The Write Stuff – Monday, December 4 – Interview With Bill Ransom

This week’s featured author, Bill Ransom, is a writer who, after modest but solid literary beginnings, has had varied, impressive achievements.

His first publication was a short story in a literary magazine; the second was a poem in a different literary magazine. He studied American Minority Literature and Old and Middle English for two years on an NDEA Title IV fellowship at the University of Nevada, Reno. Poetry publications in literary magazines and anthologies led to participation in an NEA pilot project with the Poetry in the Schools program in Washington State. His first poetry collection, Finding True North & Critter, was nominated for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

Bill received an MA from Utah State University—27 years and six books later—in Theory and Practice of Writing with minor in Folklore, specifically Folk Medicine. He founded and directed the popular Port Townsend Writers’ Conference for Centrum, an arts foundation in Port Townsend, Washington, now entering its 45th summer. He appeared in An Officer and a Gentleman and The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (Robert Altman, CBS). Through his friendship with Frank Herbert, he co-authored the trilogy now known as The Pandora Sequence, also available from WordFire press individually as The Jesus Incident, The Lazarus Effect, and The Ascension Factor.

Learning the Ropes (Utah State University Press), a hybrid collection of poetry, short fiction and essays, was billed as “a creative autobiography.” Three of his short stories from this collection were selected for the PEN/NEA Syndicated Fiction Project, often called The Pulitzer Prize of the Short Story: “Uncle Hungry,” “What Elena Said” and “Learning the Ropes.” These appeared in the Sunday magazine editions of major newspapers around the country with a circulation of ten million. Blue Begonia Press published The Woman and the War Baby, another hybrid (multi-genre) collection dealing with multi-generational war experiences.

Bill received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, one in poetry, one in fiction, and residencies at Centrum, an arts foundation in Port Townsend, WA. WordFire Press e‑published the Pandora books and his solo novels Jaguar, ViraVax and Burn. Most recently, in October of this year, WordFire re-released these three novels as trade paperbacks.

When I asked him about his chosen genre, Bill replied, “I’ve never made up my mind about any species of writing.”

Today, we are focusing our attention on Jaguar. Reviewers have had this to say:

“A helluva good book.”—Science Fiction Review.

Jaguar is a psychodrama with the emphasis on story and characterization, not effects… Ransom, best known for his collaborations with the late Frank Herbert, has written an intense and intriguing tale that will keep you riveted to the pages.”—Jeff Scott Smith, Rave Reviews

“A tense thriller…recommended.” –Booklist

“A helluva good book!” –John Dalmas, Science Fiction Review

“Every page of Jaguar is a cliffhanger!” –Sandra Morgan, Fiction Forest

“A powerful, scary tale of the dark side of the human mind.” –Jane Toombs, Scribes World (5-star)

Amazon describes the book’s premise this way:

In waking life, he is a combat vet with a mysterious sleep disorder, confined to a VA hospital bed. When he sleeps, he roams the plains of another world, invading the minds of the people as they dream and forcing them to do his will. They call him . . . Jaguar.

In both worlds, there are those who know the Jaguar’s secret. They are learning to link their minds across the void between worlds, following the dreampaths the Jaguar created—all the way back to where his body lies helpless . . . an easy target for their justice.

Please tell us more about it.

Jaguar is actually a re-release that came out first as an Ace mass market paperback in 1990 and remained in print for two decades. Kevin and Rebecca resurrected it first as an e-book, following the release of the Herbert/Ransom The Pandora Sequence, and then as a trade paper edition in September, ’17 with a new, gorgeous cover.

What was its inspiration?

