I know, I know. The holidays are coming up way too fast. It's the season of gratitude, and yet your mind is all caught up in that holiday gift-giving extravaganza that begins...well, let's not go there.
This year, how about mixing it up, gratitude with gift list, by showing some love to your favorite independent bookshop? On Saturday, Nov. 29, Indies First brings authors into local bookstores to help hand-sell books. I'm excited to be joining Eowyn Ivey and Don Rearden, playing bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer.
Saturday is the second annual Indies First celebration, an effort launched by bestselling author Sherman Alexie and taken up by the American Booksellers Association. The plan, as Alexie explains it:"We book nerds will become booksellers. We will make recommendations. We will practice nepotism and urge readers to buy multiple copies of our friends' books...I think the collective results could be mind-boggling (maybe even world-changing)...What could be better than spending a day hanging out in your favorite hometown indie, hand-selling books you love to people who will love them too and signing a stack of your own?"
I'm with Alexie - not much could be better. Indies First plays right into one of my secret but (usually) suppressed urges: to tug the sleeves of strangers whenever I spot titles I love on the shelves of a bookstore.
Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored more than a dozen books. Her most recent is Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. Portions of this post have been published previously.
Would you like to write a guest post relevant to Alaska’s literary community? Email 49writers (at) gmail.com or debvanasse (at) gmail.com.
Cinthia RitchieIn the spirit of gratitude as we look forward to Thanksgiving, here's a popular post on giving back, first published in 2009, by author Cinthia Richie. Growing up, I read all the time. I read while riding my horse and when I was supposed to be feeding the calves. I read during baling harvest and on the long bus rides to and from school. What I remember more than those books, however, is the first time I connected with an author. I was eight-years-old and sitting in a poplar tree reading My Friend Flicka when suddenly it hit me: Mary O’Hara struggled with the same feelings as I did.
For years I wanted to write her a letter, but I never did. Unfortunately, that pattern stuck and throughout the next 30 odd years, I read books that caused me to laugh, moved me to tears and even scorched pieces of my soul, and all the while I wanted to pick up the phone, call the author and say, “Hey, listen, are you free for lunch next Tuesday?”
I never did this. I was too shy, and I was afraid too, that old negative voice from my childhood taunting me: Who do you think you are?
Indeed, who did I think I was to imagine Margaret Atwood, Jim Harrison, Mary Gordon, Lauren Slater or Susan Cheever would want to hear from me?
But that all changed after my sister died eight years ago. It suddenly hit me that time was running out, that there was no guarantee in life, that if someone’s words moved me it was my right, my honor, my obligation as a reader to reach out and say: I heard you.
The first author I wrote to was Kathryn Harrison, both because I loved her work and because my sister had sent me Thicker Than Water a few months before she died. I was nervous writing to Harrison and drafted at least 10 emails before finally summoning up the courage to hit the Send button.
Two days later, Kathryn Harrison wrote back and thanked me for my “very kind words” about her work. And a few weeks after that, someone sent me her own note of thanks for a poem I had published in a literary magazine. I cried reading that email because I knew exactly how that woman felt.
Since then, I have tried to make it a habit to thank the authors and writers who move me. I send little notes and let them know how much their words meant, and sometimes, I must admit, I become carried away. “Thank you, thank you,” I’ll write. “You are beautiful, you are wonderful, and your words have changed my life in ways you will never understand.”
Sometimes I even sign these, “Love, Cinthia.” Because I do love these people. I hold their words in my heart.
There were times when life got in the way and by the time I revisited an author’s work and thought, once again, that I must send her a note, it was too late. This happened with two of my favorite writers, Judith Moore, who wrote the memoir Fat Girl and Caroline Knapp, who wrote the memoir Drinking: A Love Story. I still regret this. I truly believe that had I ever met either of these remarkable women, we would have been great friends.
Anne Sexton once said that all writers are connected and that our words come from the same place, be it God or some type of creative universal force, and our jobs as writers are to write and somehow, our words would find themselves to the very person who needs them the most. Perhaps that is true because I’ve noticed the oddest thing: Whenever I thank a writer, I’ll soon receive a thanks of my own from a reader in Kansas or Canada, Germany or Texas or once, even South Africa. It’s almost as if I’m setting off a type of writerly pay it forward. And always these thanks come when I’m at a low point, when I’m feeling alone and lost and ready to give up.
Since I began seriously writing ten years ago, I’ve received hundreds of letters and even a few phone calls thanking me for my words. Each was a gift, and each was cherished. My favorite was from a high school boy who commented on a newspaper column I had written about my love of solitude. This boy wrote that he had always felt ashamed for wanting to spend so much time by himself, that he had always felt different. Then he thanked me. He said he no longer felt so alone.
This is why we all write, not for ego or recognition, not even for a paycheck or a few free copies of whatever literary journal has picked up our work. We write to touch people, to open their eyes, to let them know that somewhere out there is someone who feels as they do.
