Brendan Jones’s striking debut novel, The Alaskan Laundry, follows a young woman, Tara Marconi, a former boxer, as she escapes from Philadelphia to Alaska on a journey of self-discovery—adventures that, in some ways, Brendan himself has lived. In the novel, Tara uses hard work to make friends in Sitka, and even wins the grudging respect of the locals who at first distrust her East Coast-style. Most importantly, she stumbles her way toward discovering a place in this world where she truly belongs.
I spoke with Brendan by phone from his home in Sitka, Alaska, where he lives with his wife and daughter aboard a World War II-era tugboat, the Adak.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about how you came to writing. Because you’ve lived this very interesting life. Boxing, living in Alaska, traveling.
Brendan Jones: I guess I’d start with, “Both my parents are journalists.” They met on the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado. So the written word has always been first and foremost for both of them. When I was younger, growing up in Philadelphia, whenever things got difficult I would turn to the page to figure it out. I don’t know why, exactly. That’s just what happened.
As I grew older — my book is dedicated to my mother and her red pen, and there’s definitely a reason for that. As I grew older and started to write more, she played a huge role in talking about compression in sentences, and editing, editing, editing. Always cutting! In both middle school and high school I was writing all kinds of things.
In first grade, I think, there was this project where we had to make a book. Out of cardboard and duct tape. Make the actual book and write the actual story. Mine was called The Search for the Diamond Necklace. Electrical tape and painter’s tape, and I had to use a utility knife to make it. It was pretty cool. Writing the story and binding the pages was a thrill. Something you could hold up and say, “This is mine.”
Rumpus: Very cool. You don’t have an MFA, but you have an MA from Oxford, and then you attended the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, right? So you’ve been training for a long time to write this book.
Jones: I went to Columbia for a couple of years as well. I started there, and then I dropped out. I had a lot of debt for school, so I hopped on a Greyhound and ended up in Sitka, Alaska. My aunt had actually lived there before. Yeah, I was a bit of a lost soul. I ended up working in a salmon hatchery up there and worked for a newspaper. And then I lived for nine months in the woods of Alaska.
This was about twenty minutes outside of town. I lived, first, in a tent, a North Face tent that I promptly burned down the vestibule of, because I had no idea what I was doing. (Laughs) Then with the help of a friend I built a hut and lived there for the last four months. I had saved some money, so I decided instead of heading back east to Philly, I would head west, with the goal of going overland from China to Europe. I went to China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand.
I made it as far as India. Then I got really, really sick. I had to fly home.
Rumpus: You were really traveling a lot, living life.
Jones: Yeah! Through work, commercial fishing and the newspaper, I had made this money, so yeah, I just wanted to get out there. As I said, I was a bit of a lost soul.
I just wanted to experience things. I got really, really sick in India. Like an idiot, I drank water from the Ganges River. I ended up catching something, and I stared at the ceiling in this hospital room for two weeks, throwing up and fainting, I was off the radar. When I got back, I was a changed kid. I started taking school really seriously. I went to Oxford, spent some time in Colorado.
In answer to your question, I never did an MFA. I was one of those “theory-heads,” really loving it. Not a heck of a lot of writing.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the novel, then, because a lot of it has some of these elements from your life — living in the woods, working in the salmon hatchery, a lost soul character. But a huge difference is that the main character, Tara Marconi, is a woman. She’s from Philly, she has a fraught relationship with her father, and a distant relationship with her boyfriend, who she cares about but keeps at arm’s length. She’s writing letters to him from Alaska. Those are included in the novel. Can you talk about how you came to make fiction out of your own life experiences?
Jones: First off, I should say, the book got its inception in 2003, as a real one-to-one mapping of A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. (Laughs) Instead of the great scene in the marketplace in Paris in the early morning, it was a boat arriving at the seafood processor in the early morning under the sodium lights. I was mapping it from France to Alaska, kind of. Of course that ended up being absurd, silly.
That taught me about the lyricism you can get with small words. The ebb and flow of language. The sensuality of it. Then later I just started writing based on this photo I saw at a place called the Highliner, a coffee shop in Sitka. It’s a black-and-white photo of a woman, and she’s wearing these Levis and she’s got this fishing hat, and this coy look on her face. You can tell she’s got stories. That’s when Tara lodged herself inside me. She was just a minor character, though.
There were maybe ten different characters. There was an old carpenter. There was this couple, lesbian restaurant owners. All kinds of different people. I had no intention per se of writing a female protagonist. It just happened. The other characters fell by the wayside one by one. When I got the agent, it dropped to five characters, and then through drafts with him, down to two.
It was actually a love story then, including this Cuban, a man named Santiago. But my editor convinced me to cut it down to just Tara. I really did not intend to write any sort of roman à clef or anything biographical. It just ended up that way. There are a lot of things she does that I don’t have any direct experience with.
Rumpus: That sounds like a lot of work, many, many drafts. None of those characters you mentioned, like Santiago, are in the finished novel.
Jones: People who read the novel early on will have a hard time recognizing it. Of course, there are shadows and vestiges. But it’s gone through many iterations. My editor, Jenna Johnson and my agent, Kent Wolf, helped so much. I felt bad including so many pages of acknowledgements, but it still wasn’t enough. It was a community project! (Laughs)
Rumpus: Did you work on it also while you were at Stanford, as part of the Stegner Fellowship? Were you turning in chapters to the workshop there?
Jones: Yeah, I was. Let me back up. I hadn’t done an MFA, so when I got to the workshop I wasn’t familiar with that approach to creative writing. Workshop was not a natural fit for me, and it took a while for me to learn the terms and culture. I had prepared to workshop the novel, and Elizabeth Tallent said to me, “I don’t know if this is a good idea,” and of course she was 100 percent right. It’s really hard to talk about something novel-length in the workshop. Folks were very patient with me.
It was Toby Wolff who said to me, you know, the workshop began with people sitting around together, reading stories, and that’s it, in its inception. That’s the seed of it all. That’s a great thing, a great idea, and it can be very helpful to writers. It can be destructive, but it can be very helpful, too.
Rumpus: Well, on another track, you’re writing articles now—I think I saw you recently had an article in the New York Times—but are you planning another novel, more fiction? What’s next?
Jones: I have another novel in the work, and also a piece of nonfiction. And I’m playing a bit with moving between them. I definitely — novels take me much longer. They’re so much work. They come to me slow. Journalism, maybe because of my background, comes more naturally. But I do I love the F. R. Leavis idea that literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life, and learn a new awareness. Fiction at its best can do that. I would really like to contribute toward that, especially as part of the Alaskan literary scene. Making novels accessible and fun and, maybe, “a fiction of outwardness.” I think Richard Powers called it that.
I sometimes worry that literary fiction is becoming a decorative art, just accessible to a small segment of the population. That’s probably a different conversation.
There’s a responsibility we have to bear witness to the world around us. There’s a moral component to it. I hate the idea of writing that furthers the illusion of humans as being apart from the world we live in. In fiction, I try and write toward connection, expansion, and community. Trying to engage as much as possible with the wider world. Books I love by people like Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford and Annie Proulx, those writers spend so much time on the story, on real-world objects and people behind the language. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about stories. Really good stories.
Author photo © James Poulson