I am honored to have on my blog today
and Island Fog
About the Author
John Vanderslice hails from southern Maryland, specifically the eccentric community of Moyaone. After twelve years of Catholic schooling, and too many summers working as a lifeguard, he left the southern Maryland woods to attend the University of Virginia. In 1991, he received his MFA in the Poetry Writing program at George Mason University, where he studied under Peter Klappert and Susan Tichy and started teaching writing to college freshmen at GMU and Northern Virginia Community College-Annandale. In 1993, he entered the Ph.D program in the English Department at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Writing at UCA, teaching fiction writing, poetry writing, and nonfiction writing both to undergraduates and to graduate students in the new Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop. He also serves as associate editor of Toad Suck Review magazine. More than seventy of his stories, poems, essays, and one-act plays have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, including Seattle Review, Versal, Sou’wester, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, The Pinch, Southern Humanities Review, 1966, Squalorly, Foliate Oak, Red Wheelbarrow, and Exquisite Corpse. Some of the anthologies are Redacted Story, Chick for a Day, The Best of the First Line: Editors’ Picks 2002-2006, and Tartts: Incisive Fiction from Emerging Writers.
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About the Book
Paperback, First, 288 pages
Published October 1st 2014 by Lavender Ink
There is an uncommon power to this collection, which feels a good deal more potent than the sum of its parts. Vanderslice’s Nantucket is — like Spoon River or Winesburg or Yoknapatawpha — a remarkable place.” —Philip Martin, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Nantucket then and now is the theme of John Vanderslice’s novel-length collection of stories, called “a chilling tour-de force worthy of a Chesterton or a Borges.”* The stories all take place on that iconic Massachusetts island, which began as an English settlement early in the colonial period of the United States. In the heyday of its nineteenth century success as a whaling center, the island was quite the cosmopolitan center. Sailors from across the globe mingled with the mixed local population of descendants of the original English settlers, black Americans, and native Americans. Today Nantucket is known as being especially open to visitors from around the world. When one travels there, one feels that one is no longer in the United States but in a culturally indistinct, in-between land, somehow equidistant from North America, the Caribbean, and Northern Europe.
Vanderslice’s collection spans a period of Nantucket history from 1795 to 2005, with four different centuries represented. Two of the stories–the first and last in the book–are novellas. Along the way, readers meet: an 18th century wigmaker accused of a notorious bank robbery, a 19th century “whaling widow” who has newly awakened to some important aspects of her sexual nature, a former whale ship captain who once had to resort to cannibalism to survive an extended period at sea after being shipwrecked, a 20th century plumber whose wife jumped off the Hyannis to Nantucket ferry with her infant child in her arms, and a 21st century ghost tour leader who is being metaphorically haunted by a former lover.
Chatting with the Author
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today…
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Washington, DC but raised in a very rural part of southern Maryland, an experience that still affects me in profound and mostly positive ways. I went to college at the University of Virginia and later earned a couple of graduate degrees. I’m married with two sons, the older of which just started college in Rochester, NY. A big change for our household! We miss him terribly already. I’ve known since I was in grade school that I wanted to write, and it seems almost a miracle to me that despite all the ups and downs and false starts in my life that I’m doing just that, all these years later. I even get paid to teach college students how to write! It’s truly a blessed life. While I write mostly fiction, and have for quite some time, I’m excited to say that in recent years I’ve tried on other genres, including creative nonfiction and playwriting. It’s always refreshing for a writer to switch gears once in a while. In the past couple of years I’ve published a long collage essay on marathon running, a one-act play, and some shorter essays, along with several short stories.
Can you tell us about the characters in your book?
My book has a lot of characters! It’s a collection of eleven short stories, half of which are historical fictions and the other half contemporary fictions. Every story, though, is set on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. I’ve deliberately tried to vary the age, gender, and sexual orientation of my characters, in order to present the fullest picture I can of the island, its inhabitants, and its visitors. The first story features two competing men. One is a talkative, self-educated wigmaker named William Pease. Pease sits on the board of the relatively new Nantucket Bank and finds himself accused of participating in a notorious robbery against that bank. His accuser is the president of the bank, Randolph Lovelace, a stern and somewhat cold fish of a man who seems determined to drive off any employee or board member who does not belong to his own sect: the Quakers.