Which is why I think it’s essential for writers to reach out and thank other writers. Our job is so often solitary and thankless, and no one congratulates us on completing another page or cleaning up another chapter. We send our words out in the dark to editors and publishers we’ve never met, and from there they are carried into the homes of people we don’t know. Writing makes us vulnerable. We receive so much rejection, so much criticism. We are all carrying such heavy loads of doubts.
So each time you read something that touches you, that makes you laugh or cry or see the world in a new way, please take a few minutes to send a quick note to the author. It doesn’t have to be long. It could be a Facebook posting or even a Tweet. It could be as simple as saying, “Thank you for your words.”
Author of Dolls Behaving Badly, Cinthia Ritchie writes and runs mountains in Anchorage, Alaska. She’s a former journalist, Pushcart Prize nominee, recipient of two Rasmuson Foundation Awards, a Connie Boochever Fellowship and residencies at Hedgebrook, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Hidden River Arts. She’s received the Sport Literate Essay Award, Memoir Grand Prize Award, Brenda Ueland Prose Award, Drexel Magazine Creative Nonfiction Award, Once Written Grand Prize Award, Orlando Prize second-place award, Writer’s Bridge second-place nonfiction award and Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Contest finalist. Her essay Running was awarded a Notable status in Best American Essays 2013.
Six weeks ago we announced that current Executive Director Linda Ketchum will be leaving 49 Writers at the end of December, and that the Board of Directors was seeking the right person to take over leadership of our small but rapidly growing nonprofit. We focused on recruiting someone from our literary community who could hit the ground running and had the right combination of skills and experience to continue the successful pursuit of the 49 Writers mission--supporting the artistic development of writers throughout Alaska, fostering a writing community, and building an audience for literature. Who might this person be? We were delighted by the level of interest from our membership and others, and it turned out to be a very competitive selection process. The search committee took great care to be thorough and thoughtful in arriving at its decision. Today we can reveal that the successful candidate is Morgan Grey, who is set to complete her MFA in Creative Writing at UAA this coming spring. Morgan is a founding member of 49 Writers and will be known to many of you through her participation in our writing classes and her work over the years as a volunteer in a variety of capacities, most recently as coordinator for the Tutka Bay Writers Retreat.
In addition to her demonstrated commitment to the organization and her passion for its work, Morgan brings to the job the expertise that 49 Writers needs as we move into our fifth anniversary year. Linda and Morgan will be working closely together during December to ensure a smooth transition, and Morgan will officially take over on January 1, 2015. Look for a full introduction to our next Executive Director soon. Meanwhile, do join us in congratulating Morgan for taking on this new role at 49 Writers with relish!
Thank you to everyone who submitted a course proposal for spring 2015. We are now reviewing all the options and starting to put a schedule of classes together. More news soon on our faculty for the next season and some of the topics we hope will further your learning and creative thinking. After the success of our first online course piloted this fall by Andromeda Romano-Lax (Your Novel Now), we are ready to expand the online menu!
It's time to give a shout out to Juneau--this week our membership there hit the 50 mark. Way to go, Juneau writers, and latest new member Erin Hanson! Your enthusiasm and support for 49 Writers is greatly appreciated, and we want to acknowledge in particular those of you who have made additional donations this year. We look forward to bringing new authors and events to the Southeast literary community in 2015.
Upcoming classes and events at 49 Writers
TOMORROW, Saturday, Nov. 22, 9am-12pm, 645 W. 3rd Avenue, Anchorage: Composition by Juxtaposition, creative writing workshop with Caroline Goodwin (Trapline), Alaska-born Caroline moved from Sitka in 1999 to attend Stanford as a Wallace Stegner fellow in poetry. She is currently serving as the first Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, CA and teaching in the MFA Writing program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Monday, Dec. 1, 6-9pm, Juneau Arts & Humanities Council: Composition by Juxtaposition, creative writing workshop with Caroline Goodwin. For more information and to register classes, visit our website.
Saturday, Dec. 6, 12-2pm, 645 W. 3rd Avenue, Anchorage: 49 Writers Lit Mag Sale! In recent years we have accumulated a library of literary journals through generous donations from members and other writers. Until we secure our own long-term space, we are going to share the wealth with our members rather than hide the journals away in a basement. A second sale will take place in Juneau at the Thursday, Feb. 5 meeting of the Juneau writers group. This is a great opportunity to get your hands on some of the journals that might be interested in publishing your work!
Events in Anchorage Mandy & Kirsten DixonTONIGHT, Friday, Nov. 21, 4-6pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: Former Teachers as Writers. Lynn Lovegreen, Deb Vanasse, Tam Agosti-Gisler and Julie Stafford discuss their books and the role of teaching in their writing. Julie Stafford is author of The Manual That Should Have Come With Your Child But Didn't: A Teacher's Guide to Healthy Parenting; Lynn Lovegreen is author of numerous young adult romance novels including Quicksilver to Gold, and author Deb Vanasse who has published more than a dozen books in a variety of genres including Lucy's Dance and Cold Spell. Joining the authors will be Tam Agosti-Gisler who will discuss Dona Marie Wolking Agosti's book Wilma, which is about a wolverine.
