Alaska Book Week 2014 (Oct. 4-11) is ramping up! The organizing committee (Alaska Center for the Book, 49 Writers, Alaska State Library, Anchorage Public Library) has been working hard behind the scenes and you can now sign up to participate at the Alaska Book Week website at www.AlaskaBookWeek.com. Questions? Contact ABW coordinator Jathan Day at akbookweek (at) gmail (dot) com.
We'd like to take this opportunity to thank the various sponsors who have stepped forward to lend their support to this annual celebration of Alaska's authors and their books, helping us to run and promote the event: Alaska Center for the Book, University of Alaska Press, Associated General Contractors of Alaska, Epicenter Press, VP&D House, Arctic Cliffhangers, Great Northwest, Inc., Alaska Northwest Books, and Graphic Arts Books.
Congratulations to Stefanie Tatalias, whose picture book manuscript Whatever You Do, Don't Think About A Dragon took first in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's literary contest, children's category. Stefanie has been a finalist four out of the last five years, and reports it was a thrill to win this time.
Only four days left to sign up for the annual Sledgehammer contest, which takes place July 26 & 27. What’s Sledgehammer, you ask? It’s a quirky writing contest that incorporates a scavenger hunt, four writing prompts, a 36-hour deadline, the option to write as a team or solo, celebrity judge Ariel Gore, and prizes worth thousands (including 49 Writers memberships). Last year, 49 Writers member Kellie Doherty was a winner in the online category. You can also follow the contest on Facebook.
Events in Anchorage
Wednesday, July 30, 8pm,Embassy Suites Hotel in Anchorage: Reading by poets and writers from the pages of Cirque. Readers include Mary Mullen, Sherry Eckrich, Sandra Kleven, Paul Winkel, Tonja Woelber, Cynthia Sims and Matthew Morse. Joe Craig will entertain with jazzy, bluesy guitar. The hotel is staffing the event, offering a selection of great wines and beers, as well as an appetizer menu. Donations accepted at the door. Get a copy of the new Cirque. See it, full-text, at www.cirquejournal.com. The next submission deadline is September 21, 2014.
Donate new and gently used books to thread's 8th annual children's book drive. Through July 31, collection bins are available at Anchorage Fred Meyer stores and four Credit Union 1 branches (Bragaw, Eureka, 8th Avenue, Abbott). Donated books will be distributed to children and families at thread's Book Party in the Park on Aug. 14, 4-7pm, at 3350 Commercial Drive in Mountain View.
Around the State Today, Friday, July 25, 9am, Yaw Chapel on Sheldon Jackson Campus: As part of the Sitka Symposium held this week by the Island Institute, Luis Urrea will talk on the theme of "Radical Imagining: Changing the Story with Stories of Change." Open to anyone not able to attend the Symposium full-time. $25 at the door.
Tomorrow, Saturday, July 26, 1-2pm, Palmer Public Library and via video-conference: Join Dan Bigley (Beyond the Bear) and readers at other libraries in the OWL Project to hear his story about triumphing over a devastating tragedy. Bring your questions and join in the conversation.
Tomorrow, Saturday, July 26, 7pm, Bear Gallery at Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts, Pioneer Park: Fairbanks Arts Association Community Writers' Group presents a reading by Jean McDermott, Gregory Shipman, Emma Thomas, Dick Ourada, Pamela DeWitt, Sue Ann Bowling, and visiting artist G.M. Whitley.
August 22-24, Center for Alaska Coastal Studies' Peterson Bay Field Station (across Kachemak Bay from Homer): Line by Line in Kachemak Bay: a writer and artist retreat led by Marilyn Sigman and Marilyn Kirkham. Registration $225, including water taxi transportation, food, two nights lodging, and a journal. For more information and to sign up, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-235-6667.
Opportunities for Alaskan Writers
Did you know that if you're an Alaskan writer you can get listed for free in the Alaska Writers Directory? It's easy to do, just click here to complete the online form. If you're already listed, do check your information to make sure it's current--updates can be submitted using the same form. As Alaska Book Week approaches (Oct. 4-11, 2014), it's a great way for schools, book clubs, and other groups to connect with writers to invite to their Alaska Book Week celebration.
Need an author photo for your upcoming book? Affinityfilms, Inc., an Anchorage non-profit, will create your photo in exchange for a donation to the organization. Visit their website to contact them and make a donation online. Big thanks to Mary Katzke for this generous offer.
Anchorage Public Library is looking for fall writing group leaders, one for a teen group and one for an adult group. This is a great way to share your love of writing. For more information, contact Jim Curran at email@example.com or 343-2938.
Rasmuson Foundation is now accepting its next round of applications from all previous Rasmuson Individual Artist Award Recipients for its Artist Residency Program. Online applications for 2015 residencies will be accepted now through August 15, 2014. Questions about the program can be directed to Program Coordinator Jeremy Pataky at jeremy.pataky (at) gmail.com or 907-244-7717.
The Alaska Literary Awards, established in 2014 by the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation through a generous gift from Peggy Shumaker and Joe Usibelli, are accepting applications. The Alaska Literary Awards recognize and support writers of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, playwriting, screenwriting, and mixed genres. Any Alaska writer over the age of 18 who is not a full-time student is eligible to apply. Quality of the work submitted is the primary consideration in determining who receives the awards. There are no restrictions on the writer’s use of the award and no formal report is required. Application deadline is Tuesday, September 2, 2014, 9:59pm (AKDT).
