Extraordinary Wolf: A Conversation with Seth Kantner

Alaskan author Seth Kantner

The day I decided to leave Brooklyn and accompany my girlfriend on her one-year internship in Alaska, I did what any bookworm would do — I took the subway to the Barnes & Noble flagship in Union Square and thumbed through every title about the Last Frontier.

 

I bought two books that day. The first, obviously: the Milepost. The other? “Ordinary Wolves,” by Seth Kantner, the semi-autobiographical story of a white boy raised on the Alaskan tundra. And while it never helped me find gas along the Kassiar Highway, Kantner’s vivid debut novel, which he’d just released, served a different albeit no less important purpose. It sparked excitement — as opposed impending dread — about the wholly alien place we were lumbering toward in an overloaded Subaru.

Ten years later, I’m still here, as is the Subie, although I’m no longer dating that particular girlfriend (we got married). “Ordinary Wolves” became a national bestseller and Seth Kantner has since grown into a critically acclaimed, award-winning author, essayist, wildlife photographer and Arctic advocate, as well as a leading figure in contemporary Alaskan literature. In fact, in 2006 he was nominated to become Alaska State Writer Laureate.

Yet, Seth Kantner is a reluctant writer. In fact, in 2006 he declined a nomination to become Alaska State Writer Laureate.

“I have very little interest being inside and absolutely no interest sitting at a computer,” he told me via telephone from Kotzebue the other day.

“I’ve just got so many other things to do — getting meat, cutting meat, smoking meat, building sleds. I run a community garden project for a Native non-profit and every once in a while I’ll guide, too,” he said.

Then he added, self-effacingly, “Of course, I’m also dyslexic, and I and can’t spell or type.”

These days, Kantner, 49, splits his time between Kotzebue — “we’ve got a regular modern house to keep our stuff dry and mouse turds out of my keyboard” — and his family’s ancestral home, a sod igloo on the Kobuk River 30 miles downriver from Ambler, the setting for both “Ordinary Wolves” and his essay/photo collection “Shopping for Porcupine: a Life in Arctic Alaska.”

“This time of year I stick closer to Kotzebue,” Kantner explained.

Although no longer absolutely necessary for survival, he still lives a largely similar subsistence lifestyle (or, more accurately, a subsistence-style lifestyle), incorporating book tours and publicity junkets into a seasonal existence primarily focused on land, sea, weather and animals.

“Winter tends to be for writing and other ‘writer stuff’,” he said. “Spring and fall I head upriver, then summer it’s back to Kotzebue for commercial fishing, which I’ve been doing for 40 years.”

Indeed, Kantner lists among his past and present occupations: “fisherman, trapper, gardener, mechanic, igloo builder and adjunct professor.” He’s also a regular columnist for “Orion” magazine — “sort of a ‘voices of the Arctic’ kind of thing” — in addition to working on an as-of-yet unnamed novel, an essay collection and a non-fiction book about caribou for Mountaineer Press.

So how does a home-schooled, dyslexic, lifelong Alaska bushman wind up an esteemed creative artist, once named one of the nation’s top 10 emerging writers by the Whiting Foundation?

“Accidentally,” he answered. “The only reason I went to college was to find a girlfriend.”

As a freshman at University of Alaska Fairbanks (he later earned a BA in journalism from University of Montana), Kantner signed up for whatever classes he figured would be easiest. One of these happened to be creative writing with Fairbanks poet Peggy Shumaker (she, incidentally, did not turn down the Alaska State Writer Laureate, serving 2010-2012).

“Like other classes I chose — oceanography, karate — creative writing also turned out to be a lot harder than I thought,” said Kantner. But he showed potential and felt inspired.

“Writing’s always been a struggle, but I tend not to give up on things,” he said. “Once I got on that trail, I kept following it. Whether that was a right turn or a wrong turn, I don’t know. A little of both.”

By contrast, Kantner characterizes his entry into wildlife photography as not nearly as haphazard.

“It’s an easy transition from hunter to photographer,” he said. “When you sneak up on an animal and decide to kill it, the story ends. When you photograph it, the story keeps going.”

This week, Kantner swings through Southeast Alaska as part of a promotional tour for his new children’s book, “Pup and Pokey.” In Juneau, he will be reading an original essay for KTOO’s 360 North Writer’s Showcase in addition to a book-signing and meet-and-greet at Hearthside Books also featuring the book’s illustrator Beth Hill.

“Pup and Pokey,” about the unlikely friendship between a wolf pup and a porcupine, grew out of stories Kantner originally invented for his daughter, China, now 17 (indeed, he prefaced our interview with relief she was finally off the phone).

“Getting any kind of book published is a shocking amount of work — that’s the same,” said Kantner of his first stab at kids’ lit. “But a children’s book is 3,000 words instead of 100,000. Don’t me wrong. I spent lots of time polishing each of those 3000 words — it takes me years to do anything — but there was something comforting about the smaller scope.”

And, of course, everything Kantner writes comes from the same place.

“The land has provided for me and continues to do so,” he said. “I owe a debt to use my words and photographs to protect it.”

•••

Seth Kantner will be appearing as part of 360 North’s Writers’ Showcase of holiday themed short stories and essays, Thursday, Nov. 13; doors open at 6:30 p.m., cameras roll at 7; Admission is free on a first-come-first-seated basis. He will also be signing books at Hearthside’s Annual Holiday Event, Sunday, Nov. 16, noon–5 p.m. at the Nugget Mall.

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