Interviewed by Bethany Bendtsen
Born in the Pacific Northwest, Pushcart nominee John Galligan, now a longtime Wisconsinite, certainly hadn’t always envisioned writing and teaching as the two pillars of his professional career. As an undergraduate at University of Wisconsin-Madison, he studied Environmental Policy, before eventually going on to get a Master’s in English Literature. He worked as a cab driver, an au pair, a freezer boy at a fish cannery, and a house painter, among other odd jobs, before eventually settling into a path that makes much more sense given where he is now, first traveling and teaching English in Japan. His first novel Red Sky, Red Dragonfly—part literary fiction, part dark mystery centered around the difficult and dangerous intersection of foreignness, sexual attraction and privilege—was influenced in part by his first-hand experiences while there. He also went on to work as an award-winning sports journalist and a feature-film screenwriter; his prose still carries an economical yet visually-evocative, cinematic quality to it.
Following the publication of Red Sky, Red Dragonfly in 2001 and a children’s book he co-wrote and illustrated with his family, including his brother and his two young kids called Oh, Brother! said the Mother of Tony Pepperoni, Galligan was struggling with a manuscript that wasn’t going that well, despite the solid idea at its core: a traveling fly fisherman who stumbles upon a series of murders and is driven, out of circumstance, to solve them. While out fishing with a buddy on a sloppy day, Galligan—an experienced fly fisherman who considers fishing “sort of like sleep” to him—met a fellow fisherman who inspired the main character, Ned “Dog” Oglivie, of his successful three-book fly-fishing murder mystery series.
This stranger was the antithesis of the main character whose perspective Galligan had been writing from. Over the course of one afternoon and evening, and many, many beers, the man regaled Galligan and his friend with stories that, while wild and entertaining, made it apparent something was just a little off. By the end of the night, Galligan felt immense empathy for this man whose life, despite its Transcendental, escapistic sort of appeal, was clearly lacking in some vital quality of companionship and purpose. In his fiction, Galligan often drew from people he knew and people he’d met, and this serendipitous encounter made him realize that a character like this man—colorful, nomadic, alcoholic, on the fringes of society—was much more interesting and compelling than the clean-cut fisherman he’d originally envisioned as narrator.
With this new character in mind, Galligan set to work, while continuing to teach Creative Writing at Madison Area Technical College, where he remains on the faculty. Now, four years since the publication of Blood Knot, the final installment in the “Dog” fly fishing trilogy, I sat down with him to discuss writing, teaching and what’s on the horizon.
Bethany Bendtsen: You’ve had a lot of interesting jobs before eventually becoming a novelist and professor. What was the worst job you’ve ever had?
John Galligan: My worst job ever was jumping into the hold of a commercial fishing boat, landing in salmon up to my waist, and having to throw slippery twenty-pound kings over my head, up and out of the hold, all day long. Many days, this is what writing feels like.
BB: What is your writing process? How do you approach rewriting?
JG: I brainstorm, make notes, and research for quite a while. Then I outline, usually using what I’ve learned from studying screenplay writing about character, story structure, plot points, etc. The outline almost always ends up being more of a guide than a plan—often I find different and better ways to tell the story as I go. My usual practice has been to revise my work in “acts.” I will draft what I call Act One until it is not perfect but rather perfectly functional in terms of carrying the conflict into Act Two. Then I draft and revise Act Two, and so on. I might revise the first 70% of the book ten times, then nail in the final 30% in just a couple drafts.
BB: What does your typical day look like when you’re working on a book? How do you balance the demands of writing and teaching?
JG: I write first thing, almost every day. I usually start by six a.m. I generally write for about three hours, though at times I will work for up to six hours, which seems to be my limit. I’ve been balancing teaching and writing forever, it seems, so it is no longer something I think about. I’m very organized and always know what I need to accomplish on a certain day, both writing and teaching. When I’m done writing, I switch gears, switch offices, switch computers, and do my teaching work until I’m done, whatever that takes. When push comes to shove, my teaching comes first. But I’m always thinking ahead about how to get my writing time in.
