An Interview With Jim Wright, Author Of Progressive Blog “Stonekettle Station”

jIMwRIGHTIn 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.

Erin Nanasi

Erin Nanasi is the creator of The Bachmann Diaries: Satirical Excerpts from Michele Bachmann's Fictional Diary. She hates writing about herself in the third person. Erin enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with family. And wombats. Come visit Erin on on Facebook. She also can be found on Twitter at @WriterENanasi.

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  • Dale Toy

    Jim Wright : One of our most precious natural resources up here in the frozen north.

  • lordcalvert

    Calling Wright’s blog liberal is a bit of a stretch. Politically, as he so eloquently points out in his 2011 article, “Everybody’s So Different, I Haven’t Changed” Wright is very much a traditional conservative, in other words, what the Republicans used to be before the ousted former Wallace Democrats seized ideological control of the GOP in the 1980 election. His traditional conservatism only seems extremist liberal because of how far off the cliff the modern “conservative” movement has gone.

    • Bill Burchard

      “His traditional conservatism only seems extremist liberal because of how far off the cliff the modern ‘conservative’ movement has gone.” Ain’t that the truth! When the Arizona Republican State Committee censured U.S. Sen. John McCain for not being conservative enough, you have a perfect example of how far off the cliff they’ve gone. (Hell, McCain introduced them to Palin… that should have been worth some level of forgiveness by the GOP hardliners.)

      • lordcalvert

        Actually, Palin first got national notice when she openly lambasted the Alaskan congressional delegation (Stevens, Murkowski and Young) for their free-spending ways. That gave her a lot of credibility with the old-school conservatives and is likely what got her noticed by McCain. What we did not know then but we know now is that she did not do so out of any commitment to limited-government conservatism but was instead a clear case of political rivalry. She did not want to fight big-government…she wanted to BECOME big-government. She wanted to become the leading figure in Alaskan politics and for a brief time, she was.

      • Bill Burchard

        I stand corrected, lordcalvert… And enlightened. (Thanks!)

    • wolflady52

      Exactly.

  • Theresa Henry

    Jim has a way of getting inside my head and putting it on paper. I have yet to figure out how he does it but am considering getting a tinfoil hat to protect myself, from myself. I await the book – if just for not having to read comments at the end of it!

    • Glenna Jones-Kachtik

      Me too, Theresa. I feel exactly the same way.

  • Terry Mohn

    Always enjoy Jim’s perspective, although he does sometimes present an incorrect and demeaning image of folks that live in the South. Particularly when he’s from Michigan, of all places! 🙂

    • Sure, Jim’s a for-real Yankee, but his wife is from Lower Alabama. He sees the South from that perspective, and I think he calls ’em as he sees ’em.

    • Debbietee

      I lived in the Bible Belt for 10 years. His image of many in the South is absolutely spot on. Doesn’t mean EVERY person in the South is like that, but definitely in the South it is VERY – and unfortunately – prevalent. That’s exactly the reason I left, actually – it was too tiring and too restrictive/repressive to be among a population that had such a high percentage of lock-step, underexposed life experience.

      • Terry Mohn

        Guess you haven’t been to Michigan.

  • sgtgwn

    Love Jim Wright!!!!

  • Chicory Cottage

    Question #8. Wonderful insight. Thank you for sharing your family with us a little bit… And a big thank you to them for sharing you with us.

  • Because I’m a faithful minion of Stonekettle, I have discovered this site. Cool!

  • bea.

    Jim Wright and his Stonekettle Station are what help me understand the world I live in. I always walk away feeling well fed and thoughtful. Shopkat makes me smile and Jim’s love for his family and his descriptions of the tasty meals he likes to cook for them make me want to go see my children and do the same. in short, I am delighted to be his friend and fellow traveler. love you Jim, Bea(Bubbles) Miller

  • Mary Stone

    Wonderful interview Jim, I’ve noticed that “what’s your system?” or some variant is always a question asked of writers. Sorry folks, there’s really no secret to it. The “system” is to write, however it was definitely illuminating to hear that it’s not all ex tempore, and that certain topics need longer to germinate, plus the support of fact checking and research.

