"Dawn ices the sky and drives back the stars. It took the entire night to complete his ascension: moving gear onto the platform—sleeping bag, ropes and harness, water, a little food, the brush and paint cans—using the torch to cut free the billboard’s decrepit ladder as he climbed, leaving the seventy-foot column smooth as an obelisk. He hasn’t brought books. The historical library at the university has its own impressive collection, and he found an ally in the librarian covering the late shift who would order anything that fed his wandering interests. His janitorial duties took at most a few hours each night. Even the graffiti could not slow him [“you are loved,” his current favorite: “spacehorsespacehorsespacehorse”]." —from "Antioch," published in Fall 2017 (Volume 58, Issue 3)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I didn’t start writing until I was around thirty years old. The first thing I wrote was for a NaNoWriMo challenge: a thriller set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that involved local folklore, in particular the loup garou—the werewolf of French legend. I finished the novel and it got a few sniffs but no agent. It was, however, tremendous fun to write.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I am effected by two types of writers: those for whom place is a powerful component of the story and a character in its own right (Ron Rash, Annie Proulx, and in particular Jim Harrison), and those who are simply great stylists and write beautiful sentences (Lauren Groff, William Gibson, James Salter). .
What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was very small I wanted to be a firetruck. After that disappointment wore off I think veterinarian was next, then actor, still fairly early on.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I saw a picture in a newspaper of a billboard painted the way it appears in the story, but purposefully did not read the column. I didn’t want the facts; the picture was filed away. I carried it around (mentally, and as a sketch in a notebook) for years until I found the right wire with which to cross it, the idea that gave the story purpose and told me how he ended up there. Most of my work happens that way. It can start with a single image or idea, but the story doesn’t happen until I find the second current that brings it to life.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I have lived in fourteen states over the past thirty years, including a decade in the South. During the time I was writing, I wrote almost entirely about my home state of Michigan. This state, in particular the Upper Peninsula, seems to be bone-deep in me.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I like silence as much as most people seem to like music. If I do listen to anything, it has to be something simple and without lyrics, such as Philip Glass piano solos or Ennio Morricone movie soundtracks.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I write mostly at home, usually late at night, in the basement with my desk facing a wall and the lights low. The dog snores on the couch and has loud dream battles. Occasionally I will write in one of the libraries at the University of Michigan, in particular the Law Library reading room (Google it, it is amazing), but that is it for public venues.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I have a small cadre of friends who are good writers, with whom I am lucky enough to be able to trade pieces. They know me and my work well enough to not let me get away with anything.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I had wanted to be able to draw since I was a kid. This year I finally signed up for a class, and continued carrying around my sketchbook after it ended. I am enjoying it immensely.
What are you working on currently?
I am working on a novel titled Monster. It is set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (surprise, surprise) and is about a young girl whose fiancé returns from Afghanistan terribly burned. They are hired as caretakers of one of the old playgrounds for the rich, a massive tract of wilderness that once belonged to Henry Ford.
JIM WALKE is thrilled to be back in Michigan, where he belongs, after a decade in the sweaty South. His work has appeared previously in the Massachusetts Review and was also recently included in Winesburg, Indiana. His only tangible goal this year is to walk his dog Kipling 1,200 miles on the trails and paths and lovely streets of Ann Arbor.