Interview with Jim Ruland by T.C. Porter
Below is a recent interview of Jim Ruland by T.C. Porter. Ruland is the prose editor for this year’s A Year In Ink anthology which we are releasing at a big party on April 22nd. We hope you will join us for a celebration of San Diego authors and your first chance to purchase a copy of our latest book.
To the many identities of Jim Ruland, add memoirist. His micro-memoir won a Reader’s Digest award. His long-awaited first novel arrives later this year. As an appetizer, Giving the Finger, the story of captain Scott Campbell Jr. of Deadliest Catch fame, borrows many features from Ruland’s other work: Drama on the high seas, compelling characters navigating a gripping plot, humor and wisdom doled generously.
Friends of Ruland’s Vermin on the Mount reading series will find him in the familiar role of curator, welcoming Campbell to 3rd Space on Friday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. From the publisher (Lyons Press):
Part documentary, part reality-television, the story of the Deadliest Catch’s Alaskan crab fishermen risking their lives in the Bering Sea to make a buck and feed their families has captivated the world. Giving the Finger follows the life of the spirited young captain who has emerged as one of the most talked-about figures on the show, Scott Campbell Jr., who leads the crew of the Seabrooke. As this book–a prequel to Junior’s ascent to fame–shows, the trials of crabbing are not limited to living at sea and working the most dangerous job on the planet, but carry over to family and friends, and are usually stormier than the Bering Sea.
I spoke with Jim about how this book compares and contrasts with our shared passion for fiction writing, and what a writer might do to master the art of telling another real person’s story.
TC: How did you get involved with GTF?
Jim: My agent had worked with Scott Campbell, Jr.’s, representative and with my Navy background he thought I’d be a good fit. It was a perfect match, really. I didn’t know anything about fishing but I’ve lived and worked on a ship and know all the nomenclature. This was right in my wheelhouse, so to speak.
TC: What was the key in getting this project going?
Jim: The biggest challenge for me was writing the proposal. I’d never written one before and it was daunting. I thought a proposal was a synopsis, an outline and a sample chapter, but it was a bit more involved than that. Once I figured out that the goal of the proposal is to sell a story, not tell one, it started to come together for me.
TC: Is a proposal like flap copy?
Jim: It’s like flap copy on steroids. That’s not very elegant, but there you go. The proposal was over thirty pages. Every proposal is different. There are a lot of variables. They can be a few paragraphs to fifty to sixty pages. A good proposal should convince the editor that this story needs to be told and that you are the best person for the job.
TC: So it sounds like the proposal sold the story? Or maybe it was Junior’s stardom?
Jim: Junior’s stardom helps, but that’s a relative thing. The show’s popularity ensures an audience, but if the book is a success it’s because Junior has led an extraordinary life.
TC: There has to be chemistry, right? You said he was seasoned by the TV gig, but your experience helped. You mentioned something about pointing your questions to get the answer.
Jim: I’ve written a ton of profiles and band interviews so I recognized right away that Junior was an excellent subject: open, talkative and very, very sharp. I had a sense that he would be easy to work with. This wasn’t a guy that would be like pulling teeth to get to talk to me. He’s a fisherman after all, and fishermen like to tell stories.
TC: So how long was the process start to finish.?
Jim: I talked to Junior on Easter morning two years ago and we hit it off right away. I went up to Hollywood and we met at his hotel where he was staying for the premiere of Deadliest Catch season seven and we talked for a while and I was able to get enough to write the proposal. Our sample chapter was actually pretty short, and it’s the first chapter in the novel: the story of how Junior lost a finger. It also establishes the title of the book. I worked on the proposal for a couple months and then my agent sold it in the fall. I went to Walla Walla, Washington, Junior‘s hometown, to interview him in December, and then in March of last year I went to Dutch Harbor to interview him on the boat. The bulk of the book came out of those interview sessions.
TC: Did you have a lot of transcribing to do?
Jim: Yeah, I did all the transcribing. It’s tedious and time consuming, but also very meditative. In some instances I was picking up on nuances that I’d missed during our conversation or figuring out how to arrange the pieces of the story. I know writers who do this for a living who have assistants transcribe their notes for them, but I think that would make composing the story harder. By spending all those hours alone with the tapes I became intimate with my subject’s voice, learned how he phrased things, figured out what he would or wouldn’t say. For a project like this, voice is really important. So yes it took a long time but in my view it’s essential to the process.
TC: Tapes? Really? I figured you recorded with iPhone.
Jim: I use a Sony mini disc recorder. It’s not exactly old school, but still almost obsolete technology. I have to order the discs in bulk online. But it’s radio quality.
TC: Seems like a big investment of your time?
