The road that led to Aurora native Jeff Viles’ first novel had a number of intersections, forks, on- and off-ramps.
He came to Columbia to study journalism at the University of Missouri; putting that coursework — and a German minor — to good use, he took an internship at a German newspaper and was given a long leash, using his enterprising nature to uncover feature stories worth telling.
From there, Viles served in Vietnam before relying on his journalism studies again, working for the Tribune as a features reporter and news editor.
He then took a bend in the road into business, finding success in oil, restaurants, real estate and more. Viles was able to live out his ideal: a life of purposeful restlessness.
“If you could, about every five, six, seven years, things start getting to be routine, and it would be nice to just take off that hat and put on a different one,” he recalled thinking. “I more or less managed to do that.”
While Viles enjoyed his many business pursuits, he missed sitting down before an empty page and creating something from nothing.
He returned periodically to writing, penning short stories in intentionally disparate styles, then stowing them away in a drawer — where they remain. Longform fiction seemed like an eventual destination, but first he had to find time to get there.
“I always thought it would be really fun to have the total freedom to write about things that were not true,” Viles said. “In other words, to write a whole book of lies.”
Viles thought there was a novel somewhere amid our endless fascination with the Sasquatch, or Bigfoot. But he wasn’t sure where to enter the story.
Then a light bulb went off in the form of a question: What if someone shot one of the fabled creatures and brought it back to their town? What would the aftermath look like?
“The Sasquatch Murder” poses one possible answer, as Jake Holly, a small-town Washington man, finds himself facing a murder charge after accidentally firing upon one of the fabled creatures. As the story winds toward its conclusion, readers are introduced to a community of colorful characters, townies and significant outsiders, who try to make sense of it all.
Viles worked on the book on and off for six years, finding time after attending to his varied business tasks. He found fiction writing more liberating, and more difficult to reign in, then journalistic writing.
In the former, you gather sources, quotes and facts, then the story knows what it is, he said; it begins to write itself. With fiction, he often wasn’t sure where to go next. The key was character development — once characters were firmly established and fully fleshed out, they led him to the next point.
“They tell me what they’re going to say and what they’re going to do,” Viles said.
He enjoys the quirks and traits of all his characters, but Holly hits closest to home. In the town of Viles’ creation, there are three schools of thought regarding Sasquatch. The first two are true believers and non-believers. Then, there’s Jake Holly.
“The lead character told me that he was a Bigfoot agnostic,” Viles said, acknowledging a common plot of ground between himself and the character.
The next chapter
Viles isn’t content to move on from writing; the lifelong pursuit, woven throughout the other moments and seasons of his life, is one he plans to continue.
He has a next step in mind — he has begun to open that drawer full of short stories, take them out and begin to rework them. A story collection is a very serious possibility, he said.
Viles’ life has had a number of chapters, all of them rewarding in a way, and those experiences ensure that he will have stories to tell as long as he has an audience.