In the wilds of Alaska lives a writer named Jim Wright. He is a craftsman of wood and words, he has a cat named ShopKat, and he writes one of the most popular blogs online at Stonekettle Station. If you take Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, Norman Schwarzkopf, add a sprinkle of Carl Hiaasen and a dash of Ernest Hemingway, you get Jim Wright. Liberal to a point, outspoken all the time, I present an interview with Jim Wright.
1) How did you make the journey from U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer to writing for the public?
I’ve wanted to be a writer my entire life, ever since I picked up my first book (The Mystery of Cabin Island, A Hardy Boys Mystery, Franklin W. Dixon) when I was 8. I’m a voracious reader, an insatiable absorber of information and ideas. My brain delights in fitting those things-words, ideas, information-together like artwork. That’s probably why I was so good at my particular military specialty, an esoteric form of special intelligence. Two decades plus in military service, first as an enlisted man and later as an officer, I was often in the role of teacher, often for strange and highly complex topics under very difficult circumstances.
The military audience is diverse in many, many ways and not just in the usually accepted definition of the word, i.e. race, religion, sex, origin, political orientation, but also in experience and motivation. If you’re going to be successful in that environment, you have to learn how to reach people. You have to learn how to help them connect their own training and worldview to things they have little or no experience with, foreign cultures, alien concepts, complex technologies, and radically different points of view. More, you have to instill in them a sense of wonder, a desire to learn more, to drive forward on their own, so that they continue to develop and teach the next generation when you’re gone. After I retired from intelligence work, I wanted to write full-time but I didn’t know how.
I started my blog, Stonekettle Station, for practice to teach myself how to write for a non-military audience. I’ve always been a raconteur; I probably get that from my Dad who was a master storyteller, but even so the initial posts on Stonekettle Station were pretty terrible. Some of them are a little embarrassing these days, but I leave them up in the blog’s archives as a benchmark of how far I’ve come. Over time I found what I was good at (humor, politics), and I came to realize that what worked for me in uniform also worked for me on the electronic page. That is: tell stories with candor and humanity, connect the familiar to the unfamiliar, and help people see things in a different way. Writing a blog, especially a popular one, is hard work, but it isn’t all that different from what I did before – except that nobody shoots at me anymore. Most of the time.
2) Do you have a system for writing-handwritten outline, notes scribbled on scraps of paper-or do you sit down and begin typing?
Yes. Both. It depends on the topic. Typically I think about a subject for a few days. I think about how it connects to other concepts, other things I’ve written, and ways to illustrate it using narratives people can identify with but would never expect – that’s what makes reading enjoyable, that sense of discovery, that “I never thought of it that way” moment.
These days I prefer a subject, especially something volatile like a political scandal, to shake out in the popular press for a bit first. I don’t feel the need to be first on the scene, I’m not a journalist and there’s enough of shrill hysterical nonsense without me adding to it. Once I understand what’s going on, and if I think I have anything to add to the group mind, then I typically know what I want to say and where I want to go. I just sit down and start writing and it all flows out from beginning to end as fast as I can type. That’s the way I prefer to write. It’s electric. It’s enjoyable. Other times, depending the subject, particularly complex involved topics that I know will be highly emotional for my readers, such as, oh say medical ethics, I sketch a basic outline. Then I do research, I call experts that I happen to know and ask questions, I read the relevant journals, and I go look to see what non-experts think about it – even, especially, if those things are 180 degrees out from my own position. Very often what happens then is that when I sit down to write, my training and background make connections that I hadn’t consciously realized until I start arranging words on the screen, Typically, what then comes out is almost as much a surprise to me as it is to you. Very often, those are my most popular pieces.
3) What was your life like before Stonekettle Station?
Different …and exactly the same. I started Stonekettle Station the day that my retirement from the US Navy became official. Prior to that I was a military officer sworn to uphold my oath to the United States, restricted by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and my duty to protect certain classified interests of the government – and to a certain extent, in certain areas, I still am. Those agreements are legally binding for the rest of my life. There are things I won’t write about for exactly that reason, things that I know in intimate detail, but am unable or unwilling to discuss. I don’t in any way begrudge those obligations; I accepted them willingly, I gave my word and my word is good. Period. It would have been unprofessional to write about some of the things I write about, criticisms of government for example, or to offer an opinion on military actions, while still in uniform.
This is my primary problem with people like Pvt. Manning or Edward Snowden. Both could have lived up to the requirements of their stated principles without betraying their oaths, without betraying their country or their comrades in arms. My job in the military often required that I be in the middle of contentious issues, defending unpopular positions, dealing directly with often vocal and hostile criticism. Due to the nature of my specialty, I often ended up in the dangerous position of having to tell senior officers things they adamantly didn’t want to hear. But duty and honor require you to step into the minefield no matter the personal cost. That’s exactly what they pay Chief Warrant Officers for and why the Navy is damned particular about who they advance to that rank. And maybe I was lucky, but the officers and civilians I worked for over more than two decades of service were almost without exception consummate professionals, in and out of the war zone, who listened and actively encouraged dissenting viewpoints so long as they could be backed up with facts and considered opinion. As such, I ended up decorated instead of dismissed. Writing a political blog really isn’t that much different, except that I can do it in sweatpants while drinking a beer – and like I said above, people generally don’t shoot at you.
