Treasure Island

Content now. For the moment. At last concluded a short story I’d planned to finish in September, and before that the prior October, and before that the tail end of 2016. Sometimes, a work is just not ready and we realize it, and I am always too distracted. Oddly enough, this new story references Treasure Island of all books. Though perhaps not so surprising as a recently finished essay referenced The Wizard of Oz, and I’ve not read that one.

But Treasure Island. A café is named The Black Spot. The proprietor is named Silva. A barista is named Red (this one’s complicated). Metaphors for cannon rounds crash through log walls and there’s much idle drawing of maps, all curiously lacking an X-marks-the-spot.

But somewhere in development, the fiction became about predatory storytelling, the appropriation of local legends, and the superposition of imagined narratives. Perhaps I even had something subconscious to say about Treasure Island’s noted exclusion of women, as well as the novel’s conscious borrowing of material from other authors: Kingsley, Irving and Poe, not to mention its cozying entrenchment in historical events and figures.

But this got me thinking, to actual great surprise, about the very first piece of fiction I remember writing. Certainly the first of pages-substance. Seventh grade, 12 years old. A school assignment. We were assigned to rewrite a chapter from a book—or, depending, perhaps just a scene. From what I remember, everyone chose different books—and I choose Treasure Island. I wasn’t such a big reader then, if I am now. I remember going back to the same few again and again like one does a pop-song playlist.

Not a big reader, but I sure loved buying books yearly at the local library’s fundraiser. You can fill a couple banker’s boxes when the paperbacks (Treasure Island included) cost 10 cents each. I don’t remember all the details, but the gist of my rewrite was to have Jim attempt to retake the ship—and there was a fair amount of sharpshooting from the rigging.

But the most wonderful thing is: I cannot, to this day, separate the narratives. What I wrote at the age of 12 remains more real to me than the original. Or at least inextricable. Adventure. Not so much a foray into fan fiction as a partial rewrite of a classic. Better memories. 

More interesting then that Treasure Island found it’s way into my new short story when the story is very much about rewriting a history for something imagined more favorable. I mean, there’s no one named Red in the Treasure Island original unless were talking about a minor character named Redruth. I checked Wikipedia—

And I’m fairly certain I haven’t re-read the novel since middle school and that any borrowing now is done through deep memory, because time and because I’m not a big reader and if there’s time at all, I’m keen to read something new. I also seem to have lost that old draft to a buried box somewhere. Understand that I’m teased regularly for being “very” organized. I’m not, really, but the rumors are true, I do possess a hand-made glue-bound volume on my shelves that purports to be the “Collected Papers (unrevised) of Roger Topp,” by the dates, collected between the ages of 14 and 17 years old. Clearly a protective dump from a floppy disc both too large too small to stay in style. Of course, I also have sworn grade-school teacher testimony (in writing) I’m an extrovert, and implying this may be a problem.

Or perhaps I don’t reread Stevenson because I’ve moved on, because the novel was definitively for boys, or perhaps, if were to retread the book, looking for clues and memories, there’s a chance Stevenson’s original narrative might, because I’m sure it’s pretty decent, reassert itself and clear out this unauthorized memory.

Geist Heist Ex Libris

Report from the Hill (transmission follows)

>>You know it’s a blog when I use exclamation points.

September’s attention was split across four stories: a nonfiction, a non genre fiction, and two genre fictions more speculative than last. Otherwise the time was put towards submissions and re-collating the collection, which I’m now happy to report has been retitled (again) into the fresh grotesque, Imaginary Friends and Monsters: A Not Entirely Nonfictional Memoir. Yes, that sums it up mostly accurately. The English language might indeed have the tools we’re looking for.

Four new stories then. Important to work on multiple stories at once, where ‘at once’ sometimes means within the same hour, and getting to an editable draft takes months if not years. Thinking time, getting out to watch the fall song birds, and the soil needs to sprout species not planned for. Some of the seedlings will be welcome, revision in autumnal ink and dropped on the data-entry stack, which can take forever to get to (because that’s not the fun part) but when I’m about to run out of clean sheets on which to scribble.

So three of this month’s stories were milled in this way, where each had near a dozen drafts already coming into the month. Yes, we wish for the other thing. I buy a great many pens.

Sometimes I can finish a story in eight drafts. Usually this means I’m in denial, or so tired I need the child to be someone else’s problem for a few days or a few months. This month, I’ve lost count of the drafts, which I think is a good thing, and I’m not thinking we’re about done here, when all were difficult children—and still might be. I think all three stories might be wrap this week, but the one named “Destination Wedding” was supposed to wrap in August. It did wrap. It went on to the submission stack—and two weeks later in peak submissions season I hadn’t sent it anywhere. Clearly I lacked faith in it. So, another half dozen drafts of a short story that might be best summed up with the term, dark tourism, and the clause, Traveling ill is the new terrorism (Yeah, the first draft was in 2017). I did some soul searching in March 2020, noting how many of my stories feature someone with a head cold on an airplane. But besides that, Wedding is also notable for containing the best explicit sex I’ve ever written—which I only mention because that’s faith in a work! I like to say a story doesn’t go out until I love it more than anything else I’ve written, ever! That’s probably, mostly true. The same cannot be said for blog posts.

Also finding its polish this week, a short essay about the summer I lived in a tent in the Alaska woods. Inexplicably, my camp featured a couch as much as a sleeping bag. Like any of my anything, it’s tightly wound and I need to kick it into the mail before it begins putting on weight.

The third story this month is a 6,800-word fantasy (say it ain’t so!) that had to be whittled from raw ore nearer 12,000 words. This one’s a geist heist ex libris (so, like, its own newly minted genre) during a peculiar celestial event. It is professionally narrated by a doomed and wonderful pickpocket I’ve worked with before.

