Author brings book pitch to Seward

Posted: Thursday, December 20, 2001

Only two months after publication, "Looking for Alaska" is in its fourth printing, according to author Peter Jenkins. Jenkins was in Seward on Monday to discuss the book and autograph copies.

His trip to Alaska is part of a 35-city tour to publicize the book that he researched during 18 months he and his family became temporary residents of Seward. On Wednesday, he headed back to his home in Tennessee.

"I came here to write a book that I would hope would capture the essence of Alaska and the diversity of Alaska," Jenkins said.

J. Rollins, who organized the Seward gathering, confirmed that Jenkins had fulfilled his mission.

"He's an outsider that came here, caught the essence of Alaska and, through his great storytelling ability, caught that in his book," Rollins said.

Judging from its success, the book is inspiring readers much the same as Jenkins' earlier books, including "A Walk Across America," a bestseller in the late 1970s.

Sylvia Johnson, of Kenai, sent her copy of "Looking for Alaska" to Seward to be autographed by Jenkins. Johnson, a world traveler, said she finds Jenkins to be an inspiring writer and kindred spirit.

Eric Frishcosy, of Anchorage, drove to Seward to have Jenkins autograph his copy of the book. After moving to Alaska from Michigan in 1998, Frishcosy bicycled from Alaska to Florida. During that trip, he picked up one of Jenkins' books.

"After reading it, I slowed down and started talking to people," Frishcosy said.

The inspiration doesn't stop there. Frishcosy is enrolling in creative writing classes through University of Alaska Anchorage and working on a story about his cross-country trip.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley, whose mauling by a brown bear is told by Jenkins in explicit detail, also praised the author's ability.

"I've read books on Alaska and seen movies on Alaska where it was obvious that they just didn't get it," Bagley said. But of Jenkins' book, he added, "The whole book is just very correct. He doesn't screw up things. You don't read it and go, 'that's not right.'"

The opportunity to visit Alaska came after Jenkins met well-known musician Hobo Jim, a longtime Soldotna resident.

"He's the kind of person that would pick up a hitchhiker and invite him home," Jenkins said. "So he invited us to come up here on the spot, and we did."

Once word began spreading that Jenkins was working on a book about Alaska, other invitations poured in from people wanting to introduce him to their own version of life on the Last Frontier.

Accused in a review of not meeting any Alaskans he didn't like, Jenkins told his Seward fans, "Actually I met a lot of people I couldn't stand in Alaska, but I didn't write about them. But I did meet a lot of really wonderful people."

Writing the book required careful documentation on Jenkins' part. He took "hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes," taped interviews, and took photographs and videos.

"Thank God I did," he said. "I was writing about Eskimo whaling during the hottest part of the summer in Tennessee. Here I was trying to write about ice and white and blue and no green and cold and whales. And I'd just close all the windows, turn the air conditioning down and play the sound that I have of icebergs moving by, look at the video and listen to the whalers talk to me."

In spite of the documentation, however, some errors crept in. There is no Kmart in Soldotna, Fred Meyer doesn't stay open 24 hours a day, and, according to a spokesperson at the Women's Resource and Crisis Center, they never had a wire-eating squirrel electrocuted, as is told in the book.

The book required trust in Jenkins' storytelling ability by those who invited him into their lives. It also demanded a cross-cultural sensitivity on his part. The chapter on a Haida artist made Jenkins anxious about the individual's reaction upon seeing herself in print.

"Surely you've known some Natives," he said. "A lot of them can be pretty..."

However, he reported being given the woman's approval when their paths recently crossed at a book signing event in Anchorage.

Is anyone unhappy with the book?

"Not that I've heard of," Jenkins said. Laughing, he added, "Maybe some Alaskans. I was in Homer yesterday and some of those people weren't too happy because they weren't in the book."

Alaska left an indelible mark on the Jenkins family. He said his family is "braver, more capable of handling themselves in all kinds of different situations."

And when Jenkins finds himself surrounded by crowds in the Lower 48, he said he thinks of Alaska.

"I realize that the whole world isn't like this," he said.

Of friendships forged during the 18 months of living and traveling around the state, he said, "Alaskans are not what I call fair weather-type friends. If you have a friend in Alaska, unless you do something terrible, they stick with you."

And as a writer and photographer, he described Alaska as "the most character-rich environment I've ever been in.I think you can develop yourself to be more of an original individual when you're not a drone, which is the way a lot of people feel (outside Alaska)."

He anticipates his book will serve Alaska well.

"Alaska needs to be understood," he said. Specifically, "there are environmentalists in Washington, D.C., that don't really understand Alaska. They've never really met Alaska's people or they have just met like-minded people. Frankly, I think this book is going to bring many, many people to Alaska that are going to spend a lot of money."

He also believes "Looking for Alaska" will benefit the individuals who made their way onto the book's pages.

"I said to somebody the other day that if you took all these people that I wrote about and had a museum show about them and put them on a pedestal like you're looking at them in an appreciative fashion, on a small level, that's a good thing."

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