Madison College instructor inspired by nature



John Galligan at the Yahara Journal’s recent Writer’s Workshop event.

Brian McNeil, Contributor

A bespectacled man wearing a well-worn ballcap relaxes in a camp chair near a narrow ribbon of tranquil water flowing through a lush, green, tree-lined valley. He stares at a blinking cursor atop a stark white page of computer paper.

Nature speaks to those who listen. Red-winged blackbirds’ trilling fills the air as swift-flowing, trout-filled water gurgles along, filling the verdant countryside with calming sounds.

The Bad Axe River and southwest Wisconsin both inspire creativity. This special driftless area is an unpredictable muse of gentle, bubbly currents and great raging torrents.

Fingers suddenly reach out, strike familiar keys on the keyboard, create ideas, create scenes, create lives for another “Bad Axe River” novel.

John Galligan: author, teacher, shares his favorite place, his writing muse, and his support of struggling booksellers, while relaxing at his home on the Bad Axe River. An A-frame camper, a lounge chair and a laptop on which he creates his crime novels. This YouTube glimpse of Galligan’s camp area and workspace on the Bad Axe River provides the example of his inspiration for the setting of this Bad Axe novel series. A deep, swift trout stream meanders through the rich, green valley alive with birds chirping during the day and frogs croaking at night. According to Galligan, “I don’t always work here, but when I’m not working here, I wish I was.” Galligan prefers wide-open spaces over city lights.

Galligan joined me from his sun-filled, Madison home office to talk about his Bad Axe County crime novel series and life in general.

Natural light from south-facing windows fills Galligan’s office. The sunlight illuminates his wall of books, his office desk, and his brown, well-padded reclining chair. When first met, Galligan shows his preference for the outdoors with his flannel jacket and worn ballcap. Not long from now, Galligan says, he will spend his nights in southwest Wisconsin’s Driftless area, specifically the coulees near the Mississippi River. He prefers to camp beside the Bad Axe while writing. This tranquil scene in southwest Wisconsin’s coulees inspires Galligan to write about murder, desperate people and unlikely heroes who just happen to be his neighbors.

In contrast with his desire to be outdoors, Galligan has lived and worked near Madison since 1987 or 1988. Galligan was unsure exactly when he started teaching at MATC, but he claims at least thirty-three years as a Madison College teacher. Galligan says the school transitioned from downtown to the original Truax campus before he began his career, and he spent many years at Madison College Truax during his early days. Galligan moved to the downtown campus later in his career when the opportunity presented itself. Galligan preferred the downtown campus and spent several years right in Madison. Galligan shows his preference for the outdoors while comparing the original Truax and downtown campuses. Galligan said, “The biggest difference downtown was the windows and the feel of the building itself.” When pressed about where he prefers to work, Galligan says, “I’d rather not be in an office at all.”

When asked about the lure of mystery and crime writing, Galligan says, “The mystery series was sort of an accident. I really just stumbled into this genre.” Galligan found “The Cat Who Sniffed Glue” by Lilian Jackson Braun while living in Japan. Galligan said, “I picked the damn thing up because I was so bored, and I hated it, but I couldn’t put it down either.” According to the people at Goodreads, a literary-based social networking platform, Braun’s cat novel exposes murder in a sleepy place solved with help from affluent cats. Galligan chuckled and said, “I read the whole thing in like an hour. That really woke me up.” Galligan says Braun helps him realize that his favorite genre to read is not the genre he writes.

Galligan wrote his first book “Red Sky Dragonfly” after living for a year in Japan. He wrote “Red Sky Dragonfly” to answer a question asked by almost everyone he met upon returning from the crowded island. Galligan says, “So, how was Japan?” became the most frequently asked question, and some people found his answer boring. Galligan said he wanted to make people hear his story, and “through narrative, through the power of story,” he was able to make people really listen. In case you wonder, Galligan denies being a character in his first novel but does credit his crime writing style to a book that he came upon by happenstance while in Japan.

