Interview with Jaed Coffin

By Robert Drinkwater

On Thursday February 27th, Writer, Jaed Coffin will be visiting UMF in The Landing at 7:30pm. He is the author of A Chant To Soothe The Wild Elephants, a memoir about the summer he spent as a Buddhist monk in his mother’s village of Panomsarakram , Thailand. His latest book Roughhouse Friday chronicles the time he spent in Alaska as a boxer and won the middleweight title in a barroom boxing show in Juneau.

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

That’s a tough one. I usually think good stories begin with some original revelation, but I know that when I tell the story of how I became a writer, I’m kind of making that moment up, because really it was a very gradual process. Anyway, I remember one Saturday afternoon my senior year of high school, sitting at my kitchen table in the empty house I lived in with my mother, staring at a yellow legal pad, very aware that all my friends were up to no good, killing the afternoon at a house down the street. I remember realizing that if I could just start writing a story like the ones I read in English class (we’d just read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce) then my life would be quite different. So I got to it, and wrote for maybe two hours straight, and when I was done, the house seemed even quieter and the daylight had faded a bit, and I looked down at the legal pad with several pages filled up…I don’t know. That was a very powerful moment that I still remember, about devotion to one’s art and not running away from the sometimes scary impulse to be alone and make something. 

What made you want to write Roughhouse Friday?

I have a list of about fifteen different reasons in my head. To keep it simple: the year(s) I spent living in Alaska filled up that pivotal time of my early twenties when I knew I needed to leave behind the familiar world of Maine and New England and force myself to change in some fundamental way. I also knew–albeit diffusely–that there was a part of my personal history (relating primarily to my parents’ separation, my mother’s heritage, my father’s influences) that I needed to see more clearly. To find that clarity I needed to leave town. In many cases, good stories are built on an arc of change. This first year in Alaska, fighting in bars: I knew even then that I was going through some major changes in the way I understood my life, and so writing this book was my attempt to document that change, or at least put a name on it. 

How would you describe your experience writing Roughhouse Friday?

Writing Roughhouse Friday was pretty brutal. I thought I was going to just write a very interesting story about rural Alaskans fighting in bars, with me as the guide/interloper. But something at the center of that story kept messing everything up, and I went into a kind of creative paralysis and ultimately my first publisher dropped the book. The publisher wanted to know my family history and place that history at the center of the story–I remember the editor said something to the effect of “it looms so large” over everything else–and I just didn’t know what that story was. So then I had to sit with the total (expensive) failure of that, and kind of look myself in the mirror and say, “Ok, time to tell that story whether you like it or not.” So I did it. I had no idea this experience was coming for me, and articulating some very complicated feelings I had toward my father was one of the most emotionally unsettling things I’ve done. I’m just glad it’s over. 

What advice do you have for writers? 

Be nice to your parents, because it’s very likely that in order to find time to write, you might need to live at home while all your friends are starting their more important-looking lives. Also, there’s so much craft advice out there but for me it’s really simple: pay attention to what you love, and then copy it with your own material. 

Are you currently working on any projects? If so, what?

You know, I never understood why people used to say “I’m not ready to talk about my next project.” When other writers were cagey about what they were working on, it always seemed kind of precious to me. But now, I’m in that place where I just don’t want to tell anyone what I’m thinking, because I’m worried that I might jinx the story, or have to own up to something that isn’t what I planned to do. So, yeah, it’s a secret. How mysterious!

You can buy his memoir Roughhouse Friday on Amazon for $15.79.

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