Bill Sullivan, a fifth-generation Oregonian, sits in his wood-paneled basement, fielding emails from Oregon hikers. They’re sending him updates on trail conditions. Within eyeshot at his desk are his framed diplomas — one a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Cornell and the other a master’s degree in German from the University of Oregon. Kitty-cornered is a picture that his wife, Janell, recently painted of the Three Sisters mountains. Everything in his South University home has a story behind it — from a Salem governor’s office chair to the pipe organ to the autographed Ken Kesey novels. Surrounding him in the basement are easily a thousand copies of the 22 books he has written. They tumble over boxes and pave an obstacle course in the hallway.
Some of the emails he receives come out of annoyance, and others benevolence — but this time of year, they come almost daily.
Sullivan’s five-book series of "100 Hikes" guides to Oregon's trails was, essentially, his claim to fame. In 1987, Sullivan hiked every public trail he could find in Oregon to start these books. Several copies live on practically any bookshelf in an outdoors shop, bookstore or REI in Oregon. Today, he continually re-hikes the trails mentioned, keeping his guidebooks up to date — with the help of informative hikers and nature conservancy employees.
“Because of my background in creative writing, my hiking books did better than other ones out there,” Sullivan explained. “Even in a hiking guidebook, you’re telling stories. It has to be absolutely clear and it has to be entertaining.”
His guidebooks, while by far his most popular, are just the tip of the iceberg. Sullivan has written numerous novels and collections of short stories, ranging from flash-fiction to adventure memoirs to murder mysteries.
“The Ship in the Sand” is his most recent work, having been published mere weeks ago. It’s a historical novel about vikings in Denmark. In three weeks, he and Janell are going to Sicily for research on other Western European vikings.
Ingrained in his fiction work are his Oregon roots, whether they be true stories of the only unsolved hijacking in the history of the FBI (which took place at the Portland airport) or the Rajneeshee murders of the 1980s.
Around that time, in the early 1980s, Sullivan hadn’t yet started his writing career. He was teaching sophomore English at Sherwood High School — and, frankly, he hated it.
“I decided after one year teaching in Sherwood that I would rather do anything else in the world,” he said. “The kids didn’t care at all about Shakespeare.”
His wife Janell, who grew up in his hometown and was coincidentally also a teacher, encouraged Sullivan to quit his day job at the high school. If he did so, she promised to support him financially for seven years while he worked on his writing as a freelancer. With this she set strict boundaries. “If at the end of seven years you are not making a living as a freelance writer, you will get a job clerking at Kmart,” he remembers her telling him.
At the bottom of the seventh, Sullivan had written only one, largely unsuccessful novel. In the meantime, to make some semblance of income, he built bicycle trailers and sold them at the Saturday Market (of course, he later wrote a book about this). With mere weeks to spare in his seven year deal, Sullivan wrote his first hiking guide. Its success saved him from the Kmart cash register and landed him the prestige of having published one of Oregon’s 100 most significant books in the history of the state.
“If you’re going to be a freelance writer, you’ve got to have somebody that believes in you,” Sullivan said.
He could not have started his career without Janell’s support. She has since quit teaching and spends her time painting and illustrating, taking turns in their marriage to explore their respective artistic endeavors. Sometimes, she helps Sullivan with his books, researching parallel to him as he writes.
When he isn’t researching vikings in Western Europe, organizing author events or backcountry skiing, he is working on his books. This means sending off masses of manuscripts to a factory in Salem for publication or making maps for his guidebooks — but more often than not, it’s writing.
His strategy to success is to write early. “If you go to bed with a problem, or a plot that isn’t working, then in those drowsy morning hours when you don’t want the alarm clock and you don’t want your wife to wake you up and talk to you, there’s an hour or so when your brain solves all these problems and comes up with ideas.” Most of all, though, always write before lunch.