TOMORROW, Saturday, Nov. 22, 12pm, Barnes & Noble, Anchorage: 49 Writers board member Kristen Dixon and her daughter Mandy Dixon, take our taste buds on an Alaskan adventure in their newest cookbook, Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook! With seafood as the star of the cuisine, you're sure to find something to love. Come join us from noon to 3:00 pm.
Monday, Nov. 24, 5-7pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: Poet Carolyn Goodwin: Trapline. Caroline Goodwin was born and raised in Anchorage. She moved to California from Sitka in 1999 to attend Stanford University as a Wallace Stegner fellow in poetry. Her first collection of poetry, Trapline, was published by JackLeg Press in ,2013. Currently, she serves as the first Poet Laureate of San Mateo County, CA and also teaches in the MFA Writing program at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her first poem was published in the Anchorage Daily News in 1971. Wednesday, Dec. 3, 5-7pm, UAA Campus Bookstore: UAA Undergraduate English Students: Readings and Writings. Faculty chosen undergraduate creative writing students in the English Department come together to present their course work. Everyone is welcome to attend and be enchanted. All UAA Campus Bookstore events are informal, free and open to the public. There is free parking for bookstore events in the West Campus Central Lot (behind Rasmuson Hall), the Sports NW Lot. For more information call Rachel Epstein at 786-4782 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or see http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/bookstore/events. Note: UAA Campus Bookstore podcasts are posted in iTunes or iTunes U--just search UAA or UAA Campus Bookstore. Or see http://www.uaa.alaska.edu/bookstore/events/podcasts.cfm. Events around Alaska TOMORROW, Saturday, Nov. 22, 11:30am, Fireside Books, Palmer: Bill Sherwonit will and sign his new book Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife. These essays of memorable, astonishing—and in some instances, life-changing—encounters with wild animals are a reminder that nature’s wondrous wild surrounds us wherever we are. “Whether writing about grizzlies, dancing cranes, or mad hares, Bill Sherwonit enchants and inspires, reminding us that wildness surrounds us.” —Tim Folger, series editor, The Best American Science and Nature Writing. TOMORROW, Saturday, Nov. 22, 2-5pm, Hearthside Books, Juneau: Book Signing at the Hearthside Holiday Event. Contact Brenda Weaver: 789.2750. www.hearthsidebooks.com. TOMORROW, Saturday, Nov. 22, 8pm, Pioneer Park Civic Center Theater, Fairbanks: Dark Winter Nights has three storytellers lined up for this week's show! Bill Schnabel, Cloud Dancer (pen name) and Tomato (yes, a man named Tomato). Bill will talk about what happens when one-upping your neighbors goes a little too far. Cloud Dancer will talk about what it feels like to be dinner in a can. Tomato will tell a story about breaking up a fight between a couple of vicious rival gangs--of the wild kingdom sort. Not to be missed! Opportunities for Writers Cirque is offering two internships in Anchorage, running from December 1, 2015, through August 2015. A job description will be developed for each intern, based on their learning goals in publishing, editing, marketing, promotion, social media and event planning. Interested? Please send inquiries to the email below. The time involved would range upwards to 10 hours, weekly, but usually, just an hour or two. To apply for one of the positions, please send cover letter and resume to email@example.com Cirque internships are unpaid, but past interns report increased knowledge and skill, and an expanding circle of literary contacts and friendships.
When I called my father to tell him that I was switching my undergraduate major from Biomedical Engineering to English he remarked, “And how are you going to make a living?” If only I had known then about the myriad options for English majors, the unlimited prospects for those who have learned to craft language and extract meaning from text. But at the time, all I could do was stammer back that I guessed I’d be a teacher.
Twenty-two years later and I’m still teaching. In between, though, I’ve worked for slick multimedia firms in NYC and large software companies in San Francisco; for a while I wove rugs for a living, sold books, peddled them at the public library and was an event director for a small-town arts council. Throughout all of it, I’ve been a writer. When I told my father I wanted to change my major, it was because I wanted to learn to be a poet. I just wasn’t brave enough to say that I guessed I’d be a poet.
Teaching, especially in Alaska at the secondary level, is a particularly demanding task. To balance writing with teaching takes an iron will. None of the writers I know really think that you could do all of your writing on summer vacation when freed of the constraints of teaching. (I guess teachers shouldn’t admit to the amount of prep time they spend each summer on the upcoming school year). I suspect that many of the ways that I keep writing are the same as the writer/accountant or the writer/waitress.
