Behind the Book: A talk with “Border Songs” author Jim Lynch

HORIZON:  First of all, what does it mean to you to have your book selected for this year’s WhatcomReads! program?

JIM LYNCH: It’s an honor to be selected for any community reads program, but it is particularly fun to have “Border Songs” be a WhatcomReads! book because I spent so much time up there trying to bring this story to life and hoping locals might enjoy it.

H: This book is set in Whatcom County and is inspired by your time as a “Border reporter” in the time after 9/11, where—it says on your Web site—you saw both “provocative material and comic potential.” Did you witness or hear about any incidents during that time that inspired the many incidents in your book? Can you give examples?

JL: “Border Songs” is a hybrid of my reporting and my imagination. Mostly it’s my imagination, but I did draw from stories I heard and read about up there as well.  There was a defunct Molson brewery in eastern Canada that was growing incredible amounts of marijuana, for example. So I just moved it to the west and incorporated it into my story.

H: When did the idea for the book first occur to you? How long did it take you to actually write the novel?

JL: The idea came to me while I was riding back and forth along the border with U.S. agents soon after 9/11. I’d always found the border fascinating, but it suddenly struck me as a great setting for a novel when I was witnessing how these sleepy farmlands on both sides of the line had turned so tense.  It took about three years to research and write it.

H:  Do you think you share any character traits with Brandon Vanderkool, the novel’s socially inept but incredibly intuitive main character? Did creating a character with dyslexia change your perception of people who have learning disabilities such as this?

JL: I don’t share traits with Brandon other than a reverence for the lush nature of western Washington. It took me a long time to figure out how his mind works, and along the way I came to admire his innocence and his uncluttered vision. Temple Grandin’s books on autism helped.

H: One of the “motifs” throughout the book, in addition to birds, is sailing, as both the characters of Madeline Rousseau and Norm Vanderkool are involved with it. I understand you recently did a sailing book tour? Tell me more about that.

JL: I’m the son of a sailor, and a sailing fanatic myself. I toured through the San Juans giving readings last summer by boat when “Border Songs” came out in paperback. The boat broke down, of course, but I managed.

H: What was the research process like for this book? How long did it take?

JL: I made more than a dozen multi-day trips to Whatcom County and to southern B.C.  I spent a lot of time driving around, looking at things and asking questions on both sides of the border. And I spent a few days on a dairy farm down here near Olympia. I also read lots of books about Canada and the U.S., though there was amazingly little fiction I could find about the northern border.

H: I understand that, in addition to “Border Songs” being adapted for the stage in Seattle, you also sold the rights to it for a possible TV series?

JL: That’s right. A Vancouver, B.C. screenwriter is working on the pilot now for a TV series based on “Border Songs” that would hopefully run in Canada and the United States.

H: Being a journalist, when and how were you first inspired to also become an author? Also, how has your journalism background affected your fiction writing?

JL: I wanted to be a fiction writer long before I became a journalist. So the whole time I was writing for newspapers I was always writing fiction on the side.  My journalism training helps my novel writing in that it allows me to write about what fascinates me instead of just what I already know.

H: What do find challenging about the craft of writing and being an author? What do you find easy about it?

JL: The hardest part is all the work and time and rewriting it takes to fully imagine a novel. Once I can see the whole story like a good movie in my head it becomes a lot more fun.  I basically have to keep falling in love with its potential, and maybe that’s the easy part for me.

H: What is the creative or composition process like for you when you write?

JL: Erratic. I write as much as I can stand, but I don’t force it when it’s not going well, and I try not to edit myself when I’m in a bad mood. When it’s going really well I don’t stop. I listen to a lot of jazz and keep myself rolling with caffeine, exercise, and beer.

H: When writing “realistic fiction,” what do you think is most important to keep a novel believable in the minds of readers?

JL: I find that you can tell a tall story as long as you surround it with realism. So I just make sure to make scenery and mannerisms and dialogue feel as authentic as possible, so that you’ll buy the rest of it.

H: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? What about aspiring journalists?

JL: Fiction writers should study stories they love, and re-read them until they understand on multiple levels why they’re so effective. Then try to write the sort of stories they like to read. As for journalism, even in the confines of short simple articles, remember that you can still be engaging and original.

H: What authors have you been inspired by throughout your life? Are there any books that you see as being “essential books” for students to read, perhaps especially if they are aspiring writers?

JL: Tom Robbins, Ken Kesey, Joan Didion, Richard Price…I could go on and on listing authors who’ve inspired me at various times.  Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin” might be the most recent new book (2009) that rocked me. As for “essential books,” that depends on the individual. For a young writer with my sensibilities, I’d suggest studying Steinbeck –“The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row,” “Of Mice and Men,” “In Dubious Battle”…He wrote so well, his characters were so palpably real, and his stories had so much heart.

H: Tell me more about your journalism career. What made you want to become a journalist, and what have you learned about life by becoming one?

JL: While reporting for 18 years, I learned a lot about a whole lot of things, working in an Alaska fishing village, as a ghost writer for a syndicated Washington, D.C. columnist and as a reporter for the Seattle Times, Portland Oregonian, and others. Journalism fed my desires to understand how things work and to meet fascinating people.

H:  I read on your site that you’ve held a variety of what one might call “odd jobs,” including being a maid at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. Tell me more about those. As a maid, for instance, did you get to wear a dress?

JL: I was there for the mountain climbing in the Tetons, but I did fall in love with another maid.

H: Are you currently working on anything else right now, and are you willing to tell us about it?

JL: I’m currently trying to finish my next novel. It’s set in Seattle, with much of it transpiring during the 1962 World’s Fair.

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