Short stories from Hitler to the Yukon

Posted: Thursday, August 10, 2000

Hitler's obsession with vegetarianism, cabin fever in Fort Yukon, and a conversation between a roaming dog and two mangy wolves are fodder for Alaska writer Joe Karson.

``Dining with Hitler and Hemingway,'' is the title of Karson's collection of 13 short stories. Karson lived and wrote in Juneau for several years in the late 1970s and again in the late 1980s before settling in Fairbanks.

During his Juneau years he played banjo in the local bluegrass band Tideline and wrote a play for Perseverance Theatre. His play ``T.V.'' was published by Perseverance as part of its Great Alaska Playrush program.

``I'm into entertaining people. If you put something out there for the public to read, even if it has a message, it should be entertaining,'' Karson said. ``Boring people is the worst thing you can do.''

He said he'll let an idea bounce around in his head a week or two, then sit down and write it all at once.

``When I write the first sentence, I usually know what the last one's going to be. They arrive, beginning, middle and end,'' he said.

He then goes back and edits the story. He also works with a professional editor to hone the work. Some of the stories are just two or three pages long. Short stories are demanding because every word counts, Karson said.

He said a bit of conversation, or a passing image, will inspire a story.

``I try to come at common slices of life, but from a weird angle. Some are almost autobiographical; others, I don't know where they come from,'' he said.

He's an avid writer but said he didn't write the stories with a collection in mind. A combination of opportunities presented itself, including a financial supporter, and he was able to publish 1,000 copies and distribute them to bookstores statewide.

He chose a selection of 13 stories he'd written in recent years that seemed representative of his body of work.

``I tried to get a balance -- a dark story, some funny stories, one from a woman's point of view,'' he said.

Several stories have a surreal tone that he said allows him to use language in a different way, or in a different voice.

About half the stories feature dining or food in the theme or setting, including ``An Afternoon with Adolph,'' the story about Hitler. Karson said that short tale is based on real events.

``Hitler -- the arch fiend of all time -- was a fanatical vegetarian. He was incredibly opposed to drinking and smoking. When he conquered the world, he planned to ban all meat eating, smoking and drinking,'' Karson said.

``I think I portrayed him in an honest light in that story. He was (often) portrayed as a powerful man, but from everything I've ever been able to read about him I think he was an incredibly insecure and weak man driven by his compulsions.''

``Jackpot'' is the longest story in the book at 20 pages. It's a semi-autobiographical tale of Karson's dormitory roommate at a big Midwestern university in the mid-1960s.

``That's the most traditional one in there. The length of the story, way the character develops, the way he meets his fate follows a more traditional short story form,'' Karson said.

Laura Lucas of Juneau designed the book. She's known Karson for years, and said he's always been a good storyteller, with a cynical view of life tempered by a good sense of humor. Her favorite story is an autobiographical tale about Karson's parents called ``Eating.''

``That one was taken out of his life, you can tell. It's him telling a story, and I can hear his voice when I'm reading,'' she said.

Karson makes his living as a carpenter in Fairbanks, which gives him plenty of time to write in the winter.

``I have a lot of stuff bouncing around in my head in the summer. I can sit down in the winter, put down the hammer and pick up the typewriter,'' he said.

He's written a couple of short novels that he hopes to publish next year.

``Dining with Hitler and Hemingway,'' was printed in Anchorage and published by Plumb Bob Press in Fairbanks. It's available at Hearthside Books and Rainy Day Books in Juneau.

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