4) At least once a week, you post a Facebook status that attracts some seemingly very angry people. Do you find Facebook comments to be more contentious than comments on your blog?
I don’t find one more contentious than the other. The difference is, I have strict control over commenting on the blog because I designed it that way from the beginning, and I can deal with obnoxious commenters in a manner invisible to the average reader. The commenting rules on Stonekettle Station are clearly posted and enforced with an iron fist. This directly creates a measured and reasonably polite forum. I’m the host and owner of Stonekettle Station, therefore it’s my responsibility to set the tone and ensure commenters are safe to offer an opinion without being assaulted like they are nearly everywhere else on the net. This makes Stonekettle Station unique among political blogs – and to be clear, it’s not that I won’t tolerate disagreement, the last thing I want is the confirmation bias of a personal echo chamber, but it’s that I won’t tolerate obnoxious behavior.
I have less control on Facebook because it wasn’t designed to restrict communications in any fashion, and that’s okay too. Facebook is a more freeform and spontaneous medium. The blog is work, Facebook is Friday night at the bar after work. Here’s the thing: the Internet and social media in particular are relatively new forms of human interaction. Like all technologies, social media has both benefit and bane. Facebook is vast, it connects more than an eighth of the world’s population together, over a billion people, for good and for ill. It was designed to connect college kids and then evolved very rapidly into something else. Of all the various forms of social media, Facebook in particular is the Wild Wooly West of social interaction. It’s endlessly maddening and yet it’s a vast unfettered opportunity to see the world in a new way.
As human beings, we’ve had ten thousand years of civilization to evolve the various spoken and unspoken protocols of social interaction, almost all of which are short circuited by this new form of instantaneous communication. Online, almost all of the cues that unconsciously govern human behavior during normal intercourse are stripped away, and too often people react like crazed badgers – it’s the internet version of road rage, and it happens for many of the same reasons. It takes a conscious and deliberate effort not to be offended, not to lose control, and to behave in a rational manner. Eventually civilization will evolve some way of dealing with this; I can see it happening incrementally already. That said, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Like it or not, Facebook and other social media will only grow, and will increasingly become part of how we interact with the larger world. This new form of human interaction drives us forward into the future, it changes civilization and social intercourse in ways we can’t anticipate with any accuracy. For many folks, that’s frightening, but it can be exciting too – it all depends on how you look at things. The bottom line is this: what you get out depends on what you put in.
5) What are some of the things you love and/or hate about living in Alaska?
Alaska is a strange and wondrous place. The land is vast, raw, harsh, unforgiving, extraordinarily dangerous and extraordinarily beautiful, almost beyond description even for a writer like me. The people are, well, if I could use only one word that word would be “eclectic.” It’s a place of extremes, hot and cold, high mountain and low valley, snow and swelter, where vegetarian tree-hugging gun-toting liberals live side by side with fur-trapping government hating pot-smoking organic-farming conservatives and somehow they all manage to get along, mostly. Alaska is a jarring mixture of high-tech civilization and the primitive frontier, of supertankers and dog sleds. You can dress up in a tuxedo and listen to opera in downtown Anchorage … and then be eaten by bears in the parking lot after the show. In short, it suits me.
6) How is ShopKat, and would she be available for an interview?
Like certain wizards of note, ShopKat is always exactly as she wishes to be. As to interviews, remember that she is pointy on five ends and easily irritated by human affairs, then ask your questions accordingly, i.e. with great care. Liver treats and belly rubs would likely facilitate the process.
7) Is a book in your future (writing, not reading)?
Yes. Several are in the works at present. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it’s my goal to transition to writing full-time. I had intended to have the first book completed by now, but this has been a tough year and I’ve had very little time to write. Hopefully I’m back on track and I’ll get these projects knocked out in short order – but my life tends to the tumultuous, so we’ll just have to take it as it comes.
8) You’ve written about your family’s reactions to some of your more excitable fans. Do you ever consider shutting it all down and going camping for a year?
I get frustrated by it occasionally, but no, not really. Even when I’m camping in the wilds of Alaska, I take some time near the fire to write a bit. I’m careful not to let what I do become all-consuming. If I feel the need to walk away from writing for a couple of days, or a week, I do. I go out to my studio woodshop and turn Alaskan birch into artwork on the lathe, or I turn to my other hobby, photography.
My wife keeps me anchored and as humble as I ever get. We’ve been married a long time; she’s my toughest critic and my biggest fan and my best friend. More than that, writing brings my teenaged son and I closer together, he reads nearly everything I write and offers his opinion on it – which leads him to watch the news and read the media and observe the world in detail and form his own worldview. He’s a very perceptive young man, smart and funny, and more often than not my family’s observations temper my own worldview in ways that end up being reflected on the page. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever give that up.