The other historical stories feature quite an array of different types: two boys—one a half-Indian and one who comes from full-blooded English stock—who live on the sparsely inhabited western end of the island and become what we today call “frenemies”; a young “whaling widow” who after not hearing from her off-island husband for five years decides for herself that he is dead and she will act like it; a former whale ship captain whose career was effectively over twenty years ago after his ship wrecked in the Pacific and he had to resort to cannibalism to survive; and an African-American schoolteacher who comes to a disheartening revelation about how thoroughly one of her students dislikes her.
The contemporary stories feature a variety of characters too: a plumber whose wife jumped off the Nantucket to Hyannis ferry, drowning both herself and her infant son; a married couple who have just suffered through their third miscarriage in as many attempts; the gay leader of a cheesy Nantucket ghost walk tour who becomes “haunted” by a former lover who won’t stop writing to him; a retired car dealer from Philadelphia who agrees to move to the island, only to become sickened at an existence that seems devoted to nothing but window shopping and eating out; a family of Jamaican immigrants who run an ice cream and sandwich shop near the harbor and are routinely suspected by the summer population; and finally a young college student who, right before final exams, decides to drop out of university and head early to his prearranged summer job on the island. He arrives only to find that his job is gone and that he must take a different, much stranger, job to get by.
What made you want to write a book?
I’ve wanted to write books for as long as I can remember. Back in high school I wrote a lot of what I thought was serious fiction and poetry, and in college I imagined for myself a career of publishing a long string of acclaimed novels. I’m still working toward that! Island Fog is my first published book of short stories. Previous to it, I self-published two novels: one an historical novel called Days on Fire, about Vincent Van Gogh, and the other a comic metafictional novel called Burnt Norway. They’re both available on Amazon.
When I started working on the stories of Island Fog, however, I didn’t really have a book in mind. What I imagined was simply a series of four or five geographically linked stories, what could be published individually and maybe someday form a section of a book of stories. I finished that group of stories in the first four or five years of the 00s. They are the contemporary fictions in Island Fog. I thought I was done with Nantucket as subject matter until I returned to the island for a visit in 2011 and new ideas for stories hit me, this time historical fictions. I wasn’t long into developing this batch of historical fictions when I realized that I could combine them with the earlier stories and make a complete book.
How do you come up with the characters’ names?
It really varies from story to story. For instance, the first story in the book, “Guilty Look” is actually derived from a real historical event and my two central characters are directly derived from real life people, so I use their actual names. For the other historical stories I researched lists of the founding families of Nantucket’s European settlement. (Some of these names were familiar to me already from my visits to the island or from reading books about the island.) I used several of those names in the stories; or sometimes I simply used a name associated with English settlers in New England generally. For the first names of the characters in my historical fictions I looked online for lists of names popular in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. After scanning such a list I selected one that I felt fit the character.
The names for the characters in my contemporary fictions came with less research, given that modern day Nantucket features people who have come from across America and all over the globe. Almost any name could fit in there now. But for some of the stories, however, I did have particular needs, such as “Managing Business,” the story that highlights the Jamaican family. I did careful research on both first and surnames common in Jamaica. I love the whole enterprise of naming my characters. It’s half-science and half-intuition, a process of discovering all the realistic possibilities for what they could be named and then through gut feeling and personal alchemy choosing the exact best name for them.
How long does it take for you to write a book?
This varies widely from project to project. I’ve written novels in less than a year. But my Vincent Van Gogh novel took twelve years between conception and publication. It’s hard to specify exactly with Island Fog, because I wrote the second half of the book several years ago, then after a long break of time I wrote the first half of the book. Together those two halves probably took a total of five or six years, especially when you consider how many times I came back to the stories to revise and edit them.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Be dogged and keep writing no matter what. It’s hard work, certainly, but it’s also the keenest pleasure you will ever feel in life. So keep doing it whether or not you’re being paid for it, whether or not it’s being published. Revel in the doing and keep doing it. You’ll find yourself getting better and better, and sooner or later you will have a big breakthrough. The other big piece of advice I always give writers is to READ. If you never read, you’ll never get better.
Do you have a specific time during the day that you find better to write?
Yes, absolutely. I am and have always been a morning person. It’s a lot easier for me to get up early to do my writing than to stay up late. So that’s what I do, comforted by the silence and intimacy of pre-dawn, I drink a lot of coffee and get down to business.
What books are you reading now?
