I am pleased to welcome my good friend George Polley to my blog today.
George Polley was born in Santa Barbara, California and raised in Seattle, Washington. Early in 2008, he and his wife moved to Sapporo, Japan so that she could fulfill her dream of returning to the land of her birth.
His work has appeared in the South Dakota Review, Crow’s Nest, Expanding Horizons, The Enchanted Self, Community Mental Health Journal, Maturing, The Lyon County (Minnesota) Review Wine Rings, North Country Anvil, North American Mentor Magazine, the McLean County (Illinois) Poetry Review, River Bottom, Tower Talks, Foundations, GreenSpirit Journal, The View from Here, The Palestine Chronicle, A Rainbow Feast: New Asian Short Stories, and Speak Without Interruption.
He has also authored several booklets in the mental health field, two of them co-authored with Ana Dvoredsky, M.D. in 2007 and published by Tortoise and Hare Publications. Several are available from Amazon.com.
Please tell us more about yourself, anything you like- interests, background…
My interests range widely, and have since childhood. Music, cultures, books, food, people, subjects — you name it and I’m likely to have visited or sampled it at least a few times. I spent my career in the mental health field, and began my writing career about a year later. Raised in Seattle, in Washington State, I’ve lived in Oregon, California, Illinois, Minnesota, and a short time in Mexico City. In early 2008, my wife and I moved to Sapporo, Japan, where we now live. It’s an interesting life we have, and I treasure it. One more thing: I love to tell stories about ordinary people who sometimes find themselves in extraordinary situations that life seems to choose for them.
Please tell us more about the book or books you would like to feature today.
There are two of them: “The Old Man and the Monkey” and “Bear”, a story about a boy named Andy and his unusual dog named Bear.
I’ll begin with “The Old Man and the Monkey”, which came from a dream about a big Japanese monkey that I had a year or so before moving to Japan. I don’t usually dream about monkeys, so when I woke up, I asked him why he had appeared. The story grew from there, a fable about an unlikely friendship, and what it meant to the elderly man, his wife, and the villagers, who were against the friendship. People love the book, which has a total of forty-nine 5-star reviews on Amazon (US, UK and Japan), and six 4-star reviews (US). On Goodreads, the book has sixteen 5-star reviews and fifteen 4-star reviews. The book is illustrated with drawings by Calisse Hughes-Weidner, a Colorado artist. This comment by the “Books for me” sums it up very well: “This is the kind of story you want to read it to the children to bring out the greater meaning of life and relationships. Gesture of kindness, love, friendship reflects through the quiescence and calm Japanese Village…The warmth of the bond wraps the reader from the beginning till the end and I loved the way it closed just in a classical way..Read it if you love to reflect the deeper meaning that goes beyond the words…”
Next is “Bear,” a novel about a 10-11 year old boy named Andy and his big, bearlike dog. Bear is an unusual dog in the sense that he seems to have powers that no ordinary dog has (he’s a ventriloquist), has a keen sense of danger when it lurks nearby, and when it does, warns it away with an enormous bear-like roar. He is very protective of Andy and his parents, and loves everyone except bullies and other people who are unpleasant.
“Bear” has received some great reviews on Amazon US and Amazon UK, with a total of nine 5-star reviews and five 4-star reviews, which tells me that people who read it, like it a lot. Hopefully the coming year will be a good one for “Bear”, as I have more stories about him that I want to write.
What gave you the idea to write in this genre?
I didn’t have a genre in mind when I wrote “The Old Man and the Monkey”. It fits children’s literature, general fiction, fable, and literary fiction. I saw it as having appeal across genres, rather than being pigeonholed in one or more.
When it came to “Bear”, I had older children and YA in mind because I thought the character fit well there, and (confession time!) I just plain like boy-and-his-dog books, and always have. I grew up on them: “Lassie”, “Old Yeller”, “White Fang”, you name one and I’ve probably read it (and if I haven’t may yet). I also wanted to try my hand at writing a novel or two for children and YA, because I enjoy reading them.
