Eric Blehm grew up on a ranch northeast of San Diego in the rural community of Valley Center. Blehm was first "schooled" by the classic adventures, The Call of the Wild, Treasure Island, and Robinson Crusoe, and he credits The Swiss Family Robinson as the first book that made him want to be a writer.
Blehm's formal education combined both his love for the written word and the natural world. He graduated with honors from San Diego State University's School of Communication in 1994 with a BA in journalism and a minor in outdoor recreation. During his college years, he was awarded the William Randolph Hearst Award for Excellence in Feature Writing for "The Darkest White," an account of a near-fatal avalanche in the Colorado Rockies; he also took a job as the editor of TransWorld SNOWboarding -- the world's most highly circulated snowboarding publication.
On assignment, Blehm traveled to snowboard the mountains of New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Austria, Germany, and British Columbia. He left TransWorld SNOWboarding after five years in order to travel the world with his wife.
This sabbatical helped launch a successful freelance writing career. Blehm has written articles for Outside, GQ, Men's Journal, Backpacker, Climbing, Couloir, Hemispheres, and the Los Angeles Times on such topics as snowboarding in the Alborz mountains outside of Tehran, Iran; keeping pace with a platoon of U.S. Army Rangers on a training mission (the first civilian journalist to do so); covering adrenaline sports in New Zealand; and stalking golden trout in California's Sierra mountains.
He has essays in the anthology Patagonia, Notes from the Field (Chronicle Books) and Ultimate Snowboarding (Carlton Books, London); is co-writer of P3: Pipes, Parks, and Powder (ReganBooks) with Olympian snowboarder Todd Richards; and is the editor of Agents of Change: The Story of DC Shoes and Its Athletes (ReganBooks). His critically acclaimed bestseller The Last Season (HarperCollins) is a nonfiction account of the disappearance of legendary national park ranger Randy Morgenson. It won the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for best nonfiction book of 2006 by a new author, as well as the National Outdoor Book Award (biography) and San Diego Book Award (general nonfiction).
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins
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Some fascinating outtakes from our interview with Blehm:
"I became a writer so I could see the world and experience some of the places and things I'd read about as a kid. My mother died from cancer when I was 17, and toward the end of her life she told me, "If there is something you want to do in life, do it now, because you don't know about tomorrow." She had been a workaholic, and my parents were always behind with bills, etc. They always put off things like travel for later. My mother didn't get that chance, so I have lived my life using her words of wisdom. Don't wait. If you have something you want to do, get on it. One of the best decisions I made was to use my savings to travel around the world for almost a year with Lorien in my 20s. We both had our eyes opened to so much, and were able to visit so many places we had read about in the past. It was a time to slow down and enjoy life after we'd both worked high-stress jobs that began right after college, but without any commitments other than to ‘soak in' the experiences, the memories of which continually keep us motivated through some of the everyday doldrums of life. We can't wait to be able to take our son and soon-to-be daughter on some of the same journeys, as well as new adventures we haven't even dreamed about yet."
"I have been called an adventurer, and I write about my experiences, such as snowboarding in the mountains outside Tehran, Iran; keeping pace with a platoon of U.S. Army Rangers in training as an embedded journalist; and covering many of the adrenaline sports in New Zealand -- bungee jumping, skydiving, acrobatic stunt flying in a Pit Special biplane. But I have to say that being a parent is the GREATEST adventure yet. It's the most amazing, wonderful, exciting, and challenging ‘trip' I've ever been on. My hat goes off to parents everywhere who try to make this world a better place by filling it with open-minded and nice kids who will become open-minded and nice adults."
"It took me seven years to get through college, working 30 hours a week all the way through. After one year of community college, I took a year off to be a snowboard bum in Breckenridge, Colorado. So many people told me, "If you quit school now, you'll never go back." I knew I wanted a higher education, I just wasn't ready and didn't know what I wanted to do. I followed my heart and ended up figuring it out while living in Colorado. I went back to school a couple of years later, transferred from Palomar College in San Marcos to San Diego State University, and ended up graduating with honors because I was ready to knuckle down and study. I had gotten the partying and wanderlust out of my system (temporarily, at least)."