A steadfast commitment. Having a strict dedication to your own writing is absolutely essential. Some folks have this inherently. For me, it took going back to school for my MFA before I could muster up the real commitment that writing takes. Before that, it was too easy to spend time correcting papers or creating spiffy lesson plans. If I wrote a poem, it was because I was inspired, not because I was really working on it. However, the Low-Residency MFA program that I attended made me prioritize my own writing. After all, I was spending good money on it, and folks were holding me to a deadline. Lots of them.
Let me be honest, teaching in small-town or bush Alaska is a time-consuming proposition. Currently, I teach eighth grade and tenth grade English Language Arts, AP Language and Composition (swapping on alternating years with World Literature), and Contemporary Literature. Oh, and the Yearbook/Journalism class. Yes, you read that correctly, five preps and a straight seven period day. I also am the Student Council adviser. I have roughly 130 students for whom I correct and grade, at the minimum, three assignments each week. Between creating lesson plans, grading papers and chaperoning after-school activities, there’s not a lot time left for writing. Hence, I am fiercely protective of the time that I commit each day. To be honest, it’s only an hour each evening, but it is always one hour. I read poetry and write something, even if it isn’t fabulous or finished or even recognizable as poetry.
In addition, I have changed the way that I think of myself. I used to think of myself as a teacher (or librarian or bookseller) who wrote poetry. Now I think of myself as a writer who is currently teaching. It may seem like semantics but the way we define ourselves in the world teaches people how to treat us. If I emphasize my writer self to the outside world, then I make room for writing in my inside world. Instead of spending every spare moment thinking about lesson plans, I am paying attention to what’s going on around me so that I have more fodder for poetry.
My writing life feeds my teaching. I write alongside my students and I let them watch me as I revise and edit my work. Instead of being the sage who imparts wisdom, I show them that a writer works hard at it. I demonstrate for them the techniques that I’m learning, and we all try to create a community of writers. Suddenly, I’m not the one who fixes up their writing, they are. I let them know that I don’t always know exactly what to write, or how to start, or even end for that matter. By emphasizing my life as a writer and all it entails, I give them permission to be writers as well. Writers don’t live in some magic world someplace else. They can look like a bedraggled English teacher on a Monday morning.
I had to give up the idea that I would publish a book and be on Oprah’s show. The writing life, it isn’t as glamorous as all that. But by acknowledging my writing as an essential part of my life, I’ve been able to make room for it along with my job as a teacher. Not easily, not without some sacrifices on all sides. But then again, does any writer have it easy? And if so, what on earth do they write about?
Interested in hearing more about how teachers succeed as writers? On Friday, Nov. 21 from 4-6 pm at the UAA Bookstore, former teachers Lynn Lovegreen, Deb Vanasse,Tam Agosti-Gisler and Julie Stafford will discuss their books and the role teaching has played in in their writing. Parking is free in the West Central and Sports NW lots. When this post first ran, Erin Hollowell was a secondary teacher in Cordova. Since then, she has been awarded a Rasmuson Foundation Fellowship by the Rasmuson Foundation and a Connie Boochever Award by the Alaska State Council on the Arts. She was awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Willapa Bay Artist in Residency Program in 2014. Currently, she lives in Homer, where she is an adjunct professor for the University of Alaska and on the faculty of the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference. Her work has most recently been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Weber Studies, Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environment, and Sugar House Review. Pause, Traveler released by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, is her first book-length collection.
“Are you sure about this?” my wife, Sherrie, breathed. She glanced over her shoulder toward the comforting glow of our house on the lake shore, then gazed ahead, where a black wolf stood on the ice in the gathering twilight. Bundled against the Southeast Alaska cold, we’d taken along just one of our three dogs—our female yellow Lab, Dakotah, who’d always been perfectly mannered and under voice control around wildlife, from bears to porcupines. Despite some understandable jitters, Sherrie was so thrilled she was about to jump out of her skin. After all these years of trying and not seeing, there it was: her first wolf. Perfect, I thought, and easier than it ever should be. But as we walked farther out on the ice, things changed. The wolf, instead of watching from the tree line as he had several times with me, angled toward us at a trot. Then he broke into a bounding lope, snow flying beneath his paws, jaws agape. I drew Sherrie toward me, and reached for Dakotah’s collar. My vision sharpened, and synapses crackled. I’d seen my share of wolves over the years, some point-blank close, and hadn’t quite shifted into panic mode. But anyone who claims he wouldn’t get an adrenaline jolt from a running wolf coming straight in, with no weapon and no place to run, and loved ones to defend, is either brain-dead or lying. In a few heartbeats, the wolf had closed the distance to 40 yards. He stood stiff-legged, tail raised above his back, his unblinking stare fixed on us—a dominant posture, less than reassuring. Then, with a moaning whimper, Dakotah suddenly wrenched free of the two fingers I’d hooked through her collar and bounded straight at the wolf. A tone of desperation sharpening her voice, Sherrie called again and again, but there was no stopping that dog. The Lab skidded to a stop several body lengths short of contact and stood tall, her own tail straight out, and as we watched, mouths open, the wolf lowered his to match. With the two so close, I had my first clear idea of just how large the wolf really