Some people have always written. Some don’t become writers until friends and family urge them to. This is not usually a recipe for success, but Jeanette (Wren) Godfrey Chapman found a publisher, and her memoir Pirate Girl Falls Through Beaver Dam: A Memoir of Adventurous Lessons in Earth School is published this week.
Wren, are there any writers in your family? Was the writing process natural for you?
There are no writers in my family although many write well. Writing this memoir was akin to roping in the squall from hell. Why would anyone in his or her right mind spend years chained to a computer in mind-boggling isolation, hacking away in mental anguish, only to trash godawful first drafts and start over from scratch.
Yes, writers know that particular hell. But you’ve seen more squalls than most, and your usual habitat is the adventuring life, not the hermitage with a typewriter. What made you want to put your life into writing?
After our mystifying mother died, my sister Susan (Suzanne in the manuscript) blabbed to our sainted father the adventures and mishaps of my childhood and young adulthood. Only she got the stories all wrong, so she told me to write them down. I did, and read them aloud to Dad. He laughed his head off and said I should write a memoir, since it sounded like I spent my entire life falling through beaver dams––literally and figuratively.
And that explains the title!
I recorded for my dad the vignettes that are in my manuscript plus around 10 other major events, but I trashed them after the first draft, as they refused to pull the story along a forward path. My wonderful Dad passed away at age 96 (he was still driving and playing golf) and I put the work in a drawer for over 20 years until a man I almost married, Sidney Snelgrove (Shepard Seagraves in the book), shockingly reappeared in my life.
In the late 1960s Sidney and I hitch-hiked to Key West with 10 dollars in our pockets. He became the owner of Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West and made, for years, around one million dollars a day in T-shirt sales alone. After 40 years, he bought a plantation just five miles away from my home. We reacquainted and he wanted to know what went wrong between us, so I let him read my old journal. Like my dad, he laughed until he cried and said it sounded like a book I should write.
Sidney died unexpectedly at age 74 and never saw the finished manuscript. He is terribly missed by many people. Including me. Many of the people in Pirate Girl are now dead.
My Cherokee friend, Free, said I should name the book after my lessons in ‘Earth School’. His astute counsel has never left me and I try to live by his fine example––even though I mostly fail.
Before you decided to look for a publisher, you showed this book to people only for personal reasons, people who were closely involved with you. What’s it been like, opening the material to strangers?
Except for a very early editor and folks in a writing workshop, I did not show my manuscript to anyone before publishing––especially people closely involved with me. But I did show it to the novelist and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen. Around a year before his death we went for a swim in Long Island Sound. He read and edited my chapter ‘The Bear’. We went for a walk on the beach and he carefully picked out a pebble and handed it to me with great ceremony. I still have it, of course.
And, hellish squalls or not, you’re writing another book?
Yes. I must be crazy to. Someone, please stop me.
It’s called The Killing of Black Bart, who is a character from Pirate Girl, and how he and several family members were murdered, murders that were never solved.
How did you build Pirate Girl? Is it all from memory?
Much of it is from memory. It’s difficult to forget being tied to a mast during a fierce tropical storm, but I also kept a detailed journal while living in the Bahamas and Colorado.
How did you meet your publisher?
I scoured the Internet for publishing companies that worked with interesting authors and subject matter and produced drop-dead gorgeous cover art. Vine Leaves Press won hands down, and I am grateful they accepted my manuscript.
Where did your adventurous urge come from?
I simply enjoyed the rich experience of life and grew up camping, canoeing and mountain climbing with my family. I never thought twice about living alone in stark wilderness. Also, in high school I read The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac and took to heart his quote: ‘I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page, and I could do anything I wanted’.
What do you like to read?
Memoirs by adventurers and travellers. Currently, I am reading Straight on till Morning, The Biography of Beryl Markham by Mary S Lovell.
What scares you?
Living in the once-great USA, now teetering on the cliff of fascism and authoritarian rule. Costa Rica here I come.
Is there anything else you wish you’d done? And anything you wish you hadn’t?
I have no regrets except selling my trawler Evening Star, which I lived on for seven years, and not buying that small coffee plantation in Latin America when I had a chance. And I wish I’d never fallen in love––the scourge of humankind.
Any final stirring words?
It is my fervent hope that folks of every age who read my book––especially women––will come away with the knowledge that no matter the vicissitudes of life, it is perfectly acceptable to fall in and out of love, search for one’s own authentic spirituality, and live life to the fullest.
But hell’s bells, I’m still having adventures at 72 years old. Next summer I’m heading out to Montana for my third major vision quest. My first one was at 12 years old. My second was after a marriage dissolved.
This upcoming quest will be for how to face old age––not with tiresome grace and dignity, but with long white hair streaming down my back as I ride an old Indian motorcycle along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stoned, flying past wild azaleas and gnarly rhododendron (like me). In truth, I’m shocked to reach older age when I should be long dead many times over.
Find Jeanette on Facebook and on her website. Find Pirate Girl Falls Through Beaver Dam: A Memoir of Adventurous Lessons in Earth School
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.