"Snowboarding has been my ticket to seeing the world. Surfing has been my yoga. I think it's important to have something in your life that transcends being just a hobby. Something fulfilling, not because of success or accomplishments (a tube ride or sticking a trick) but simply through the act of doing it. Fishing, not to catch fish, but to be in the wilds... that sort of thing."
"I once jumped into a freezing-cold lake to try to revive a drowning trout. I would rather surf a lesser, uncrowded wave than deal with the vibe of a crowded peak. My idea of a perfect day of snowboarding includes a helicopter, steep powder terrain, and a crew of good friends without cameras or cinematographers running the show. I believe in karma. I like good tequila better than good wine. I can get dressed for almost any occasion in less than five minutes. I've been saying I'll try yoga for about ten years now. I'd rather fish a wild stream for small fish than a dammed lake for big fish. I actually really like my in-laws. Hospitals scare me. Oh, and about that trout -- it lived to swim another day."
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In the winter of 2007, Eric Blehm took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
There are two books that I need to mention here:
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss was the first "thick" book I read as a child, and the first book that transported me beyond its pages to another world. I grew up in a rural area and so, instead of playing with friends, I often had to entertain myself after school. I was a latchkey kid, and this story ignited my imagination and provided not hours, or days, but years of childhood entertainment and escape. It was the catalyst for building dozens of tree forts and lean-tos, exploring caves, and other such imaginary diversions that I think nurtured creativity, far beyond "make-believe." It was the first book that made me want to be a writer and tell stories of my own. Ultimately, I discovered true stories that were just as amazing, and that is the direction I went with my writing career; but I've never forgotten the power and magic delivered by that story. As a reminder, a row of framed color prints from an early edition hangs on my office wall. I still have the first copy I read, a book my mother gave me, and I collect old and rare editions in different languages when I travel. I'm always looking for first editions.
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, a book I read in high school, details the author's experiences as a "white man" who darkened his skin during the racially turbulent late 1950s in the South. I was captivated by the research and the authority with which Griffin could write about segregation and racism because he -- as no other writer or reporter at the time -- had put himself in the place of his subject and tried to understand what it felt like to be hated simply for the color of his skin. This book conveys the evils of prejudice with the spin of irony. I still consider it the ultimate example of participatory journalism, and it inspires me to go as far as possible in trying to understand my subjects: if possible, walk in their shoes.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?To Build a Fire by Jack London -- This short story was one of the first reading assignments in middle school that I read over and over, just for fun. It showed me the power of delivering a huge message in a small space. It also illustrates how a story's main "character" can be a place. I still read it when I need inspiration and a reminder to be succinct.
Endurance by Alfred Lansing -- I own a first edition from 1959 that has a dedication reading: "In appreciation for whatever it is that makes men accomplish the impossible." I could not put this book down when I first read it fifteen years ago. From the initial sentence, I was riveted. Many books have been written about Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men, but none come close to the pacing and power of Endurance. It is doubly special because I read it on my first trip overseas (to Australia and New Zealand). I went alone during our summer, to snowboard the Southern Hemisphere winter while on break from San Diego State University. I read it on the flight over, cover to cover, and again on the flight back. Using excerpts from journals written by the men on the 1901 expedition, Lansing was able to show different perspectives on the same topic. I thought this was great reporting and research, and it became my strategy as I read backcountry ranger logbooks and reports while researching The Last Season.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey -- I was introduced to Edward Abbey via this book (and The Monkey Wrench Gang) by an instructor of outdoor recreation at San Diego State University named Dan Dustin. He wisely chose Edward Abbey to "ease us into" environmental authors such as Bill McKibben (The End of Nature) and Aldo Leopold (A Sand County Almanac). But Desert Solitaire continues to be the book I return to, to remind myself that an author can write about unfortunate happenings in the natural world and otherwise, while maintaining a sense of humor. That method of message delivery seems far more effective, less "preachy." The descriptions of the desert and that era in "land management" are beyond reproach, delivered with candor and page-turning wit.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson -- For laugh-out-loud bedtime reading -- whether in a sleeping bag on a rock ledge or in a featherbed at the Ritz -- Bryson is the master of "travel" writing. He propels you along through a place, giving you bits and pieces of natural history while you lick your chops waiting for the next brilliant lines of dialogue. Bryson reminds me that it's okay, in fact endearing, to make fun of yourself. I have read this book multiple times -- it's that good.