was. Dakotah, a stocky traditional-style female Lab, weighed in at a muscular 56 pounds. The black wolf towered over her, more than double her weight. Just his head and neck matched the size of her torso. A hundred twenty pounds, I figured. Maybe more. The wolf stepped stiff-legged toward Dakotah, and she answered. If she heard our calls, she gave no sign. She was locked on and intent, but utterly silent—not at all her normal happy-Lab self. She seemed half-hypnotized. She and the wolf regarded each other, as if each were glimpsing an almost-forgotten face, and trying to remember. This was one of those moments when time seems to hold its breath. I lifted my camera and snapped off a single frame. As if that tiny click had been a finger snap, the world began to move again. The wolf’s stance altered. Ears perked high and held narrow, he bounced forward a body length, bowed on his forelegs, then leaned back and lifted a paw. Dakotah sidled closer and circled, her tail still straight out. The eyes of each were locked on the other. With their noses a foot apart, I pressed the shutter once more. Again, the sound seemed to break a spell. Dakotah heard Sherrie’s voice at last, and bounded back toward us, turning her back, at least for now, on whatever call of the wild she’d just heard. We watched for long minutes with Dakotah softly whining at our sides, staring toward the dark, handsome stranger who stood, staring our way and whining back, a high-pitched keening that filled the silence. Half-stunned, Sherrie and I murmured back and forth, wondering at what we’d seen, and what it meant.But it was getting dark—time to go. The wolf stood watching our retreat, his tail flagging, then raised his muzzle to the sky in a drawn-out howl, as if crushed. At last he trotted west and faded into the trees. As we walked toward home in the deepening winter evening, the first stars flickered against the curve of space. Behind us, the wolf’s deep cries echoed off the glacier.
If you’ve published a book, either the traditional way or on your own, you know what I mean by business creep: the way the business side of writing, especially promotion and marketing, can take over your life. For as much as we hear about buzz, there have to be limits to what we’ll do to get noticed. At the same time, we can’t abdicate completely the marketing side of the equation. “I can’t self-promote,” I’ve heard writers say. “That’s just not me. If my book can’t sell itself, then I just won’t write.” Like Harper Lee, they say, or J.D. Salinger. But today’s writers who think like this have for the most part will fail to thrive. A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of writing; Haruki Murakami, for one. But for most of us it’s a reality: we have to find the right balance between what we want to do—create—and what we must do—help sell our books. These days, much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is electronic. With ten million members, Goodreads is the largest site in the world for book recommendations. Compiled using data gathered from a title that launched with three Goodreads giveaways, a Goodreads post titled “The Anatomy of a Book Discovery” uses a color-spiked graph to show how one thing leads to another when it comes to book buzz. What’s harder to quantify is how good the book was to begin with: how timely, how well-conceived, how brilliantly rendered. Beyond the scope of the Goodreads analysis is how a “following” that’s built before a book is published, or even before it is written, plays into its eventual success. Among the advice passed around to emerging writers these days is that they must make a name for themselves: get a website, get on Facebook, get on Twitter, start a blog, get a following. At best, this advice is overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you from writing the book you must write. Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, some of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and blog followers will be among the first to buy your book when it comes out. And yes, a website shows you’re a professional. But you must absolutely guard your time. Even when you’re up and running and you’ve got a book or two under your belt, you should aim for spending no more than a quarter of your time on the business part of this grand adventure. If you’re an emerging writer who’s still pushing out that first million words ahead of your real publishable work, you should spend a whole lot less time on promotion. The exception: if you write for a specialized nonfiction market—growers of heirloom tomatoes, for instance—you’ll need to be recognized as an expert within the field in order to successfully pitch your book, so you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of your time getting recognized. While electronic buzz is huge, huge, huge, don’t forget that in the end what we’re really talking here are relationships. In that way, writing is no different than any other business. Your online presence must project the real you and your real book, because that’s what gets outted one way or the other. Fake reviews may sell a few titles, but if the book stinks, the readers won’t be back. A profile of Emma Straub by Eryn Loeb in Poets & Writers magazine brings this point home. After her first four novels were rejected, Straub got serious about the quality of her work, putting herself under the tutelage of Lorrie Moore. A small press, Five Chapter Books, published Straub’s first collection of short stories. She has more than ten thousand followers on Twitter. She posts regularly on the Paris Review Daily and on New York magazine’s culture blog Vulture. Yet she says it’s her job at an indie bookstore in Brooklyn that really taught her how to market her work, one reader at a time.
As you consciously, purposefully, strike a balance between creativity and business, consider that relationships are at the heart of both. What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to benefit you and your work. And there’s nothing creepy about that. Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored more than a dozen books. Her most recent is Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. Portions of this post have been published previously.
Would you like to write a guest post relevant to Alaska’s literary community? Email 49writers (at) gmail.com or debvanasse (at) gmail.com.