Galligan’s next book release for “Bad Moon Rising” is June 29. “Bad Moon Rising” is the third book in the Bad Axe book series and Galligan’s seventh mystery novel. Galligan says he never set out to pen crime novels, but when he wrote “The Nail Knot,” the first in his fly-fishing mystery series, Galligan said, “I had a blast doing it.” Galligan says “The Nail Knot” was well received by reviewers and consumers alike. The untitled book he is working on now will be the eighth mystery/crime novel and the fourth in the Bad Axe novel series.

Galligan is pragmatic when it comes to the popularity of his books. When asked about his book or books being bestsellers, he downplays any financial success measured by actual sales figures. Galligan says, “You don’t just get on the New York Times Best Seller list. You need to sell,” and humbly continues to speak well of his fans, “People like the book, and I think it is well regarded and well received.” He hopes that his stories will follow through previous readings and word of mouth but does not rely on repeat business for his success. Galligan has forged a television deal with Skydance, a major Hollywood studio involved with the “Mission Impossible” series, possibly leading to a television series.

Skydance purchased “Bad Axe County” and “Dead Men Dancing” options, Galligan’s first two Bad Axe books. That means Galligan’s books might be made into a television series-type, which grants a wider audience exposure to his written works. According to Galligan, “If that happens…we can expect the books to sell.” For now, Galligan is secure in knowing that his work is recognized as relevant to our visual community. Galligan’s pragmatism showed some more when he said, “Being optioned is a good thing, but it doesn’t guarantee anything will be made.”

Between teaching and writing about murder, Galligan raises awareness for small bookshop owners and employees in the upper Midwest. Galligan provided a look into his private life and thoughts through his involvement with Inside for Indies and his support of the Madison College Yahara Journal’s “Annual Banned Book Week.” Galligan wants all those involved with literary creation and distribution to flourish.

Several authors, including Galligan, give a short video asking for help and support of small businesses. Inside for Indies is an effort by authors and sellers to provide support for small bookstores through the COVID-19 crisis. In Galligan’s YouTube video, he uplifts his favorite Madison bookstore, Mystery to Me, while ads asking people to help The Book Cellar, a bookstore in Chicago, and binc, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, appear on the screen. The binc foundation assists bookstore and comic bookstore employees who suffer from unexpected adverse circumstances or need assistance with career development. Galligan adamantly supports independent booksellers because, he says, “It’s the independent bookstore owners that, they sell your book.”

Galligan also supports the effort to remove censorship of novels. He participated in Fall 2020, Yahara Journal’s Equity Project. The Equity Project opposes the banning of books, raising awareness of the practice. Events across the country to raise awareness include readings and other events at libraries and colleges meant to inspire bans’ removal. Galligan says last fall he worked with the Yahara Journal to raise awareness of banned books and the practice of reversing those bans by reading for a YouTube audience some of his favorite forbidden book, Lillian Smith’s “Strange Fruit.” “Strange Fruit” was censored because of interracial love and sexual content between a white man and a black woman.

Galligan is a founding member of the Yahara Journal. Galligan says his fiction class was the original editing staff, and though he is no longer involved, he speaks fondly of the Yahara and encourages student involvement. Regarding his current involvement, Galligan said, “in the sense of encouraging students to submit” to the Yahara, “and if they have events, I’ll get involved.

Galligan advises young writers to work consistently and for long hours, and his relaxing lifestyle along the Bad Axe River is proof of his good advice. Galligan said, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write. You need to read and write and stick with it.” He continues to advise that, “To gain the proficiency…it can be a long journey.” Galligan looked back on his own life and said, “I had no realistic idea of how hard I would have to work,” and “there is no such thing as instant success.”

Remember, if you want to find Galligan, he prefers to relax and write in his river place. The river is his preferred place, and Galligan said he lives “So on it, that my camper is chained to a tree, so the river doesn’t come up and take it.” While Galligan gains inspiration and writes near the Bad Axe River, his successes are measured by moments of tranquility and his time spent in communion with his Bad Axe muse.