Kaylene Johnson It’s the little mistakes that kill you. Shivering, with frozen fingertips, Dick could not thread the zipper of his sleeping bag back onto its track. Stunned, he wondered for a moment if this was it. If this would be the one small detail that tipped the balance. He quickly wrapped himself the best he could in his sleeping bag and crawled into the two-foot-deep snow trench he had dug for himself. This would be his shelter for the night. At minus thirty degrees, with winds howling up to forty miles an hour, the wind chill factor was more than one hundred degrees below zero. He had staked his sled and backpack into the snow using his ski poles to keep them from blowing away. Snow drifted in over the trench, covering him with an insulating layer of snow. He began to feel warmer. As his body warmed, so did the frostbitten parts of his anatomy. The wind that had pressed at his back all day — which had been strong enough to push his sled out in front of him — had frozen the flesh of his backside and legs. He was terribly thirsty. Less than two days earlier, on March 10, 1980, Dick had been lying in the loft of his friends Roosevelt and Beth Paneak’s home in Anaktuvuk Pass. It was the night before his trek and the plan was to ski from Anaktuvuk Pass to Bettles and then over the mountains to the village of Tanana and on to the Yukon River. It was to be a 300-mile trek through rugged country with snow deep enough to swallow snowmachines. With snow conditions as they were, Dick decided to lighten his load. He left his tent behind, opting instead for a large, heavy-duty sleeping bag that would shelter him from the cold. A layer of spruce boughs would be his bed. If necessary, he could build snow caves for shelter. He also decided to leave his stove and fuel at home. He liked a wood fire best, and as he had on previous trips, he would gather wood as he traveled. He also left his Gortex bibs behind. His plan was to keep moving at a good clip and take as little as necessary to stay agile and quick. The 1959 trip from Kaktovik to Anaktuvuk Pass had taught him a great deal about wilderness travel in the North. Later in 1977, Dick walked 150 miles and floated 450 miles from Anaktuvuk Pass to Kotzebue with his friend Bruce Stafford. Between mosquitoes, rain, and rivers swollen with floodwaters, he learned that travel was best done before “breakup” — the time of year when Alaska’s daylight grows longer but before the warmer weather of spring melts the ice on rivers. Two years later in 1979, he traveled solo on foot and by ski from Nuiqsut to Anaktuvuk Pass, a distance of two hundred miles. People asked him why he took these trips, and sometimes he wondered himself. On his 1979 solo journey he reflected, “There are moments I don’t know why I’m here. It’s cold and the landscape is monotonous. Progress is slow and the distance ahead seems to be unreachable. You need the capacity to see beauty even when it’s not pretty every day.” He learned he could travel much lighter. On the solo trip, he’d dropped a lot of gear — a thermos, food, a wet down jacket, even his sled. “This is a situation where possessions can forfeit freedom,” he wrote. On that trek he also noted, “Comfort is best when interspersed with moments of great discomfort.” He would soon discover the slender thread between discomfort and disaster. Kaylene Johnson is a writer and long-time Alaskan who lives in Eagle River, Alaska. She writes non-fiction, biography, and memoir including A Tender Distance: Adventures Raising Sons in Alaska. Her award winning essays and articles have appeared in the Louisville Review, Alaska magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and several Alaska anthologies. She holds a BA from Vermont College and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. This excerpts comes from Canyons and Ice: The Wilderness Travels of Dick Griffith, which recounts the remarkable journeys of Alaska legend Dick Griffith. Canyons and Ice offers a rare look at the man behind the soaring achievements and occasionally death-defying moments. A grand tale of adventure, Griffith’s story is also a reflection on what motivates a man to traverse some of the most remote places on earth. To read the rest of the excerpt, download the free Alaska Sampler 2014. Would you like to see your work featured here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today!
Here is the third post from July guest author John Straley. I once heard Robert Hass, before he was the Poet Laureate of the United States, say “Being a writer would be great, if it wasn’t for all the damn paperwork.” So we have inevitably come to writing the cursed book. In the earlier blog entries I discussed some aspects of preparation. Here are a few more:Fit your organizational needs to the workspace that you have. Space and organization of materials are related matters. We all might like a huge white board or a magic screen to project outlines and photographs upon and leave them there to think upon. If you have big room or an office you can afford such a thing. If you’re in a tiny space or share a tiny space you can’t. If you have a private office you can afford sloppiness, if you don’t you can’t. No sense fighting about this with roommates or spouses. Whatever space you have, whether it’s a laptop, a notebook and an ironing board, use it and be grateful. Great books have been written on less. I have found that public libraries are great places to work and can become kingdoms if you let them. Personally I think coffee shops are terrible places to write.No one makes time. You steal your time back and you keep it. All of us, if we are lucky, will have twenty-four hours in the next day. It’s what we do with those hours which determines our fate. To write a book we have to plant our pen in the day-planner and say, “This is my time for writing,” and then we have to follow through and use it. We colonize that portion of the day. We establish a beachhead and we start shoving out other lesser claimants to our attention. Our partners