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Fiction career begins
4/11/2007 12:52:00 PM
by Jerry W. Engler
|Story released when Jerry Engler's first book was being released.
This is from a newspaper story by Don Ratzlaff of the Hillsboro Free Press when Just Folks: Earthy Tales of the Prairie Heartland was due for release.
Jerry Engler has been writing for newspapers and magazines for some 35
Now, with the pending release of his first book of fictional vignettes,
the veteran journalist says he’s finally doing the kind of writing he
was destined to do.
“If I had to look back at myself in school and say what I ought to be—or
what God intended me to be—I’d say this is it,” said the 58-year-old
rural Marion resident.
Engler’s book, titled “Just Folks: Earthy Stories of the Prairie
Heartland,” is a collection of 65 stories.
The official release of the produced by Print Source Direct, will coincide with next week’s Marion County Fair.
Engler plans to be at the Free Press booth in the Commercial Building to
sell and sign copies from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday through Friday,
Aug. 10-12. The book is available for $14.95.
The book’s title and sub-title may be the best way to categorize
Engler’s foray into fiction.
“I write about a bygone age that was close to me,” he writes in the
introduction. “I write about characters I think I knew. I write about
the characters who are still around us because part of what is easiest
to love about humanity is the uniqueness of the individual.”
Engler said the fodder for his stories are the people and experiences he
has encountered in his life—from his childhood days on a farm near
Topeka during the 1950s and early 1960s, and on through the various
stops he’s made during his long career as a Kansas journalist.
“The question I’m asked most often is whether the characters are real,”
Engler said. “Sometimes they are conglomerates of people who are real.
“My idea is that somebody who writes fiction and says their characters
are totally unreal are somewhat fooling themselves because you can only
base what you write on what you knew yourself.
“And I embellish on what I knew,” he added with a chuckle.
“Sometimes that’s what I say fiction is: a license to lie. After all
these years (of reporting facts as journalist), I get to lie a lot.”
During the three years he has been writing his stories as a Just Folks newspaper column, Engler
has introduced readers to a pantheon of colorful, down-home characters
with names such as Hard-Sell Harry, Aunt Edna, Bird and Harlan Medlam.
Several have made repeat appearances.
“Some of the characters have become so familiar to me that they become
almost persons themselves rather than just a character,” Engler said.
“Like now, I’d say Harlan Medlam is a real person to me.”
Engler said his preparation for being a fiction writer began as a child,
when he consumed books with an appetite far beyond his years. The works
of Jack London and John Steinbeck were among his favorites.
“I spent half my time reading books instead of studying,” he said. “I
read every Charles Dickens books our library had before I got out of
grade school. There were elements of his stuff that I might have
understood better later in life, but I read them anyway.”
After graduating from Auburn High School, Engler earned a degree from
Kansas State University in agricultural journalism in 1968. He then
started a graduate program at the University of Missouri. While there,
he met Belinda, whom he married in 1969.
Motivated to earn some income, the couple left grad school. Jerry
accepted a position with the Topeka Capital-Journal to cover Wabaunsee
and Pottawatomie counties, and later Osage County.
Purchasing the Enterprise Chronicle in Burlingame in the mid-1970s
started Engler on a journalism path that took him to subsequent stints
as a writer with Farm Talk (a four-state publication based in Parsons),
as editor of Kansas Country Living magazine, and as co-owner of the
Chase County Leader-News in Cottonwood Falls.
After selling his share of the Leader-News, Engler left full-time
journalism to begin a wholesale greenhouse business in Alma, and did
some free-lance writing on the side.
When Belinda was considering three job opportunities in education in
1991, she and Jerry picked the opening in Marion, an area they had come
to know and like during their stay at Cottonwood Falls.
Today, Belinda continues her work at the Marion County Special Education
Cooperative. Jerry, meanwhile, has been a part-time writer for the Free
Press since fall 2000, specializing in county and agricultural stories.
The Englers have three children—Ron, Sheri and Mark—and five grandchildren.
Daughter Sheri, a professional artist, collaborated with her father to
produce illustrations for the book.
“She’s very good,” said the proud father. “I used to draw a lot myself,
so I don’t know if (Sheri’s artistic talent) is genetic at all, or just
comes from living in the same house with a crazy guy.”
Engler said most of the hard work needed for fiction writing occurs
before he ever sits down at his home computer.
“I tell my family that when they see me sitting around like I’m
day-dreaming, I’m working right then and there,” he said. “One of my
favorite spots is on a rocker bench on the patio in front of the
house—with a cup of coffee and listening to birds.
“If I’m really good, my head’s already done all the work,” Engler added.
“All I have to do is go in and type it out in a couple of hours. If I
need more time, I’ve taken as long as nine or 10 hours.”
Engler said his stories are intended primarily to entertain.
“I enjoy them and I hope other people enjoy them,” he said. “I tell
people close to me that knowing other people read them and enjoy them
would mean more to me than making money from it.”
He added with a smile: “But I do like to get paid.”
Engler’s stories are often humorous and sometimes poignant. A few are
what he calls “gushy-gushy” sentimental. But almost all have some kind of twist at the end.
“Sometimes I have a twist in mind when I (sit down to write),” he said.
“But sometimes, like with Harlan Medlam, the characters surprise me,
too, and all of sudden I’m saying, ‘So that’s what he’s going to do in
“That’s why I say, in the best moments I sometimes feel like (the story)
comes from outside of me.”
Occasionally, Engler enters his stories as one of the characters.
“I haven’t really counted it out, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if
it’s not like one in five stories,” he said. “Some of my stories are
based on people I’ve talked to, so they’re autobiographical in that
sense. But some of them are more so.
“I’d say there’s a pretty strong element of me in Bird,” he added,
referring to one of his favorite characters. “Bird gets to do things I
might like to do myself.”
By all indications, Engler’s well-spring of stories won’t run dry
anytime soon. At one point, he said, he once sat down to write down the
ideas that were circulating in his head—and came up with a list of 100
in less than half an hour.
“I think I’m just natural that way,” he said of his productivity. “On
some days, the words are almost like dancers. They’re there and they
need to come out and need to flow.
“On other days, I’m the newspaper disciplinarian, just gutting it out
because I’m tired or something has happened. But it seems like once I
write the start of the story, it just takes over by itself.”
In either case, Engler said, he’s found his labor of love. He’s already
thinking about a second volume of his stories and has begun a
“I went for years and years without doing what I was supposed to be
doing,” he said. “Starting to do the stories was like it
released what I was supposed to do.”
Jerry W. Engler