by Cara Godlesky
For some, an occupation can defines their life, requiring all their energy and inspiration, leaving nothing for pursing their dreams. Islander Jim Sulzer proves that if one’s passion for something is strong enough, success can be attained.
James Sulzer, also known as Jim, taught on Nantucket for nearly 30 years until his retirement in 2015. He dedicated 21 years to Nantucket Elementary School and 8 to the Nantucket New School. Sulzer thoroughly enjoyed teaching, but his true passion is writing.
Sulzer first came to the island in 1982 to pursue his dream of becoming an author, but life got in the way. Needing to provide for his family, Sulzer worked in scalloping and carpentry, but soon realized he was not well suited for those industries. When he saw a help-wanted ad in the local newspaper for a writing teacher, he decided to try his hand at teaching.
“I went in for an interview and they put me in a class and within five minutes I realized, wow, this should be my profession,” said Sulzer. “It was one of those strange things where I really knew right away that I loved interacting with the kids and being in this role.”
During his decades as a teacher, Sulzer never gave up on his writing. During his first few years of teaching, he had his first book published, Nantucket Daybreak. The book depicts island life as it tells a tale of two summer workers employed on a scalloping boat, and shows how romance, affairs, and actions can affect a small community.
From Sulzer’s first book in 1988 to his most recent book published in 2016, The Card People, he grew as an author and fine-tuned his writing process.
“I think the main thing I’ve learned is that I write better when I don’t have a clear plot ahead of time. I do best when the characters just come alive, and I just follow them as they walk and talk and do things,” said Sulzer. “I might have a general shape of the story in the back of my mind, but if I try to plot things out ahead of time, I don’t think I do as good of a job…It’s not interesting enough.”
In addition to developing his style, Sulzer has also written different genres. His second book, Mom Comes Home, is a memoir recalling his family’s experience of a mother-in-law moving in with them after she had a stroke. The book, published in 2002, is a relatable story for many who have family member with illnesses or aging family members who need increasing care. “All of us either will be caring for relatives or be cared for by relatives at some point and there’s a lot of issues to deal with and surmount and just face in whatever way you can. It’s just life,” said Sulzer.
Sulzer’s style evolved once more after the release of Mom Comes Home. He injured his back in 2001 and found himself less mobile than before. To occupy his time as he recovered, he dove into the works of Emily Dickinson. Sulzer found that reading Dickinson’s literature was one of the few activities that took his mind off his back injury.
“Basically Emily Dickinson’s work was the only thing I could read that took me away the pain—her writing is so intense and so good that I got totally enthralled,” Sulzer explained.
Inspired and curious about Dickinson’s life and work, Sulzer formulated the concepts for his third book, The Voice at the Door. He decided to write this novel based on research, letters, and poems surrounding Dickinson’s life. The book is a fact-based novel that tells of a love story between Dickinson and a noteworthy Presbyterian preacher, Charles Wadsworth.
“I felt such an inner focus, even though I didn’t know what would happen or anything [as I wrote the novel]. I felt I had read so much of her poetry and I wanted to incorporate some of her style in the flow of my work, and I just felt that I was able to find that balance,” said Sulzer on his time writing the book.
Sulzer’s most recent book, The Card People, is a whimsical, sci-fi adventure that was influenced during one of his experiences while teaching. Sulzer was on a hiking trip with the fifth grade class of Nantucket New School. The kids requested a bedtime story and Sulzer wove a tale together about card people and their enemies, the scissor people, both main elements within the book. The students enjoyed the story so much, they suggested that he make it into a book for young readers. Bringing his two chosen professions together, Sulzer wrote a draft, and had those fifth-graders read, critique, and give their feedback on the book, chapter by chapter. Part one of a trilogy, The Card People is ideal for readers age nine and older.
Sulzer enjoyed the three decades he spent teaching youth on Nantucket, but empty pages were calling him to write. Now in his retirement, he’s able to devote even more time to his passion.
Sulzer’s books are available to purchase on-island at Nantucket Bookworks on Broad Street and Michell’s Book Corner on Main Street.