Writer Jerry Dennis hooked on natural wonders
By Kristi Kates | Dec. 10, 2016
Jerry Dennis was born in Flint and moved to Traverse City at the age of 5 when his parents returned to their original hometown. After college, he too gravitated back to the Grand Traverse region, saying he only wanted to write and could think of no better place to do so than northern Michigan. Three decades later, he’s achieved his dream and shows no sign of slowing down as he continues to write about the natural world from his own literary base Up North. The Express had a conversation recently with Dennis.
Q: How did you get your start as a writer?
A: I went to school for art and made up my mind around the age of 18 that I wanted to be a writer. I went to Northwestern Michigan University, then Northern Michigan University, then the University of Louisville in Kentucky, and I majored in English at all three, taking additional creative writing courses whenever I could. But that was in the late ’70s/early ’80s, so there weren’t as many creative writing programs then as there are now. It took me six years to get a four-year degree.
Q: That’s quite a long time. I’m guessing it got expensive going to three different schools?
A: I had a family, so I did have to work, but I was determined to pay my own way and graduate without debt. My parents helped a little at the start and at the end, but school itself didn’t really appeal to me. I just wanted to learn the skills, and then get out and write.
Q: So after your schooling was over, what was your next step?
A: After college, I took a job as a carpenter. I’d spend time with my family, and then write a couple of hours every night; on Saturdays, I’d write all day.
Q: And when did you make that transition from working days and writing nights to solely being a writer?
A: Thirty years ago, 1988, in the middle of November, I gave up my day job. Carpentry might have used my back and arms, but that left my head clear for writing, so I was ready.
Q: What were the things that happened that made you think, ‘Wow, I can really do this’?
A: There were a couple. The biggest one, as a career launchpad, was in 1988 when I sold my first piece to The New York Times, an essay about fishing in the U.P. retracing Nick Adams’ route as written about in Hemingway’s books. Not only was that an amazing thing itself, but more people started reading my writing, and literary agents and managers started calling. That was also the year I met Glenn Wolff for the first time; he’d moved back to northern Michigan after living in New York City illustrating for publications like The Times and Audubon. A mutual friend introduced us, we found out our work was coincidentally in several of the same issues of various publications, and we met up at Stacey’s Restaurant in Traverse City for the first time. (Editor’s note: Stacey’s closed in 1984; Poppycock’s is now in that location.) Glenn had a sketchbook with him, and we sat down and first thing sketched out ideas for three books we wanted to do together.
Q: And you’ve actually been following through on those ideas, right?
A: Yes! We got a contract with Harper Collins three years later, for “It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes,” a book about the natural wonders of the sky. That was a huge turning point. Glenn actually still has the original sketches for that book.
Q: How did you decide on the natural world as your main subject matter?
A: Early on, I wasn’t sure what my subject matter was. I wrote fiction and poetry for a while, and then I was invited to write an essay about the Boardman River. I’d never attempted a lyrical essay before, and I loved it – it flowed so easily, and was fun, and I got paid for it. I thought, well, this is the way to go. So a lot of my early work was on outdoor recreation – camping, canoeing, fishing, travel, things I loved to do. As I got more established as a writer with national magazines, I got to go to South America, Iceland, and Europe too.
Q: What is your proudest moment so far as a writer – the work you’ve had published that means the most to you?
A: I’d have to say “The Living Great Lakes” because of the impact it’s had. I’d set out to tell the story of the Great Lakes from the deck of a boat, but it was turning out like essays, and I wanted it to be more of a narrative. So when I found out that the schooner Malabar had been sold and would be traveling from Traverse City to Bar Harbor, Maine, I wanted to go along. The captain said I could, but I’d have to work on deck, which turned out to be a great vehicle for the story. My goal was to alert people that the Great Lakes are worth saving from threats like pipeline ruptures, invasive species, and diversion of waters outside of the watershed. The book, which has end-papers illustrated by Glenn, has been a best-seller for over 10 years, and has been taught at over 30 colleges and universities; it was even read in Congress on the floor of the House. I think – I hope – it’s helped in some small way.
Q: What are you working on these days?
A: Glenn and I still work with big publishers, but for smaller projects we’ve formed Big Maple Press, which also includes Gail Dennis, my wife, as project manager and graphic designer. Lately we’re turning more toward the art side, at Glenn’s encouragement; we’re doing some limited-edition letterpress broadsides. Beyond that, I’m writing a variety of essays linking American landscapes and our own relationships to the land; those will be in a book that will probably be out in 2018 or so, but I’m loathe to pinpoint an exact date.
Q: If one of your books is dug up in 300 years, where do you hope it will be found?
A: Well, when I was a 14-year-old kid, Traverse City had an old library on 6th Street that I’d go to, and I discovered the Michigan Room. It was a hidden room, and you needed to ask for a key; it was my favorite getaway of all time. I still dream about it. I started discovering authors who were long dead but who had lived in northern Michigan, and a light bulb lit up in my head, that, oh my gosh, you can write about the place you live and love, not just exotic places. I dreamed of having my own book in the Michigan room. So 300 years from now, I hope there still is a Michigan Room somewhere. I hope there’s still a Michigan.
To find out more about Jerry Dennis and his books, including his works with Glenn Wolff and his projects with Big Maple Press, visit jerrydennis.net and bigmaplepress.com.
Kristi Kates is a contributing editor and freelance writer.