Is there a theme or message in your work that you would like readers to connect with?
Yes, but it it’s not a conscious one so much as it is an expression of who I am and what I value. The following quote from a review on amazon.com by reader PD Allen in 2012 says it well: “There is a strong sense of community throughout these stories, a caring of the characters for their neighbors and loved ones. And there is a deep abiding pacifism throughout the work. Not the pacifism that allows mistreatment to go unchecked, but a pacifism that addresses the wrongdoer and the victim equally with compassion.” Another theme that means a lot to me is “connectedness”, by which I mean that everyone we meet is important to us in some way, as we are important to them, even the most neglected and walked past and ignored. I’m at the edge of writing a short story about such a character, whom I call “Fig” (as in “figs”), a nobody, a shoeshine guy in the Ueno Park neighborhood of Tokyo, someone that few take notice of, but many have him shine their shoes because he does such a wonderful job of it. He’s been there since the end of the war, “the shoeshine boy”, “Fig”, whose real name no one knows. Who is he besides this? No one knows until a friendly policeman discovers it one day when he stops by Fig’s apartment to check on him and finds that he has died in his sleep, his apartment filled with hundreds of manga drawings and illustrated stories that Fig has written and shown to no one. From there, the story develops. Into a novel? I don’t yet know. I’ve met so many people like him, the unknown ones, who live all around us, and I want to tell their stories.
What research did you do, and how? Or does it all come from your own imagination?
Both books came out of my imagination. I did some research for the setting of “The Old Man and the Monkey”, and I updated my knowledge of the Seattle neighborhood, as the story is set in the present. I anchor my research in setting and era, even though I may play with it a bit, as I did in the fable of “The Old Man and the Monkey”.
Do you ever base your characters on people you know?
With “The Old Man and the Monkey” and “Bear”, the answer is no. Same with “Seiji”. With other things, like my recently completed novel about Mexico City in the early-mid 1970s, some of the characters are, but most are not. With that book — “The City Has Many Faces” — I include public figures when they fit the context. With “Bear”, definitely, beginning with Andy’s Uncle Bill and Auntie Alma, who are modeled on my own Uncle Bill and Aunt Alma, though where they live and do is quite different. Clarence Smith, who appears later in the book, is modeled on a close friend of my parents. I wrote his character to honor the Clarence Smith that I knew and liked so well as a boy.
Do you make a plan for your novels, or do you just start writing and see where it goes?
Since my novels and stories are character driven, I pretty much let them develop from there. I’m not alone in this. Garth Stein, the author of “The Art of Racing in the Rain’, one of the most moving and enjoyable novels I’ve read in a long time, wrote his masterpiece that way, and so have others. I find that outlining or plot-mapping blocks my thinking and gets me off track. With nonfiction writing, that’s a different thing, though.
Which of your own books/ characters is your favourite and why?
All of them, as each book has characters in it who warm my heart and makes me want to spend more time with them. The first two books and their characters have been with me the longest, so they do have a special place in my heart and life.
What has been the most helpful piece of advice you’ve received as a writer?
“Keep on writing and learning.”
What books or other projects do you have coming up in future?
First is a nonfiction book about addiction and recovery. Having spent twelve years of my life as an alcohol addict (which I gave up in early 1979), and having worked with so many addicts of many kinds over my career, I think I have a point of view that many addicts will find helpful in dealing with their addiction and recovery.
After that, I have a novel about a Tokyo artist to revise and rewrite. It’s a story that I love, but am very dissatisfied with what I have written, so I’ve given it a year and more to “ripen” (or is that “steep”). I think I’m about ready to begin work on it once Fig’s story and my addiction book are finished.
Beyond that, I’m not sure, unless “Fig” gets turned into a novel, and I end up writing further adventures of Andy and Bear, two of which I already have planned out in my head and in notes. But those depend on how well “Bear” does in the next several months. Beyond that, nothing else as yet.
