Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Visit with Duluth Author and Pilot Eric "Shmo" Chandler (Part 1)

The Northland has long been famous for its natural beauty, and followers of this blog by conclude that we are also rich in the arts as well. We seem to attract more than our share of artists, writers, poets, and photographers. The One River Many Stories project last year brought a whole batch of storytellers and artsy folk together around a single theme... unsurprisingly related to our region's natural beauty.

Writing, though, is typically a solitary occupation. Whether slugging it out on an old Underwood or a MacBook Pro, or scribbling longhand on lined paper, writers are generally soloists. They do, however, benefit from sharing their work with others and getting feedback. Hence, no community of worth is without its writers groups.

Here in the Twin Ports we have the Lake Superior Writers. As with every other kind of interest, the writers also have a social media component now,  Facebook community. It was here that I came across a posting by Eric Chandler that peaked my interest. Upon further investigation of his Shmotown blog I took an interest in what he's doing, impressed at the documentation of his journey as a writer here, his goals, his failings, his spirit... and his passion for the craft. On top of all that he's a pilot and a poet as well.

Many Northland writers hibernate in the winter, and the long winters can be quite enabling for us. Shmo, on the other hand, is also passionate about the winter outdoors opportunities here, embracing cross-country skiing as voraciously as his love of the written word.

This is part one of an interview. We met for the first time a couple weeks back. He said he likes to write in a manner that is natural, "the way you tell a story in a bar." He has two short books -- Down In It and Outside Duluth -- and is working on a third.

EN: How did you come to take an interest in writing?

Eric Chandler: I wrote a little cartoon book when I was a kid about a superhero I invented. My parents were entertained and showed encouragement. That’s it in a nutshell: People showed me encouragement at different points in my life when I wrote.

In the fifth grade, I wrote a dramatic nonfiction account of how I cut off the tip of the middle finger on my right hand. I stuck it in a door hinge and managed to get several pages out of that for a school writing project.

In the 8th grade, my English teacher, Mr. Dave Foley was a marathon runner who also wrote for running and skiing magazines. I skied my first cross-country ski race that year with my dad. My teacher said I should write about it. When I did, he helped me publish it in a magazine called Michigan Skier. It was the first thing I ever got published.

I wrote in a journal off and on throughout my life. In my 20’s, I started writing a letter and shoving it in with my Christmas cards. People thought it was funny. Encouragement.

I wrote a story in 2002 about training for cross-country skiing and submitted it to a writing contest at Skinnyski.com. I won and they sent me a handheld GPS unit, worth quite a bit of money. This was shortly after we moved to Duluth in 2002. A little later I wrote my first piece for a magazine (Silent Sports Magazine). They sent me a check. Financial encouragement. I wrote my first published fiction in 2009 and my first published poetry in 2013.

Small positive boosts got me into this game. So, all the people who encouraged me only have themselves to blame.

EN:  How did you become a pilot?

EC: I liked building model airplanes as a kid. I watched Baa Baa Black Sheep on the TV starring Robert Conrad. My dad took me to Oshkosh to see the airshow when I was young. I still remember the P-38 Lightning that flew overhead. I was good at math in high school, so I thought building airplanes would be fun. I looked around for schools where I could get an Aeronautical Engineering degree. I ended up at the US Air Force Academy. While there, at the end of the Reagan era, I learned they needed pilots so much, they waived the need for perfect eyes. This allowed me to go to Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) after I graduated in 1989. I got my pilot wings in the US Air Force in 1990. So I flew airplanes instead of building them. A year or two earlier or later, and my eyes would’ve prevented me from going to UPT. Life turns on small events.

EN: Your first two books are Down In It and Outside Duluth. They are quite short but capture your third interest. Care to elaborate how the outdoors became a passion of yours?

EC: My parents raised my sister and I to lead active lives outdoors. It’s probably the greatest gift they gave me, other than a stable home. My dad worked for the US Forest Service and my mom was a dietician. It was a nice way to grow up living with people trained in the outdoors and how to lead a healthy life. I ran and cross-country skied with my family. I skied as soon as I could walk where I was born in northern New Hampshire. My dad and I hiked all 48 “Four Thousand Footers” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We backpacked and camped outside. I hunted for ruffed grouse and deer with my dad. I raced the mile in track in the spring, cross-country running in the fall, and cross-country skiing in the winter. I was the NH state high school champion in cross-country skiing in 1985 and helped my team win the state championship that year also.

My dad’s job in the Forest Service took us all around the country to small towns with ready access to the outdoors. I lived in six different places before I was 18: three places in NH, one in MN, and two in MI. I was just up the road in Two Harbors for a couple years in the 70’s during that Minnesota stretch. I got to see a lot of the outside world growing up. Endurance sports also helped me explore the world between my ears.

Now, as I age, I return to the same activities like a salmon to the river where it emerged. I find great comfort continuing to do the things outside I learned to do as a kid: hike, run, ski, and bike. I do the Birkie and Grandma’s Marathon most years. Almost because I have to, like a compulsion. Kind of like writing.

* * * *
In addition to being a member of Lake Superior Writers, Eric also an active member of the Outdoors Writers Association of America and the Military Writers Guild. He is slated to be the featured speaker this week at Beaners' Spoken Word Open Mic from 7 - 9 p.m. Thursday, January 19.


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