Homer writer wins Pushcart award

Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2003

Homer writer Nancy Lord believes that Alaska's literary community is thriving, but that it is underappreciated nationwide.

"I think it's that we're a young writing community, relatively speaking," she said. "We're just developing. And, we don't promote ourselves all that well."

Lord's own writing, including several nonfiction books and short story collections, has drawn high praise from critics and peers. Over the years her fiction has been nominated a handful of times for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.

This time, she won one.

Pushcarts are given to writers whose work is published by small magazines or presses, including Coffeehouse Press, which printed Lord's latest collection of short fiction, "The Man Who Swam With Beavers."

Works are nominated by editors. Winning pieces are chosen from among those nominations by the Pushcart's own board of editors and published in the annual Pushcart Prize anthology.

The format allows for the collection of some of the year's best fiction, poetry and essays by both well-known and undiscovered writers.

Lord's winning story, "Candace Counts Coup," was included in this year's anthology, the 27th, alongside works by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Louise Gluck and two-time Nobel Prize for Literature nominee Joyce Carol Oates.

Perhaps better known for her nonfiction, including "Fishcamp: Life on An Alaskan Shore," and "Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast," Lord quietly has been publishing short stories in two of her own collections and in literary journals for more than a dozen years.

Despite a list of publication credits that reads like a novice writer's Christmas wish list -- "Ploughshares," "the Antioch Review" and the "Alaska Quarterly Review," to name a few -- many people are not aware that Lord even writes fiction.

She may be the state's best-kept literary secret.

A trim woman with hair the color of a spider web, Lord speaks with reserve in a way that tends to encourage her interviewer to talk more -- a schoolteacher quietly encouraging a student to answer his own question.

In fact, she is a teacher. Lord teaches fiction-writing workshops at the Kachemak Bay Branch of the University of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula College.

She is also, with her partner Ken Castner, a commercial fisherman, and is actively involved in the community. Heavy on her plate these days is the drive to build Homer a new library; Lord is chair of the Library Advisory Board, and chair of the library's Capital Campaign Committee.

"My home environment when I was growing up, while privileged, was narrow," she said. "I felt even as a kid that I was hemmed in a little bit. I spent much of my childhood in libraries, and I learned that there was a whole lot of different things going on in the world. I'm really committed to trying to get Homer a new library."

Lord grew up in Manchester, N.H., and attended Hampshire College in western Massachusetts. She moved to Homer in 1973, and worked the "usual variety of Homer things -- cannery, hotel, weather service, Tutka Hatchery," she said.

"I didn't study writing until graduate school," she said, though she always has written in one way or another. After earning a Master of Fine Arts from Vermont College in 1988, she turned her attention more seriously to writing.

She published a few stories, and won a state arts council short story contest. The collection of stories that arose out of that contest, "The Compass Inside," is now out of print. Her second collection, "Survival," is comprised mostly of stories she wrote in grad school.

Lord's stories had been nominated for the Pushcart in the past. This time, an editor nominated her as a writer rather than nominating any one particular story. The Pushcart board contacted her, and she submitted three stories from "The Man Who Swam with Beavers," including the story that was chosen.

"I was real pleased," she said. "It's one that I've always liked. It was one of the last ones I wrote for this collection. I chose it because it's about the power of art.

"All the stories in here take off from Native myths and legends," Lord said. "Candace Counts Coup' is actually based on a White River Sioux story I'd read."

"Coup," a French word, means "war count" in the Native languages, and is a way to show bravery, skill and responsibility. Coup can be counted, for example, by approaching an enemy close enough to strike him with something held in the hand, and the greatest coup went to the warrior who, while counting coup, captured the enemy's horses and weapons.

The story's title character is a performance artist who, in the course of a day, dispatches a would-be mugger; interferes with a domestic dispute between neighbors; helps out a poorly treated dog; and provides shelter and solace to her estranged husband. Each of the acts finds its way into one of Candace's performance art pieces, and the parallel between Candace and a warrior counting coup is subtly drawn.

Many of the stories in the collection also deal with environmental issues, a subject close to Lord's heart. Her nonfiction work, and her nature writing essays, show her love for the land and her own views on our relationship to it.

"I wrote a lot of fiction for awhile, but gradually I started writing more nonfiction," Lord said. "That's what more people are more familiar with, even though I share a love of both genres. I don't think nonfiction has ever gotten the credit it deserves."

Especially in Alaska, about which much of the best nonfiction being published is written by Outsiders, she said.

"We get displaced a lot by Outsiders," she said. "Maybe they're just better plugged in and connected, and they get the media attention. Alaska's writers don't promote ourselves as well as we could, sometimes."

Much of today's Alaska-based literature is based on stereotypes, Lord said.

There's so much more to Alaska than gets documented, she said, and Alaskans bring a different perspective to the state than Outside writers. For her part, Lord believes there is value to showing other people the world as she understands it.

"It's the job of writers to make people think, to help them challenge the easy assumptions that are made, to question how they are living," she said. "I do believe it's the job of art to present the human condition in a way that can help other people to understand the world and their lives.

"I'd like to think I can influence how people perceive the world, that it might make them think differently about the world, and live differently," she said. "It's pretty grand to think that, but why do something unless you think it might make a difference?"

Chris Bernard is a reporter for the Homer News.

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