A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean -- MacLean's writing goes right to my heart. I grew up reading Field & Stream, fishing in ponds, creeks, and lakes near my home in Valley Center, California, and trout fishing in the High Sierra, so that aspect of the story was an immediate pull. The character building, the setting, the way MacLean portrays fishing "like religion" just slapped me on the forehead. The book is one of the most touching, beautiful, and emotional reads available for anybody who has a passion and a family with "issues."
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson -- This book shows how far you can take participatory reporting, what Thompson calls "Gonzo journalism." It passes the "laugh out loud" test and was unlike anything I'd ever encountered when I read it. Visual and thought-provoking, it makes you ask yourself, as a writer, Are you willing to go the distance?
Touching the Void by Joe Simpson -- So many mountaineering and climbing books could be on this list. I think climbers and mountaineers are often gifted writers because they have been to places that are both heaven and hell -- figuratively and physically. They've been to the edge of what is humanly possible, and misery makes for great nonfiction writing. Joe Simpson did something amazing. First, he survived. Second, he was able to write a book about it that avoided self-indulgent bravado, simply by telling the truth. I can't imagine that he overstated any part of what occurred. The book, if anything, downplays some of the worst imaginable circumstances a person could ever encounter. This is pure survival adventure at its finest, the one book that all others in the genre are measured against. It is an inspiration to me because of the emotions it conjures up.
In Search of Captain Zero by Allan Weisbecker -- Allan Weisbecker is plainly and simply an amazing craftsman of words. He's able to express "thought process" on paper in a way that makes you feel like a voyeur getting a sneak peek at what his brain is formulating before he spits it out. Through flashbacks, background rants, and vivid descriptions, he takes the reader on a ride that really conveys what surfing is all about -- the sport as well as the lifestyle and the feeling. I've bought this book for at least a dozen non-surfing friends and recommended it to dozens of my surf buddies because it took me to that place most surfers have dreamed about. Of dropping everything and going surfing -- not for an hour, or a week, but on a journey with no return ticket, where the waves dictate how long you'll stay in one location. This book reads like a fantasy, but again, it's true, and inspires the adventurer in me.
The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall -- This is the three-book story of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty; it includes Captain Bligh's epic 3,600-mile voyage and Christian Fletcher's ultimate hideout on Pitcairn Island. This is just an unbelievable account of one of history's most-referenced stories about the sea, covering everything from "man against the elements" to "man against man" to "man against himself." The entire collection is a page-turner. If you've read only Mutiny on the Bounty, you've merely scratched the surface of this perfect saga.
Caught Inside: A Surfer's Year on the California Coast by Daniel Duane -- Caught Inside, like In Search of Captain Zero, is another great surfing book with a story that pulls you through. There is an old saying, "Only a surfer knows the feeling." Dan Duane comes as close to describing that feeling as is possible. It's also a highly inspirational read because it is another example of somebody who, instead of complaining about his crummy job and unhealthy life, does something about it. He follows a dream and takes up surfing for a year in Northern California, some of the heaviest, darkest, coldest, sharkiest surf on the planet. He also finds himself up against the locals, who feel entitled to their surf spots and have no problem inflicting bodily harm on outsiders. This is a story about a regular guy who proves we can find our greatest adventures staring us right in the face -- completely attainable, doable dreams. It is also a great example of how a memoir doesn't have to be self-indulgent; it can simply be an effective storytelling strategy. Duane nailed it.
