Jake Bales has been so widely interviewed that when I sat down with him, I hardly knew where to begin. He is not merely a favorite librarian at the Simpson Library, at the University of Mary Washington; he is also the author of more than five different biographies, including such renowned authors as Horatio Alger, Kenneth Roberts and Willie Morris, as well as two biographical essays on Peter Jenkins and Homer Hickam.
He says that he loves being a librarian, but the reason he gets up out of bed every morning is researching and book collecting, "that just REALLY gets me going."
His favorite research project was Kenneth Roberts. "What made it so much fun was my correspondence with his relatives, and traveling all over Maine - good seafood - gave talks... I researched all over New England." Having grown up reading Kenneth Roberts as a child, he found it was an extra exciting experience to learn all about his writing and his life.
My Dog Skip is what initially interested him in researching Willie Morris. He tells me that a friend loaned him the book, and he read it all in one sitting "What was it about that book that so inspired you?" I asked. He responds, "the memoir is about growing up, what it was like growing up in a small town. As a mid-western boy, I consider myself a small town boy and I appreciated how his style captures what it is like." So he initiated a correspondence by writing him a letter "asking him a lot of questions about the book."
A particular challenge he's had in his research career was the Willie Morris project. This, he says, is because he was still alive and therefore the question of "how much truth do I tell?" was cause for concern. In the end, he found he was able to find a balance that gave a fair description of Morris.
"[My biography on Willie Morris] damn near sent me over the edge -- it was an EXHAUSTING project." But it wasn't enough to deter Bales from researching: "I remember going out with a few friends to celebrate. I truly was just exhausted and I said, 'I'll never write another book.' They all hooted at me and said, 'Jack, within 6 months you'll be back at it.'" Less than a month later Jack is planning a new project, this time focusing on something a bit different - the Cubs!
He hasn't signed a contract yet, but he is excited because it is a completely new subject for him. "I needed something new to write about" he says. "I'm going to focus just on the 30s, maybe a little of the 20s. I want to focus on the characters, there is such an interesting cast of characters back then."
To aspiring writers, he suggests a couple things: first, "you gotta read a lot and write, write, write." Then, "stare at the paper until your blood forms on your forehead" and finally, "show what you've written to a critic and don't be afraid of criticism."
Take it from Jack Bales; this man knows a thing or two about writing.