will support us in this only if they see progress from us. When they see pages. When they hear us read selections, and understand that we are doing something we have always wanted to do but never had the nerve to actually do, they will help see this book to completion. This part I have taught and said before but it is worth saying again: the supportive partners of this world have done way more for the Arts than the MacArthur Foundation. Back to the book: Who is going to tell your story? This is a big decision. First person, Third, Third Omniscient, these are the most common. There is lots to be said about this decision. I wrote my Cecil Younger series, first person in the voice of Cecil. First person has immediacy and it is easy to crack wise. It’s suited to the private I. novel. Right out of the gate your reader is engaged with the series character and sees the world through his/her eyes. But first person has severe limitations. One person can only be at one place at one time, cannot time travel without a lot of ridiculous hocus pocus (discovered letters that suddenly appear ect…) If you want help with this and other questions starting out, I suggest Ursula Le Guin’s very fine book Steering the Craft. I really think it is the best of the writer’s manuals I’ve come across for understanding the essentials. I would also point you to some of her interviews on craft. She has a nice minority point of view on some of the big questions. Ok, Butt in chair time. Here we go… Every day has to be a victory. You have your notes, you have your desire, set yourself a goal every day, and don’t get out of that chair until you meet that goal. The first step will be to take your notes and start filling out the lists of “things that happen” into some kind of loose outline. As you do this start drafting out an opening paragraph that captures the poetry and the geography of your book, something that transports your reader to the world of this story. Now. Choose how many words you want to write every day. How big a book did you say you wanted? A skinny book is 60,000 words, a chunky book is 150,000 words, a doorstop, editor screamer is 400,000. So, how long do you want to work on this rough draft? It’s up to you. (The neurosis of the writer largely revolves around the feeling of helplessness, but the truth is, at this point, the Universe in under your command.) The important thing is to make sure that every day is a victory.Let’s say you want to start off slender. Good idea for a novel. Write about five hundred words a day. Bite off two hours a day, five days a week. Maybe an extra day or two when you have the momentum rolling and in two and a half months or so you have a rough draft done. Now, this is not exactly free writing, you edit as you go but you don’t suffer a lot and you don’t you don’t tear it apart and start over half way through, unless you want to start the clock all over. Now you’ve got a rough draft, take a vacation. Take a vacation from the book. Don’t think about it for at least a month. Don’t let anyone read it at this point. No one. Not your spouse not anyone. Let it sit like Sauerkraut in a jar for about six weeks. Try your best to forget about it. At six weeks read it yourself. Read it straight through with a pencil and mark it up. What do you think it needs? Structural changes? Minor tweeking, copyediting? Something in-between… a character re-alignment or a plot adjustment? Whatever…. You are probably wrong at this point because you are still too close to it. Start revising the easy stuff. This first time through try to revise with you first impulse. Go back to your dream notebook. Is this rough draft really what you wanted? Probably not. If you see some structural changes you can make at this point, make them. If you see plain old dopey mistakes fix them… a common mistake I make is; I have a character give a speech rather than bother write an extra scene or two. It’s like the narrator in a melodrama tromping out on stage to say, “Well folks, then this and this and this happens but it’s not all that interesting.” I’m really bad about characters speechifying. If you do that, fix it. But back to revisions. If it took me “X” number of hours to write the draft of a mms it will take me (“X” x 4) hours to revise it. So, that’s how I figure the number of hours I have to sit in the chair that night. Drafting= # of words per nightRevising = # of hours per nightSo, you got about a year into this maybe. Time to show it to somebody. Show it to your partner. They’ll be nice, probably. That’s nice. Usually worthless as far as real help. Partners should be supportive, not really brutal. Then send it to someone brutal, smart, and honest. Most Valuable Lesson: A good writer learns to take a punch: Over and Over and Over and Over. I’m sorry, but this is true. The editors (and by extension hard-ass readers) of this world really don’t care about your tender little feelers. Generally they don’t care about anything in your life other than what lives on the page. They are not cruel, they are just busy, and there are way more people who want to be writers than want to be editors. So, if you get a real editor with experience in publishing to read your work, listen to their criticism. You don’t have to take it, you might be mismatched and that does happen, a lot, but still consider what they say, and look at your work with a new eye.Keep revising and sending your novel to readers until you are one hundred percent satisfied with it in your heart of hearts. One clue that you are done writing the novel is when you notice you are beginning to write another novel on top of the one you are revising. Then stop. Call it done. Either set it aside and start that new novel, while you are sending your first packet to agents or publishers (with that very pretty one page cover letter and the beautiful sample chapter).I know, it doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? When do we drink martinis by the paddocks with Lady Ashley?Next time will talk about why it was worth it.
