Young Woman Fights to Make a Life for Herself in Alaska
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Diane Slocum
The Alaskan Laundry, Brendan Jones, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – Grieving her mother’s death and her father’s rejection, Tara leaves her Philadelphia home for an uncertain Alaskan future with only a promised job in a fish hatchery. She struggles with demanding physical labor of this man’s world, loneliness and the chip on her shoulder. Then she meets up with an old tugboat, her co-worker, Newt, an elder Tlingit, Betteryear, and fishing boat captains who spin her one way or another in the Alaskan wash cycle.
AUTHORLINK: In the story, Newt uses the term “the Alaskan laundry” – where did you get it?
JONES: Shortly after I arrived in Sitka, I came across a pickled fisherman on the docks who described Alaska as a “laundry,” where people come from the Lower 48 to scrub themselves clean of their pasts. “It’s like one continuous cycle, folks jumping into the machine, and getting spit right back out.” I suppose sometimes they don’t leave, become addicted to the extremes, the ethic of hard work and play. But I loved the metaphor of it, even if the stylebook at the Anchorage Daily News insists that “Alaskan” shouldn’t be used as an adjective.
I should also mention that the fisherman was not taking into account Tlingits on Baranof Island, and other First Nations, who have been here for ten thousand years and longer, both clean and dirty, and were doing fine before Europeans arrived.
|“If you had told me I was going to write a female protagonist in 2005, I would have laughed..”|
AUTHORLINK: How did it become the story of a female protagonists rather than male?
JONES: If you had told me I was going to write a female protagonist in 2005, I would have laughed. After a youth soaked in Hemingway, supported by high-test male-dominated jobs, I wanted to reinvent Jake Barnes. And so Jacob Sharpe was the hero of my new novel – a hard-bitten, taciturn, thinly-veiled Jake Barnesian male protagonist who came out of the Army in Iraq, went to the woods of Alaska, and got lost.
And he was just one of ten characters – the book was originally written in multiple POV. I wrote ten thousand words for each, then collided them together. It was a war of attrition, and soon there were just four standing – Mr. Sharpe was not among them. We had an old carpenter named Level, a hinky firebrand named Newt, a young woman named June, who housesat for an anthropology professor at the University of Michigan, watching over his pet rabbits. A Cuban named Santiago. A true calamity of a manuscript. I reworked it further, brought June up to Alaska and renamed her Tara. When I got the agent, he suggested the book should be a love story between Tara and Santiago. When Jenna Johnson bought the book, she suggested it be about Tara. And this was the last big rewrite. I dated a Marconi in Alaska, and loved the last name.
I should also mention that it helped to fall in love with, and eventually marry, a curly-haired Italian woman from New Jersey. My wife was very helpful in the revisions, especially the Catholic school parts. And no, I did not marry my protagonist, much as it might appear so.
AUTHORLINK: How did you develop the story? Did you know how it would end from the start?
JONES: Many changes, many revisions – and my fellow Stegners were helpful in this process – led to the ending, which actually came very late to me. What happened there encompassed my worst fear (as my family lived on the tugboat) and so it had to be written out and through.
|” I’m not sure it’s possible with a novel to envision anything at the outset, at least not for me.”|
AUTHORLINK: Did any of your secondary characters take on a life beyond what you envisioned at first?
JONES: As I wrote about above, this certainly happened with Tara. I’m not sure it’s possible with a novel to envision anything at the outset, at least not for me. June became Tara, became the main character. I’m not a huge fan of that character trope that certain characters take over, but it very much felt like folks were vying for my attention. And of all the different people in the book, Tara went deepest for me. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was growing up with a mother who raised my sister and me single-handedly, sending herself to school at night. And I was curious about the source of this grit, and so imagined it.
AUTHORLINK: How long did you work on this novel?
JONES: Ten years.
|“I’m not sure it’s possible with a novel to envision anything at the outset, at least not for me.”|
AUTHORLINK: Even though this is your second novel, did you have any problems selling your agent/publisher on the length?
CHEE: No, but this is probably because it was sold unfinished on the basis of 130 pages. But long novels are popular now. I keep hearing from readers who say they wish it wasn’t over, and who loved the immersion. I think there is a new or at least renewed appetite for long fiction.
AUTHORLINK: How does this story compare to your first novel?
CHEE: The first was a smaller more intimate contemporary novel, the second is historical fiction at 3 times the length. The first is about the sexual abuse of children, and understanding yourself in relationship to monsters; the second is about war, survival and art, and a world that required the enslavement of women, except for the rare few who were celebrities.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
CHEE: A collection of essays and a new novel. I may even use quotation marks. We’ll see.
|“I understand now, in retrospect, I was just learning how to write like a novelist by copying books (and plays) I loved.”|
AUTHORLINK: This is your first published novel, but had you written other novels before this?
JONES: Yes. But very bad ones. Hamlet transferred to the Alaskan rainforest. Awful. And another, taking James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime and bringing it from France to Alaska. I understand now, in retrospect, I was just learning how to write like a novelist by copying books (and plays) I loved. And so in place of all that noise and gore at the tail end of a night of dancing, the early-morning market at the Place Des Vosges in Sport and a Pastime, you get instead the calm of sodium lights on a seiner as Venus and the moonsets. Beautiful in scene but the plot didn’t work.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
JONES: I’m deep into a second novel, while also pecking away at a nonfiction project. I’ll continue to write articles – I just finished one for Smithsonian, another for Surfer’s Journal, which is funny because I don’t surf. I recently published another op-ed in the New York Times on transboundary mining in Alaska.
As far as the novel goes, I’ve learned from this first one not to discuss work too quickly. Just to put the head down and write.
|About the Author:|
Brendan Jones is a Stegner Fellow whose stories have been published in the New York Times, Plowshares and Huffington Post. He gained his knowledge of the fish industry on the job in Alaska.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.
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