This fall, my university is hosting a visiting writer of fiction and nonfiction named Bernard Cooper. At the moment, in preparation for his visit, I am reading his short story collection Guess Again. It’s simply exquisite. Beautiful writing and gripping characters. I really love the book. Just a couple days ago I finished his memoir Truth Serum, which is about growing up gay in Los Angeles in the late 50s and early 60s.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I like to run, for one. I’ve been running consistently for over 20 years, and I have even entered long distance races. To date, I’ve completed 8 marathons and probably 10 half-marathons. While I’m often forced by circumstances to run on the treadmill at my university’s gym, I really prefer to be out on the road, smelling the weather, watching the landscape, seeing streets go by.
I am also, as my dad was, a committed cook. l love to cook. Love to try new recipes. I love to watch cooking shows on tv. My favorite night of the week is Saturday when I fix a special meal just for my wife and myself, and we share it over a bottle of wine.
Last, I have to mention being a parent. That’s like a job, a hobby, and a passion all rolled into one. Being a parent takes a lot of time and even more patience, but it’s more rewarding than anything.
Is writing your full time job? If not what do you do?
I wish it was, but alas I’m not at that point yet in my writing career. But I have what I regard as the next best job, which is to teach creative writing to college students in an independent writing department at the University of Central Arkansas. It’s a fantastic school, and we have some truly committed, devoted students. Teaching writing is a good deal of work, but it’s also very rewarding.
Can you share a little of your current work with my readers?
Sure, here’s a paragraph from the story “Haunted,” one of the contemporary stories in Island Fog:
Matthew hadn’t cared about that: the gilt-rimmed, hyper-hygienic, Disneyland slickness of town center that drew such crowds in July and August, sunglasses around their necks, coffee cups in hands, shopping bags holding thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. What impressed Matthew was the awful weight of history pressing down upon the island, throbbing outward with the sea at the harbor and back again with each arriving vessel. Palpable in the cobblestone streets and the gray shingled houses and the widow’s walks. He felt on certain moments on select narrow streets that time had stopped or had circled around on itself, that he was back inside that living spiraling body, that awful protean force. He felt alive in another reality than that which existed back in Boston, at a juncture with other realities: of whaling ships and money interests and functional Quaker hypocrisies and lamps that emitted real smells when one passed them; when time as he conventionally knew it had no meaning because he, on that street, at that moment, had no past and no future. He was outside his own life with Alan, merely visiting it on the wave of this newfound time, like a spirit from the future or the past.
If you can recommend one book for someone to read what would it be? (not including yours)
I’d have to recommend the book Stoning the Devil by my friend and colleague Garry Craig Powell. Garry is a brilliant, beautiful writer who deserves a much wider reputation than he currently enjoys. His book is a collection of stories all set in the Middle East, mostly in Abu Dhabi, where Garry lived for several years. Given the trouble that never seems to end in that part of the world, it would behoove anyone to get a close glimpse of what life is like there. Plus, the stories are incredibly rich; completely engrossing.
Thank you for stopping by my blog to chat with me today!!
People Are Talking About Island Fog
John Vanderslice teaches writing in the master of fine arts program at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, where he’s also one of the editors of Toad Suck Review. His new book Island Fog (Lavender Ink, $17.95), a collection of thematically connected short stories set on Nantucket Island, deserves more space and consideration than I can provide here, but the alternative would be to ignore a worthy, haunting book.
The first half (“King Philip’s War”) is composed of stories that take place from 1795 to 1920, while the second (“Island Fog”) is made of more contemporary pieces, set mostly in the 2000s.
It’s the historical-feeling fiction of the first half that affected me deepest. The first story, “Guilty Look,” considers an actual bank robbery that took place on the island in 1795 and establishes a tone of apartness from the rest of America that carries through to the final pages. I haven’t been to Nantucket as an adult, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this vision of the island as a kind of gray-market American frontier, but Vanderslice’s characters are credibly human and humane. The opening story that unfolds of the unjustly accused William Pease — a Congregationalist suspected of abetting the robbery by an opportunistic Quaker oligarch — might resonate with those who worry about the slide toward theocracy.
In “On Cherry Street,” set in 1837, a woman whose seafaring husband hasn’t been heard from in three years declares herself a widow and finds controversy and recompense in the decision. A little later on, we meet a retired sea captain who has, of necessity, acquired a shamefully exotic taste. (A rare but not exactly unknown preference, if we’re to believe Edgar Allan Poe’s 1838 novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket or Benjamin Morrell’s possibly dubious 1832 memoir Narrative of Four Voyages.)
In the second half, Nantucket has been reduced from a nation-state to a tourist trap and playground for the rich, a place where ghosts are still palpable and certain American resentments have taken root. The titular final story, of novella length, flirts with magical realism as its protagonist Doug, having flunked out of the University of Massachusetts, repairs to the island for a summer job, his “future draped before him like an island fog: dank, listless and inscrutable.”
