The Hippo


May 31, 2020








Meet Jon Keller

At Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main St., Concord: Tuesday, July 15, at 7 p.m.
At Water Street Bookstore, 125 Water St., Exeter: Thursday, July 24, at 7 p.m. At this event, he’ll be joined by his sister, Abi Maxwell, and they’ll talk about writing, family and New England.

Coastal culture
Jon Keller on lobsters, siblings and water

By Kelly Sennott

 Tilton native Jon Keller didn’t really know he’d be writing about the Maine fishing culture when, on whim, he moved across the country to pursue a career aboard a lobster boat in 2006.

He didn’t let on that he was a writer, fresh from grad school with an MFA, when he began looking; he was hesitant to find out how people would react to having a writer in the midst of the isolated, close-knit community. But he’d been living in Montana for 12 years and was in need of a change.
“I’ve always been really interested in how manual labor acts as a link between people and landscape. These jobs seem to have culture wrapped around them. In Montana, I worked at several horse and cattle ranches, and I saw commercial fishing — especially in Maine — as such an old industry and a unique culture,” Keller said. 
It took him nearly four months to secure a position with a man named Oscar Look, who would eventually come to read advance copies of and write a review for Keller’s book, Of Sea and Cloud, which was released June 30. Look provided access to everything lobster, from lobster pounds to lobster people.
“It’s such an insular, isolated culture, and at first, I felt like an intruder,” Keller said. “Everybody there knows each other. I’d knock on people’s doors, and they’d be astounded that a newcomer would be asking for a job on a boat. They’d ask me for my parents’ names, my grandparents’ names.”
So as an intruder, he had little intention, at least at first, of writing about lobstering. In Maine, Keller said, lobster fishing is so sacred, it’s almost like a religion.
Yet he couldn’t help but scribble down notes when he returned home at night, recording what was said, what happened that day, particularly since, as far as he knew, there were few if any literary pieces that encapsulated the Maine lobster world, or at least, not anything by people who actually knew what it was like to live, day by day, as a lobsterman. He began writing the novel in 2008.
Of Sea and Cloud follows a man, Nicholas Graves, and his sons, Bill and Jonah Graves. It’s Nicholas’s hope they’ll follow his footsteps as a lobsterman aboard the Cinderella. But when Nicolas becomes lost at sea, his sons must decide how much they’re willing to risk for their family legacy.
Some of the events in the book stem from Keller’s experiences, both consciously and unconsciously. He knew, for instance, that most of the scenes, activities and culture in the book drew from his two lobstering years. But writing about water also helped him deal with a traumatic event that happened when he was 21, when his two best friends drowned during a boating accident on Lake Winnipesaukee.
“It was a huge life-changer for me and the community here,” Keller said. 
His sister, Abi Maxwell, author of the 2013 novel Lake People, was affected too, and he suspects it also had to do with her writing about water.
“It’s an ongoing thing, to deal with people so close to you having drowned. It changed the way I look at water in general. … It has become a big, powerful presence for me,” he said. 
He noted his character, Jonah, in particular. 
“He really became something of an outlet for me. He spends a lot of time contemplating water, thinking about his father’s drowning, and what it means to drown. It’s obviously several steps removed from my own experience, but some of it overlaps,” Keller said.
At the time of the interview, he was fresh from the book’s launch at the Gilford Public Library, where Maxwell works as a librarian. That they both became writers might have had to do with their growing up in a literary home, with an artist/math teacher mom and an avid-reader dad. Their shelves were always full of books, and Keller’s heroes were writers.
“I didn’t care about Michael Jordan. I was more interested in Ernest Hemingway,” he said. 
He said his sister contributed her experience to his book.
“She helped me a lot with the last round of editing ... some great line-by-line editing, and also some bigger-picture stuff,” Keller said. 
Keller now works as a clam digger, dividing his time between Maine and Montana — it’s less time-consuming and allows more time for writing. 
“Clam digging, working on a boat, is the complete opposite of writing,” Keller said. “It’s just nice to go out and work with people whose lives aren’t all about books.” 
As seen in the July 10, 2014 issue of the Hippo.

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