Haines commentaries strike chord across America

Posted: Thursday, October 19, 2000

The value of friendship and family, the joys and trials of parenting, and the simple pleasures of life in a small town don't seem like topics of controversy. But Heather Lende has learned that some are offended by what others find heartwarming.

Lende's commentaries on National Public Radio and Monitor Radio have brought everyday life in Haines, Alaska, into homes across America. That national exposure recently landed Lende a book contract, and this summer she released a CD of 16 commentaries titled "This Alaskan Life: True Stories From Haines, Alaska." It's available in Juneau at Hearthside Books.

It's a safe bet that the Juneau man who accosted her on the ferry this year won't be buying one.

"He told me, 'I hate what you do. You make it sound so great in Alaska. You never write about alcoholism or poverty,' " Lende said of her encounter with a critic. "It's just not what I do. Those are not the kind of things that are part of my version of life."

Lende is unapologetically optimistic and positive, and she loves small-town life for all of its limitations and its benefits. She said she's not turning a blind eye to the darker side of life. It's just unrealistic to live in a community such as Haines and comment on her neighbors' domestic and social problems in a three-minute public radio spot.

"Some things are off-limits in a small town," she said. "It can be incriminating to address personal, controversial issues."

Death and near-death experiences are realities she hasn't shied from. When a Haines family's fishing boat went down last year with three brothers aboard, Lende wrote about it. Two fishermen were rescued from the stormy waters, but the sinking of the Becca Dawn claimed their brother's life. Lende talked with the family before airing the piece. It was a painful memory for them, but they were glad his life was being remembered and honored, she said.

"There are others who are more strictly writing about the Alaskan experience," she said. "I write more about people. I'm just raising a family in Haines. It's more a universal thing."

The mother of five school-age children, Lende and her husband, Chip, moved to Alaska from Vermont as newlyweds in the early 1980s. After a year in Anchorage they settled in Haines. In 1993 she walked into the studio of Haines public radio station KHNS and recorded her first commentary.

The Alaska Public Radio Network immediately picked up her short features and broadcast them statewide on Alaska News Nightly. Steve Heimel, the host of APRN's Alaska Morning News program, said Lende has a talent for portraying real people.

"Ultimately, people are interested in people, and writing that gives you the realness of people is pretty rare," Heimel said. He added that 80 percent of what she writes about could be happening in any small town in America. The 20 percent that's uniquely Alaskan provides the essential flavor, he said.

Lende went national in the mid-1990s with Monitor Radio, a national news program produced by the Christian Science Monitor. Her break came after she sent a tape of three commentaries to her husband's aunt, a Christian Scientist in Boston.

"She handed it to a guy at church that she knew worked for Monitor Radio," Lende said. "He turned out to be a senior producer. He liked it. I had been sending stuff all over the place for years. They ran all three in a month and then they started taking all of them."

"This Alaska Life" ran twice a month on Monitor Radio before the news program folded in the late 1990s. Heimel told her the market for radio commentators was slim, and urged her to go into print. She was unsure.

"I'm more of a talker than a writer," she said.

She already had contacted Alaska and Northwestbased publishers about printing a collection of her essays and been shot down. But she sent some samples to the Anchorage Daily News, and her timing was perfect. The paper was losing a columnist in the Sunday features section, "We Alaskans," and the editor invited her on board as a regular columnist. Her work now runs every third Sunday in the features section.

Moving into print paid off in other ways. She'd been sending her work to NPR since 1993 with no success. Last year it began running her commentaries once a month on "Morning Edition." Lende believes that being a newspaper columnist gave her work more credibility with the NPR producers. The newspaper experience also prepared her for the numerous rewrites and revisions NPR demands of her work.

"I sometimes try to say too much and these radio pieces are only about 500 words. You can't even really have one aside they pull it out," she said. "You have to say it so somebody listening in their car can get it. They can't rewind the tape or go home and reread it later."

A publisher in New York City heard a commentary on NPR and tracked down Lende in Haines through directory assistance. She asked Lende to have her agent send 15 of her best essays to New York, and they'd consider offering her a publishing contract.

"I told her I didn't have an agent, and she said I should have my manager do it. I told her I didn't have a manager, either."

This week Lende has the contract sitting on her desk.

"It's all kind of funny. It's a circle," she said. "There's a quote in the art room at my daughter's school 'successful people remain enthusiastic longer.' I guess I'm just enthusiastic."

Lende's formats for expression now range from spoken word to print, but her content is unchanged. She's still focused on daily life in a small town. She suspects that may be why her commentaries speak to people because raising children, watching friends grow up and marry and grow old and die are part of life in small towns in Alaska and across America.

"I try to let people make up their own minds. I think this is how they'd respond if they were put here," she said. "I'd better get going. It's my daughter's birthday and I'm bringing cupcakes to her school."

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