Ferry Dock Scribbler has a new book
The Block Island Times recently spoke to writer Joe Houlihan about his new book, “Tangled in the Web,” and a little background about his writing life.
Q: Most writers seem to know they want to write at an early age. Is that the case with you? When did the writing bug hit you?
A: When I was a kid I spent lots of time alone and developing narratives in my head. I’d make things up to entertain myself. I also liked to mimic people and goof on them with different accents for my own enjoyment. I never read a book for more than five minutes. I was a type A kid — always on the move. I was also a terrible student, stayed back in seventh grade, developed a very bad attitude toward the nuns and raised hell. I never put a sincere word on the page until I was 14. Everything I did in school was the minimum. I hated school. Then, I had a punitive writing assignment in ninth grade. I had to stay after school and write about, as the nun said, “Where you belong in the world.” It was a heavy question for a kid who wasn’t a guy with any kind of plan. Anyway, I wrote about the Point Judith lighthouse because I knew about the place. It was a visceral piece as I remember, maybe 600 words. The nun read it, liked it, and said, “This is good writing.” I’ve been writing every day since. I mean every day I’ve got nouns and verbs rattling around in my head. Go figure.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your upbringing. Where did you grow up? What did your parents do? Where did you go to school?
A: I grew up in Pawtucket and Point Judith. My dad was a telephone guy. He started climbing poles after the war, and went up the ladder. He was of old Yankee stock, a quiet guy. My mom was from a big South Providence family. The Kelleys were characters and my mom was a heller. She knew everybody everywhere she went. She stayed home and raised up the kids. I went to Saint Teresa’s Catholic Junior High School, Tolman High School, Saint Raphael Academy, and I got my B.A. in Theatre and Literature from Rhode Island College and my master’s from the University of Rhode Island.
Q: We all know you as the guy down at the ferry dock in Pt. Judith, and as the Ferry Dock Scribbler for The Block Island Times, but what was your career before that?
A: I taught Theatre and English at Narragansett High School for 32 years. After college, I substitute taught in South Kingstown. I got a crew gig at the ferry in 1974. I scored a teaching post in 1980 and hustled the two jobs to raise my kids. I sang in saloons to make extra dough. Kids are expensive.
Q: Okay, now on to “Tangled in the Web.” This is a work of fiction and it’s a comedy, for the most part. Is that a departure for you?
A: Not really. I’m basically a wiseass by nature. I work at the dock with lots of wiseasses who are very funny guys. I like to observe the comedy of the human condition. It’s an Irish thing I got from my mom. I also studied comedic writing in graduate school and learned about guys like S.J. Perelman.
Q: Let’s be clear, this romp is about a guy, Zane Hopper Wade, who can’t get a break when it comes to dating. The ‘web’ in your title is the internet, because Zane has joined a dating app that sets him up, but the dates go horribly awry. When he’s on dates his boat almost sinks, he gets food poisoning, a friend starts brandishing a gun. Tell us, Joe, how much of this is based on your own experiences?
A: That’s a loaded question! Let’s just say I’ve been on a sinking sailboat, and I know and have met some rather wacky people in my life. Where my boat is moored in Newport is where lots of characters hang out. It’s a writer’s paradise for ideas. Humor is spilling all around the town if you pay attention. Zane is a construct of many sailors I’ve met. The women are constructs from my observation around the harbor. I’ve been hanging around Newport for decades.
Q: A lot of the book takes place on the water. Zane, like you, loves to sail, and the sketches of the sailing that are placed throughout the book are beautifully written. Were these set pieces easy or hard to write?
A: On a good day, writing is very hard. I mean, you need to know the environment you’re writing and what you’re talking about in regards to character, and you need to know your audience. And, writing is re-writing. Sometimes I wonder how the hell I ended up doing this stuff. I guess it just gets back to being an observer and a wiseass. It’s hard work.
Q: You’re having fun with names in this book. There’s Sally Chartwell, women named Freddelle and Madrid, a guy named Zebulon Wellington. Your protagonist, Zane Hopper Wade, sounds like a guy in a western. How did that come about?
A: I love western writers. You know, guys like Tom McGuane and Larry McMurtry. I’ve never been out west but love the literature of the west. Maybe I just always wanted to be a cowboy or something. Hell, I’ve never even seen a real mountain or the plains. I love pictures of Montana. The characters’ names just kind of reveal themselves when I’m inventing their deal. Maybe sailors are like cowboys. I like my characters in this book.
Q: Tell us about the publishing process.
A: I started my own deal called Celtic Legend Books and cut out a middleman of a smaller publisher. A former student named Pat Bowlby is the guy who makes my books happen. He’s a sharp kid. It’s a small potatoes thing, but at least they’re potatoes. I’m very independent and want to write what I want and present the book the way I want. More importantly, at my age it’s got to be fun. Autonomy is the name of the game as I see it in the publishing world.
Q: Did it come out the way you envisioned?
A: Yes. I especially love the compliments on the cover. My wife really liked the cover and Cindy is a tough room. I took that shot from the bow of my boat and I like the ambiguity of the shadow. We don’t know if the sailor is coming or going. Just like Zane Hopper Wade. I’ve gotten great feedback so far. It’s funny. I sat down and read this thing in a few sittings and had some yuks. I wrote this book on my sailboat, which made the writing very visceral, and I hope the reader feels that. It’s a fun story.
Q: Where can we get it?
A: Island Bound Bookstore, The Boat House in Galilee, and the Block Island Ferry online store.
Q: Thanks, Joe.
A: Yer welcome.