Author Phil Fitzpatrick steps up his game

Though a busy teaching schedule relegates his writing to "hobby" status, Duluth's Phil Fitzpatrick is turning heads with what he's been able to piece together.

Phil Fitzpatrick
Duluth author and Iron Range instructor Phil Fitzpatrick has quite a sense of humor about his work -- especially when it comes to his acclaimed short story "Catharsis": "My students accuse me of using too many big words, but the title is probably the biggest word in the story." Submitted photo

Though a busy teaching schedule relegates his writing to "hobby" status, Duluth's Phil Fitzpatrick is turning heads with what he's been able to piece together.

His golf book "A Beautiful Friendship" -- which is about much more than golf, he is quick to point out -- is making the rounds, and a short story of his will be featured in this year's Dylan Days literature showcase and publication. (The piece, "Catharsis," was nudged out of the top spot in the "open fiction" category by Kate Baggott, a Canadian writer living in Germany.)

Like the characters in "The Jeffersons," Fitzpatrick's movin' on up -- taking his game to the next level and, thanks to the increasingly visible Dylan Days competition, getting his name out there.

"My mother, who passed away in 2004, had always wanted to be a writer, and I think that's kind of driven me to try to make it happen ... as sort of a living memorial to her," said Fitzpatrick, an instructor at Mesabi Range Community & Technical College in Virginia. "She was very much a word person."

"Catharsis" opens with Fitzpatrick telling his brother, "Let's go." That simple instruction launches one of the most loaded and combustible short stories in some time. At face value, it is merely the tale of an uneasy, temperamental sibling canoe trip with a side of fisticuffs, but it packs quite the punch: its "negative space" is chock full of, well, Fitzpatrick.


"There are all these little touchstones from my life that most people won't get -- and that's just fine," he told the Budgeteer. "I hope they're seen as sort of a seamless sequence of events that reveal the healing power of nature."

For example, he throws in a couple of Larry Weber-worthy bird observations for his brother, who runs the ornithology lab at Cornell University.

"It's a little bit of family history masquerading as a story about how nature can facilitate communication," the author said. "It's kind of an honor piece, honoring my affection for the canoe country, honoring my affection for my brothers and, to a degree, there's a little bit of honoring our mother and the difficulty we had as a foursome in caring for her when we were at different locations in the country.

"Again, it's sort of a hodgepodge of themes from my life, all kind of positioned in the quiet environment of canoe country."

Fitzpatrick's love for that area of the state stems all the way back to the '60s, when the St. Paul native worked at a canoe camp near the Gunflint Trail for a couple of summers.

"I have always wanted to take a canoe trip with my brothers, and this was kind of one way of doing it," he added.

As strong as its family narrative is, though, one of the strongest passages in "Catharsis" comes when Fitzpatrick connects with nature in one of the most "intriguing" ways.

"What's most memorable about the story for me is the scene in which I am using a latrine in the woods on a quiet morning and I look up square into the eyes of this deer," the former Marshall School teacher recalled, explaining that this five-years-in-the-making tale contains elements from many stages of his life. "As the years have gone by -- as the decades have gone by -- I remember that scene as one in which nature sort of spoke to me in fairly dramatic ways. I have always wanted to put that into a story."


As evidenced by his book "A Beautiful Friendship," Fitzpatrick doesn't just limit himself to short stories. In fact, his work is rather multi-modal: he's been cooking up a young adult novel since he started writing back in the late '80s, and the Harvard-educated wordsmith has also penned a good number of poems about Bob Dylan. (Strangely, Fitzpatrick pointed out, when he took home the second-place poetry prize at last year's Dylan Days, it wasn't for one of his poems about the Hibbing festival's namesake.)

"I do have a lot of ideas steeping in my head about things to write about," said Fitzpatrick, who makes the commute up to the Range on a daily basis. "... I'm anxious to try play writing. I guess you can say I'm a dilettante, in that I don't really specialize. I get pleasure out of all, both poetry and prose, and I sort of do them, more or less, on a whim."

Phil Fitzpatrick's "A Beautiful Friendship: The Joy of Chasing Bogey Golf," published by Duluth's Calyx Press, has been nominated for a Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. This year's NEMBA festivities kick off at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, May 17, with a book fair at UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center (where Fitzpatrick and other authors will be signing their labors of love). Get the full schedule by visiting .

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