BB: How, if at all, do you think teaching has impacted your writing? What do you get out of teaching?
JG: Teaching has impacted my writing in numerous ways. One way that I really value is the exposure teaching has given me to so many people, and the empathy for all different kinds of people that the profession continually inspires and requires. At some point in my writing career I heard someone say “there are no assholes”—which is to say that every character has reasons for being who he or she is, my characters cannot be simply labeled and dismissed, and it is my job to understand them and feel what they feel and transfer this essential empathy to the reader. I think I would be lost at this challenge without the insights into people that my teaching has given me.
BB: With Red Sky, Red Dragonfly and the “Dog” Fly Fishing series, it seems like place is very important in your writing. Would you say that’s true? Is it important to you to set your stories in a place that you know?
JG: True. Authority . . . authenticity . . . an author needs to deeply know the place. This can be a challenge. In the Fly Fishing series, I worked hard to immerse myself in the Paradise Valley of Montana and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where the third and fourth books take place. I guess I did okay—no complaints anyway. But research and travel can only do so much. I feel a strong need to connect instinctively with the places I write about, and in that respect I feel most comfortable with Wisconsin at this point. The challenge then is to convince editors/readers that my place is a place they want to read about.
BB: Other than place, what draws you to a story? Where does your inspiration come from? How do you know if you’re on the right track with something?
JG: I’m a sucker for language . . . which can be my downfall as a writer. I will read just for strong and/or beautiful language, and that taste tends to steer me when I write too, which at least in genre fiction has gotten me into trouble with agents/editors/readers who are just not on board with anything that challenges them on this level. But sometimes, to be fair, my stories may be less than the language they are told in. I know I’m on the right track when the kind of language I like flows in the service of the story, and not the other way around.
BB: What is your relationship like with your agent? What has your experience been like publishing your books?
JG: I really like my agent, Joanna MacKenzie of Kristin Nelson Literary Agency in Denver. She’s supportive and patient and most of all, honest. She has really challenged my work, and that has helped me improve my writing process, especially in the planning phase, and to become a better writer. Publishing feels great . . . but only briefly. There is then marketing, and working on what’s next.
BB: Any advice for graduating students who want to pursue a career in writing or publishing?
JG: My best advice is to train yourself to write regularly, so that you build the strength, stamina, and skills needed to execute what your imagination produces. Also, examine, challenge, and continually improve your writing process. Obviously, read, widely and passionately. Finally, cultivate writing friends and allies. You‘re going to need connections and support.
BB: If, for some reason, you couldn’t write and teach for a living but you could do anything else, what would you do and why?
JG: I’d probably be a doctor. The human body fascinates me, and I know I’d be good at it.
BB: Is there a story or a concept that you’ve always wanted to write, but have found yourself unable to?
JG: Not yet. I have unfinished projects that are unfinished because I was unable to figure them out . . . but I’m not giving up. I have an idea for a speculative fiction novel, set in the future, that I’m not sure I have the tools for at this point, but I’m hoping to get there someday.
BB: What are you working on now in your writing?
JG: I have two novels at or very near the point of completion. One is in collaboration with my brother Michael, also a writer, a lighthearted whodunit featuring an ex-Seattle cop who has quit the force to be a stay-at-home dad but can’t leave his old world behind. It takes place during the transition to legal marijuana in the state of Washington and is called Last Hit for Mary Jane. We are hoping to make this a series. It’s been refreshing to write seriously about something not so serious and to work with a partner. My other novel is a dark crime story, set in the rugged hollows of Wisconsin along the Mississippi River, featuring a young woman who has transformed herself from a Dairy Queen into a tough but troubled county sheriff. It is called The Bad Axe and is also hopefully part of a series.
When HT2.0 Managing Editor Bethany Bendtsen isn't writing “fiction” about falling in love with everyone she meets, she spends her time eating cheese fries, obsessing about her outfit, and being generally shady. Her favorite color is glitter.