"I am sorry to say that ordinary scientific books are in nearly every case written by men who have no capacity to explain anything." Anchorage author Bill Streever set out in part to defy this assertion by Thomas Edison, writing a book on ordinary topic that has proved to be anything but ordinary. In fact, since hitting the shelves a couple of months ago, Streever's Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places has been something of a sensation. Not only did it garner a favorable review in the New York Times, but it also hit the top 30 on the NYT Bestseller List. Several reviews later, including one here at 49 Writers, we were still hearing from Alaskans wondering who Streever was and where he'd been hiding. As it turns out, he hasn't been hiding at all. In this post from our archives, he talks about his previous books, his Alaskan experience, and how he deals with both critics and success.
You have an extensive background in technical writing. What compelled you to move into mainstream nonfiction? Did you plunge right into a book, or did smaller projects precede it? To what do you attribute the nicely balanced style and voice in your prose?
A better question might be “What compelled you to move into technical writing?” Almost thirty years ago, when I was living in Asia, I was writing travel articles and short fiction for regional magazines, and I was writing about my work as a commercial diver. When I realized that I did not want to grow old working as a commercial diver, I hung up my diving helmet and went to college, entering a creative writing program but pretty quickly switching to biology. All of this led to graduate training in applied ecology. A big part of science is technical writing, but throughout this time I worked on articles for nontechnical audiences too. I wrote about the crayfish in Florida’s flooded caves, for example, and I wrote about restoring mangroves and salt marshes in Australia.
I’ve written several books now, but Cold is the first to find a major publisher and a wide audience. All of the books were preceded by smaller projects of one sort or another—often technical articles or semi-technical articles—so I suppose that I did not plunge right into any of them. But really the broad topics that interest me are well suited to books, and in my own reading I prefer books to articles or collections of essays, so it makes sense that I would lean toward books rather than smaller projects.
To what do I attribute the nicely balanced style and voice in my prose? First, thanks! But really I am not sure of an answer. Maybe spending years and years reading other authors paid off. While reading, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about style and voice. Also, I am a chronic reviser, always looking for a new way to say something and never satisfied with what I have done, and of course I think that must pay off as well, both by improving the piece at hand and by improving my own writing skills—after correcting my own mistakes five or six times, I make them less often. Lastly, throughout the writing process, from outlining to the final revision, I spend time thinking about how to connect with readers. Connecting with readers is important for any nonfiction writer, but it is especially important for those of us with a science background. The stereotype of a myopic scientist mumbling to himself or herself is based to some degree on reality, and of course that does not work at all for a mainstream audience. Thomas Edison once wrote:
“I generally recommend only those books that are written by men who actually try to describe things plainly, simply and by analogy with things everybody knows. I am sorry to say that ordinary scientific books are in nearly every case written by men who have no capacity to explain anything.” It would be fair to say that I did not want to write what Edison thought of as an ordinary scientific book.
What brought you to Alaska? How long have you been here? What were some of your first impressions, and how have they changed?
The question I keep asking myself is not “What brought you to Alaska?”, but rather, “Why did it take you so long to get here?” The first time I came was for a scientific meeting, the second time I came was for about five weeks of field work, and the third time I came (and stayed) was for the lifestyle and the geography, facilitated by a job offer. I’ve been here nine years and have no intention of leaving any time soon. Let’s face it, Alaska is an amazing place. My first impressions focused on the mountains and the oceans, on the brutal beauty of the landscape. Later I thought more about the ethereal beauty added by things like raging winds and hoarfrost and sun filtered through low clouds. I was also impressed by the people, on the one hand the somewhat transient population of Anchorage and much of the state, and on the other hand the long-term Alaskans—native Alaskans and Alaskan natives. The science and the scientific community—what seems like a high number of biologists per capita—adds another dimension. And now, late in the game, I am just beginning to discover the writing community. I am in and out of the state frequently on business. Coming home, looking out the window of the airplane on the approach to the runway always brings a smile to my face. I mean this literally.
Your book has been wonderfully received, getting the kind of attention many writers only dream of. How have you handled this success right out of the chute, so to speak?
I would say I am handling this success with a mix of gratitude and wonder. More practically, I am handling it one day at a time. Of course I hoped that Cold would do well, but I never thought it would do as well as it has. For me, this has been great, but I have to admit the success also led to a few sleepless nights. There was this sudden realization that lots of people are reading my book, thinking about my words, finding all my mistakes. Also, going into this I had no realization of the time demands that would come with release of a book like Cold. For now, I have had to temporarily abandon work on my new book to divide my time between my day job, my family, and various activities associated with Cold.
Of course the interest in Cold is really gratifying, but I have been around long enough to know that the success of a book depends not only on the book itself but also on the circumstances around it, including timing of its release, especially in terms of competing events in the media. There is a certain amount of luck involved in books, just as there is in life.
