BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)
The Whale Chaser is now in paperback from the Chicago Review Press.
Tell us a little about The Whale Chaser.
The Whale Chaser is about Vincent Sansone, the only son in a large Italian American family, who flees from Chicago to Canada during the turbulent Vietnam era for reasons other than avoiding the draft. His father is the sort who shows his affection with his fists. Vince ends up in Tofino, a hip little fishing town on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where he is eventually hired by Tofino’s most colorful dealer, Mr. Zig-Zag, and joins the thriving marijuana trade. Ultimately, through his friendship with Ignatius George, an Ahousaht native, Vince finds his calling as a whale guide. He tells his story in retrospect, alternating chapters between Chicago and Tofino.
Your main character, Vince Sansone, doesn't always make the best choices - romantic or career-related, but he's so compelling (and of course you need conflict to have a story.) Where did he come from?
I drew from my own experiences, the mishaps of my friends, and my imagination. You know how you can look back at periods in your life and realize that if one or two details had changed, your life would have turned out very differently? Vince has a good heart but like a lot of us he ends up making a lot of well-intentioned mistakes. For one, he feels the need to understand his father’s brutality and rage, which relates to a secret story about the grandfather’s imprisonment during the second World War. Vince also becomes enmeshed in a complex romantic triangle. He’s the fisherman’s son who’s in love with the butcher’s daughter, but at the same time he gets close to an older girl who’s also from an abusive family. It makes for an explosive mix.
A different version of this essay appeared in the New York Times on April 9, 2015. This is the original draft.
Identity + Theft = All of Us
The crime is known as the grandparents scam. It’s a type of identity theft that many people have been aware of for a while, but my grandfather, unfortunately, had not heard about it before he had a very personal encounter with it.
A young woman pretending to be me called my grandfather on his landline and asked him to bail her out of a situation she had become embroiled in while traveling in Spain. Drugs were involved, a lost passport, the police, and the caller pleaded with my grandfather not to alert my parents to her troubles. She began to cry and my grandfather promptly gave in to her demands, all of them. Over the course of about a day and a half, he sent three separate wire transfers totaling a little under six thousand dollars to a Western Union office in Spain.
I learned all of this about a week and a half after these events occurred because my grandfather called me. I was surprised by the call because usually, I call him or we correspond with handwritten letters.
When he asked, sounding both hurt and surprised, “When did you get home?” I initially thought he was referring to a trip I’d made to New York the previous month, and I told him that it had been a couple of weeks since my return.
After the briefest pause, he said, “No, when did you get home from Spain?”
I sensed almost immediately what had happened; I had read about a similar scam and received emails from friends whose accounts had been hacked, a foreign country and an urgent need for money both mentioned. My stomach shifted queasily. “I wasn’t in Spain,” I said.
He asked, laughing a little, if I was kidding.
“No,” I said. “I honestly wasn’t there. What happened?”
He told me then about the girl, about how her voice had sounded so much like mine. He did not want to believe that he had been conned. The girl and her helpmates had doubtless looked me up online and learned enough details about my family and my career as a fiction writer and college professor to appear convincingly to be me when they got him on the phone. The girl knew my mother’s and stepfather’s names, a detail that still chills me. Where had they found them? But then I remembered – there’s a short essay on my website about my parents’ dog, and I must have mentioned their names in it.
Tell us a little about your new novel.
In December 1992, three groups of teenagers head to the theater to see the movie version of the famed Eons & Empires comic books. For Adam it's a last ditch effort to connect with something (actually, someone, the girl he's had a crush on for years) in his sleepy Florida town before he leaves for good. Passionate fan Sharon skips school in Cincinnati so she can fully appreciate the flick without interruption from her vapid almost-friends—a seemingly silly indiscretion with shocking consequences. And in suburban Chicago, Phoebe and Ollie simply want to have a nice first date and maybe fool around in the dark, if everyone they know could just stop getting in the way.
The book follows these characters over the next twenty years as their lives criss-cross and intersect.
How did you settle on the timeline that you've chosen, which spans quite a few years of the main characters' lives?
I’ve always been really interested in how events from youth impact the rest of our lives. So I wanted to follow the characters until the events of the movie had a sort of logical conclusion. The re-release of the movie twenty years later, ends up connecting some of these characters in different ways, so it seemed like a logical place to end things.
It’s not a tied-with-a-bow ending for some of the characters, and personally at least, I’m really interested in finding out what happens to some of them afterward. But it seems like the place where Eons & Empires is done for these characters.
This past November I fled my drafty condo and the moody grey skies of Chicago for picturesque Sanibel Island, a haven much-loved by vacationers and retirees. The beaches there are known for their millions of pretty shells, and it’s also the place where you’ll find the renowned J.N. “Ding” Darling bird refuge. For the past nine years, the island has also been the site of an excellent writers conference affiliated with Florida Gulf Coast University. I was a member of this year’s fiction faculty, which also included novelists and short story writers Lynne Barrett, Emily Franklin, Steve Almond, David James Poissant, Julia Scheeres, Darin Strauss, George Singleton, Jeff Parker, and Tom Franklin. (The conference faculty includes poets, editors, novelists, essayists, publishers, live-lit veterans, literary agents, and musicians. This is the complete list: Steve Almond/ MK Asante / Lynne Barrett / Derrick C. Brown / Kevin Clark / Dean Davis / John Dufresne / Beth Ann Fennelly / Emily Franklin / Tom Franklin / Artis Henderson / John Hoppenthaler / Gary Louris / Jen McClung / Karen Salyer McElmurray / Kathryn Miles / Dinty W. Moore / Jeff Newberry / Jeff Parker / David James Poissant / Julia Scheeres / Christopher Schelling / Jennifer Senior / George Singleton / Christine Sneed / Wesley Stace / JL Stermer / Megan Stielstra / Parker Stockman / Darin Strauss / Johnny Temple / Karen Tolchin).
Tom DeMarchi founded the conference and has been its director since its inception in 2006. He and his wife Karen Tolchin (who also works hard to keep each conference running smoothly) are both members of FGCU’s English Department faculty and are two of the nicest people you could expect to meet anywhere. Richard Russo was so charmed when he met Tom and Karen not long ago while they were on vacation in New England that he agreed to come down from Maine to give the conference keynote this year.
I have to think it is their kindness and sincere interest in all the students and faculty at the SIWC that make it such a popular conference, along with the accomplished faculty, many with bestselling books to their names.