Mental state willing, I look forward to saying good luck and goodbye to these latest children and return to novel revisions in October. That’ll be a ride.

Oh yes, the fourth story this month! There’s always one that’s young yet, and this one began as a dream in July. So, it’s an oddity, getting under the pen so soon, and more so because dreams are good for little else than hazy impressions. I credit the morning coffee for making of it something useful, and September was largely typing up 5,000 words of notes and scenes and dialogue about characters not yet willing to talk to each other, and me getting in great discussions with myself over where the story needs to go and how I want this to be something beautiful and fleeting and not another 7,000-word speculative beast with fewer opportunities in the marketplace. More later on this science fiction, except to say it takes place on a moon of an alien gas giant (actually in space—I know! This is departure! Technically an arrival). The story involves characters of an age where technology begins to get away from them, so like, in their forties. It’s a natural thing, and I’m immediately reminded, right now, that language too is technology. Ok, that thought is going to generate more pages of discussion, and I’ll likely have to take it out running on the weekend. Oh hey, some pictures from the great northern outdoors not yet on space ships.

Return to Ocean

In a week, I return to life on ship. And being at sea has been more frequent this decade than I had any right to expect. But our old lives come back, don’t they, I think, because we allow them to, want them to. We need them to bust in the door and rock the boat and crack the ice.

In the last year, the stories have had the luxury of privacy, of fermenting in coffee shops and the dry windowsills of whisky evenings. They’ve become journal and magazine-sized and likely a little too smooth. Next week, back to the rough stuff, where life is made present and compressed, and for a month this blog will be become frighteningly active.

This week, I’m collecting what I need, planning ahead, and as always, looking back…

April 2015.

All that bumping around and door and drawer rattling last night was us meeting ice we could not break. In this case, the rubble field was ice previously broken and pushed back together by wind and ocean currents. We were hoping for ice approaching a few feet thick, and we wanted it to be consistent. When we hit a wall, we backed away and found a route around. Last night, retreating from the last ‘log jam’ took too long, wiggling back and forth, applying both finesse and force. Eventually, we chopped the ice at our stern and cut a pond to turn around inside and returned to ocean.

So, we’re not trying for the polynya. We could probably get inside the open water pond by skirting around one rubble field and between others, but the winds have blown consistently from the north. If they change direction, they could push the  ice-edge floes back together, capturing us in an area it could take a Spring to escape. Perhaps I overdramatize. Perhaps not.

We find a wide floe and stop for our fourth ice station. The crew disembarks to set the ice anchor and promptly re-boards as massive cracks begin to open in the floe. Even though the boat has cut a fresh driveway, it rolls as if in open water. The swells are significant and we can see, from the working deck, the ice rise and fall. No ice station today. Instead we drive on into evening towards established stations on the 70-meter isobath. As Carin said over dinner, “We’re switching from relative to geographic coordinates.” Less floating in the grey, more paying attention to the hard world underneath.

Before night fell, Liz saw three belugas from the Bridge, first a white calf and then two (greyer) adults just behind. Quick. Then gone. We we were in a tight lead with ice all around. We watched for them after passing but saw nothing more.

As Rob said, “The weather won.” The best we can do is look for a decent floe and perhaps the weather will shift when we get there, or tomorrow, or the next day. Who are we kidding? We can work off the boat, but the weather will keep us off the ice. Unstable, the toffee pan is bending under eight foot swells I don’t need time-lapse or my imagination to see. Everything is moving again. 

The Board of Lies warns us to secure our gear. Upstairs, a sign in the mess says, “That swell in the ice means it’s going to suck.”

—Thanks to the National Science Foundation, and the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, UAF (2015)


March 29. 2015.

“We are more than half way through our cruise, and the food is running low. Last evening, Annie told us there were no more chips. She’s from Wisconsin, so I suppose chips do not include Cheetos. Those appeared today as usual. This morning she put out a single grapefruit. Carin snagged it, saying she was going to save it for tomorrow. She also said she would give half to John the Bosun. I think she hopes in turn he will share his grapefruit knife. This could be our last grapefruit until we return to the hot, sunny coves of Dutch Harbor. Or perhaps another grapefruit will appear tomorrow.”

—Thanks to the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, UAF (2015)


When we fly into Utqiagvik (Barrow), we come across the ocean, and on Monday there was a wide lead open northwest of the point and clearly visible on the descent. The whaling crews were setting camps. Everyone was excited the the season had begun, but the winds did not remain in our favor.

The next day we drove snow machines out onto the ice, mapping the trails of the whaling crews. But the lead was closing. The crews were hurrying towards shore. The lead may have been a mile wide at the start of the day, but by evening kilometers of ice sheet had snapped shut. It would remain shut for a fortnight.

Two days later we went back out on the ice. No hope of getting to the open water, but Kate wanted to put a hydrophone down through a crack and listen for whales. Where two days before one captain had set his camp at the edge of ocean, the landscape was now jumble ice and pressure ridges where the sheets had crushed back together.

We found water, but the slush was too thick and too deep to sink the hydrophone. We fell back, a half mile closer to shore, where there was a significant crack in the sheet. There we listened to the ocean under the ice, and ourselves, restless on top. From below, the sheet was a massive drum head and our slightest scuffle was clear as bells at night in the dark water below.

We listened to the alien, spiraling tones of bearded seals, but we heard no whales. The lead and their breathing corridor closed, they passed farther out to sea.

—Thanks to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; the Cooperative Institute for Alaska Research; the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research; University of Alaska Coastal Marine Institute & School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (2013)