Is there anything you’d like to say to your readers?
Enjoy reading and expanding your life with what you read and what you learn from it. And if you like what you’ve read here, drop around to one of the Amazon sites, take a look at my books, and pick up one one or more that interest you. I’m sure you’ll enjoy whichever you choose.
Links to my writing:
Excerpt from “The Old Man and the Monkey”
In a small park near one of the rivers that run through the city of Asahikawa, Hokkaido, there is a bronze statue of an old man and a monkey seated side by side on a wide flat stone looking out over the river and the mountains. The monkey is bigger than ordinary snow monkeys; the top of his head reaches to the old man’s shoulder.
Looking at the bags under his eyes, one can see that the monkey, like the man, is elderly. Affixed to the base of the statue is a bronze plaque that reads: “Genjiro and Yukitaro.” These two old friends sit and warm themselves in silence as the years and seasons pass.
As Long as long as the statue has been there, people passing by have paused, wondering how a monkey and a man could become friends because, as everyone knows, monkeys are pests and can be dangerous when humans get too close. Some people tell each other that such a friendship is unnatural, and that because it is unnatural, is impossible. Others believe that Genjiro and Yukitaro are characters that the artist made up. But everyone agrees that the statue is appealing, because the two old friends have such an air of tranquility and peace about them that people come and sit down next to it to enjoy their lunch, or to just sit quietly and look out at the river and the mountains, later commenting on how peaceful the experience was.
So it is that the old man and the monkey receive a constant stream of visitors who sit and enjoy their company in silence and take something of them away to warm themselves.
No one believes the old man and the monkey were real; but I know that they were because the old man was my grandfather, Genjiro Yamada, and Yukitaro was his companion and friend for the last five years of his life.
Now is the time for me to tell their story and reveal for the first time how an improbable friendship like that between a man and a monkey happened, how it was good, and how it ended.
Excerpt from “Bear”
“Tomorrow’s your birthday, Andy; are you ready?”
“Yeah … I guess so.”
“Why so glum; still thinking about Frisbee?”
“Yeah … this is the first time he won’t be here.” Just a week earlier, his little fox terrier had been chasing another car—after being told at least a thousand times not to—when he caught it and it ran over and killed him. Thinking about it took all the fun out of having a birthday party. With Frisbee inside a cement box buried between the cherry tree and the tool shed, it kind of took the fun out of celebrating anything.
“I know, son. He was a nice dog, wasn’t he? Except for chasing cars.”
“Yeah; he just wouldn’t stop!”
“Remember what your dad said about fox terriers?”
“Yeah … they chase things.” True about Frisbee; he even chased bugs. “I don’t want another dog that chases things, mom, not ever.”
“Mmmm.” Reaching down, she gave her son a hug. She remembered her own little fox terrier, Tina; so tiny—“Tiny Tina” her mother called her, laughing—yet so fierce when it came to chasing things. Her specialty was trucks; she hated them. When she saw one coming, she would be out in the middle of the street, barking her head off. Then one day a driver didn’t see her until too late and flattened her. “Squished” was the word her mother used. “Squished absolutely flat. The poor driver.” And poor Mary, who wept for days until, finally, her mother said “For goodness’ sakes, Mary, get over it. Life does go on, you know.”
“It’ll be a good birthday party, Andy; you’ll see. In the meantime, it’s okay to grieve Frisbee’s death. I loved him, too.”
Andy looked up at his mom and nodded. “I know.” But it still hurt.
That night he had a dream about visiting the brown bear exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo. One of the bears came near where he and his parents were standing and stood up on his hind legs. Then, looking Andy straight in the eyes, he reached out and hugged him.
“Happy Birthday, Andy,” Dad said the next morning as he stumbled into the kitchen rubbing his eyes. “Just wake up?”
Andy nodded sleepily. “I had a dream.”
