Four local writers join for belated book launches

Editors note: Editor Heather Spaulding is the daughter of Nancy McDonnell Spaulding, one of the authors in this article.

Local authors Tara Mesalik MacMahon, Boyd Pratt, Nancy McDonnell Spaulding and Gary Thompson will be reading from their recent books Sept. 8 at the San Juan Grange Sept. 8 at 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. The event, “Four Island Writers for a much-belated Book-Book-Book-Book Launch,” is co-sponsored by the San Juan Island Library and Griffin Bay Bookstore.

“We’ve billed it as a much-belated book book book book launch because all four of our books came out during COVID,” Pratt said. “This is the first real launch for us all. But we mainly want to have a celebration where we can share our work with our neighbors and fellow islanders.”

Copies of each of the books will be for sale at the event, and refreshments will be provided.

Pratt will be reading from his third, and most recent book, “Island Fishing: History and Seascape of Marine Harvesting in the San Juan Islands amid the Salish Sea.”

In researching and writing the book, Pratt said, although it may sound like a “duh,” it often surprised him that being surrounded by water truly is the island’s essential feature.

“I had to shake the (grounded) presumption that land is the important thing and look out to the water, “ Pratt said. The importance of the Salish Sea, not just in island life, caught his attention while researching the book.

“First, and foremost, was the centrality of the San Juans, in terms of the Salish Sea as a geographical, environmental, and cultural concept,” Pratt said. “For instance, many, if not most, of the salmon in the Salish Sea and as far north as Alaska spend some time in the San Juans.”

Pratt continued that the depressing aspect is that people have known about overfishing since Euro-American contact and settlement, to the point that even the Washington State Fish Commissioner warned of salmon depletion in the early 1900s.

“We have known it all along, but primary resource extraction has a mind (profit) of its own…I’ve realized how much more we know and are learning about the Salish Sea ecosystem,” he said. “One of the major resources for researching the book is government reports on the fisheries, and that has multiplied rapidly in both scope and depth in recent times. The more we know, (hopefully) the better we act.”

Mesalik MacMahon’s journey into the world of the written word began as a child. “I have always loved reading poetry, even as a child I loved the way poetry made me feel,” she said. “I wrote poems too as a child, then again in college where my professor ushered me aside and encouraged me to continue with my writing. Now, decades later, I am again doing just that.”

Mesalik MacMahon will be reading from her first collection of poetry “Barefoot Up the Mountain.” She added that although this is her first book-length collection, many of these poems were previously published in online and print literary journals including Poet Lore, Nimrod International, Dogwood, “New Moons” from Red Hen Press and others. Not one to keep away from writing long, Mesalik MacMahon has two more projects in the works, “Wings & Danger Bones,” a second collection of poetry, as well as a children’s book, “Closet of Dreams,” a children’s chapter book co-authored with her brother, Mark Ukra and illustrated by Friday Harbor artist, Donna Dyer. it is expected to be released in 2023.

“Poetry is such a personal experience, both for writer and reader – or listener, ” Mesalik MacMahon responded, when asked what attendees could expect from her reading. “I cannot predict what someone will take from my poems, though attendees will hear many fresh ideas and images. Hopefully, too, attendees will enjoy a few fun surprises.”

Speaking of surprise, when asked what, if any surprises she learned through the process of writing “Barefoot Up the Mountain,” Mesalik MacMahon replied, “I guess ‘surprise’ is the word! I am continuously surprised by what finds itself on the page during my writing process. A favorite quote of mine is from Robert Frost, ‘no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ For me, this letting go and not controlling the outcomes is what makes writing and revising poems so much fun.”

Like Mesalik MacMahon, writing has always been a part of Thompson’s life. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t enjoy hearing or reading a poem, and I think that’s probably true for most children,” he said. “Somehow, I never learned to stop enjoying them, and by 15, I was writing poems regularly in study hall. I never stopped, which eventually led me into graduate school at the University of Montana, where I received an MFA in Creative Writing.’

Thompson taught in the Creative Writing Program at CSU, Chico for nearly thirty years, and continues to teach a winter poetry workshop for a group of island poets. He will be reading from “Broken by Water: Salish Sea Years,” his sixth collection of poems. “Broken by Water” is a finalist for the 2022 Washington State Book Award for Poetry. Winners will be announced Sept. 13.

According to Thompson, the poems took him approximately 20 years to complete, accumulating slowly. “Each one had something surprising while it was being written and revised, but the book accumulated at such a slow pace it easily incorporated those surprises,” Thompson said, continuing to tell the story behind one of the earlier poems, “After Vandalism, Sealth’s Grave.” He and his wife were new to the Northwest and living in Port Orchard, frequently visited Chief Seattle’s grave in Suquamish. “When the grave was badly vandalized in 2001, this poem just came out one morning while I was walking the dog,” Thompson said. “I went home and wrote it down, word after memorized word. It suggested a whole new dimension to the book and is still one of my favorites.”

McDonnell Spaulding has a long career in the visual arts, but has switched mediums to the written word, with “Home in an Island Garden.”

“What began as journals and snippets became memoir and with additional nature notes they all seemed to all into place as a book,” McDonnell Spaulding said. The story unfolded before her eyes, as she watched the lives of the hawks and quail in her garden evolve during the writing process. Scattered throughout those written pieces is her art, including some of her well-known landscapes, like “Blue Eyed Grass at Iceberg Point, “All that Grass and Sheep in the Road,” and “Clouds across the Water.”

“Home in an Island Garden” begins with the Spaulding family’s move to San Juan Island in 1978, and reflects on her garden observations as her art career developed.

“I believe that Islands are attractive to creative people of all disciplines because of their beauty, remoteness, and constantly changing due to being surrounded by water and tides, McDonnell Spaulding said. “ It is the wonderful mystery of such places that makes them a haven for contemplative thought.”

The four writers had known each other through writers groups and the island community for several years, according to McDonnel Spaulding, and decided to unite with their delayed book launch.

“We thought it would be celebratory and fun as island writers to present together. The portrayal of island life is a dominant commonality in our writing,” she said.

Contributed photo by Gary Thompson
Gary Thompson
Contributed photo by Nancy McDonnell Spaulding
Nancy McDonnell Spaulding