The earthquake in Puyallup, Washington in April of 1949 was half of the inspiration. My volunteer work as a medic and firefighter training instructor in the Guatemalan civil war was the other half. I was four, on a sidewalk taking apart a broken clock my grandfather had given me to get me out of his way. My cousin was playing with chalk. Suddenly, nightcrawlers came out of the ground and into the lawn. My grandfather usually got them to come out at night by putting a bare electrical cord into the ground with two nails, but this time Grandpa was back in his saw-filing shop. Then the sidewalk rose up and shook itself out like a blanket, and the power poles started coming down, and adults went crazy. I got home from a particularly tough stretch in Guatemala one night in the early ’80s, couldn’t sleep, and decided to write my daughter something of a memoir. When I got to the nightcrawlers, suddenly they were foot-long bugs with nearly two-foot wings (set of 4), like flying ants (termites, with those yellow bellies) that come out every August, only much, much bigger. The story started to unfold from there and I never got back to the real memoir.

What was the biggest challenge you faced writing this book and how did you overcome it?

I wrote it during the time that Frank Herbert and I were working on the Pandora stories, and my challenge was to stop worrying about what critics would say after my work with Frank, comparing me with Frank. Frank’s advice: “Worrying what other people might say before you’ve written the book never filled a blank page. And afterwards? Never read reviews.”

What other novels have you written?

ViraVax and Burn, both manmade viral catastrophe stories perpetrated by the “Children of Eden”, a fundamentalist religious group determined to return the Earth to its original, Eden-like state. Minus those pesky other religions, in the process. The Jesus Incident, The Lazarus Effect and The Ascension Factor were co-authored with Frank Herbert. I ghost-wrote the originating story, “Songs of a Sentient Flute,” for Frank—details of how that transpired and how it became The Pandora Sequence are revealed in the three-novel omnibus edition from WordFire Press: The Pandora Sequence.

What else are you working on?

One genre novel, one mainstream novel and a long and increasingly longer sequence of short fiction.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

Mornings, feed cats, coffee, no conversation, no music with lyrics, phone and internet off. Closing on the end of a novel, the last few weeks are write, coffee, toast, nap; repeat; repeat with shower; repeat, etc.

Tell us about your path to publication.

Literary magazines for short fiction and poetry. Poetry happened to get popular.

Do you create an outline before you write?

No. That’s what rewriting is for. I don’t worry about writing in order because I know I’ll put it in order later. Usually taking off from some real incident that then gets the “what if” treatment, as in the nightcrawler example above.

Why do you write?

I like having written, as I liked breaking records in track—the grind to or to train is not always fun, often painful. After a few delicious moments of having written comes the ominous question of “what now?” and that inevitable blank page.

How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?

I worry very little about first draft, and I very much enjoy revising, especially at the sentence level.

What is the single most powerful challenge when it comes to writing a novel?

Intrusion by the rest of the world. Saying “no” to friends, family and fun gets old. By the time you’re finished and are looking for human contact, they’re long gone. Ditto relationships—people can tolerate abuse, but not being ignored.

Is there anything you want to make sure potential readers know?

I write multiple point-of-view novels, which expects a different kind of attention from readers than a straightforward narration. No witness in court sees “the truth,” but taken collectively, witnesses can reveal “a more complete truth” to jurors. Multiple point-of-view allows that.

Do you have another job outside of writing?

I retired as a Dean of Curriculum at The Evergreen State College about six years ago. I still do work, but I hope never to have a “job” again.

What motivates or inspires you?

Acts of kindness and compassion, perhaps coming from my medic background, touch me mightily. Oblivious is easy, and all too prevalent.

How do you pick yourself up in the face of adversity?

I hope to be an example of courage and determination for my three grandchildren. Moving on to something new helps—building, gardening, travel.

What has been your greatest success in life?

Getting several children out of grave danger; resuscitating three infants and numerous old people.

Do you have any pet projects?

Currently assisting daughter and her husband in building a home on some property we have in common. Framing is my contribution.

What has been your greatest inspiration?

Hyphenated-American writers now offer us readers our greatest literary riches.

