Monday, December 24, 2007

The Story of "Vis Major".

"Vis Major" has been an ongoing journey that began with an article in a 1961 issue of TRAINS magazine. In a two part series about the history of the Great Northern's struggles over Stevens Pass in Washington State there was a single paragraph mention of an avalanche that destroyed two Great Northern trains, killing nearly 100 people. It happened in a little town, now long abandoned, named Wellington. I was 8 years old when I read that. It has been my mission ever since.

My interest in the Wellington Slide has ebbed and flowed over all of this time. I would go for years without giving the event a single thought. Often times out of the blue, something would connect, and once again I felt the urge to visit the sight, or continue the search for information on the event. Whenever I would go up to Steven Pass to photograph the railroad, Wellington would force its way into my mind set and influence the photographs I would be taking.

As time passed and I learned the great skill of "net working" I started to amass a fair amount of information on the disaster. A close friend, who was also on the Wellington trail came forth with a number of old documents, including telegrams sent at the time, and various court papers stemming from the aftermath. From these papers, a vision of what "really" happened up there the last week of February, 1910 began to take form in my head.

At some point in time, probably 10 years or more ago, I decided I want to write a book about Wellington. I had no idea in what form the book would take other than a nonfiction narrative talking of the day to day progression of events. There were three or four attempts to begin this great work. All got no further than an opening paragraph. All fell flat on their faces.

And then I watched a TNT production called "Gettysburg". I'm not a Civil War buff by any stretch of the imagination, but for some reason that movie spoke to me. Finding out it was based on a novel titled "The Killer Angels" I read the book. I wasn't three chapters into this work when the bolt of inspiration hit...this is how I was going to tell the Wellington story.

Still, it was not simply a matter of sitting at the computer and cranking out an historical novel. Writing fiction, even fiction based on fact, was new to me. I found that fiction was infinitely harder to pen than nonfiction. Characters, long dead had to be brought back life and in a way that was true to history. Beyond just writing down a list of facts like in a nonfiction work, in this book I had to apply human motivation and thought showing why things happened as they did.

What I also learned, a work of fiction takes on a life of its own. The more I studied and wrote, looking at the event from the perspective of the railroad men that lived it, I found that they began to speak to me in clear voices. Facts that on the onset did not make sense, suddenly plausible explanations came to mind as the "boys" as I began to call them lead my hands across the keyboard. Many times I'd sit down to write after work and wonder where I would end up. I knew the time line of events I was going to write about, I knew through which character these events would be viewed, and yet many times I would end the session, producing a text far from what I might have predicted.

After 4 winters, (I farm so my writing is limited to when I'm not cropping) "Vis Major" was complete. That was 2004. So where is it, you might ask? Just try to get a literary agent or major publisher interested in a book penned by a farmer in Washington State!

During this period a writer from back east contacted me. He too was writing a book on the Wellington disaster. I, along with a number of others, helped him understand what happened and offered to him our research. He even read over my manuscript. When his book was published, "The White Cascade" he actually listed "Vis Major" as one of his sources. What a shot in the arm. Unpublished, yet "Vis" was recognized as a legitimate historical reference.

"The White Cascade" is an excellent recounting of the story. Still, I don't know why, but the boys, men like William "Snow King" Harrington, or Johnny Parzybok, or "Patty" Kelly tapped me on the shoulder and asked that I tell their story. Not the "official" story, not the safe nonfiction presentation of accepted "facts", but what it was really like for those men.

Thanks to technology, writer like myself no longer needs agents or the big east coast publishers. Publish on demand companies like iUniverse offer internet marketing and affordable printing. Keep your eye and ears open. "Vis Major" is about to become a reality.

John Parzybok, rotary plow conductor killed at Wellington.

Brakeman John "Patty" Kelly, killed at Wellington

William "Snow King" Harrington Wellington survivor next to his beloved Lil.

1 comment:

SDP45 said...

I reread this post today. I would like the pleasure of being the first to buy "Vis Major" at any cost.