One thing I have been doing—and I think this is important—is keeping a mental tally of what reviewers and readers like about the book and what they don’t like or don’t mention, both of which are helping me with my new book (or at least they will when I can get back to work on it).
I love how the book weaves history with biology, technology, and personal anecdote. How hard was it to balance the various approaches to your topic?
For me, this balance is what made Cold interesting to write. It is what makes life interesting in general, and really it is how I view the world on a day-to-day basis, so in that sense it was not hard at all to balance these different aspects of life. It does make the book a bit difficult to describe at times, which presented a challenge, especially when I was looking for an agent and a publisher. Understandably, agents and publishers want a quick summary that captures the essence of a book. Does it belong on the science shelf? The history shelf? The Alaska shelf? All of these, and none, but in the end mainly the science shelf, even though it is a long way from being a science book.
How long did you work on the book, and how did you bring it to market?
Lots of people ask how long it took me to write Cold. My last book, Green Seduction, came out in 2006, so it would be right to say that I have been working on Cold for about three years, but never on a fulltime basis. My day job (I am a biologist with a large energy company) is in many ways rewarding, but it is often overwhelming, so I worked on Cold when I could, often as a form of therapy. When I was not traveling I was very disciplined, working two hours very early each morning before the sane members of the community were awake. So, on a fulltime basis maybe the equivalent of 6 months? But I could not maintain the focus required to write Cold on a fulltime basis even if I could afford to do it financially, so I should probably just say three years and leave it at that.
I brought it to market by stumbling upon Elizabeth Wales. She is of course a well known literary agent based in Seattle, and she has been great. I knew I wanted to go through an agent and seek a mainstream publisher, something that I had tried unsuccessfully with my earlier books too. I took the normal route: a query letter, followed by a proposal and two chapters, followed by a more or less completed manuscript. The manuscript was almost finished before I wrote the proposal, and I think that was an important selling point. It would be tough for an unknown author to market a quirky book like Cold without the manuscript in hand, it seems to me.
Though the primary focus of the book is clearly not political, there’s no skirting the issue of global warming. How do your respond to critics who complain that the book fails to adequately address this political “hot button”?
Only a couple of critics have complained that the book fails to tackle climate change head on, and they are probably outweighed by critics who seem to be grateful that Cold was not a sermon about the evils of greenhouse gas emissions. Throughout Cold, climate change lurks around in the background, this specter of a warming world, and it emerges as a focal topic in the final chapter, but I think the world has enough books and articles that focus on the topic. I had very little to add that has not already been said, and said more than once, and at one point I decided that I would not have any full pages or even paragraphs dedicated to the topic. But in the end I built the last chapter around aspects of climate change, focused mainly on the history of the topic, a sort of reminder to skeptics and proponents alike that climate change is not a new topic dreamed up in the seventies but rather it is something that we have known about to one degree or another for more than a hundred years.
How would I respond to critics? In general, I do not think it makes sense to respond to critics. Critique is really a one-way flow in my experience. Instead of responding, I would take their comments on board and consider them as input for my future writing. Even the most vehement critic is really offering a favor, a bit of free advice about what to do or not do next, but as always with advice one has to turn within to sort the good from the bad. Listen closely to advisors, and listen very closely to critics, but in the end make your own decisions. In this case, I have not seen anything that convinces me to focus my next book on climate change or for that matter any other political hot button. My attention is held by the complexity and beauty of the world, not by the delivery of a political message. And the world is far too interesting to be limited by political hot buttons.
In the years since this post first ran, Alaska author Bill Streever has also published Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places. He lives with his son, Ishmael Streever, his partner and wife, Dr. Lisanne Aerts, and the resident dog, Lucky (who was adopted from Sakhalin, Russia) in Anchorage, Alaska. The four of them ski, hike, dive, bike, and camp as often as time and their varying abilities allow.
When this post first ran back in 2009, bestselling author Dana Stabenow was in the process of writing the first novel in what became her Silk and Song trilogy, about Marco Polo’s granddaughter traveling the Silk Road west from 1322 to 1327, China to England. Now that she has just released the second book in the series, with the third coming out next year, we thought it might be fun to revisit her thoughts on the process of writing history. I’m writing an historical novel set in the 14th century, and for a long time I obsessed over how to avoid anachronism, particularly in dialogue. [Example: Marco Polo’s granddaughter, Johanna, going to the stables to discover BFF Jaufre fighting off the advances of a pretty maid: “Dude! Totally awesome babe, man!”]
I’ve stopped worrying about it, though. I’ve read a lot of history, and somewhere along the line I came to believe that we just aren’t all that different from our ancestors.
Take Eratosthenes. He’s the guy who figured out in 300 BC not only that the earth was round, he also calculated its diameter. Yes, that would be 1,900 years before the Catholic Church put Galileo under house arrest for saying the same thing. All Eratosthenes had were his eyes, his feet and a stick, but he could still do the math.