Thanks, Bill, for taking time to share with us. Before I present our visitors with an excerpt from Jaguar and links where they can purchase it and follow you online, I’d like to conclude with a brief Lightning Round. In as few words as possible, please answer the following:

My best friend would tell you I’m sarcastic, beware.

The one thing I cannot do without is: Well, air first, then….

The one thing I would change about my life: Never have to go before audiences again.

My biggest peeve is: All genres are not equally respected by writers in other genres. And what’s a non-genre writer, anyway? “Mainstream?” “Literary?” “Important?” There you have it.

The person I’m most satisfied with is: I love my daughter a lot.


Jaguar excerpt:

When the rolling stopped, Rafferty woke up squashed in place with the blanket over his head. He was pinned so tight his chest and back felt like they met. He could move his left arm and his head.

He worked the blanket across his face and saw that he was lying on the ceiling of the car. His head was lower than the rest of him and the back seat had popped out to wedge him in. Gurgles and gasps came from the front seat. He called out but the noises only came farther apart and finally stopped. The roof of the car beneath him was littered with shards of broken glass, incense butts and pink plastic hair curlers.

Rafferty could hardly breathe with the seat jamming him in so tight. He tried to shove it away but it wouldn’t budge. He panted tiny, burning breaths from the effort and a lot of small black spots in front of his eyes melted into one big one. He wasn’t really asleep, he hadn’t caught his breath yet, but he knew he wasn’t getting out of there.

When he knew he couldn’t get out he had to go to the bathroom. He beat on the back of the seat but that made the spots come back so he started crying but that hurt, too. Outside, the familiar rasp and tick of those bright bugs played against the metal of the car. By the time Rafferty had wet himself, the inside of the car was crawling with them. They didn’t bite or sting, they just crawled over him with their stickery feet.

He was wedged inside there with them for three nights before he ate the first one. It wouldn’t get out of his face and he could barely bat it away. He caught the bug by the root of its wings with his free hand, shook it once and popped it into his mouth. His lips were cracked, his tongue and throat swelled dry from thirst.

What happened between Rafferty and the bug was purely some kind of reflex, Uncle explained that later. Rafferty kept hold of the wings and spat out the legs because they were long and skinny and they stuck in his throat. He lost count of the nights after that, and thought of the rest of the bugs that he ate as corn-dogs. A scattering of wings and legs tilted in the wind under his head, little bronze-petalled flowers with dark brown stalks. He learned not to smell the incredible stench that rolled in from the front seat, and he learned to live with the mice.

Rafferty slept with the scuttle of feet across his face, learned that crying only made his throat worse, learned that sometimes there was no border between waking and dreams.

He woke up crying in one dream because the boy in his dream was crying. Rafferty watched him climb up and down a ladder outside a ratty-looking building with vines choking its sides. In another dream, the boy called his name, and it was so clear that Rafferty woke up with a start and said, “Here. I’m here.” His voice was raspy and sore in his throat from his crying.

He had a lot of dreams, but they were strange and felt like they belonged to somebody else. He always woke up exhausted, with a pounding headache and he would sleep then without dreaming for awhile.

Out of a dream of drinking from the well behind the dream boy’s grandparents’ house, Rafferty heard the heavy crunch of footsteps and the clatter of gravel against the side of the car.

“Verna!” a hoarse voice shouted, a male voice. “Verna?”

Someone pulled glass out of one of the windows in front.

“Oh, no,” the voice whispered. Then it coughed a couple of times, and gagged.

When the man sat down outside the car and slumped against it, Rafferty listened to everything as though he perched on a tree limb above the whole broken scene.

Rafferty knew this: if he didn’t speak, the man would leave and he would die there. He knew that without knowing much about death except for the brittle creatures that he snatched from the seat-back and stuffed into his mouth. That, and what his senses told him about Verna in the front seat.

He remembered he wanted to say, “Thirsty,” but what his throat managed to hiss out was, “Hungry.” The word sounded like the struggle of dry wings against steel. He repeated it, louder.


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