Author Jeff Stilwell excels at the unexpected.
Not content with his midwestern roots, he found ways on the cheap to explore the wider world including selling gummy bears in high school to visit the Alps of southern Germany. To pay for college, he worked a slime line as a head chopper in the clammy tundra of Alaska.
His thirst for adventure next took him to Asia where he studied the martial arts and Asian philosophy while exploring exotic locales such as the Himalayas and the lands of Lord Jim, even surviving a squall in the Gulf of Siam.
Attracted to strong women lifelong, he met and wooed his wife, jewelry designer Manya Vee there, winning her heart by following her to Java. Upon returning to the States, they founded an art gallery just north of Seattle. She taught him to gallop bareback at the family farm in the storied Yakima Valley, the inspiration for his first novel Fighting for Eden.
His flair for the dramatic led him to write and stage fifteen plays in and around the Seattle theatre scene. His works earned numerous laurels such as “an intense dramatic comedy you don’t want to miss…an uninterrupted 90-minute power pack with something to say,” for his One Tile Short and “a trip and a half in a little more than a hour and a half through an Alice-like wonderland and a half; ground-breaking in ways more than one,” for his Teacup Tipsy.
Too restless, however, to merely sit behind a computer, he recently completed a solitary 750 mile hike from Stevens Pass in Western Washington to end, a Biblical sounding forty days later, at Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. Once upon a time, he even ran for Congress. If it’s big, Stilwell has dreamt it, attempted it, or achieved it.
Author Interview on Toni’s Smile, a novel – (launching early September 2018)
Why a Blatina?
That’s the way Toni showed up. I’ve known several Blatinas in my life.
Customers at our gallery, for example. I’ve long grown accustomed to how so many Blatinas feel marginalized by daily life – not really part of the Black community, not really part of the Latino community. And, how so many express themselves through beauty – since power is out of the question. Black women and Latinas, too. Through their hair, through fabric, through jewelry. We sell a lot of scarves, a lot of skirts, a lot of bling.
And, of course, I’m one of those people who likes to ask others about their lives, particularly when it’s a slow day at the shop and it’s just the two of us.
Is Toni based on someone in particular?
No. She just showed up one day in my head. Which I know makes me sound a bit schizophrenic, but that’s really how it works. She just showed up and said, “Let’s make a novel.” And I asked, “Okay, what’s that going to look like?” And she replied, “I want to be President.” And it went from there.
In crafting her background, for example, I flashed on a Black family that I had known in childhood. I had a crush on the girls. They lived in this dump, a few blocks away, with several piles of dogshit on the floor that they didn’t bother to clean up, or piles of dirty clothes in the corners that they didn’t think to put in the washing machine. While their mother just sat, smoking dope all day and watching tv. But I liked the girls, That was all the world they had ever known. Besides, it wasn’t like I was living in the Taj Mahal myself. So, you just shrug. What else can you do? Like Toni shrugs when her mom walks into a SunTran bus. When shit happened to me, I’d just shrug and go to Mrs. A down the street. When shit happens to Toni, she goes to Mama.
You have a lot to say about power in this novel.
Power is a human phenomenon that has fascinated me for most of my life. Not least because – being a straight White male with the appearance of a CEO – one would expect me to wield it. Yet, the artist in me has ruled the day from my junior high years forward, making it impossible for me to color within the lines. I might have the look, but because I congenitally refuse to kiss the ring, I am denied access to the smoke-filled room.
Of course, no access means no power.
Then, too, there is a clannish aspect to power wielding that fascinates me. From the Philosopher King selection process of which Plato dreamed, down to the modern-day racially based struggle over who gets how much time with the microphone, with the gavel. Much of today’s political upheaval around the world is based in that racial struggle. In America, it’s Whites in, Coloreds out. In China, it’s the Hans in, everybody else out. That process is repeated in different hues of skin, around the globe. Add the question of whether one’s gender determines fitness to wield power and the whole argument gets even more heated.
In her frustration, along her journey of this story, Toni meditates on that problem a lot, trying to find answers that work for her.
Is your characterization of the US presidency just a little too ideal?
I hope not.
There is this monumentalization of our Presidents, yes. But the more thoughtful renditions include images of George Washington genuinely distressed when his two sons – Hamilton and Jefferson – go to political war on each other. Or Lincoln wrapped in a blanket wandering the White House at night, like a ghost, tormented by the number of boys who just died at, say, Fredericksburg.
I have this pressure-cooker theory of the US presidency. No matter how wacky or wild the candidate, how populist or elitist, the pressures of the job mold the person over time. No matter how different the Presidents-elect look entering the White House, they look awfully similar upon leaving it.
