John Galligan and his fishing buddy thought the guy looked interesting. He was standing by the side of the trout stream, as gnarled and weathered as a wind-blown birch. This was a guy who had been around a few blocks.
Galligan, who teaches writing at Madison Area Technical College, and likes stories, asked the man if he wanted to come by their campfire that night for a beer.
"I don't drink," he said.
"We have soda," Galligan said.
Sitting near the fire, the man contemplated his soda and said, "I think I'll have a beer."
Which he did. And then another, and a third. He was a retired cop. His stories, interesting at first, lost their focus. He began to repeat himself.
"He was a trout bum," Galligan was recalling Tuesday. "It was sort of disturbing and sad."
It was also a revelation for Galligan, who had been struggling to find a protagonist for the fly-fishing mystery novel he very much wanted to write.
Galligan had written an entire manuscript around an erudite and semi-reclusive fly-fisherman who reluctantly got involved in helping unravel a local murder.
"It didn't have any teeth in it," Galligan said.
After the encounter at the side of the trout stream, Galligan began to envision a flawed protagonist who clings to the beauty and rituals of fly-fishing as a way of not facing the true emptiness of his life. A man with a past, and a character worth exploring. Put an unexplained dead body nearby, and you might have yourself a mystery with some weight. Ned "the Dog" Oglivie was born.
The Dog is the hero - maybe anti-hero is better - of Galligan's acclaimed series of fly-fishing mysteries, the third of which, "The Clinch Knot," will be published next week by Madison-based Bleak House Books.
A pre-publication starred review of "The Clinch Knot" in Publishers Weekly called the novel "stunning." Bleak House is planning a launch party Oct. 4 at its offices on Williamson Street, and Galligan will discuss and sign the novel the next day at an event at Booked for Murder.
"It's a fun time for a writer," Galligan said. "You get to come up out of the basement and talk to people."
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Galligan, 50, was born in Spokane, Wash., and grew up there and in Portland. "That's where I got my fishing habit," he said.
Galligan moved to Madison with his family when his father, who worked in the lumber industry, took a job with the Forest Products Lab. John attended UW-Madison and got his degree in environmental science, but even before graduation, he had been drawn to literature, and writing."I knew in my heart at that point I was undergoing a career shift," he said, "before I had a career."
He worked for a year on a newspaper in Hayward - "an intense job that was really good for me" - and eventually got a master's degree in literature at UW-Madison.
All the while, he was reading - Updike, Nabokov, and writers like Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane who shared his fishing obsession.
Galligan called McGuane's "Ninety-Two in the Shade" a "seminal book for me. It let me know I could be serious, a smart-ass, a fisherman, a writer - and a man."
Galligan wrote a literary novel - "Red Sky, Red Dragonfly" - informed by a year he spent teaching in Japan.
He has enjoyed his lengthy stint at MATC, calling teaching "a terrific job. Hard. And never a dull moment with the students."
Ever since his parents' move, he had fished the Madison lakes, but the trout streams of southwestern Wisconsin were a revelation. Galligan has developed a reverence for the combination of mental and physical skills required to take a trout on a fly-line.
He calls "The Nail Knot," the first novel in his fly-fishing mystery series, "a sweet book" that involved the Dog in a romantic relationship.
The second book, "The Blood Knot," was darker. The Publishers Weekly review called it "grim but rewarding," noting that Galligan wrote "with flair and passion about fly-fishing, art and fate."
Galligan said the new novel, "The Clinch Knot," set in and around Livingston, Mont., is the most ambitious. In it, readers will begin to learn something of the Dog's tormented past.
The author thinks there will be one more novel in the series, set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan - Hemingway country.
Galligan spent two weeks there this summer doing research. He sought out the Fox, believed to be the river Hemingway was writing about in his classic Nick Adams story, "The Big Two-Hearted River."
The story is about Nick trying to move on from his experience in the war, and yet the story never mentions the war.
Galligan fished the Fox, looking to feel what Nick felt. What he found might show up in the new novel. If nothing else, it will make a good story sitting around a cam pfire next to a stream.