Eighteen books in to the enormously popular Kate Shugak mystery series and still going strong, author Dana Stabenow says she doesn’t worry too much about losing her spark. At the first hint of staleness, she plans to leave the whole thing behind.
“I’d rather starve in a ditch then write Kate if she bored me,” Stabenow said with a laugh.
“I have sworn a mighty oath that if she ever starts to go stale on me — and by that I mean if she ever stops making me laugh, making me cry, or surprising me — I will stop writing her. “
Luckily for fans of the series, that point is not yet in sight. Stabenow will be in town Friday to read from “Though Not Dead,” the latest Kate Shugak mystery. The reading begins at 7 p.m. at the Downtown Library.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Stabenow’s Shugak is an Aleut private investigator, “a five foot, one-hundred-and-twenty-pound package of dynamite” whose small size belies an eminently strong and resourceful woman, capable of wrangling multiple perpetrators at one time. Her indomitable, independent spirit is in some ways a reflection of Alaska itself, so it’s no surprise she’s only left the state twice over the course of 18 books.
“I’m not sure she will ever go Outside again,” Stabenow said. “She might. Never say never. But she’s sort of Alaska walking around on two legs.”
Shugak and most of the other main characters — which include her half-wolf dog Mutt and her boyfriend, Alaska State Trooper Jim Chopin — live in or near the Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve, called only “the Park” in the series. In the most recent installment, Shugak gets knocked out with a piece of firewood, is forced to spend the night in her truck in a snowstorm, gets shot at in a gold mine and chases down bad guys on her snowgo. In between she attempts to track down a missing tribal heirloom, confers with her elderly aunties, grieves a dead relative, provides guidance to the teenage boy in her care, and interacts with a broad array of oddball characters.
Stabenow also works in a fair bit of real-life state history, including the influenza pandemic of 1918, and Castner’s Cutthroats, soldiers who were stationed in the Aleutian Islands during World War II.
Stabenow herself is a born-and-raised Alaskan. Her grandfather on her mom’s side, George Perry, was a pilot for Alaska Airlines, and flew the first DC3 in the airline’s fleet into Merrill Field in 1945, with Stabenow’s mom, Joan, on board. Later, Joan worked as a deckhand based out of Seldovia, raising her daughter onboard; Stabenow vividly remembers climbing a 42-foot, often ice-encrusted ladder in the mornings to get to the dock to start the walk to school.
Boat life encouraged an early addiction to books: introduced at 8 to the Nancy Drew mystery series by the Seldovia librarian, Stabenow voraciously worked her way through most of the library’s shelves, and began writing her own stories, many of which featured happy land-based young heros. After graduation from Seldovia High, she went on to receive a degree in journalism from the University of Alaska in 1973. She then switched gears to take a job with the oil companies, working on the Alyeska Pipeline and later for British Petroleum at Prudhoe Bay, and was soon making plenty of money.
By the time she turned 30, however, she was ready for something else. She got her MA in writing in 1985, again from UAA, and set herself the task of publishing a book before she went broke. She made it, but only just, with a science fiction book published in 1990. Prompted by her agent to come up with something else, Stabenow, who was reading crime fiction at the time, decided she’d try her hand at mystery writing. “A Cold Day for Murder,” the first Kate Shugak book, garnered her a three book contract and an Edgar Award for best paperback original in 1993. Her books have since appeared on the New York Times and Pacific Northwest best-seller lists and attracted many loyal fans, called Danamanics, as far away as Australia and Italy.
The enduring success of the series would seem to indicate Stabenow had a carefully thought-out plan for the characters and storylines. But the author says she was fairly haphazard in her initial approach.
“It was the lazy women’s way to write a book, and I’m serious when I say that,” she said. “(Kate)’s a woman because it’s always easier to write in your own gender. She was Native because I was raised with Aleuts. And the book was set in a park, based on the Wrangell-St. Elias Park, because I had just been there (to visit my aunt).” Throw in a park employee as a murder victim, and she was well on her way.
In creating Kate’s character, Stabenow drew on three major female influences in her life: her oldest and dearest friend, Kathy, who is half Filipino, half Aleut; her mother, Joan; and the Seldovia librarian, Susan English, who fed Stabenow’s passion for books and let her “run barefoot” through the one-room library while she was growing up.
Stabenow said she had no idea she was creating a character with such lasting appeal.
“Who knew she was going to take off in this fashion? But I’m sure glad she did because she’s a lot of fun to write.”
In 2009, Evergreen Films, based in Anchorage and Los Angeles, acquired the screen rights to the series. Though Stabenow said she’s not supposed to talk about it, she did say “there’s lot of activity going on there.” She’ll be ecstatic if they cast a Native Alaskan actress in the role of Kate (apparently, Demi Moore has expressed interest, but hardly fits the bill), and film the series in Alaska.
“If they film it there, I will be happy. Because Alaska is so much a character of the series, every bit as much a character as Kate and Johnny and Jim and Mutt. So its really important to me that Alaska be up there on screen — and that they put Alaskans to work on the project.”
In the meantime, Stabenow is working on other things, such as a short story for an upcoming collection based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, with editors Laurie King and Leslie Klinger. Stabenow’s story is called “Eyak Interpreter,” and is loosely based on “The Greek Interpreter.”
She’s also 100 pages in to a book on Marco Polo’s granddaughter, and is trying to carve out more time.
“(I’d like to have) enough money in the bank so I can sit down for a year and write without interruptions, including interruptions from Kate Shugak.”
But fans can rest assured: she’s at work on No. 19.
•Amy Fletcher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.