Tag Archives: MFA programs

Where was I?

Oh, yeah.  “King Salmon.”  In my book, Halibut Rodeo. In my first entry about this story, posted oh so many months ago, I wrote about the my admiration of Raymond Carver, and how the short story master influenced so many of us in MFA programs during the 80s. (Many critics were none too pleased about that influence.) “King Salmon” came about because I felt the need to tell more of the Slime Line Queen’s story, since a number of early readers of my work really liked her. She’s not the protagonist, however. Instead, the story is told from the viewpoint of an ex who still lives in the Lower 48. “King Salmon” contains a story within a story. The narrator, a recovering alcoholic, tells his sponsor about his past relationship with the Slime-Line Queen, and his vain attempt to travel to Homer, Alaska to win her back. The middle part of the story is his account of that trip. He does find the Slime-Line Queen at the Salty Dawg Saloon. (The Salty Dawg Saloon is real, by the way. This past summer my brother Mike ordered t-shirts from there.) Later, the narrator ends up on Homer Spit beach to fish, where he catches a .
20 pound King Salmon.

While the rest of the story comes straight from my imagination, the catching of the fish is based on experience. Fairly early during the salmon season, I had an evening off from Seward Fisheries. John Calhoun, Sr., my gracious host for the summer, as well as mayor of Homer, took his son and I snagging on the beach. You don’t use bait for snagging, just a barbed hook. Kachemak Bay is so thick with spawning salmon you can toss a line out into the bay, snap your wrist, and hook yourself a big-ass fish. Like the narrator in the story, I did just that. We weren’t at it very long, less than an hour perhaps. After John schooled me on the technique he left me to my own devices. He had never snagged a salmon before, but assured me it could be done. I was dubious. I had never heard of this kind of fishing. But sure enough, I snagged one. I don’t know how long it took to bring in the fish, but it was at least twenty minutes. By the end the tide had come in and I was standing in water. In my mind’s eye right now I see John splashing through ankle deep water net in hand. He scooped up the fish, grinning from ear to ear, and said it was 20 pounds easy.

We took it back to his garage, gutted it, and sliced it into steaks. Over the next week, day after day before going to work to clean salmon for 12 hours a pop, I scarfed down the steaks drenched in the hollandaise sauce Hans whipped up. Did I tire of salmon? Hell no! According to Anthony Bourdain, professional chefs like to ask themselves what they’d eat for their last meal if they ever find themselves on Death Row.

Me? I want one of those salmon steaks.

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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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