Q&A with Heather Lende

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2010

Most of us avoid discussing or even thinking about death until we’re forced by circumstance to accept its presence. For Haines author Heather Lende, the subject is familiar territory.

In her nonfiction books, “If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name,” and “Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs,” Lende pulls in her experiences as an obituary writer for the Chilkat Valley News in a way that is both humorous and respectful, personal and universal. Her books highlight the power of connections — between neighbors, people and their natural environment, and between the living and dead — and the ways those connections play out in this little, and often dark, corner of the world.

Lende will be in Juneau for a book signing and reading tonight at 6 p.m. at Hearthside Books in the Nugget Mall.

“Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs,” Lende’s second book just published last month, is already on the Pacific Northwest Bestseller List and has generated rave reviews, including one from Booklist that called it “the best Alaska memoir of late, maybe the best ever.”

Lende’s first book, “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name” is now in its ninth printing and has sold nearly 100,000 copies. But, according to Lende, this success was nowhere in sight when she started writing it. The first agent she called was less than receptive to the idea of a collection of essays that incorporated material from small-town obituaries.

“She said, ‘You’re kidding, right? You’re going to write about obituaries? And dead people?’” Lende recalls.

The agent also said the book wouldn’t have much of a range beyond Haines. By the time Lende hung up the phone, she was mortified into silence.

But the idea resurfaced when Lende was contacted by a different agent, one who’d heard her radio commentaries on NPR, and the skeptical party was soon proven very wrong.

“Take Good Care” shares some of the themes of “If You Lived Here,” weaving in stories from the everyday lives of Haines residents, and is in some ways even more personal, as it centers around two major experiences: the death of her mother and her own near-death experience after being hit by a truck while biking. As with “If You Lived Here,” Lende balances grief and loss with the joys of daily life in a small town in Alaska, a topic that has found wide resonance outside the state.

“Heather Lende’s commentaries are a window into a part of America most of us my never otherwise experience. She makes you love Alaska almost as much as she does,” Greg Allen from NPR’s Morning Edition said in a review.

For those of us who occupy a neighboring stretch of earth— albeit one that is a bit more crowded and noisy — Lende’s books are likely to stir gratefulness on more than one level.

The Empire talked with Lende earlier this week about her writing, her community, and her views on life and death. Here’s part of that conversation.

Do you feel, from the feedback you’ve received from down South, that you’re tapping into your readers’ desire for a more simple life?

Yes. I think the Alaska thing is secondary to the community thing, community and family and the sort of slower pace. Maybe not slower, but more connected. People are lonely. For a lot of people, their community is on Facebook and they’re just so surprised about a place where you know the names of the people who work at the grocery store, or when you call the ambulance you know them, or when your kids go to the first day of school they’ve probably met the teacher before, at a potluck on the beach, or at the library during story hour. It’s very different. And I think people like that.

But then they’ll say, ‘Oh, but you’d have to move to Haines (to live like that).’ Of course not. The difference is (instead of) jogging on the treadmill watching CNN with your headphones on in the gym, you go around the block and you see people. You take your dog outside and run into people, or you go to church, or you volunteer at the nursing home or whatever. It’s not hard. But in Haines, you’re forced to do it. We’re not that exceptional, we just don’t have much of a choice. Whereas In bigger communities, if you want to live like that you have to do it more intentionally.

One of the real strengths of your books for me is that you consistently bring in the natural world, linking us back to those rhythms.

I don’t think you can live in Haines, or for that matter probably in Alaska, without that. We are rooted in place, even if its the weather. We’re so bound to the external conditions. And I think there’s huge lessons there. Lots of it is very reassuring — to know that the world goes on regardless of your current crisis. And on the other hand, it’s very humbling. It makes you not think you’re so important when you can look around at the forces that are continuing to shape the world we live in and they’re not man-made.

Maybe if you live in New York City or San Francisco or something, and you see things like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Empire State Building, or you even saw the towers come down, you’d have a different view of humanity’s role in the world. But from my view, I’m standing here looking out my window, and all I’m seeing is a river filling up a fjord with silt, glaciers, bears walking on the beach and the rose bushes completely taking over my yard. And it’s the same thing that’s been going on here, as Tlingit people say, since time immemorial.


So when you’re in a city, or on a book tour, do you feel your writer’s voice changes?

