What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book?
“Compelled” is an interesting word. Its roots mean “to drive together.” For me the word “urge” feels more accurate in describing how I began.
I have long loved word origins. It has always struck me that the English word “poet” derives from a Greek work for “maker.” Merriam-Webster adds that it is akin to a Sanskrit word for “he gathers, heaps up.” Again, “to drive together.” And the English word “art” derives from Latin “art-” and “ars” and is related to “armen” meaning arms, weapons, tools; akin to Latin ars (art, skill, craft, power), Greek harmos joint, arariskein to fit. Hence our word “articulate” or join together. Art joins things together.
As a child, I became captivated by anything to do with art. My grandmother had a lot of art books with images of old paintings that fascinated me, and I liked drawing pictures. Later in school when I learned to read and we were assigned to write stories for class, I was intrigued by making up narratives and by the way you could make characters talk on the page by putting quotation marks around their words. Movies and television, of course, entranced me and aroused my interest in, not so much storytelling, as creating feelings and moods. I loved the scary, the creepy, the mysterious, and The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Thriller were favorite shows. Later I grew interested in works that evoked tears, pathos, sympathy, longing, compassion.
I became obsessed with movies and filmmaking for many years, and I did make a few short films. But the process of making films was too cumbersome. Then in the 1980s I read The Color Purple, which I loved, but the movie was a tremendous disappointment. This turned me in the direction of books and writing. It seemed to me that one could do much more and go much deeper in a book than in a movie.
When I turned 50 in 1998, I still wanted to do some kind of creative work (the urge), and I had it in my head that I had survived long enough to have something to say in writing about this life and this world we live in. I sat down to write about my father and about my friend, Steven “Jesse” Bernstein, a Seattle writer who committed suicide in 1991.
But this image came into my mind: two men necking in a 1920s automobile in a rural setting. The image haunted me and I began examining it and wondering who these two fellows were, what their background was, how did they meet, what was their relationship, what happened to them? The more I delved into these questions, and the more I wrote, the more curious I became. As the story unfolded I was driven on by the opportunity to use this story to portray the pain of growing up gay and the struggle to come to terms with that reality in a sexually repressive society dominated by heterosexuality. As I learned more and more about gay history, the history of Portland and Oregon, the history of the Ku Klux Klan, the eugenics movement, etc., I felt compelled to share this history with readers. This led to the three novels that make up my Medicine for the Blues trilogy. And with the rise of Donald Trump, I felt that it was important to publish and get this story out to the public with hopes of encouraging compassion and understanding for those who are different.
What obstacles did you encounter while writing the book?
I saw that I had to better understand history, in particular, what it was like to be gay in the 1920s. This was a major obstacle. First I ran across John Loughery’s book The Other Side of Silence, men’s lives and gay identities: a twentieth-century history. Eventually, I encountered the writings of Jonathan Ned Katz, and others: George Chauncey, Peter Boag, George Painter, and many more. The deeper I dug, the more I found and the more that came out in publication after I started writing. This created another obstacle, which was trying to keep up with all the literature on gay history and theory that was becoming available.
How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?
All this reading in LGBT history opened up a whole new world for me. It was not just Socrates, the Greeks, Michelangelo, Walt Whitman, and Oscar Wilde, who were examples of what it meant to be gay, but there were many men, known and unknown, who over the years had experimented with, experienced, and thought about making gay lives for themselves and others like them. There were legions of people validating and supporting my identity as a gay man.
Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? What was that process like?
I am a self-published author. I pitched my book to several agents at the Willamette Writers Conference. A number of them expressed interest but told me that my book was too long to be published as one book. Yet none of them followed up after I sent them samples of my work.
I decided that I had put too much work into this project to let it languish in a drawer, only to be found after I died—like the memoirs of my main character, Carl Holman. I asked around about editors and a friend told me about Jill Kelly, PhD. I contacted her and after some preliminary interactions, we began working on my manuscript. Jill had self-published some nonfiction and a few novels of her own, and she guided me through the process of dealing with Amazon’s Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing. She knew the ropes.
Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?
I am an introvert and like to stay home most of the time, so I can’t say I know a lot of writers. I have some old, old friends that I see from time to time, who have kept writing over the years. I was in a writing group several years ago and I’ve reconnected with one of those folks recently. Since I published, I’ve met a few other local writers at various readings and other literary events, and those encounters have grown into developing friendships. Plus, I have been involved with a new writing group over the past six months and those writers, besides becoming friends, have been teaching me a great deal, not only by the example of their writing, but by pointing out some of my bad writing habits.
Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like?
When I was first writing Medicine for the Blues trilogy, I was still employed and I would get up at 3 or 4 in the morning and write for an hour before I went to work. Now that I am retired, I write when I don’t have other obligations, so my writing is not so regimented. I do like the weeks and days when I don’t have other things to attend to and I can plan to spend the whole day writing. Lately, I’ve been working on revisions to Book 3 of the trilogy and I find that revisions require a lot of concentration over a period of time, because there are so many things to juggle. I sometimes spend 8 to 10 hours a day writing. Other days I can’t find any time to write.
I’ve been going to a Monday morning writing group at the Q Center where we get prompts and write whatever comes to mind over 10 to 15 minutes, then we share what we’ve come up with. It’s not only great fun but a powerful stimulant to the imagination and a laboratory for experimentation. From this experience, I’ve got lots of new material that I hope to develop in the future.
The other aspect of my writing practice is my formal writing group which meets every two weeks. That gives us all a deadline and an impetus to get something ready for the others to read before we meet. Then we gather and share our thoughts on what the others have written.
While I am writing, I like to do a lot of research, and that always stimulates my imagination for filling in scenes and scenarios and gives me ideas about how to accurately describe historical times and details. I use the dictionary and thesaurus a lot to find just the right word or the right shade of meaning. In every paragraph, I probably look up 2 to 3 words, or more.
How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
I have a couple of ideas that are on the back burner of my mind right now, not things I have actually written down. Besides those, there is the material from the Q Center writing group. I look forward to mining that treasure trove for further development, once the third book of the trilogy is finished. I guess I prefer to tackle one project at a time.
Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
Yes, to some extent. Writing is a voyage of discovery. The imagination is a conduit for the universe to work through us, and the intuitions and coincidences that happen in the process of writing can be quite awe-inspiring. But there is a Buddhist scripture which refers to “the dharma of thusness” by saying, “Just to portray it in literary form is to stain it with defilement.” Much of the spiritual world is beyond words. On the other hand, Gertrude Stein once said that the only things worth doing are impossible things. Spirituality is an unfolding. Maybe writing can help it along. Compassion is certainly a spiritual practice, and putting ourselves in the shoes of others, characters different from ourselves, helps us develop understanding and sympathetic feelings.
What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
I have always felt an uneasy relationship with writing. Although I wrote when I was younger, I had lots of self-doubts restarting at 50. I felt intimidated, I wondered what gave me the right to think I was a writer. Then once I was immersed in this trilogy, I came to understand what George Orwell meant when he wrote, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” (The antidote for this viewpoint is Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic.) And now that my book is in print, I am plagued by the whole endeavor of publishing and marketing.
My life would be a lot simpler if I didn’t write. But then I would still feel that urge to create something, and digital words or marks on paper, are a lot more manageable physically than drawings and paintings—another creative outlet I sometimes contemplate pursuing.
I look forward to spending more time gardening, once I complete this trilogy. Then I hope to have more breathing room to entertain thoughts of plunging into another big project.
Why do you write?
See Question #1.
Growing up in a small town in rural Washington State, Jeff Stookey enjoyed writing stories. He studied literature, history, and cinema at Occidental College, and then got a BFA in Theater from Fort Wright College. In his 40s he retrained in the medical field and worked for many years with pathologists, trauma surgeons, and emergency room reports.
Jeff lives in Portland, Oregon, with his longtime partner, Ken, and their unruly garden. Acquaintance is his first novel. Contact Jeff at medicinefortheblues.com.