    We too, are owned by felines. One of ours is Sunny, a Maine Coon cat who is now 8 years old. My husband refers to him as a “fully operational battle cat.”

  • Stephanie Turner

    My fiance and I were very happy to discover Jim’s blog Stonekettle Station. He is a breath of fresh air in the stale mess that American politics had become.
    He gives us hope that not everyone has lost their minds.
    Thanks Jim.

  • Dan Brandt

    Stonekettle Station is literally the only blog I follow with any kind of regularity and I can’t say enough good things about Jim’s work there. We need more like him.

  • Shelley Page

    It’s so fun to read about how you interact with your family, and I’m excited to know you’re going to be a book author, Jim. Will you be writing fiction or non-fiction? I read a lot of Nelson DeMille and Tom Clancy, and the influence military service has on their books and your articles on Stonkettle makes the content rich and weighty. Nice interview, would like to see more. Hugs to ShopKat!

  • Susan Ray

    A friend forwarded one of Stonekettle’s blog postings on facebook on day. I read it, was fascinated, read more on his site and immediately sent a friend request so I could read it regularly. I don’t always agree with everything but he writes so wonderfully, that he has given me much to ponder. Now, I’m extremely proud to say that I’m a Stonekettle minion.

  • Craig Sterken

    I always appreciate Jim’s take on things and even though I frequently agree with him, his writings help me think on those subjects a little deeper. Also he will point out some nuance to a topic that I had not thought of before. Interesting interview!

  • slavicdiva

    Stonekettle Station is the only blog I read regularly, period. I love Jim’s writing style, but more importantly, the analysis behind his articles is always deep and thorough.
    My work requires pretty killer analytical skills, so it often seems to me that many bloggers just read some news article and spew out an emotional reaction. Jim always backs up his opinions with facts and analysis, allowing the reader to follow the logic that leads to his opinion.

    I am so glad to hear that Jim has books in the works! I’ll be first in line to buy and read them.

    Love the adventures of ShopKat as well!

  • Mona Hollums

    What I’ve always most admired about Jim’s work is his ability to collect and and arrange all of the many pieces of the big-picture puzzle, and show how they all fit precisely together. There’s no pounding some in with a hammer or coating the insides of holes with white-out to sketch in what he ‘thinks’ is there, there’s only the panoramic view of the issue, dusted with sawdust and cat-hair.

    Even if I dislike what he has to say, I appreciate that he’s said it. Not that I dislike much of it at all. (Well, I disagree about bears being attracted to tuxedos. Flannel, maybe….)

    As to social media and #7: Someday, the younglings will ask who my favorite authors are, and Jim will head the list, with a “You know, he once commented to me (directly to ME!) on facebook, way back in the olden days when we had to type with our fingers on gadgets…”.

    • Glenna Jones-Kachtik

      You’re correct in your assessment. Recently there has been a furor over the US Marine who was caught bringing guns into MX, was arrested & thrown in jail.. Everyone wanted to know what Pres Obama was going to do about it & 98% were convinced that we needed to negotiate his release because he was “decorated”, a “Marine” & he had PTSD. Out of all my friends, I seemed to be the lone dissenter saying that he had broken laws in another country & didn’t deserve any special treatment. I messaged Jim & asked his take on it & he was kind enough to answer & I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one who thought he should let justice take it’s course.
      He is always so good at putting all the pieces together (& there are always some pieces I haven’t even considered) & eloquently presenting the facts. Most of the time, I agree with him but even if I don’t, he always leaves me with something to think about & we don’t do enough of that these days.

  • John Conwell

    My week is not complete without at least I one Shopcat photo, one Alaska mountain range photo, one picture of the latest culinary treat and a handful of hateful, hilarious and often ignorant Stonekettle Station responses, complete with aluminum hat offers, conspiracy references and of course… NAZI’s!