“Not a bad one, I hope; it’s your birthday.”
“It wasn’t bad, it was kinda weird.”
“Oh? Scary weird?”
Andy shook his head. “It was about a bear. Remember when we were at Woodland Park Zoo last weekend? It was about one of the bears there, a brown one.” He yawned, stretching his arms up and yawning again, then sat down at his place at the table. “Where’s mom?”
“Had to finish wrapping one of your presents. Just a second and I’ll have your pancakes ready. Care for a fried egg, too?” Seeing his son’s sleepy nod, he said “Gotcha!” and broke another egg into the skillet. “Tell me about your bear dream, son.”
“Well, I went up to the exhibit they’re in, and this one bear came right up to where I was standing, stood up on its hind legs and hugged me. I mean, he didn’t actually hug me, because he was inside and I was outside; but it looked like that’s what he was doing, ‘cause he used his front legs like arms and went like this.”
“Wow, that was quite a dream, son. Hon?” Turning to his wife as she came in from the front of the house. “Did you hear Andy tell me about his dream?”
“Kind of. A bear at the zoo hugged you; did I get that right?”
“Mmmm,” said Andy, grinning kind of sheepishly. “It’s kind of dumb, isn’t it?”
“No, I don’t think so at all. Why do you think it’s kind of dumb?”
“Well,” screwing up his face, “bears don’t do that. I mean, if I met a real bear and it hugged me, I’d be dead, right?”
“Hmm,” looking doubtful, “maybe you would; but then, maybe you wouldn’t. Oh! Did dad tell you that Uncle Bill and Auntie Alma are coming down for your birthday? Well, they are, and they’re bringing a friend.”
“They didn’t say, except to say that you’ll see when they get here,” his dad said, putting the hotcakes and fried egg down in front of him, and setting a glass of milk down next to it. Then he stuck a candle in the hotcakes and lit it, and he and Andy’s mom sang Happy Birthday to him, which made Andy blush bright red.
“When will Uncle Bill and Auntie Alma be here?” he asked through a mouthful of pancakes and egg.
“Oh,” looking at his watch. “I’d say in about another hour or so. Bill said they were leaving kind of early.”
Finished with his breakfast, Andy went out in the back yard and headed over between the shed and the cherry tree where Frisbee was buried under a flat gray stone Andy brought from Alki beach. Squatting down, he let out a sigh. If only Frisbee had listened and stopped chasing cars. But he didn’t. He missed his little jumpy, friendly Frisbee, and told him so. But before he had a chance to feel too sorry for himself, he heard his mother’s voice calling him.
“They’re here! I think you’ll like the friend Uncle Bill and Auntie Alma brought with them. His name is Bear.” Holding the screen door open for him, she stood aside so he could go in first. That’s when he saw him, standing in the doorway from the dining room, about five times bigger than Frisbee, looking just like a small brown bear.
“Is that Bear?” Andy stood and gawped at the big brown bearlike dog, who looked back at him with golden brown eyes.
“Yep, that’s him,” Uncle Bill said, poking his head into the kitchen. “Bear, meet Andy, your new friend.”
“You mean, he’s ours?”
“That’s right, Andy, he’s yours. From me and your Auntie Alma and your cousins, Marty and Jan.”
“Oh, wow, thank you!”
Bear showed his teeth in an ear-to-ear grin and wagged his short, stubby tail. Then he did what no one had seen him do before; he went up to Andy, stood on his hind legs, and hugged him, just like the bear in his dream.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sakes,” Auntie Alma said. “I’ve never seen him do that before, have you, Bill?”
“No, dear, I haven’t. I guess there’s a first time for everything, eh? I guess you could say he feels right at home.”
And that is just the way Bear felt. When he set eyes on Andy, he knew he was where he was supposed to be. And Andy, hugging him back, felt the same. If there ever was a match made in heaven between a boy and a dog, this was definitely it.