I don't normally enter writing contests (not that I'm opposed to them), but three years ago, I submitted the first three pages of what was then my WIP (work in progress) to the Guide to Literary Agents literary fiction contest. To my surprise, I won - or rather, my beginning did. Even so, I ended up revising the beginning of what is now my latest novel, and I'm glad I did. Here’s what Publishers Weeklysays about how the novel begins now: This lyrically written coming-of-age story from Vanasse grabs you from the opening line and never lets go: “I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory.” Author Sinclair Lewis learned the hard way about the importance of beginnings. Cruising the Atlantic aboard the Queen Elizabeth, he was pleased to see a fellow passenger settle into a deck chair and open his latest novel. She read the first page, got up, and dropped the book over the railing, into the ocean. “If I didn’t know it already,” Lewis told his assistant Barnaby Conrad, “I learned then that the first page – even the first sentence – of one’s article, short story, novel, or nonfiction book is of paramount importance.” Don’t Try This at Home Suppose you hand the first 250 words of your manuscript to an actress, who then reads it before a panel of four agents and editors. Each agent raises a hand at the point where his or her interest fades. When two hands are raised, the actress quits reading. Yours doesn’t get read to the end? Don’t feel bad: only 25 percent do. This was the scenario that played out at a “Writer Idol” event. As reported by Livia Blackburne on the Guide to Literary Agents, there were many reasons the panelists rejected the beginnings. They were generic, or slow. There was too much unrealistic internal narration, or too much information. There were too many clichés, or the writing was unfocused, or the writer seemed to be trying too hard. In her PubRants blog, agent Kristen Nelson elaborates on this latter problem, pointing out that too often authors trying for active beginnings overload them with action. Ways to Begin The fundamental purpose of a beginning is simple: it must entice the reader to want more. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad suggests several types of beginnings that, skillfully rendered, will lure readers into the prose. Conventions of the nineteenth century allowed the luxury of beginning with setting, or a combination of setting and character, strategies that are tougher, though not impossible, to pull off with today’s attention-challenged readers. If you begin with setting, Conrad warns, you need to be masterful with it, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald in launching Tender is the Night, using specific details, imagery, dynamic verbs, foreshadowing, and a hint of conflict. You can also begin with a provocative thought, though you’ll want to follow it directly with specifics of the story. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” says Jane Austen in the opening of Pride and Prejudice. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” opens Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. By no means do beginnings need to be elaborate. The Old Man and the Seaopens like a news story, with the straight facts: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The appeal can be more emotional, as in the opening sentence of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: “She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunias bloomed.” Or the novel can open with action: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” begins James Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice. In each of these examples, there’s enough said to engage the reader, and there’s enough left out for the reader to want to know more. With some beginnings, the reader dives with grace into the story. With others, it’s more of a cannonball splash. In media res takes the reader directly into the middle of a scene. Opening with dialogue has the same effect. When you’re suddenly immersed in a scene, you grab for bits to hang onto. You want to puzzle your way to some clarity. In short, you’re hooked. Character beginnings prove equally enticing. Look no farther than Conrad’s Lord Jim or Nabokov’s Lolitafor proof that a book can open successfully with character. Also endearing is the author’s appeal to the reader, as in Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” or Twain’s “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that don’t matter.” Conrad calls this author-to-reader appeal “disarming, confidential, effective, and somewhat old-fashioned,” but given today’s emphasis on voice, it seems more than modern. Ending Thoughts on Beginnings It’s all too easy to get attached to our beginnings. Because they come to us first, they soon feel indelible. Remember - they’re not. To weigh in on what makes a good beginning, check out the “Flog a Pro” feature at Writer Unboxed. Co-founder of 49 Writers, Deb Vanasse has authored more than a dozen books. Her most recent work is Cold Spell, part of the Alaska Literary Series by the University of Alaska Press. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. Portions of this post have been published previously. Would you like to write a guest post relevant to Alaska’s literary community? Email 49writers (at) gmail.com or debvanasse (at) gmail.com.
Tending to Our Own In death, we turn over our loved ones, ourselves, to strangers; our lifeless corpses vulnerable to the preparation and attention of professionals in sterile, chemical environments.
In death, we've grown accustomed to the removal of useless organs and the drainage of once vital blood, replacing with embalming fluid preservatives, fighting decay, even in death.
Washed and dried, oiled and waxed, combed and preened, dressed in our best, we lay ready for our final viewing, disinfected with the promise of delayed decomposition.
Gone are the days we tended to our own, mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts, friends and neighbors working together, washing remains with loving hands and scented soaps, bodies touched by salty tears and clean smelling powders.
Gone are the days we gathered together in intimate fellowship, in homes and on mountain sides, celebrating the transition from life to death, saying goodbye, guarded by our men, our brothers, our families.
Tending to our own has become a lost art, a lost humbling opportunity for reverence, a lost process and forgotten practice; the new way has become a silent empty space in our culture, societal bonds even more broken. BaptizedI welcome the rain, nature's shower, accompanied by the wind, carrying stories and songs and hints of conversations from some other place, some other time.
The cold droplets speckle my face if I dare to look up, to face what's coming.
Coupled with Wind, they nudge at my heart, my steps, and my mood.
Pushing me gently with soft pressure, much like my great grandmother who had lost her strength, but still held her power.
Clouds release their bounty on us below, cleansing, opening pores, washing away secret sins and screaming blemishes.
I am baptized in the rain, no witness necessary. Kristina Cranston is a 43 year old Alaskan mother, grandmother, sister, auntie, and daughter. She is part Tlingit from Haines, and belongs to the Eagle Moiety/Thunderbird Clan. She was raised in Mountain View, a diverse neighborhood in Anchorage, and spent her summers in Haines and Klukwan, balancing the two worlds of village life and city life. Kristina helps her significant other run an art gallery in the beautiful seaside community ofSitka. She has been writing since she was a teenager, and has learned to embrace life and what it offers through this process.
