I met Jim Landwehr while I was struggling through the first draft of Paddle for a Purpose, unsure if it would ever tell the story of our experience in the engaging way I hoped. Jim, also a student at AllWriters’ Workplace & Workshop, was celebrating the release of his first book, Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir. His topic was right up my alley – I thoroughly enjoyed his gentle story-telling voice and the intertwining of humor, insight, and heartache in the stories of his canoeing adventures with friends and family.
As we both continued our writing journey, Jim has been an encourager, mentor, colleague and friend. In the next few weeks, we’ll be participating in some upcoming events together: talking about writing with students at South High School on Nov. 2, participating in author panels at the SEWI Festival of Books on Nov. 3, and doing a reading, book discussion and signing together on Dec. 13th at Subtext Books in St. Paul, MN. I had the opportunity to ask Jim some questions about his writing life. I hope you enjoy our interview!
Barb: Thank you for making yourself available for this interview, Jim. Can you tell us a little about yourself and the background that led you to become a writer?
Jim: Thanks so much for having me Barb.
Well, I am of that strange demographic, a 56 year old male going through an existential mid-life crisis and working it out through my writing. Frankly, it’s healthier than having an affair and buying a Corvette. Besides that, it even brings in a little beer money, so that’s a win.
My wife Donna and I have two grown children, Sarah, a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota now living in Minneapolis and Ben, a sophomore at UW Madison. By day, I make my living as a Land Information Systems Supervisor for Waukesha County. It is a long winded title for a supervisor of a small team of mapping specialists and data geeks.
I’ve always enjoyed writing, ever since I was a kid. In fourth grade I used to compile short stories on half-sheets of paper. It was something that took me to the places I wrote about. I think my writing today does the same. It is total escape and I can’t imagine not doing it.
Barb: You’ve posted some of the stories you wrote and illustrated as a child, which you found out that your mother saved. (I love the fact that she saved your writing, by the way!) Did you gain any insights from those glimpses into your younger self?
Jim: Yes, my mother presented them to me about 15 years ago and totally caught me off guard. I remember writing them like it was yesterday. It’s funny, but all of the stories seem to have a moralistic bent to them.The stories have a solid beginning, middle and end to them, but the main characters always seem to pay the price for their errant ways.
The other interesting tidbit I learned was that a few of them were outdoor adventure stories, rafting down a river, hunting, etc. It may have been foreshadowing for my first book, Dirty Shirt, which is based on adventures in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Barb: Two of your published books are memoirs: Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir and The Portland House: A ‘70s Memoir. As I read each of them, I was impressed by the detail of your memories from your youth. Do you have any strategies for taking yourself back to those moments from years ago?
Jim: I often wonder how it is that I can so vividly recall certain scenes, moments and dialog from those days so long ago. I wonder if memoirists have a knack or some sort of cognitive gift for remembering things that others do not. Many of my stories have a humorous element to them, so I think that helps. People tend to remember funny and tragic stories better than the mundane.
I guess I can’t pinpoint it to any one strategy as much as I just recall the story and start writing. As I move along, the details come into focus and I try and bring the reader back to that place and time.
Barb: You’ve published three poetry collections: Reciting from Memory, Written Life, and most recently, On a Road. What led you to cross over genres from memoir to poetry? Do these two genres compete for your attention, or complement one another?
Jim: When I enrolled in AllWriters’ Workshop and Workplace there were a couple of poets in the group. I was intrigued by their work and the craft in general. In an attempt to stretch myself, I started writing a few. I thought they were awful, but when I brought them into class, people really responded positively to them. It was encouraging, so I kept at it. Then, I had a short 20 line poem accepted as my first “published piece.” I was ecstatic! It fueled my desire for getting my work published and I haven’t looked back.
But, to the question, I feel the two genres complement each other nicely. After all, a poem is just a really, really short story. You’re forced to use an economy of words to get a descriptive, succinct message across. My instructor, Michael Giorgio put it best when he said, writing poetry makes you a better writer. I think that holds true regardless of genre.
Barb: You write often about your parents and siblings, especially in your most recent memoir, The Portland House. Tell us a little about your childhood family. What elements of your Portland House family’s characteristics have you sought to preserve?
Jim: I grew up in a big, single-parent family (7 kids) in the ‘70s. This made for a ton of funny stories as well as some heart touching moments. But it was an environment radically different from my current family of a wife and two kids.