  • Bob Topping

    Like many others, I was introduced to Jim via a friend. I discovered that he has an innate ability to express himself in ways that I would never be able to. I’m sure there are things that I disagree with him on but honestly I haven’t found any worth note. (I will forgive him his decision to join the Navy, as I am ex-Army, but he seems to have done well with it despite that.)

    Jim, if you happen across this comment, thank you for being honest to yourself and your principles and values. I can only hope to find a way to be as articulate as you one day.

  • Ken Warren

    I first stumbled upon Jim a year or so ago. He’s exactly my kind of “liberal”, which is to say old-school traditional conservative. I’m happy to say that I seem to have introduced a number of my friends to his writing, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he produces as his first book.

  • DiAnne

    I’ve been following Jim for a few years and when I see he has a new post up, I grab something to drink and settle in for a run around his brain. He is a craftsman. An artist. And I enjoy it all. His future as a writer is wide open and getting wider by the day. This is an important interview on that journey. Congratulations, Jim.

  • Judy Jackson Wammock

    I love reading Jim’s blog.. Can’t wait for him to write a book!

  • gojes22

    Love me some Jim Wright. I feel so fortunate to have stumbled upon him. I wish him the very best and look forward to lots more of his musings. He’s a pro at dealing with the crazy out here.

  • SEPA_Q

    Jim and I are of different generations and very different backgrounds, especially because I have little experience with the military — even second- or third-hand. I appreciate his insider knowledge of the things we do NOT have in common, and always feel like I’ve learned something from each of his blog entries. One of my favorites is “Everybody’s so different, I haven’t changed”, which lays out so clearly the path that has been taken by those who have redefined “conservative”. And have done their best to make “liberal” into an epithet! p.s. And, like other minion, I love the Shopkat photos!

  • Jonathan Kus

    In the current sociopolitical tumult that is modern day America, Jim’s blog and craft is truly a refreshing dose of honesty, humor and perspective. I consider him a national treasure.

  • Linda Mounts

    Jim’s essays are where I go to unscramble my brain when the spin on an issue or event whips the lunatics into a frenzy on Facebook. He says, “Don’t just embrace the crazy, sidle up next to it and lick its ear.” His ability to do just that, with aplomb, provide the analysis and insightful humour which allow me to rise above the bedlam and emerge with a knowing smile.

    Don’t just embrace the crazy, sidle up next to it and lick its ear.

  • confettifoot

    My favorite blog. I disagree re Snowden but that’s not the point – Wright’s views on that are respectable, intelligent and temperate. He’s sane. He’s solid and steadying. He’s wonderfully funny. He’s very, very smart and (this matters to me a lot) he has a great heart.
    Breath of fresh air in the claustrophobic, frenzied nuthouse of internet politics.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Wonder what Wright thinks about Dan Ellsburg and the Pentagon Papers if he feels that way about Manning and Snowden?

  • OhSoFurious

    In an age when opinion often sidesteps reality, Jim Wright’s writing is a refreshing blend of opinion, experience and facts. Even on those rare occasions that I disagree, his style and logic are admirable. Can’t tell you how many “shares” of his writing have allowed me to make a point without giving up my cowardly, public neutrality on many issues. Hope he keeps on delivering that punch & look forward to more blogs & FB, not to mention books.

  • Maureen Gill

    Jim writes with jackhammer force and backs the power of his style with a muscular mind that is nothing short of brilliant. He is a rare and wondrous mixture of warrior-poet, man of action who is also contemplative, and offers up an in-your-face ballsy, take-no-hostages style of kick ass writing that could only be as effective as it is because of the clarity and depth of his own remarkable grasp of truth vs. bull shit. In short, he’s the toughest, smartest, and deep down actually kindest SOB writer I’ve ever read.

  • wolflady52

    Common sense and kick-ass writing. I love this man.