Don Rearden Through a mouth full of Copenhagen he gave some of his last words of wisdom to me: “No good when you die in the winter. Gonna leave too much work behind.” A couple hours into digging and I understood what he meant, and I wanted to shoot the guy came up with six feet as the regulation depth of a grave. I worried we wouldn’t be finished in time. Just one day to dig the hole. One day. One day before the village carried his plywood coffin to the cemetery. Men stopped by to help. Someone brought an old red Sears chainsaw that looked like it had been digging graves since the day it left the store shelf. I thought about the irony of digging the grave with a chainsaw when fifty miles of tundra stood between the village and the nearest real tree. Why not use it to cut frozen dirt, why not dig graves? I thought the men who came to help probably saw in my face that I needed to dig the grave by myself. Robert wasn’t a relative, not even a distant uncle, but the old man was special to me and somehow everyone seemed to understand this. After a quick demonstration without words, Robert’s brother handed me the rumbling saw. I crawled back down into the hole and began gnawing away at the black earth. The hungry saw sputtered and threw a fine dark mist of permafrost. I kept my eyes fixed on the tip of the saw blade and worked it into the iceblock soil. I would pull the blade and hungry chain out, and make another slice, until I could kick with my boot and loosen a chunk of the frozen ground. Robert’s younger brothers stood over me. They waited to relieve me. To grieve with me. Their shadows crept into the grave. The lights from the small village houses turned the white crosses in the cemetery into an army of straight soldiers, their dark arms held out against the snow. Over the whine of the small saw's engine, I felt the men grow restless. I sensed they no longer wanted to help dig. They wanted the warm comfort of home. Perhaps it wasn’t the icy burn of the wind getting to them, but the chill of standing amongst the spirits of their ancestors. Still, they didn’t leave. They stood guard, at the edge of the grave, watching this battle with the frozen earth. My fingers and toes had lost all feeling, and I could feel the frost cutting away at the tip of my nose. I tried to think of Robert and find strength in his last breaths. How the river ice must have just opened up and swallowed him, how he scrambled from the swirling black water and pulled himself to shore, his clothing soaked. I pictured the small patch of willows where he spent his final hours, minutes, seconds, fighting for life, for warmth. I wondered why he didn't just allow the water to take him, why he put up such a struggle in the howling, burning, cold winds when he didn’t have anyone left to live for. When they found his body, he was huddled beneath the willows. A small pile of dried yellow grass and green twigs half-blackened, his lighter had almost managed to save him. Almost. He hadn't dug into a snowbank for warmth, knowing he was already too wet. It was more important they find his body so that his spirit could be properly cared for. So someone could dig him a grave. Perhaps he knew it would be me. At the sight of Robert, I had collapsed to the snow and cried. Robert. Frozen in a ball, on his side in the back of a long plywood sled, wrapped in a blue tarp. Forever selfish, I thought nothing of anyone, except myself. My friend, my teacher. I was alone again.
But in the grave I was too busy working, thinking, and I didn’t hear the saw sputter out. My mind still in the sled, wrapped in the blue tarp. I heard a voice, "No more gas."
I looked up and saw the hand reaching towards me. Then lowered my eyes to the saw, dead. I started to hand the saw up to Robert’s brother, but he reached for my free hand and he began to pull me up and out of the grave. "That's good,” he said. “We’ll finish in the morning. Robert can wait another day, if he needs to." I looked down at my three sad feet of progress against the impossible permafrost. Pathetic. A day of digging and no answers. My arms, legs, and back hurt, but I couldn’t stop. Don Rearden grew up on the tundra of Southwestern Alaska. His experiences with the Yup'ik culture shaped both his writing and his worldview. His critically acclaimed novel The Raven’s Gift was named a 2013 Notable Fiction selection by The Washington Post. You can read a sample chapter or order The Raven’s Gifthere. Don’s writing has been published internationally and he is also a produced screenwriter and poet. His heart often draws his writing back to characters and stories that originate on the tundra; in his fiction, he hopes to shed light on the struggles of everyday life in rural Alaska. Rearden is an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage and president of the 49 Writers. This excerpt is from “Digging Robert’s Grave,” a fictional short story of a young man dealing with the tragic death of a father figure. To read the rest of the story, download the free Alaska Sampler.
Here is the second post from July guest author John Straley. As he told us in his first post, "I thought I would write about craft questions I have never taught or lectured on before...and I hope to respond to questions that may come in over the month and enter into a dialogue with any of you who are reading these posts." * * * *So, I have basically decided what kind of story I would like to write, (always with the proviso that I can change my mind with any of these decisions) I know basically the scope, if not the actual length of the story. I know if I’m going to have to do extensive research/travel for this story or not, and I know basically what my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer.
Now you and I ready to start the spacing out and dreaming part of writing the book. This is the thinking about the book stage. While you are walking… cooking...working at a crappy job...you are thinking about it. It’s ill formed. You can’t even describe it to anybody. At this point you shouldn’t even try to describe it to anybody. If somebody asks you you should say, “I’m thinking about a story”. If they say, “What’s it about?” you should say, “I don’t know yet.” If you try to tell them at this point, you might commit to something too soon. Or you might become embarrassed by a half-baked dumb-assed idea that will set you back months. This stage is intensely private and best to keep it that way. You have no idea what’s going to happen at this point because you are juggling with an infinite number of eggs.
Let me say something right here that is intensely personal and may apply only to me. Worrying about “whether I’m a writer or not” is a colossal waste of time. It is a question that answers itself by what you spend your time doing. The less said about it the better.
You should have a fat notebook that you can divide into four parts or four separate notebooks. You should write in these notebooks either first thing in the morning or the last thing at night. Think of this as a kind of dream journal. This dream journal will have the four important parts:
POETRY GEOGRAPHY PEOPLE THINGS THAT HAPPEN
POETRY Every day after thinking/dreaming about this story that you want to write you should write something in you notebook under one or the other one of these sections. Poetry is the poetry of the story, the heart, the mood, the soul material of the story. It can also be some experimental technique you want to employe. I am a visual person I will note images here or details that will evoke mood or atmosphere. Other people may write scraps of poetry, their own or others.
GEOGRAPHY What is the world of this story? This will have little interesting details of place, images, snapshots, places you may want to go in a story. Does setting influence action? How? Does it effect character? Think of it as if you were shooting a film, you can scout locations and list possibilities here, create maps. If you travel to locations put your descriptions here along with, pressed flowers, photographs, drawings. Remember you may use these things in your story or not.
PEOPLE Who inhabits this story? Details of characters, biographical sketches. Things you have observed. Details. Who might be in a story? Who do you need in a story to tell your tale. Who lives in these places? Who has these poems? This passion? Who inhabits the world you want to create? Imagine these people. Here too: photographs, drawings. quotations. Poems. Moods. Are some characters foils for other characters? How? Necessary? Some characters are simply needed to advance plot necessities but they can still serve several functions.