I like going out, it’s not like I’m totally a hermit or anything, but I find I need a little more quiet. There’s a hum in those places that never goes away, from the traffic to trains to buildings that make all kinds of noise with their ventilation and heating systems. It’s really interesting. I sort of just take my hat off and say, ‘I’m here.’ I read more.

How did you get started writing obituaries?

 I worked at the radio station in Haines — it was a morning show, ‘Rhythm and News’ they called it — and I got used to doing that. Then I did radio commentary (for the Christian Science Monitor’s Monitor Radio and NPR).

I ended up working for the newspaper doing Duty Noted, which is the social column, if you can call it that in Haines — who went on vacation, who had a birthday party, that sort of thing. Then in 1985 or 1986 my friend Joann’s mother was very sick, she was dying of emphysema. And she did not like a new reporter at the Chilkat Valley News. That reporter is Bill McCallister — who later became a spokesperson for Sarah Palin and all that, and he’s actually kind of a friend now. He was an investigative reporter type and she didn’t like that, so she said he couldn’t write her obituary. Tom Morphet, who was the editor of the paper, said, ‘Well Heather, since you write Duly Noted, how hard Is it to write an obituary? You can do it.’ And I’ve been doing them from then on.

When somebody dies in Haines, everyone chips in. Some people play the piano and some people do the program, or they bake or whatever. And I do the obituaries. That’s my part. I guess I found I have kind of a calling for it. Its less the writing of the obituary... it’s what goes into it and the time spent with people that’s pretty important I think. And there’s not a lot of people that can do that, I guess, that can walk in on people at sort of the worst moment in their lives and sit down and start talking to them.

So when you were hit by a truck and thought you might die, did you feel this kind of mental preparation you’d had all those years helped you?

You know, I think I was as surprised as anybody. What I felt was ‘You’re kidding me.’ I thought, ‘What?” Is that how it happens?’ I just thought I’d have more of a premonition... And it did sort of stun me about how close you can be.

I’ve read a lot of near-death experience stuff, I’ve written about it and people have talked to me about it, and I thought that would happen — you’d see this light, hear a choir — but (now) I’m not sure that is something. Maybe that’s something people want us to think. I mean, I believe in heaven, I believe we go somewhere, but more and more I’m thinking we don’t have a preview right in those last seconds. I think the preview is here, where we are now. And if we pay attention we’ll see it but if we don’t we’re going to miss it.

How have the people in your community responded to you opening Haines up to the world?

I think some people like it and probably some people don’t.  

I don’t hear that much from people who don’t, though I’m sure they’re there, this being Haines. In general, people are big fans, or else they’re kind of oblivious, they’re not really aware that I’ve written stuff about them or that it goes out beyond here. By no means am I ‘the author who lives in Haines’ or anything. Dan Henry is much more well known than I am.

How about when you come to Juneau?

In Juneau more, and in Anchorage definitely. When I get out of town it’s kind of a big surprise.

Its funny, just this morning — and this is the first time this has ever happened to me, ever — I was walking home and I said ‘Hi’ to one of the guys who lives in the Fort that I know, and... the guy he was with turned around and said. ‘Heather? Heather Lende? Wow! It is great to see you!’ And I said ‘You’re kidding me. Nobody ever says “Wow! Its great to see you!” Not even my family!’ And he was from Anchorage. He said ‘I was hoping I’d maybe see you but I didn’t think you’d just walk by!’ What else would I be doing? (laughing). So that was fun.

Do you write fiction?

I do. I’m getting a masters in fiction from UAA in their low residency program. I’m a third-year student there now. I actually wrote a novel that’s being read by my publisher. And hopefully they’ll take it, I don’t know.

How was that experience?

It was great, I loved it. Especially after the intimacy of my last book, I was a little sick of my own company. Also in fiction, its fun to be able to create the stories  that you want. Instead of always wondering about how things fit together, I could make them fit together. I didn’t have to wait as long. With some stories you have to wait a long time for it to resolve before you can write about it — at least the way I write. But in fiction I can use things that are unresolved and then make stuff up. I found it very freeing. And yet in some ways more truthful.

I don’t know if I’m any good at it, but with the first two books or the columns or all of that, it’s kind of like being a photographer or something. I’m capturing a moment in time that’s already there. Whereas with the fiction, the novel, it felt more like I was a painter. I was painting a picture and I was the only one that saw it. So creatively it was really satisfying.

So did you pull in some of the same themes that are in your nonfiction books?

Oh, yeah. Are you kidding? People die in it right and left. I’m good at that.

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