The Shawshank Redemption (originally the novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption) by Stephen King -- Oops. This is number 11. You asked for ten, but I have to include something here about Stephen King -- the master storyteller. Aside from the true horror genre (Salem's Lot scared the hell out of me as a kid; I kept a wooden stake under my bed for a year after reading it), books like Misery and short stories like "The Body" (that became the movie Stand By Me) show just how brilliant King is. This story is the enviable perfect example of how a character can "talk to you." That's what King does with the voice of Red, the "old con that can get anything, even Rita Hayworth, into the Shawshank prison," who befriends Andy -- in prison with a life sentence for a murder he didn't commit. The story is about friendship at its core. It also has another character, the prison itself -- a recurring theme for my favorite stories, in which settings are often main characters. I love this book -- and I love the movie.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?The Shawshank Redemption -- See above.
Star Wars trilogy -- Come on. Look at my age. I'd be lying if I didn't include this one. It was the catalyst for numerous light saber battles with my friends. It also brought about the carnage of multiple flashlights and household appliances that I took apart (read: destroyed) in my effort to build a laser "blaster." If a recruiter from the Rebel Alliance had knocked on my door, I would have signed up without a second thought.
Platoon -- It inspired me to look deeper into the Vietnam War and spurred the reading of dozens of books on the subject. I was depressed for weeks after seeing this movie; I couldn't imagine what it was like for the generation who actually experienced this war firsthand.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy -- A tribute to J.R.R. Tolkien, since I ran out of space above for favorite books. I love it when a movie holds its own through an entire trilogy, when you can't wait to see the next installment. The trilogy and movies are simply "precious." Incidentally, my wife, Lorien, is named after Lothlorien, the forest of the elves.
Saving Private Ryan -- The cinematography had me ducking bullets. Bringing D-Day and World War II into the forefront of the public's mind when the veterans of that war were still around to tell their stories ignited an entire generation to look at their elders with a newfound respect.
The Right Stuff -- An amazing era of amazing people. Chuck Yeager was the ultimate risk taker, and a natural at it. Some people have it, and some don't. At this level, most of us don't.
The Ghost and the Darkness -- Combines history and the idea of man encroaching on wilderness, with the wilds taking the upper hand. The story is both terrifying and vindicating; it has you rooting for both the men and the lions. I've never looked at tall waving grass quite the same after seeing this movie. Nice kitty, kitty ...
The Band of Brothers miniseries -- Another masterpiece that adeptly demonstrates both the horrible and the amazing aspects of war -- the brotherhood, the paralyzing fear, the unspeakable horrors, the patriotism, and the sacrifice of fighting for something greater than yourself.
The Endless Summer -- The documentary that ignited a lifestyle around the world. Both the story and the commitment to making this movie are inspirational. Another example of pure adventure.
Raiders of the Lost Ark -- Made me want to be an archaeologist.
Moonraker -- Made me want to be a secret agent.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like all sorts of music, and because I've never played an instrument or been musical in any capacity, I'm constantly amazed by those who do it, and do it well. I like to write to mellow music like Jack Johnson or Jose Gonzalez or more classical like George Winston. George Winston's December is a favorite album. I like soundtracks -- some favorites include the Vietnam-era music from movies like Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Good Morning, Vietnam. I like to road-trip to soundtracks from the movies Go, The Lost Boys, Wonder Boys, Black Hawk Down, Orange County, Pulp Fiction. I wish Three Kings had a soundtrack, but apparently there was some sort of "issue" with the music rights, because it doesn't exist. I'd buy it in a second. I'm also a sucker for the '80s: Oingo Boingo, Depressed Mode, INXS, Men Without Hats, ACDC, Men at Work, New Order, Midnight Oil, Devo -- the like.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
If I could get a book club going, it would probably be with a group of surfing dads I hang out with, and I'd introduce them to In Search of Captain Zero by Allan Weisbecker for my first choice. If I wanted to make them laugh, I'd choose The Comedy Writer by Peter Farrelly -- as in the Farrelly Brothers (There's Something About Mary). The Comedy Writer is hands-down hilarious, dark, Hollywood. I don't know why this one isn't a movie yet.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
It totally depends on the person, of course, but I like to give people books that will inspire them to be adventurous. The Alchemist, the story about a boy who travels to foreign lands to find "treasure," only to find it in his own backyard upon his return, is a beautiful fable that makes a good gift for those graduating from high school or college.