THINGS THAT HAPPEN One of the things that is most difficult to do is keep a story moving in a natural way. Action comes naturally in a story from the seeds you plant in the world right from the beginning with the setting and your characters… or it drops out of the sky like the hand of fate. Chaos is the friend of action. Domestic tranquility is not. In crime novels the expectation is that there must be a “plot point” or some dramatic action close on to every three pages or less. But even in the most intellectual mainstream fiction things happen, even if it is a subtle shift in tension. Things happen that keep the readers interest. When considering your story, keep a list of things that happen. peaks and valleys. dramatic actions, think of them as non-cheesy, highly intelligent cliff hangers. This is what Shakespeare did when shaping his plays, he created dramatic tension. and David Foster Wallace, who used broad humor and exquisite detail as well, and no one called him stupid. Just don’t forget to make things happen, while you are making things smart and beautiful.
While your are thinking about your own story. Read other peoples stories. Go to public readings. Listening to writers read aloud, is the single most inspiring thing I do. I get the best Ideas for my own stories by listening to good writers read aloud. The better the writers the better the ideas I get. I swear. I think they just raise the bar.
Remember that in this notebook you are not composing your book. You are gathering possibilities. Do not sweat this. There is no editing this notebook. Neither is this free writing. You are pulling up possibilities of poetry, geography, people and things that happen. This is more like dredging the well of well of memory and imagination.
The difference between memory and imagination, is tricky. Here is what I think: imagine you find an old well in the hard granite country where the fissures in the earth are very deep. It’s an old fashioned well with a short wall built around it and rope pulley and bucket. Bend over, pick up a stone and throw it in. The stone falls a distance, you look over and see your dappled reflection and hear an echoing splash. The sound of the splash echoing up, the reflection, the bricks of the well and the dank air, is your memory, everything the stone falls through ever after is your imagination.
Now there is a mysterious thing that happens. At some point of staring out the window and puzzling about this story, you will think you are ready to start writing. But you will be wrong, and you will know it in your heart, because one of your characters will be too thin, or the geography will be too vague. But you will be excited because ONE THING will be so good you will want to get started right away. DONT DO IT. When you have some thing really great in each section of the notebook, then you are ready to go on to the next step. They don’t have to all fit together. They don’t have to even make sense. You just have to have something great in Poetry, Geography, People and Things That Happen, you will be close.
Finally, mysteriously, you will just know. You will know your story is there. Not in the notebook, but in the darkness of the well. In your mind, and ready to come out.
Next time we go the actual, butt in the chair grinding it out phase. Step one: Colonizing the Day-planner. John Straley is a poet, novelist, and a private investigator. He has published eight novels and one book of poetry, and was Alaska's twelfth Writer Laureate. He and his wife Jan live in a bright green house near Old Sitka Rocks.
Willie Hensley Back in 2009, we caught up with Inupiat elder and activist Willie Hensley as he was preparing for his first book tour for Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People. Fifty Miles from Tomorrowis your first book. What inspired you to write it? I wrote Fifty Miles from Tomorrow, in part, to inspire our own people to tell their story and to convey their knowledge of culture, history and the natural universe--that we didn't need our story to be filtered through people from the Outside. Tell us how the process of writing was for you. What were the greatest challenges, and how did you overcome them? I was fortunate to have a good editor who took my early writing and described what she thought would be a successful way to write for me. My sentences tended to be too long and I didn't realize how much my early cultural upbringing affected how I wrote. It is very hard for an Inupiaq to take credit for anything due to our understanding that it takes many people to create success. I didn't find the writing too difficult and I did very little rewriting. I tried to describe the images in my life and my feelings and recollections of the various stages and efforts in my life. Memoir is a tough genre, because you end up telling truths that may cause some discomfort for people you love. How did you resolve these issues when crafting your story? Very early on I realized there were painful experiences that our people felt uncomfortable in expressing. We have lived in a harsh universe and for over ten thousand years, we learned to suffer through difficult circumstances without becoming whiners. To me, it was important that I not only try to describe our way of life before great changes began to occur--it was also important for us to expose the human toll of government and missionary policies and practices on our people. Before I started the book, I called my relatives to let know that I was going to write a book and they encouraged me--painful subjects and all. What has been most rewarding about seeing your project through to completion? The reward is the result. I never in my wildest imagination thought that I could write. The thought that I could write something that others will find worth their time and money is exhilarating. Also, I wanted our own people to know that despite my college degree and succession of good jobs and experiences, I also had to deal with my own adjustments to difficult circumstances that we all have faced due to forces beyond our control. I also am proud of that fact that other Americans and the world will have a book that sheds some light on a part of America that people know virtually nothing about. What creative work has engaged you since finishing the book? I had to work on the book at night, weekends, holidays and on planes--as I had not retired at the time I was writing. Since then, I have retired and tried to learn to be less driven--now beginning the effort to help my publisher publicize the book. I will spend most of January and the first quarter on the road. If the book sells reasonably, my publisher has first option on another book. I have not decided what the subject might be but I have some thoughts. I am not like most writers who are "driven" to write. I would like to try a novel.
