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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Jeffrey Dunn shares the inspiration behind his new book, Radio Free Olympia, and his creative writing process.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Jeffrey Dunn about his life and career, his creative writing process, and what inspired him to write his new book, Radio Free Olympia.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
Jeffrey Dunn, I was born near Chicago, Illinois but really grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I taught English for fifteen years in Catholic high schools and earned a Ph.D. in English Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. I never really felt at home until I married, we had our first child, and we moved west to Washington State. I taught English in public high schools for twenty-six years and then retired to concentrate on fiction writing. Fun fact, I’m mildly dyslexic, on which I can speak for hours.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
After my grade 9 English teacher read us Richard Brautigan’s novel In Watermelon Sugar.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I started writing stories in grade 8 but didn’t recognize myself as a writer until my grade 9 English teacher introduced me not only to Richard Brautigan but a wealth of other inventive fiction writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Jerzy Kosinski.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
I wrote my first novel in grade 11, another novel in undergraduate school, and then my dissertation in the late 80s-early 90s. If you mean my first published work, Dream Fishing the Little Spokane, then three-to-five years. It’s a series of surreal short pieces that started out as individual pieces and then became tributaries which joined together into a book.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Radio Free Olympia?
In my novel Radio Free Olympia, I describe feeling overwhelmed by nature when I move to Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. It’s a place that puts humans in their place. Knocks one’s ego back to creaturehood. The size of the trees, the power of the weather, the density and diversity of the flora, the surge of collective natural energy—it always feels like you are grateful that the microclimate and ecology allow you to live where you do. It’s clearly not about you, and if you don’t respect that, not only does life not go well, but you simply may end up dead.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Radio Free Olympia?
I was driven to give the Olympic Peninsula voice. Not a character. Not relate a narrative. But to give the place voice. Don’t get me wrong, Radio Free Olympia has characters and narratives, but all of that is to support my goal to give voice to the Olympic Peninsula. This is to say, that I set out not to fit my material to form, but to use form(s) to express my material. It should come as no surprise that the first draft took ten years, then my family and I suffered the tremendous loss of our first child, later I wrote several experimental pieces where I experimented with using form to express material, and finally I had the insights I needed to work on ten years of revising Radio Free Olympia. The idea for RFO never changed but the difference between the first and last drafts is radical.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
There are two human protagonists because RFO is two human narratives that merge into one. Both protagonists are inspired by so many students who I worked with in both Elma and Deer Park, WA. We often don’t take care of our children, and if it wasn’t for many of our children’s resilient energy, we’d be hard-pressed to continue as a species.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
In terms of character, RFO doesn’t have a single antagonist. One protagonist, Petr, is searching for a home, so it is his rootless condition that he is struggling against. The second protagonist(s), Baie and her band of Wildsisters, take on a feral broken band of siblings who steal a newborn, but Baie’s real fight is against the spiritual paucity that industrialism has brought to the Olympic Peninsula, a paucity which poisons women and children and breaks working class men.
What is the inciting incident of Radio Free Olympia?
Again, because there are two human protagonists, for Petr, it is when he encounters the indigenous woman O’wota’s grave marker and has a vision of her directing him into the Olympic Mountains. For Baie, it is after her return home from a French monastery and hears the sound her good friend Dori’s Subaru Brat coming through the Sitka spruce toward Baie’s newly inherited cranberry farm. I should not leave out that there are two folkloric protagonists, Raven (paired with Petr) and White Otter (paired with Baie). For Raven, it is when he hears that the mountain beaver Boomer has come in possession of a light-filled box. For White Otter it is simply the ongoing environmental degradation.
What is the main conflict of Radio Free Olympia?
With multiple protagonists there are multiple conflicts, but if I boil it down to the overarching conflict, and I choose the Olympic Peninsula as the main protagonist of the book, it is the battle to live a bodily sustaining, spiritually nurturing existence in a place under assault by industrial. In so much of our world, this battle has already been lost. On the Olympic Peninsula, it is still possible to imagine the battle being won.
Did you plot Radio Free Olympia in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
“Fly by the seat of your pants,” that’s funny. Only folks who don’t bother to explore their creative abilities would suggest such a metaphor. Plan in advance? No, I didn’t outline. I’m not a journalist. Instead, I began with two ideas, 1) a pirate radio station broadcasting the spirit voices of the Olympic Mountains, and 2) a woman keeping a poetry journal chronicling her women’s roadhouse/shelter/monastery. The aim was that at some point these two threads would merge, the marriage of Blake’s Heaven and Hell, as it were. Something like that. Then I started writing. If my aim was to give the Olympic Peninsula voice, then I needed to be as open a channel as possible. If successful, this method generates a lot of fascinating material, but it does present a big challenge when it comes to overall coherence. It isn’t a surprise that revision took ten years, as long as it took to write the first draft.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Radio Free Olympia need?
I want to give a big shout out to Skye Loyd, my developmental editor. To her credit, she got the book’s overall conception and then simply pointed out the incoherent places where readers might stumble. Her assistance was simply to tell me “this isn’t clear to me,” “I’d like some back story here,” and “how about adding a few time elements so that readers can orient themselves.” Skye is an ex-forest ranger, often hikes the Olympic Peninsula, and usually works with nonfiction books. She was perfect because she could visualize RFO in all its folkloric and biological wildness but was not inclined to write the book herself. She simply provided guidance when it came to clarity. Thanks be to Skye!
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Beyond simply read, write, read, write, read, and write some more, do some sort of awareness activities. I really like Rick Ruben’s The Creative Act, but any sort of methods or practices which open your mind to more detailed awareness simply adds to the richness of your writing (and life!). Remember, writing is just the etching of your thinking and feeling, so the more interesting and varied your thinking and feeling, the richer your writing will be. For example, I read a lot of nature writers like Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and Bernd Heinrich as well stacks of field guides, and all the while I go on lots of walks.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have two in the publication process.
1) Wildcat, An Appalachian Romance follows a retired English teacher who returns to his hometown, where a once-closed hotel has been reborn as a collective. As he explores the transformed community, he unearths a world of sustainable industries and rediscovered friendships. But amidst the triumphs, dark shadows of the past and personal history resurface, weaving a narrative of love, loss, and magical transformation.
2) Whiskey Rebel is where I set up political pins only to knock them down. Meet Punxie Tawney, a shell-shocked Iraq war veteran who is panning for gold, a family, and a place in world. Follow as he meets the barefoot manic obsessive drummer, Hamilton Chance, and the two team up to realize Hamilton’s dream: distilling tax-free whiskey. Along the way, they enlist other quirky characters in a landscape that fosters eccentricity, a place where the recipe for freedom is not one size fits all.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Silly question. First and foremost, although for me fiction writing isn’t breathing, but it’s pretty damn close. Radio Free Olympia was a project that I felt compelled to do, and it took me twenty years to able to keep so many balls in the air. I want to say that creating is one thing and producing and marketing a book are something completely different. I want to give a shout out to my publisher Tim McConnehey and Izzard Ink for getting Radio Free Olympia out of my drawer and out to readers. And second, I’m a fan of the way James Joyce’s Ulyssess gives voice to Dublin. I wanted to do the same with the Olympic Peninsula. I gave it my best shot.
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