer like
cordwood, nestling the heart and liver and backstrap into the ice trough.
Crumpling up a paper towel and turning to put it into the firebox of the
cookstove, then remembering – I’m in an apartment in Oakland! Tacking up a
chart of Southeast Alaska I discovered in the wheelhouse of the boat, with
scrawls of red pen in Hoonah Sound: “Good for Hallibut fishing,” and another on
the southern coast of Chicagof. “Good hunting,” and farther south, “Call Alice
B.!” All part of my silly quest to turn this place into some dark Alaskan den,
with quilts and candles and ship’s lanterns, some escape from the sun and cheer
and incessant, pervasive upbeat nature of Bay Area folks.
And now it’s to buckling down and finishing the
manuscript. There’s this idea that once the novel is accepted for publication
everything’s golden. But I’ve since learned that my editor still has to submit
the book to the publisher. And the publisher can be like, no man, no frikkin’
way I’m putting the name of this house on the spine of that book. Try again.
Like the call for the fellowship, the book caught me
unawares. I first came to Alaska in 1997, at the age of 19, working at a fish
hatchery in Sitka, then at a youth home, moving into the woods to save money,
and finally getting a job as a journalist on the local paper. Staying for the
year, spending the bulk of it living in the woods, then returning in the
summers to work at the processor. Coming back for another year, then another, getting
a stream of jobs on fishing boats – a tender, troller, sea cucumber boat, a
crab boat (even if it was just tanner crab with rings).
In 2006 I returned to Philadelphia to start a
construction company, which I ran for five years. And then a buddy called when
the Adak, a seductive WWII
tugboat, went on fire-sale, and I sold my house in Philly for cash, half my
share in the business, bought a truck on Ebay and drove to Alaska with the
goals of making a living, writing a novel, and starting a family.
One out of three ain’t bad.
The living part was piecemeal, taking on drywall jobs,
putting down cork flooring, installing slate entranceways. As always fishing
came through – I continued to deckhand on a sea cucumber boat, and troll in the
summers. As far as the novel went I’d wake in the winter mornings, make a fire,
drag the comforter off the bed and spread it over my legs, and hack away, with
a goal of 1,000 words a day. As far as the family went I met a girl on the
Interweb, she came up to live on the boat with stars in her eyes, stars which
went out quickly, and she left three months later.
Then I was out fishing, in Chatham Strait, just outside
of Security Bay, working on the Saturday, alongside badass skipper
and third-generation troller Karl Jordan (fourth generation, he’d say, if you
count the time his legendary grandmother Marilyn Jordan George dragged her
father-in-law behind their boat, thrusting a rod into his hand) and we were
both pulling lines when his phone with the booster rang, and it was my agent in
New York, announcing that the book had sold.
And now I’m here, five days away from beginning a
workshop with Tobias Wolff. I mean – seriously? A section of the novel has
already been published in Ploughshares, a credit I can now put alongside my
oeuvres in Fine Woodworking. But overall I feel lucky, very
lucky indeed. And for so much of this I have Alaska to thank. Granted, the
insane year I spent living in the woods at the age of 19, some self-styled
initiation, was a thrill, and there is no other place I’d rather be December 21st than on a beach, around a stack of
burning palettes, celebrating the return of the sun with a bunch of godless
pagans, impervious to the rain. I mean to say – I glory in it all, the zany,
self-styled, forward-looking, oblique, concise attitude of Alaskans.
But the state has given me something in return, a couple
times, when I needed it most. First-off after I left college after my freshman
year, and I arrived in Sitka a very – take my word for this – very lost soul.
And once more, fifteen years later, when it put this book in my lap, gave me
good work, and finally, this fellowship at Stanford. I like to think of this
time in the Bay as an extended meditation on that – and a long thank you to the
49th state, if you
And this thank you, I might add, extends also to the 49
Writers community. I feel honored and humbled to be the kick-off January
blogger for 2014. I’ll be up in Anchorage in March, doing events in Palmer,
Girdwood and Homer alongside author Katey Shultz, who will be reading from her
award-winning book Flashes of
. I’ll also be teaching a class, “Submitting the Novel; the First 20
Pages.” Which reminds me – I have a novel to submit!
Nice to virtually meet folks, I very much forward to
visiting in person.
Now, back to work.
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.

3 thoughts on “Brendan Jones: A Schnauzer Eats a Chocolate Bar & a Novel to Submit”

  1. Good to meet you virtually, Brendan. I'm looking forward to your posts.

    And Katey Schultz is awesome too!

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great post! Love hearing more about your background and how you got where you are today. A huge congrats on all that's coming your way. You're doing Alaska proud and I just know we're going to keep hearing about you in the months and years ahead! (P.S. My favorite Tobias Wolff book, which I recommend at every opportunity: "Old School." His boyhood memoir a must-read too, of course. How happily envious I am that you're studying with him.)

    From Andromeda (currently in rural Taiwan).

  3. Hi Lynn,

    Nice to virtually meet you as well! And thanks for reading – much appreciated.

    Thanks Andromeda. I adore "Old School," and "This Boy's Life" as well. I too feel very lucky to have the opportunity to study with him. It's a bit surreal to be honest, but a real pleasure. I hope Taiwan is wonderful, and that your world travels are as spectacular as I imagine them to be – I'm envious of that!

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