When Avon writer Tom Harpole talks of his story assignments and adventures, there’s a sense that this guy just may be channeling the energy and spirit of Jack London and Mark Twain with a dash of George Plimpton.
One day he’s skydiving with the trainer of Russian cosmonauts, or free-falling 12,000 feet with a peregrine falcon and its trainer, or extreme skiing. He’s an admitted adrenaline-rush junkie, who’s drawn to sports that require helmets.
Harpole is the keynote speaker for this year’s Carroll Literary Festival 7 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10, in Trinity Hall Lounge.
Harpole has won fiction awards in Ireland and England and was the first American chosen to participate in the prestigious Irish National Writer’s Workshop in 1987. His work appeared in a collection of Best Science Writing in 1999, and he was a finalist in 1994 and 2010 for the National Magazine Award for reporting.
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Writing has been his ticket to adventures all over North America and the world, taking him to Russia 14 times on assignment for Smithsonian and other magazines, as well as to Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, South Korea, China, Yakutia and nearly a dozen other countries.
An explosives engineer and logger, Deer Lodge native Harpole had worked timber jobs from MacDonald Pass to Alaska’s Tongass Forest until a Douglas fir fell on him in 198o, ending his manual labor career.
“He told me he had banged up his arm, so he thought he would become a writer,” recalled Carroll English professor Ronald Stottlemyer, as he sat next to Harpole over coffee at a local coffee shop. “I was kind of dubious. But by his third paper, I thought, ‘My God, this guy has got it.’”
He became Stottlemyer’s star pupil. “He was the first person I heard who naturally used the word ‘insouciance.’ It fit ... that was a sure sign. I was overjoyed. I thought I’ve got a guy I can really work with.”
“The pivotal decision in my life was to go back to school and be a writer,” said Harpole, who returned to Carroll in 1984.
He’d first enrolled there in 1968, but left school during the Vietnam War.
It was his writing assignment, “90 p.s.i.,” for Stottlemyer’s class that landed Harpole his first sale to a major magazine, Sports Illustrated, in the mid 1980s. It’s the tale of how he caught a football shot out of a cannon as it rocketed out of the sky at about 100 miles per hour, besting members of the Denver Broncos. It’s one of the articles he’ll read at the literary festival. Along with reading some of his work, he will also talk about writing.
Harpole’s inspiration to become a writer began long before his fateful meeting with a tree. As a logger for 15 years, he’d lived months at a time in a wall tent, with a Coleman lantern and a box of books as his sole companions. He’s been studying great writing for decades and recommends that writers not only read a lot, but particularly study the markets they want to write for.
His career got a major boost in 1988, when catastrophic fires swept through Yellowstone National Park. Tapping into his firefighting background, he crafted an article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine and faxed it in.
The editor faxed back, “Who the hell are you?”
But the editor bought the story. And it provided just the bragging rights Harpole needed on his resume.
Despite his writing success over the past 20 years, Harpole’s self-deprecating.
“I’m not very educated and I’m not a very good writer,” he said. But he trusts his writing process will result in a quality piece. “You can’t do too many drafts,” he said. One of his stories, “The Last of Butch,” went through 42 drafts. It won the Short Story of the Year Award in the British Isles in 1987.
“Cultivate a small group of people you trust and have them look at your writing,” he said, of the other key to his writing success.
The Carroll Literary Festival is organized by seniors taking the English Capstone Seminar. Other readings and talks by authors and students are from 1 to 4 p.m., Friday, Nov. 11, in the lower level of the Carroll Corette Library, with a public open mic from 4 to 5 p.m.