Jim: I put in some long hours but the thing about writing about fishermen is that they work some truly insane hours. No one works harder than those guys.
TC: What was the process like beyond the interviews? Did it write itself or did you have a lot of work and drafting?
Jim: One of the things I learned about Junior is that he’s dyslexic. He really struggled with it as a student and it was something he had to overcome. So much so that we ended up including it in the book. As a result he became a really attentive listener so that he could talk through any situation that required him to write. This makes him a pretty savvy storyteller. He has a sharp eye, an excellent memory, and can tell a story any number of ways. Junior is very adept at picking up what others are looking for and giving it back to them the way they want. So when I asked him to elaborate on a story or to go back and go into more detail, he was able to do that. He made my job very easy.
TC: He seems like such a dynamic guy, with lots of angles, and such a transparent subject. Seems like it might have been overwhelming. How did you map things out?
Jim: When I first got involved with the project my agent sent me some notes Junior had written that covered some of the major milestones—good and bad—in his career. Some of these things were horrific: getting disfigured, losing a crew member over the side. But as a storyteller, I saw a lot of rich material there. Interviews are pretty straightforward. Profiles are more artful because you’re making creative decisions about where to begin, how to end, what you want your reader to feel along the way. A memoir is all that but on a grander scale.
TC: How about as a writer of fiction, a novel, what was the unique experience with this book?
Jim: The main tool I had at my disposal was time. Obviously, I wasn’t going to change the outcome of Junior’s stories or put words in his mouth. But there were lots of creative ways to use time. I can’t change the facts of my subject’s life, nor would I want to, but I can help shape the story. So even though Giving the Finger is a very straightforward story about a fisherman, aspects of its construction are artful. It’s my job to keep the artifice out of the way.
TC: It seems to have turned around rather quickly. The book’s here on the desk beside me, a year after the interviews were completed.
Jim: It was pretty quick, or at least it seemed that way to me, but many books are written much faster. I had about seventy-five pages done before I went to Alaska and then I wrote the rest when I got back. I turned in my first draft to my agent and publisher mid-summer.
TC: I’m wondering if you ever resented this project for taking you away from fiction? It seems everything takes us away from fiction.
Jim: No, I never resented it. I have a lot of respect for Junior and for his family. They entrusted me to tell their story and they have been very good to me. I felt, and still feel, a very strong sense of obligation. In some ways, this story felt more real than the novel I was working on when the opportunity came along. I think that means I was probably focusing on the right thing.
TC: Do you think all this will find its way in your fiction?
Jim: I can see it working its way into my fiction. It’s a grueling way to make a living. The Aleutian Islands are fascinating. That’s a place I can see myself going back to—both physically and in my imagination.
TC: I could see it stimulating your imagination. And I could see how writing books like this would work well with your fiction writing.
Jim: I think this kind of work is ideal for fiction writers. It’s a project with a beginning, middle and end with hard fast deadlines—unlike novels. They require the writer to get out of his or her comfort zone, learn something new about the world and the people who inhabit it, and then make sense of that world. I see a lot of ways in which that could be useful for a novelist.
TC: As a writer of fiction, was there a problem with the ego at all, the storyteller within reaching up and taking over the story in a way that didn’t best serve the biography?
Jim: For me it’s not about ego at all. It wasn’t hard to stay out of it. I’ve worked professionally as a copywriter for an ad agency or marketing enterprise for over fifteen years so it was a simple thing to put myself at the service of the client. Honestly, it wasn’t something I even had to think about. Junior is the author; I’m the writer. Just like the vessel is the instrument he uses to catch crab, I am the instrument for telling his story. There were times when I asked Junior probing questions about his life that I thought he might get offended by, but he took it all in stride. I think writers are usually the most sensitive person in the room.
TC: I’m looking forward to meeting him.
Jim: I’m really excited that Junior will be coming to San Diego on April 11 at 3rdSpace to share his stories and sign his book. We’re going to do a Q&A and I think when you hear him talk you’ll see what a natural he is.
T.C. Porter’s work has appeared in ManArchy, Utter, The Speculative Edge and elsewhere. He is still writing his first novel. Find him at tcporter.com.
Jim Ruland was stationed in San Diego in 1986 and when he left two years later, swore he wouldn’t be back. After attending Radford University in Radford, Virignia and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona he returned to California. In 2004 he met his wife and she lured him back to San Diego for good. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including a NEA literature fellowship and a Bread Loaf scholarship. His work has recently appeared in Annalemma, Keyhole, Mississippi Review, New Delta Review, and the Normal School. He writes book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, interviews for Hobart, and a column for Razorcale. He is the author of the short story collection, Big Lonesome, and the host of the L.A.-based reading series Vermin on the Mount.http://www.vermin.blogs.com/