After publishing his sixth successful crime novel in 2001, Sitka writer John Straley was ready for a change. The well-known author, a former Alaska writer laureate, decided he’d had his fill of focusing on the darker side of human motivations; he sees enough of that in his day job as a criminal investigator.
“I think I was just weary of writing — I am weary of writing — genre books based on revenge themes,” he said earlier this week. “I don’t have that in my bloodstream. I’ve been a defense investigator for a long time, and it’s just not part of my temperament. Place and character and humor and reconciliation – that’s all more a part of my temperament.”
Straley’s first project after his popular six-book series of Cecil Younger crime novels was a book called “Cold Storage Alaska,” which he completed in 2003. More difficult to categorize than his previous books, it includes elements of comedy, crime and literary fiction. His editor wasn’t sure what to make of it, and it was rejected.
When a new editor took over about a decade later, he resubmitted it and it was enthusiastically accepted. It soon became clear that, unlike Straley’s former editor, readers and critics had no trouble making the leap to Younger-less ground with Straley. The book, released earlier this year, has taken off, garnering high praise from critics including the New York Times (“strikes the perfect balance of humor and pathos”), Boston Globe (“compelling characters and deft treatment of themes like redemption and the power of community”) and Booklist (“his evocation of nature and human nature approaches the lyrical”).
Straley will be in Juneau this week to give a reading from “Cold Storage” and lead a writing workshop, both organized by 49 Writers. The reading will take place Saturday at 8 p.m. at the downtown library and the workshop will be from 1-4 p.m. at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.
“Cold Storage, Alaska” traces the story of two brothers, Miles and Clive, who live in the tiny Southeast Alaska town of Cold Storage. Miles, the stable brother, works as the town medic, and Clive, just out of prison on drug charges, has moved back to town to open a bar/church. The book gets its energy from the interaction of its uniquely Alaskan characters — eccentric, compassionate individuals who likely will be very familiar to Juneauites — and from Straley’s evocation of the Southeast landscape, a major source of inspiration for him.
“Place has been the most important element in my writing,” Straley said. “So I thought I would write a series about my own little Southeast Alaskan universe.”
The lyrical qualities of the writing in “Cold Storage,” like much of Straley’s work, point toward his interest in another genre: poetry. Though Cecil Younger fans may think of him as a crime writer who also writes poetry, he could also be viewed as a poet who also writes crime fiction. In the end, he is both.
Straley’s first collection of poetry, “The Rising and the Rain,” was published in 2008, and he is working on his second collection (one of his new poems appears in this week's Arts.) He said he writes poetry every day.
Straley studied poetry and writing as a student at the University of Washington, where he received a BA in English. He arrived in Alaska in 1977 after his wife, whale biologist Jan Straley, was hired by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In Washington, Straley had been training to be a farrier (horseshoer), a trade ill-suited for his new home.
“We got here and there wasn’t a damn horse anywhere,” he said in a 2003 Empire interview.
He got a job with the U.S. Forest Service as a trail crew foreman and eventually went to work for an attorney as a investigator trainee. That was his introduction to a career as a criminal investigator for the Alaska Public Defender’s office, where he still works.
One of his early book projects in Sitka was a series of written profiles of the elderly residents of the Sitka Pioneer Home, which were paired with black-and-white portraits taken by photographer Scott Chambers. The project, organized through the Alaska Folklore and Oral History Association, was never published, but portions are on permanent exhibit at the Pioneers Home. It taught Straley a lot about the experiences and personalities of Alaskans.
“It was sort like of graduate school in Southeast Alaska,” he said.
His work for the public defender’s office, which he began in the mid-1980s, has also been inspirational — though not always in a good way.
“It’s always been an amazing job for meeting different types of people in difficult circumstances. It’s a job with lots of sadness though,” he said.
Straley’s first book, “The Woman Who Married a Bear,” was published in 1993 and won the Shamus Award for the Best First Mystery. Five more titles in that series followed, ending with “Cold Water Burning” in 2001. Straley said the series came to a natural stopping place after book six.
“The series had a natural character arc in which (Cecil Younger) starts off on the low end of his psychic curve — he’s kind of a real bum at the beginning of the series — and then he pulls himself up,” he said. “He’s pretty healthy by the end of the six books.”
In November 2006, Straley was appointed Alaska’s 12th Writer Laureate, a position he held through 2008. That same year, he published the “Big Both Ways,” a book closely related to “Cold Storage” and set in the same town in the 1930s — a town which is not, he noted, Pelican.
Straley said writing more books in the vein of “Cold Storage” is a definite possibility.
“I enjoyed writing it,” he said. “Especially when you write on your off time you might as well just write things that make you happy. Otherwise it’s just like doing homework.” He laughed.
Straley’s three-hour workshop, “Every Day A Victory: How To Organize Your Life To Write That Book You’ve Always Talked About,” will focus on developing discipline to complete projects.
Straley said he was grateful for his host, 49 Writers, a statewide organization that provides a range of resources for Alaska’s writers.
“It’s been an amazing force in the state,” he said. “It’s an example of the energy that the new young writers have and the influence they can have in the state. A few years ago, the writing community just felt so unconnected, and now it’s really been energized by that group.”
To find out more, visit http://49writers.blogspot.com/
For more on Straley, visit http://www.johnstraley.com.
KNOW AND GO
Workshop: “Every Day A Victory: How To Organize Your Life To Write That Book You’ve Always Talked About,” led by Sitka author John Straley
When: Saturday, April 26, 1-4 p.m.
Where: Juneau Arts & Culture Center
What: Reading and book signing by John Straley, author of “Cold Storage, Alaska”
When: Saturday, April 26, 8-10 p.m.
Where: Juneau Downtown Library.
For more information, visit http://49writingcenter.org/programs/juneau.php