Each day leading up to the 2019 Minnesota Book Awards Ceremony, we’ll be featuring an exclusive interview with one of our 36 finalists. Learn more about these incredible local writers and gear up to see the winners announced live in person April 6.
Interview with Roger Pellett, author of Whaleback Ships and the American Steel Barge Company
Category: General Nonfiction, sponsored by College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University
How does it feel to be a Minnesota Book Award finalist?
Wonderful! In 2005 I volunteered to assist with the preparation of an application to designate the whaleback steamship Meteor beached on Barkers Island in the Duluth/ Superior Harbor a National Historic Landmark. As I explored the history of this ship and her 43 sisters, I discovered a wonderful story that had never been adequately told. I believed that I had the expertise to tell it well and when I sent the book to the publisher I felt that I had done so. I am thrilled to know that the award’s reviewers apparently agree with me.
Tell us something about your finalist book that you want readers to know.
I am old enough to remember when engineers did heroic things. They built bridges that spanned incredible distances, built aircraft that reduced travel times from days or sometimes weeks to hours, sent men to explore the moon, and built nuclear powered submarines tat can remain submerged indefinitely. The fleet of whaleback barges and steamships is also a heroic tale of endeavor. Imagine an uneducated ship captain deciding to use what was then advanced technology to built a fleet of large ships in a town on the edge of the frontier, the investors with the confidence to finance him, and the group of talented men who traveled to the “middle of nowhere” to make his dream a reality.
Let us know a little bit about your writing life. What brought you to a writing career and how did you become a published author?
As a child, I learned to write by reading. My mother had worked at the Cincinnati, Ohio Library and she took us regularly to our neighborhood library select our limit of 10 books each. Surprisingly, my engineering and later business education involved considerable writing. Formal written laboratory reports and thesis papers were required in many courses and professors expected them to be well written. The need to express myself in writing was ever present during my working career. The Navy’s bureaucracy runs on written correspondence, and during my career, the private sector did so too, and I found that I enjoyed writing it. While much of it was routine, I occasionally wrote articles about industry technical problems that were published in trade magazines. Over 40 years ago I joined the Nautical Research Guild, an organization dedicated to maritime research in support of ship model builders. They publish a highly regarded quarterly journal with an international readership. Most of its articles are written by members who are not professional writers. Over the years I have been able to extend my writing experience by publishing articles in this journal. It is always a thrill to see my article in print and more so to see it referenced in someone else’s article. Although Whaleback Ships is my first book, writing it seemed like something that had been doing for most of my life, only more so.
Minnesota is often ranked highly as a state that values literature and reading. In your experience, what is it about our state that makes it such a welcoming place for writers and book creators?
The people that live here value literature and reading, and I think that is much more than just a way to pass the time during a cold winter. Books seem to be embedded in our culture. The Little Libraries popping up throughout our neighborhoods, book clubs, attendance at book signings, all speak to a well educated population excited about what a good book has to offer. At social gatherings people seem to be genuinely interested in what I am reading, and when I tell them about my own book they want to know more. I realize that most of what I have written refers to the symptoms of the condition and not the reason for its existence. I don’t know what makes us so but I’m glad that we are.
What is something you are good at that few people know about?
I enjoy building highly detailed ship models and the research skills used to build these models was put to good use researching the whaleback ship story.
What do you love about libraries?
Libraries are the repositories of our civilization. They tell us where we have been, where we are, and they try to tell us where we are going. We live in a society that is obsessed with what’s trendy, what various celebrities are doing, and the appearance of things. To me libraries are oasis of sanity. They allow people to review evidence and to form their own opinions. In the case of my book, to Great Lakes shipping buffs the whaleback ships are legendary and much popular history about them exists. Several libraries here in the Midwest allowed me to utilize original archival documents including original builder’s drawings and company correspondence to develop my own conclusions.
About Roger Pellett
Pellett grew up near Akron, Ohio, South of Lake Erie. As a toddler he “helped” his father build a large sailboat in their side yard. When he finished the boat, their family sailed it on Lake Erie and he was fascinated by the huge ships on the lake. As a child, he retained his interest in things maritime and later attended the University of Michigan, graduating with a degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. Later, while working, he completed an MBA degree at Ohio, University. After graduating from Michigan he spent several years as a Naval Officer assigned to the Naval Reactors branch of the Atomic Energy Commission involved with the production of nuclear powered submarines. Leaving the Navy, he went to work for a company that built piping systems for the power generation industry. He remained in this industry for 36 years in various engineering and executive positions until retiring as Vice President of BendTec, Inc. in 2005. Although his career took him out of the maritime industry, researching old boats and ships continued to be his avocation. When he accepted a position at BendTec in 1988, his family moved to Duluth, MN. When he retired, he and his wife decided to continue to live in Duluth. He enjoys living near Lake Superior and is still fascinated by the huge ships plying its waters.