David Vann This interview first ran in 2009; since then, Vann has published several novels, all to wide acclaim. David, thank you for writing the best and most intricately structured book I’ve read this year – a truly amazing read that, by about page 135, I was looking forward to finishing so that I could read all over again. You say in the interview at the back of the new paperback edition : “This book is as true an account as I could write of my father’s suicide and my own bereavement, and that was possible only through fiction.” Wonderfully said. What I want to know is, how difficult was it to write, given the nature of the material? You’ve written two nonfiction books, and I’ve read that this book took a long time to get published. Was there a point in your writing life when you felt ready to write this; did you have to wait until you had a certain amount of narrative control under your belt; did you have any concerns about wading into such heart-wrenching material? Although Legend of a Suicide wasn’t my first book to get published, it was the first book I wrote. I worked on it for ten years, from when I was 19 until I was 29. So I was learning to write, and I had no idea how to tell the story. I threw away everything from the first 3 or 4 years, because it was all too direct, with too much emotion on page 1. I’d start with the day we found out my father was dead, for instance, which didn’t work at all. But then I read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and heard a lovelier, more emotionally distanced voice, and I was also reading poems by Elizabeth Bishop, and I ended up writing Ichthyology, which was the first story I was able to keep. It focused on tropical fish and fishing in Alaska, and my father’s story came indirectly, beginning first as subtext and rising to the surface at the end. That indirection was the key to writing the rest of the book, and is part of why I didn’t write the book as nonfiction. There was no one true story to tell anyway (because we all had different versions of who my father was and what had happened and what it meant) and the true story, even if I could have found it, would have been too direct and essentially unreadable. Once I finished the book, it sat for 12 years and no agent would send it out, so I sent it to a contest (AWP’s Grace Paley Prize), and that’s how it was finally published. The structure is unusual to say the least: three short stories told in the first person, followed by a long novella told third person and without quotation marks, followed by two short stories told in first person again. All feature the same characters – or so this reader would argue anyway: Roy Fenn (adolescent except at the end of the book) and his tragic father. There are repeating themes and constellations of images and connecting storylines throughout, but what I loved most was how the early stories “teach” the reader how to interpret the main novella. We know enough of the “true” (within the framework of the fictional world) events of the early stories to be able to understand, or try to understand, the novella in several possible ways – at least that’s how I read it. Without spoiling the book for others, I’ll say that there is a shocking development in part II that makes use of a startling and effective shift in POV. First: did you plan the structure this way from the beginning, and in what order did you write the stories? Have readers had widely different interpretations of the novella, in particular? I’ve been happily surprised that interpretations of the novella and of the book overall really haven’t strayed very far. It’s an unusual structure, as you note, but people seem to get what’s going on. The book is a transformation of true material. My father asked me to spend 8th grade with him in Fairbanks, but I said no, and two weeks later, he killed himself. I felt tremendous guilt afterward and wondered whether he’d still be alive if I’d said yes. So in the novella, the boy says yes. He spends a year homesteading with his father on Sukkwan Island, in southeast. I picked an island I’ve never been to, but one close to Ketchikan where I grew up, because I wanted to use that same familiar rainforest but let the island itself be a landscape of imagination, something that could transform in order to reflect what’s going on inside the characters. I wrote “Ichthyology” first, then “Rhoda,” then “A Legend of Good Men,” the order they appear in the book. But I wrote the novella last, after writing “Ketchikan” and “The Higher Blue.” The novella makes use of everything else and flips everything on its head, so I guess that’s why it had to be written last, but I placed the other two stories after it in the book because “Ketchikan” tests and hits the limits, finally, of how much I can understand about my father, and “The Higher Blue” is an epilogue. It’s the same story as “Ichthyology” but written as fabulism, in an entirely different style, forming a kind of bookend, and it’s more hopeful, also, which is what I wanted for the ending. The word “Legend” in the title of the book means “a series of portraits,” so the overall book title is really “A series of portraits of a suicide.” I was reading Chaucer’s “Legend of Good Women” and thought this literary form of a series of portraits (borrowed from the tradition of writing about saints’ lives) could work well for me, since I didn’t have one clear story to tell about my father. I was also reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” which are stories that all disagree and form a debate of style and content, so that’s my intent in my book. Each story is written in a different style, and the series of portraits of my father and his suicide and my own bereavement conflict and in that way form a debate about what really happened and what it meant. As you point out about the novella, the other stories frame and “teach” us how to read it. Three things among many I enjoyed in this book: first, a faithfulness to intense moments of emotional truth. Second, the tight control of language – for example, the character of 13-year-old Roy’s voice. It’s written simply and starkly, in a way that reminded me of Cormac McCarthy (for example, The Road”) with particular attention to syntax and punctuation as a way of getting that young narrator’s voice exactly right. Third: the landscape descriptions. You really captured Southeast Alaska sensations and smells and sights. Can you talk about your influences and any thoughts you have on your own writing style, or strengths you value in other writers? Thank you, Andromeda, for such generous comments and questions. Regarding influences, I mentioned above that reading Robinson and Bishop helped me write “Ichthyology.” “Rhoda” is a minimalist short story, influenced most by Carver. “A Legend of Good Men” takes its structure from Chaucer. For “Sukkwan Island,” the novella which is most of the book, I was reading six novels by Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner, and I was influenced most by McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is his greatest work. His more recent novel, The Road, has some great sentences in it, but Blood Meridian offers those great sentences nonstop for over 300 pages. It’s my favorite book, and I think it’s the most magnificent American novel ever written (though plenty of people would disagree with me, of course, including probably McCarthy, who is a huge fan of Moby Dick and apparently rereads it every year). In “Ketchikan,” I returned to poems by Elizabeth Bishop and also used Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.” I’m