NaNoWriMo Feature: Marcel Jolley

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured writer is Marcel Jolley, author of the novella The Following Sea.



The Following Sea by Marcel JolleyFor first-time travelers flying from Juneau to Gustavus, the isolated buildings of Excursion Inlet came as a false summit.  Gustavus lay only five miles further to the west, but no roads connected that community with the inlet cutting north into the Chilkat Mountains like a neglected fracture that would never properly heal.  A few private summer cabins crawled up the bay’s far edges, but when most folks said Excursion they meant the cannery.

The canning facility had been Merickel’s first job outside Hoonah.  His father sent him the twenty miles across Icy Strait at fifteen, the summer before he sailed on the Doreen.  Merickel despised the place from day one and though his dad always said he was free to come home, this disclaimer came in the tone parents adopt when inviting failure for use as future firepower.  He had muscled through his ten-week contract, spending any free time on the surrounding trails or bunked out, and visited home only for the Fourth of July and one other time at his mother’s urging.  That summer remained one of the wettest on record and though at the time Merickel had bought his old man’s line about building character, he now wondered what kind of character resulted from a person doing something they hated.

The dimensions of Icy Strait felt familiar but tighter than Merickel remembered as Johnny skimmed a low stratus layer over Point Couverden.  His summer on the Doreen had cemented the area’s basic navigation points shared by pilots and sailors with the effective glue of dire weather—high winds rounding Point Augusta, six foot swells off Homeshore, someone swamping near Point Retreat.  The public schools could benefit by infusing a little visceral terror when teaching geography.


Craft Notes

When I began setting my stories in Southeast Alaska, I too often let the region’s landscape take over.  I imagine the same challenge is faced by anyone whose writing is set in New York City or Paris or some other well-known locale—it is easy to let a dominant backdrop do the heavy lifting.  The geography of the region drives much of The Following Sea’s plot, and I remember revising several passages—including the one above—numerous times with the goal of showing smaller, personal connections to the landscape rather than just leaving it a panorama of rocks, water and rain.

I read an interview with Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose first two books were set in Hawaii, in which she said she didn’t see the islands as so much a character in her work, but rather a force that acts on her characters and stories.  I thought that was a really cool way to look at it.


1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

I find the hardest part is sacrificing a good chunk of your life (six months, a year or many years) to regularly work on a project that, for most of us, will likely never be published.  Your mileage may vary, but this has definitely been the case in my own writing.
One thing that keeps me going is the fact many of my favorite themes and passages in the stories I eventually did get published were scavenged from the carcasses of the unpublished novels I wrote years earlier.  So now I tell myself that A.) maybe I’ve learned enough to finally put down a good novel, or B.) if not, there’s at least a decent chance that something worthwhile will come out of the effort down the road.

 2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

I did not think seriously about becoming a writer until my senior year of college, when my writing professor Cheryl Glenn said I should.  Then she told me I should read everything I could get my hands on.  Simple advice, but true.
As a side note, I remember when she asked if I’d ever thought of becoming a writer, I said something to the effect of “Oh, maybe I’ll do that in ten years or so.”  She replied “Well, start now, and maybe you’ll be good enough to publish in ten years.”  This also turned out to be true.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft?

I started writing Milk Run, the novel that would become The Following Sea, in the summer of 1997.  I had just moved back to Southeast Alaska and was reading a lot of John Straley, a mystery writer from Sitka.  His books are incredibly fun and offer an interesting twist on the genre, and they set me thinking about trying a mystery/pursuit story.  The first thing that came to me was the closing scene, and then I just had to figure out how to get there.  I finished the novel over the next couple years and sent it out to several publishers with no luck, so I shelved the project with intentions to revisit the story sometime later.
Fast-forward to 2007-ish:  My first book of stories was about to be published by BLP, and I’d become interested in the novella form.  I dusted off Milk Run with hopes of trimming it down and maybe including it as part of my next collection of stories.  Over the course of six months or so I went from 52,000 words down to about 26,000, and actually enjoyed seeing how lean I could make the story and still keep it compelling.  When I submitted the novella as part of the collection that would become my second book, Priors, Diane at BLP had two good pieces of advice.  The first was that it should be published as a standalone, and the second was that the name had to change.  We continued to work on it for another year or so, even adding back in another 2000 words, and The Following Sea was released in October of 2013, only sixteen short years after I started.

4)   What is your favorite writing time beverage?

A large mocha in any coffee shop that allows me to occupy a table for two hours simply for the cost of said mocha.

Suggested Reading
Because I’ve always struggled with brevity, here are five short novels that I think would help writers looking to streamline longer works.
Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima
Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson
The Thing About December, Donal Ryan
The Barrytown Trilogy (3 short novels), Roddy Doyle


Marcel Jolley was born in Skagway, Alaska, and now lives in Camas, Washington, with his wife and son. He is the author of the story collections Neither Here Nor There (Black Lawrence Press, 2007), which won the inaugural St. Lawrence Book Award, and Priors (Black Lawrence Press, 2012), and the novella The Following Sea (Black Lawrence Press, 2013).