You might come to this collection thinking it a specialty work made up of little stories that appeared in little magazines. But there is an uncommon power to this collection, which feels a good deal more potent than the sum of its parts. Vanderslice’s Nantucket is — like Spoon River or Winesburg or Yoknapatawpha — a remarkable place.”
—Philip Martin, Arkansas Democrat Gazette
“This island feels like some mad doctor’s lab experiment”—so says one of the fictional residents of Nantucket Island, the setting of John Vanderslice’s extraordinary story collection Island Fog. But Vanderslice is by no means a mad doctor, though he is definitely one insanely talented writer. In the eleven literary experiments that comprise his book, he brilliantly parses the soul of America from 1795 to 2005 through the microcosm of Nantucket Island. To borrow the words of yet another of his characters, he conveys “the awful weight of history pressing down upon the island” and conveys it so viscerally that we feel that “time has stopped or has circled around on itself” and we are “back inside that living spiraling body, that awful protean force” that was, and is, not just the island but America. This is a book that anyone interested in the grand, failed experiment that is America should read. It will open your eyes, and your heart.
—David Jauss, author of Glossolalia and Black Maps
John Vanderslice’s debut collection is a whopping cycle of beautifully crafted stories spanning over two hundred years of Nantucket history, each emerging from the fog of the past crystal clear, complete, and poignant. Reading Vanderslice’s stories, it’s as if Ishmael has never boarded the whaleship Pequod in Nantucket, as if he’s remained island-bound to tell these far-reaching, masterful tales. In a gripping, surreal novella reminiscent of Kafka’s The Trial, Vanderslice opens the collection in 1795, during which a consortium of religious oligarchs use a bank robbery as a kind of witch hunt to consolidate power. In “King Philip’s War,” the narrator challenges a Native American boy in a footrace whose outcome is more onerous than he can imagine. From the travails of whaling widows, to a ship’s Captain who must resort to cannibalism to survive on the high seas, to an African-American school teacher stalked by her students, we see Nantucket’s earliest European and native inhabitants struggling to find a place in this island community. In part two of the collection, beginning in 1999, Nantucket transforms from a site of colonization and industrial whaling to a tourist town, dead and haunted in its off-seasons, a crossroads for people running from others, and from themselves. A carpenter struggles with a “fog of soporific recollections” at the death of his wife and child. A man flees a love affair in Boston to establish a company giving ghost tours, only to be haunted himself. Jamaican immigrants find veiled resentment. The titular novella bookends this richly realized collection. In it, a young man flunking out of U Mass finds himself on a purgatorial visit to Nantucket, where he is hired to participate as an actor in “Hopes and Promises” tableaus that reenact customers’ past moments of deepest desires and regrets. Read this book! Rarely have I enjoyed a story collection with such artistic and historical sweep, one so quintessentially and vibrantly American.
—Wendell Mayo, author of The Cucumber King of Kedainiai: Fictions
John Vanderslice’s Island Fog is far more than just a collection of stories. Tied together by a place and its history, the collection tells the story of Nantucket Island through the desperate lives and conflicts, hopes and sorrows of its inhabitants. I began reading the collection assuming it was for folks who have known or loved Nantucket and by the third story I was convinced that Island Fog is for anyone who loves good stories, beautifully told, with a good slice of the twisted history of humanity thrown in.
—Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South and A Separate Country
In this quirky yet captivating collection of nine stories and two novellas, all set on Nantucket, the island is both microcosm and prism, through which the reader catches illuminated glimpses of American life, from the hard, dangerous times of the whaling community to the present-day tony resort of the super-wealthy—and yet the same problems beset the inhabitants through the centuries: racism, class exploitation, sexual identity, envy and fidelity. The essence of all the fictions is “the awful weight of history pressing down upon the island”, and in a twenty-first century America struggling to reconstruct its identity, the reader cannot but hope that the idyllic and mythic island might give us a clue about who we are. And yet in the final novella, “Island Fog”, a chilling tour-de-force worthy of Chesterton or Borges, we find ourselves in a place so far from reality that, like its hapless and trapped protagonist, we wonder if we are doomed to play parts in someone else’s fantasies forever. John Vanderslice is a writer of vision and this is a haunting, essential collection.
—Garry Craig Powell, author of Stoning the Devil
Thank you for stopping by my blog today to check out this amazing author and his book!
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