not sure what the influence was for “The Higher Blue.” Maybe Donald Barthelme. I don’t think any writer has ever been truly original. I think our styles and our voices (I view voice as style plus sensibility) are a combination of all the works we’ve loved and ingested, framed by our own growing up and language communities. I grew up hunting and fishing in Alaska and northern California and reading my dad’s westerns, Louis L’Amour and such. We hunted the same ranch each fall, and as we hiked along, my father and uncle and grandfather would tell all the stories of what had happened in these places and who had been there, and in that way our family history was retold each year. So that’s part of where my style and material come from, and it’s also where my focus on landscape comes from. I believe that stories exist only in place, and I can’t imagine telling a story without focusing mostly on the place. The landscape writers I’ve read, such as Robinson, Bishop, McCarthy, and also Annie Proulx, have strengthened this sense. I’m not able to write like McCarthy or Proulx or any of the others, of course (though I wish!), but I’ve picked up a few limited aspects of their style, and I’ve also learned from great teachers. My mentor, John L’Heureux, drew heavily on theatre, and so I focus on dramatic conflict between characters in addition to landscape description. One more comment on how you write descriptions: In the New Yorker chat, you said, “It’s the extension of the landscape that leads to theme … And this move from the concrete noun to the abstract noun is how authors extend landscape description into theme.” Coincidentally, Deb Vanasse here at 49writers is teaching a workshop on description, and last weekend, she happened to use a wonderful passage from your book – as well as many others – to show how one “earns” the abstraction by first using effective concrete imagery. Do you have any more to say about that? That was nice of Deb to use my work. Re the idea of “earning” the extension to theme, I think the landscapes that work best are the ones that are mythic for us, from our childhoods or other important moments, because if we focus on those landscapes and push on them hard enough, they’ll begin to shift and transform and suggest, whereas less important places tend not to do that. My point is really that the transformation can’t be planned and writing can’t be faked. We can’t say, “I intend to write about this bay and use it as a metaphor for x.” We write about the bay, and if we’re lucky and also working on the right material, something that really does matter to us, something might happen. And I agree that the entire game is in the details. A place has to be described clearly and concretely before it can become more. Sounds like good advice from Deb. The example I use for this in class, by the way, is from the opening of William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning.” The boy smells cheese in the store which has been converted into a courthouse to try his father, and he believes he can smell the meat sealed in cans, because he’s hungry, but then there’s another smell, of fear and grief and the old pull of blood, which is Faulkner’s extension from the literal to the figurative, from the concrete to the abstract (“blood” here used as an abstract noun, meaning “family ties”). This is theme. By the end of the story, the boy will have to make a terrible choice between blood and conscience. David, I want to ask you a question inspired by a book called Ron Carlson Writes a Story. Carlson describes, with humor and candor, the process of discovering while writing. Sentence by sentence, he really doesn’t seem to know where he is going until he gets there. Other writers – perhaps more novelists than short story writers – sometimes report having more of a plan, or at least a glimmer of scenes toward which they’re aiming, even if things end up changing along the way. In the book chat you did with the New Yorker, you allude to being surprised by a key event in the middle of the Sukkwan Island novella that I was sure was planned from the beginning (but evidently not)! Most often, do you head toward a bright light, see only as far as your headlights allow (to misquote E.L. Doctorow), or stumble in the dark? I had no idea that event in the middle of the novella was coming. I was halfway through writing that sentence before I saw what would happen, and then I was just shocked. I had thought I was writing toward something else, but looking back, I could see the pressures that had been put on the boy, and I could see that this was, in fact, inevitable. I just hadn’t understood or seen it coming. So I had to go with it, and I had no idea what I’d write for the second half of the story. That was frightening, but those pages that begin the second half describe something I’d never been able to describe before, and that’s what’s wonderful about having the writing take over. It’s why I write. I love the unconscious patterns that show up, and I love that what I’ve denied or been afraid of will find its way to the surface despite my careful plans. My plans for where I’m going are never any good. Ideas are death to fiction, in my opinion. None of us has ever really had a truly new idea, only tremendous ego and the delusion that it’s a new idea, and the more we can get away from ideas and let character and place take over, the better. I was very excited to see in the paperback’s aftermatter that your next novel (due out in early 2011), Caribou Island, takes place on the Kenai Peninsula – and appears to be closely related to these stories, through the character of Rhoda. This seems to be the book you were researching as recently as summer 2009, when you guestblogged for us. Were you just wrapping up some final details then, or are you an amazingly fast writer (with an amazingly fast publisher)? Thanks, Andromeda. Caribou Island is set entirely on the Kenai Peninsula, and I was there last summer to go out on a drift-netter again, work in a fish processing plant, and revisit various places that I use in the novel. I finished writing the novel in September and then worked on revisions through March.The novel draws from two family stories. My stepmother (Rhoda in my fiction) lost her parents to murder/suicide (her mother shot her father then herself), and my grandmother, at age ten, walked home from school and found her mother hanging from the rafters, a suicide. But the book is about marriage rather than suicide, and has no guns, and no important father/son relationship. And Rhoda is different than she was in Legend of a Suicide. So the new novel follows Legend in that it’s set in Alaska and works through landscape and transforms family stories, but beyond that it’s really different. The main character is a 55-year-old woman, there are 7 points of view, and the book focuses on a marriage that’s falling apart. Thank you so much David. We hope to see you soon in Alaska and we can’t wait to read your next book.'Thank you, Andromeda. I really appreciate such thoughtful and generous questions, and I also appreciate all the support you and Deb have given me. I think it’s very exciting, also, how you’re developing 49 Writers as a center. I hope I’ll get to visit. Afternote: With generous support from Kirsten and Carl Dixon's Tutka Bay Lodge, 49 Writers brought David Vann to Southcentral Alaska for an Anchorage reading and Tutka Bay writers' retreat in early September of 2010; he returned again after the release of Caribou Island. This summer, he's writing his next book while visiting the Turkish coast.