Meet the Writers, Episode #5: Tom Conlan and his ‘Journey’

Conlan

The next writer in the series is Thomas Ford Conlan, whose debut book, “My Journey Begins Where the Road Ends,” a memoir about growing up, the U.S. Coast Guard, and grape farming, among many other things. It is a quick, easy, enjoyable read. Tom took some time to answer a few questions for me. Enjoy.

How did your book come around or take shape?

‘Journey’ has been the journey of a lifetime. When I was young, I thought I might make my mark writing songs. But I became caught up in the performing part. People should listen because the writing is good – not clink drinks and laugh. Good songs are poetry – Dylan’s Nobel is proof of that, though Academic writers complained.

Anyway – as you see in my book, I became a sailor. But I never left writing behind. Throughout my varied careers, I always set words aside knowing I would return to them someday. Finally the pull became too strong. I could no longer make excuses. I had to write the words down. So I retired to write full time, and seven years and an MFA later, I published my first epic song – in the form of ‘Journey.’

 

A great deal of the book is about your service in the Coast Guard, and some of the time might surprise people. What do you think about people’s perception of this branch of service, and what compelled you to write?

The Coast Guard is an admirable, humanitarian service. In the perennial Washington fight for tax dollars, leaders find it necessary to blow their own horn too often. The ‘Black Fleet’ that I served in was really an outshoot of the U.S. Lighthouse Service that merged with the USCG in the early twentieth century. We are the real sailors of the bunch – the best ship handlers, the most knowledgeable navigators, not the showy types that are more often seen in recruiting ads.

I enjoyed my years of service – when at sea. The camaraderie through life and death situations cannot be measured – but gave me a good story to tell. Like all of government, however, the administrative side was wasteful and far too political.

 

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel, tentatively titled ‘Gentle Spirits.’ I continue to write poetry, and hope to publish a collection someday. Sometimes the demand of marketing ‘Journey’ takes my mind away from the writing, and I struggle to find the words.

 

Where and when is your favorite place and time to write? Do you have a favorite space?

I am fortunate to have a farm that I built  from a hayfield in the highlands of Northern Michigan. I am addicted to quiet. I have a study where I can look out the window and see birds and other critters, trees turning in the fall, and no other houses.

I sit to write every morning, and my best work comes if I have avoided the morning news and other distractions. Unlike the popular theory amongst academic writers – I do wait for divine inspiration. When it comes, I know the work is good.

 

What makes a good story?

The telling of the tale. We all have good stories inside us, especially those of us who have experienced a lifetime of ups and downs. But some special folks have a knack for writing where the reader becomes part of the story, becomes invested. I think leaving things out for the reader to discover on their own is part of it, but not all. Humor, I think, is important. Self-deprecating is my favorite. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves, and the vulnerable, human condition.

BONUS: If you could only have one, blackberry wine or blackberry pie?

Pie. I just put up this year’s grapes yesterday – gonna be a good batch of Grape wine this year – Harvest Moon Noir.

But you made me hungry. There’s a good country market a few miles down the road with fresh baked pies. I’m off.

 

Tom Conlan lives, writes, and tends his grape vines at Blackcreek Farm in the highlands of Northern Michigan. He has captained a Coast Guard Cutter, sailed the world’s lakes and oceans, and now searches for the elusive brook trout in backwater streams.  Tom’s work has appeared in print in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Issue #12, in the print Anthology, Puppy Love, in Tulip Tree Review, in the anthology, “The Water Holds No Scars,” and in Qu Literary Review. His work was chosen as a finalist for the Annie Dillard Prize in the Bellingham Review. Tom attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and a Master of Science from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California.