‘Blue Bottle’ marks literary leap for Jill Sheeley
Aspen Times Weekly
ASPEN ” In “The Blue Bottle,” Fraser the yellow lab and his mistress Courtney are off on their biggest adventure yet. This time the pair, well-known as the heroes of a series of children’s books set in the mountains and rivers around Aspen, move to the Caribbean, encounter kidnappers, guns and smugglers, and rescue a lost and lonely teenage girl. For Courtney, there is even romance in the air.
The book is also a major adventure for Jill Sheeley ” mother of Courtney, former owner of Fraser (who died last year, at 14) and writer of the “Adventures of Fraser the Yellow Dog” series. With “The Blue Bottle,” the Aspenite moves on from kid’s books ” big type, loads of colorful illustrations, with a lovable dog as the star ” to her first novel. A young adult novel, yes, but it brought Sheeley to a new realm as a writer. Her research included extensive conversations with sailors, residents of the British Virgin Islands, Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, and an array of teenagers. She created storyboards to keep track of the plot, which occurs for the most part in two separate places and tracks two different 15-year-old girls: Sheeley’s real-life 15-year-old, Courtney; and Natalie, a teenager anxious to escape a troubled home life in Florida. The page count jumps from 30 or so to 266 (even as the type shrinks and the illustration element shrinks drastically). And instead of Fraser and the young pup Maggie saving the day, Sheeley has put people at center stage.
“The dogs play a minor role. They’re part of the family,” said Sheeley, whose output also includes a pair of Aspen-centric cookbooks, and “The World According to Fraser,” a humorous and slightly risque memoir of life at the Sheeley’s. “And Fraser, of course, leads Courtney to the bottle. But big yellow labs and a sailboat don’t really go together.”
The bottle Sheeley refers to is a fictional one ” the bottle that Natalie, stranded alone on a sailboat moored at an uninhabited island, stuffs with a message pleading for help; the bottle that Courtney finds, leading to Natalie’s rescue. But a real-life bottle plays a pivotal role in the backstory to the novel.
Sheeley was kayaking in the Caribbean when she noticed a bottle following her. Anywhere she turned, there it was, on her tail.
“And I’m one of those people who believe in signs,” she said. “So I picked it up and said, OK, what do you want from me? It said, ‘It’s time to do a novel. You can still do the children’s books, but now is the time to write about me.'”
Sheeley proved just how much she believes in signs by beginning the outline to the story that very day, and putting words on paper within the week. She knew most of the essential elements instantly: Courtney; a one-year trial for the family in the Virgin Islands (where the real-life Sheeleys spend a good deal of time); sailboats. And, of course, a blue bottle.
“But I knew there was another person. Another girl,” said Sheeley, who has lived in Aspen since 1970. “I didn’t know who she was, where she lived, what her story was. So in my journal, I’d write those questions. And for months, I didn’t get anything.”
So she focused on the half of the story she did know ” about Courtney’s childhood vacations in the Caribbean, the move to a tiny island, the correspondence with her boyfriend Nick. And when the mystery character finally announced herself months later, Sheeley made out that she was Natalie, a girl in South Florida with a crummy life, looking for an adventure.
“Once her voice came through, it came loud and clear,” said Sheeley. “She took over.”
Sheeley was then on her own, and in unfamiliar waters, to come up with a story, especially the part about how Courtney and Natalie meet. Sheeley concocted a tale in which Natalie joins an ocean-going medical mission, an adventure foiled by drug runners, a kidnapping and storms. She began to think the tale went overboard, until she began picking the brain of a friend, an accomplished sailor who told her that all of those things had happened to him.
“The Blue Bottle” is also Sheeley’s first experience with a subtext to the story. Coming up with one wasn’t difficult: She is a writing and reading fanatic who holds writing contests in local schools and never passes on an opportunity to read to groups of kids. So her novel is built on letter-writing and journaling.
Courtney and Natalie, noted Sheeley, “are both stuck in situations where they’re off the computer; cell phones don’t work. They get into writing. Writing letters.”
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The city of Aspen and Pitkin County are partnering to buy a 274-acre tract of land off McLain Flats for $10 million on property owned by longtime residents Carolyn and Tom Moore.