In Search of Captain Zero and Caught Inside -- I often buy as gifts for friends who might not live near an ocean and dream of learning to surf. I give Way of the Peaceful Warrior to friends recuperating from surgery or illness. To animal lovers, I give John Muir's Stickeen; to travelers, William Sutcliffe's Are You Experienced? To armchair adventurers who want to read about mountaineering I give Touching the Void. To friends who rave about Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, I give The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev. To fans of survival stories, I give We Die Alone because most haven't heard of it and it's top-shelf. To people who haven't read about war, I give Bravo Two Zero, Ghost Soldiers, or Black Hawk Down.
As far as getting books, my friends and family know they can never go wrong with any sort of nonfiction military history or adventure story. They just have to look at the shelves in my office -- organized by topics such as "Military, The Sea, The Mountains, The Sierra, and Travel" -- to make sure I don't already own it.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
My desk is almost always a mess, so I think of it as reverse procrastination: I can either clean my desk or I can write. I usually choose to write. But I know where everything is, trust me. Coffee. That's a ritual, no matter if it's morning, afternoon, or late night. I should have bought stock in Starbucks a decade ago. I try to write every day, but don't hold myself to it. My writing includes a lot of research, so some days it's "busywork" -- reading, interviewing people, requesting documents, etc. But when I'm in the right zone, I let myself go with it and drop everything else. Sometimes I'll go for six hours at a stretch. As far as actual routine, I usually write a few emails to friends as a warm-up, and then put on some music. I know I'm in the zone when the office is silent and the last CD I put in has been over for who knows how long and I didn't even notice it had stopped.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
The first story I sold -- to Powder magazine -- was an avalanche survival tale. I knew it was a great story topic and called editor Rob Story, who said he was full for all the issues and to try again next year. (It was late in the publishing season. I was a journalism student at the time and hadn't figured out things like "lead time" for magazines; I had no idea they worked that far in advance.) I submitted it anyway, inside a plastic toy boat with a letter that said "I hope I didn't miss the boat." Rob told me later that the boat, and my occasional follow-up phone messages, were what encouraged him to "squeeze it in" the last issue of the season. After college, I worked for a snowboarding magazine for five years, and at the same time did as much freelance for other magazines as possible. I tried to write a query letter a week to some magazine I wanted to write for. Most were rejected, but some were bought and they were to publications like Outside, Men's Journal, GQ, and other big names.
I wrote articles for around eight years before I made the leap to books. My wonderful agent, Christy Fletcher, of Fletcher and Parry Literary Agency, "discovered" me after she read a magazine story I wrote in the late '90s ("Painted Demons," which was published in P.O.V. magazine and is archived on my web site). For the article, I had tagged along with a platoon of U.S. Army Rangers in training, and Christy helped me to develop and sell a book proposal about Special Operations soldiers. It ultimately became the biggest nightmare of my career when a high-ranking officer changed his mind about allowing me "access." I really believed in the proposal; and the advance, my first, was over six figures, which was a huge, huge deal for me. You can imagine the frustration and regret when I had to return every penny. Getting back on the book-proposal horse was tough, but after a couple of weeks I began working on the proposal for The Last Season, which I had been researching and had planned to write next anyway. I ultimately sold the story of Randy Morgenson to HarperCollins, and The Last Season my first solo book project -- came out in April 2006, about 12 years after I graduated from college.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
You have to be persistent and not be dissuaded by rejection, but at the same time try not to be a pain in the ass to the editors you're stalking. (I'm talking magazine or newspaper editors first. Baby steps, right?) I was always really patient with my book proposals, and thus far all but one have been acquired thanks to my agent, Christy Fletcher. I think the best strategy is to write about what you know. You have to be an authority on your subject, especially when you're getting started. Ask yourself the "So what?" question about your ideas. If you want to write about something in particular, so what? What makes it special? What makes you the person to write about it? If you still think it's a good idea after answering those questions, then outline the story in detail, because if you can't get through the outline process, you won't get through the book itself. Outlining is a way of self-limiting. It may save you from going down a long road to nowhere.
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