Another thing I remember from my days as a boy, Mom always valued having dinner as a family around the table at least four or five nights a week. My wife and I made it a priority to do that same thing as a family. It is where we debrief from our day and laugh with one another. Even better, it almost always started with a prayer of thanksgiving.
Barb: What propels you to share the stories of your experiences through memoir and poetry?
Jim: When I first started writing my stories of the Boundary Waters, my intent was just to get stories down for my family – for posterity. As the stories accumulated, my writing instructor, Kathie Giorgio asked if I’d ever thought about putting them into a book, a memoir. I said, no I hadn’t. She said “Well, I think you should.” Two hundred and forty pages later, I had a Dirty Shirt.
But to be truthful, I think my stories of family and friends ring true for a lot of people. They can relate to sibling interactions, struggles in school, kid mischief and the like. These stories are timeless. My goal is to make them entertaining by adding humor and heart where applicable.
The same holds true for poetry. I love it when I finish a poem and it leaves me laughing or saying “Hmmmm…”
Barb: How do you find time to write? Do you write on a specific schedule?
Jim: I work a 40 hour a week job, so I have to make time to write. I try and do a little on weeknights, but usually my brain is a little fried by that time of day. One thing I do practice with regularity is a two hour bank of time on Saturdays. I call this my “anchor time” a term I got from another writer. If I carve out this time and keep it sacred, I can get a fair amount done. Then, if my weeknight writing doesn’t go well, at least I had my anchor time to show for the week. My wife has always been very supportive of my need for that time. Sometimes it even comes at the expense of household projects, but I do what I can in both arenas.
Barb: How do you feel about interactions with your readers? Do any special anecdotes come to mind?
Jim: It is the single most rewarding part of the process, getting feedback. It makes me happier than the money aspect for sure. Having someone say that they laughed or cried during the reading of my work, well, that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? To evoke an emotional response from your audience.
I recall one review that said the reader laughed and cried, sometimes on the same page.
But to be honest, the one or two bad reviews I’ve received stay with me as much as the good ones. Writers tend to be critical of themselves as it is. To have someone validate that criticism hurts, but it’s all part of the game, I guess.
Barb: Can you tell us about your new release, and what you’re working on next?
Jim: My latest poetry chapbook, On a Road, came out on 10/21/2018. It is a series of poems written about a road trip I took to California from Minnesota with two friends in a rental car in 1984. Because the trip had elements of Kerouac’s classic On the Road, I wanted it to stylistically echo his work. It is different from and edgier than anything I’ve ever written before, so I’m not sure how people will perceive it. It was one of those things that was just in me and had to come out. I liken it to my Beatles “Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. A little out there. But therein lies the beauty of writing. The boundaries are loose and you go with your heart, right?
I am currently working on another memoir about my high school experience. I attended an all-male, Catholic, military school which in and of itself is unique enough to warrant a book. It is not just about the school however, it is about growing up and moving from boy to man and all the risk and reward that comes with that passage.
Of course I have two or three other ideas for projects, but I am trying to stay focused and finish one thing at a time. I might add that my only regret about my writing is that I got started so late (in my late forties). So, I’m writing like a maniac in an attempt to make up for it. Thankfully, I am having some success along the way. The whole deal is hard work, but a whole lot of fun.
Barb: Thank you, Jim, for giving us a glimpse into your writing life! Please leave us with your website address, upcoming events, and any social media accounts that our readers could use to follow you if they’re interested in learning more.
Jim: Thank you again for hosting me Barb. I am grateful to be appearing along with you and many other colleagues and friends at the Southeastern Wisconsin Festival of Books on November 3rd. I wish you continued success with all of your writing pursuits.
My events page can be found Here
Jim Landwehr has two poetry collections, Reciting from Memory, and Written Life. He has a forthcoming chapbook On a Road. Jim also has two nonfiction books, Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir and The Portland House: A ’70s Memoir. His non-fiction stories have been published in Main Street Rag, Prairie Rose Publications, Steam Ticket and others. His poetry has been featured in Torrid Literature Journal, Portage Magazine, Blue Heron Review and many others. He enjoys fishing, kayaking, biking and camping. Jim is poet laureate for the Village of Wales, Wisconsin.