How about the ancient Hawaiians? They navigated their way across two thousand miles of open ocean using star charts made of bamboo strips and cowrie shells. When they made landfall, they built the Place of Refuge on Hawaii, an enormous platform carved from pahoehoe, the ropey kind of lava, with walls perpendicular to right angles. Five hundred years ago Hawaiians were wearing loincloths and carrying spears and sacrificing slaves to their gods, but they could still do the math.
There’s a quote I like from Robert Heinlein’s Lazarus Long, as follows: Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.In my historical novel, my characters are going to spend some time working on a gothic cathedral. I’ve been to Chartres twice myself. Took ‘em 66 years to build it, starting in 1210, and it hasn’t fallen down yet. That was 800 years ago, centuries before rivet guns. But they could still do the math.
We’re not that different, Eratosthenes and Polynesia Guy and Bishop Fulbert and me. It’s just our technology that’s different. I’m thinking my characters can speak plain English, of course absent slang and colloquialism in either direction. There will be no forsoothing, that’s for sure.
But they will be fully human.
Bestselling author Dana Stabenow was raised on a fish tender in southcentral Alaska, and she knew there had to be a warmer, drier job out there somewhere. When she’s not busy authoring books, she is working on Storyknife, a residency planned for women writers.
That’s quite a cover shot—a huge, wild Alaska wolf and a Labrador retriever facing each other. What’s the story on that? That’s the actual photo from the opening scene of the book, the first time my wife, Sherrie, our dog, Dakotah, and I met the wolf we’d come to call Romeo. He’s two years old there, totally relaxed with us standing there just a few feet away, shamelessly flirting with our dog. Even with a picture to prove it really happened, this moment, and the years that followed seem unreal, like something we dreamed. That’s the thing about the entire experience. Even with pictures to anchor our memories, it still feels as if our lives were folded into a story, a series of events too vivid, compressed, and emotion-laden to be real. So what was different about this one black wolf, the one you and others came to call Romeo? He might as well have been a unicorn. A 120-pound wild wolf just shows up one day, and wants to play with our dogs, and is tolerant of people, even friendly to some. He’s intelligent and interactive and social. Yet the whole time he remains a wild wolf, hunting for his own food. He didn’t become habituated to people; he arrived that way, as if he’d fallen from the sky. You could suppose he was the archetypal wolf that came to lie by our fire millennia ago and became, through domestication, man’s best friend. Despite constant threats, he managed to live in the collective shadow of 30 thousand people for six years—and it would have been longer if not for the dark side of human nature, embodied by the two losers who killed him. Except for that last part, the entire story was magical, one of those experiences that transforms not just individuals, but an entire community. We’re talking about a wolf that ends up with two streets named after him, as well as a coffee and a beer. More than a hundred people show up at his memorial service, and a plaque is erected in his memory. Stuff like this just doesn’t happen. But it did. It’s a standard question, but what was your purpose for writing this book? This was a story I needed to tell—not only to others, but to myself. Writing has always been an exploratory process for me, a path toward understanding. Clarity of thought equals clarity of word, and vice versa. Finding the exact words to convey a narrative—and by that, I mean words that are so transparent and evocative that the reader is looking over your shoulder and sharing in your emotions as if present—is the ultimate therapy for me, a way to discover meaning. And this particular story, which spanned more than ten years, a major chunk of my adult life, seems to lie at the very core of my being, for better and worse. I needed to understand all I could about this wolf and the complex web of events that his appearance created, for my own sake. Romeo’s been gone for nearly five years, and I still find myself choking up at odd moments, waking up in the middle of the night, just lying there, thinking about him. It’s not one of those things you get over. I feel, too, that this story is something others need to hear. It contains a universal moment of our time on this rapidly shrinking world. We’re in the process of losing touch with the wild, as our inevitable expansion and electronic isolation allows fewer and fewer spaces for it to exist. What’s a world without tigers, polar bears, and wolves, without that sort of elemental connection that large wild carnivores offer us, the caretakers of this little rock? I’m afraid we’re well down the road to finding out. Probably too much to ask, but I do hold the profound hope this book will help make a difference. Without hope, nothing happens. My final reason for writing this book is to bear witness to the life of this one remarkable wolf. As long as a single person reads, hears, or remembers his story, Romeo lives. Perhaps that’s what matters most of all. Nick Jans is a longtime contributing editor to Alaska Magazine, and a member of USA Today’s board of editorial contributors. He’s published hundreds of articles in a wide variety of magazines, from Readers Digest to Rolling Stone. He’s also contributed to many anthologies and written 11 books. His latest two are Once Upon Alaska (a children’s book with photographer Mark Kelley) and A Wolf Called Romeo (Houghton Mifflin, July 2014). Upcoming projects include a just-completed collection of essays and a long-simmering novel. A former resident of both the arctic and Juneau, Nick and his wife, Sherrie, now make their home in the Chilkat Valley north of Haines.