On “The Slime-Line Queen”

“The Slime-Line Queen” is the opening story of Halibut Rodeo. In some ways it serves as a type of overture to the book, introducing a number of motifs, as well as many of the characters that appear in their own stories. It was my first “Alaska” story, and the second story I wrote as a graduate student in Bob Shacoshis’ workshop at Wichita State. During that first semester of graduate school I lived in a cruddy basement apartment that was infested with crickets. My shower was a tin washtub with a drain hole punched into the bottom. The only place to sit was the bed. Most of the rest of the basement stored the landlady’s lifetime accumulation of old clothes and appliances. It was dark and damp, but the rent was only $110 a month. More importantly, hotshot fiction writer James Lee Burke lived next door.

I punched out “The Slime-Line Queen” on a cheap typewriter while scrunched over my bed. The first draft was substantially longer than what first appeared in “Writers’ Forum,” a journal from Colorado. It contained sections about the protagonist’s sexual awakening before he travels to Homer to work at Seward Fisheries. Shacoshis quite rightly pointed out that so many lengthy flashbacks about the protagonist removed the reader from the immediate story, and in no way advanced the plot. I had probably taken the whole “show, don’t tell” axiom way too literally. In my earlier stories I relied too much on dramatization to round out my characters, rather than well-chosen details. I revised the story that semester, and the version in Halibut Rodeo is pretty close to that version.

One early reader once asked me if “The Slime-Line Queen” was “real.” In some ways, yes, she is. Her physical appearance is inspired by a woman I didn’t know who worked at Seward Fisheries: a tall blond woman who always wore the same jeans and flannel shirt. My character’s personality and mannerisms was inspired by another woman I worked with. Unlike me, she lived in Alaska year round, and had been working at the plant for a number of years already. Some of the events in the story are autobiographical. The woman did live in a cabin in the woods, and I did indeed spend a sexless night with her. The details about Seward Fisheries and the slime-line are taken directly from personal experience. Many of the workers did camp out on the beach, and all the businesses I mention, including the Salty Dawg Saloon, really did exist. (During the workshop, one fellow student mocked my name choice for the bar.) In the story the relationship between the protagonist and the slime-line queen is far more serious than anything that happened between me and the woman who lived in the cabin. If I had stuck to the “truth,” the story wouldn’t have been terribly interesting. While most of the actual events of the story are made-up, the protagonist is only a slightly veiled version of me.

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