Larry LaRue

Art imitates life, as South Sound novelist draws on experience as teacher, coach and student

A man who likes to fill his hours, Jason McWhirter makes wine in his University Place garage and ties flies there for later use on rivers and streams across the Northwest.

McWhirter teaches history at Curtis Junior High School, a family tradition. For 12 years before that, he taught and coached wrestling and soccer at Key Peninsula Middle School — and directed 26 stage productions for the drama department.

And then, there’s his writing.

“I began writing about 15 years ago, putting together ‘The Cavalier Trilogy,’ ” McWhirter said. “I chose fantasy because I was always a fan; it was a genre I loved as a kid, and still do.

“I created a world, a magic system, and over a 10-year period wrote all three books.”

When it came time to publish, he listened to authors’ horror stories, tales of rejection after rejection on the long path to acceptance.

“I never went into writing for the money. I did my research. I listened, and made the decision to self-publish,” McWhirter said. “That gave me control of everything —including the book covers, which I helped design. All told, I’ve probably sold 7,000 copies.”

He might have done better if he’d put more time and effort into marketing, but he was already in charge of writing, editing and design. And all of that was his second job.

Now, McWhirter has written a new book, and followed the advice to write what you know.

“ ‘The Life of Ely’ is a coming-of-age story, a story about hope and inspiration and what teachers can do for kids beyond the classroom,” McWhirter said. “It’s a novel about a wrestling coach who reached out to a troubled student.”

The book takes place at Key Peninsula Middle School, where McWhirter was a teacher and coach and, before that, a student.

“I was born in California but don’t remember it because we moved to Gig Harbor when I was 3,” he said. “My mother taught at Key Peninsula Middle School, my father at Curtis Junior High.”

A Peninsula High grad, McWhirter is now 43. Wearing shorts and sitting on his backyard patio, he is a man fond of his two dogs and tolerant of wife Jody’s two cats.

When he first began teaching at Key Peninsula, his mother was still there. There was an unnerving confusion at times, with people thinking the two McWhirters were husband and wife.

“Either she looked young or I looked a lot older than I am,” he said.

His parents have since retired and moved to Central Washington, where mother Linda is his toughest editor. Asked what led to his writing, McWhirter beams.

“My writing began as a teenager playing Dungeons and Dragons. That was the foundation, creating characters and magic. I’ve had a lot of inspirations.”

“I teach history, and use history to inspire my writing. I looked at the Protestant-Catholic conflict and turned it into a fantasy world where there is religious conquest and economic conflict.

“My writing has improved with each book. My writing is cleaner now. I’ll use fewer words to say the same thing.”

McWhirter has four books for sale, and may be just warming up.

“I’m already working on another fantasy series, and it’s traditional Tolkienesque. There are dragons and a magic system. I love creating new worlds, and I’m working on a magic system based on auras,” he said.

When McWhirter began writing “The Life of Ely,” he said he knew better than to expect his growing number of fantasy followers to buy a novel in another genre. And he was right — he said sales started slow and have begun growing through word of mouth.

Next week in Gig Harbor, he will give a public talk about writing, and he will sign copies of his books.

“I’m not sure whether I’ll be talking to 10 people, 20 people or none,” he said.

One thing McWhirter is certain of: He won’t give up his day job.

“I still love teaching, enjoy my peers and my students,” McWhirter said. “My writing has a long way to go. I’m learning. But I remember when my first box of books arrived from the publisher, and I opened it and thought, ‘God, that looks so good!’ ”