We all watched Barack Obama go from black- to gray- to white-haired in his years. W, too, aged tremendously. Now, Trump may prove the historical outlier that disproves my theory. We’ll have to see.
Regardless, Toni, too, is shaped by the extreme pressures of the job. And the depth of her character, her extraordinary fire, her profound strength are found in the midst of that crucible.
Author Interview on Fighting for Eden
Why did you write a novel about the Iraq War?
The Iraq War is a fascinating time for me because it proved the most divisive period in America since the Vietnam War. So many of the ideals used to justify the Iraq War – only to be rejected later as neo-conservative delusions – were held in high regard just two generations earlier during WWII and the reconstruction of Europe. This paradox of what role, if any, America should play in the world endures. To my reading of history, this great debate began during Thomas Jefferson’s administration and echoes down to the present day.
In that regard it was easy for me to write Jake’s character. While I have the same longing that Andrew has for a world without war, I know from personal experience living overseas that this world can be a very dangerous place. Thus, Jake, a soldier whose basic motivation is the Arthurian legends of Lancelot – a shining knight righting the wrongs of this world by defending those who cannot defend themselves – was equally enthralling.
Andrew does a lot of deep thinking in this novel. How did you approach that?
Questions of ultimate meaning have been a burning issue with me since I went looking for God on my paper route when I was ten years old. As such, I’ve spent decades pondering – including through formal study – the major faith traditions that we as a people have developed over the last millennia. I focused on Andrew’s very real, very human struggles with these deeper thoughts as he grieves the loss of his best friend. Throughout the story, he spelunks through the majestic caverns of classical Buddhism, classical Taoism, mainstream Christianity and evangelical Christianity. His questing mind cannot help but find a certain delight in drawing contrasts and comparisons between these abundant traditions of spirituality.
Then, too, I never want to approach religion without a sense of humor. I hope the readers will be tickled by his equating sexual ecstasy with the murmurings of a medieval saint.
Tell us about Jessie.
The inspiration for Jessie was my wife. Readers will note that I dedicate the novel to her for teaching me to ride bareback. My wife found growing up in a patriarchal, fundamentalist culture quite the challenge, as does Jessie, my character.
Jessie has no patience for the racism she experiences on a daily basis in the Valley. She has even less for the misogyny. When she was younger, she was able to brush them aside. However, when Jake is killed, her father collapses, and she’s left alone to save her family ranch from those who wish to scoop it up for pennies on the dollar, she finds that she can ignore those twin evils no longer.
At that point, just as her brother does, she digs deep and finds the warrior within to save everyone and everything she cares about.
Your cattle ranching stories are very convincing. What research assisted your writing?
It begins with my love for the Yakima Valley, a love that will last a lifetime. It continued with the life experiences of my father-in-law and his best friend. John custom-fed Angus cattle that Harry raised. Out by the great shed, you can stand on the feeding tank buried underground that was used as part of that process, knowing that it still contains molasses decades later. Both John and Harry patiently endured hundreds of questions I asked about the particulars of raising and feeding cattle. They helped me create the Van der Vaal Ranch & Cattle of my mind. I buttressed that hands-in-the-dirt experience with wider-ranging research found in white papers from several Cattlemen’s Associations, notably Montana’s, and the findings of husbandry programs from several major research universities across the country.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
My two heroes are Hui Neng, the Chan Buddhist thinker, and Michelangelo, the Italian Renaissance artist. Both worked alone. So it’s odd, then, to find that much of my writing occurs, at least in the planning stages, as the result of long discussions with my wife. If I reach gemstone quality in the writing – as I aspire to – it is often because Manya acts as a second set of eyes, a trusted judge who can nudge me when I’ve carved too many facets, for example, and am losing the distinctive simplicity I was working toward.
“During the summer of 2010, I read Jeff Stilwell’s first novel, Fighting for Eden. I liked it well enough to put it on my bookshelf. Recently I pulled it off the shelf and read it again. I like the book as well as I did the first time I read it.” Amazon Review
“Fighting for Eden is a great read. Mr. Stilwell pulls together an in-depth look at the angst of ranchers in this brave new world of what is healthy to eat, the conundrum of why we are in Afghanistan ten years later, what is patriotism, the profits that can be garnered from the tragedies of this difficult situation, and the coming of age of two young people.” Amazon Review
“Fighting for Eden is one of the best first novels I’ve read in a long time. Jeff Stilwell created a world I didn’t want to leave.” Amazon Review
See all books by Jeff Stilwell here.