Thursday, January 31, 2008


Let’s say you’re here in Anchorage and it’s Sunday and you’re trying to be a true-blue All-American by cuddling up to your new TV and dialing in on the football event of the year. Thirty minutes into the game, you’ve had enough.

Don’t despair. You’ll still have time to head to the Loussac Library between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 3 to grab a hunk of cake in honor of the 25th birthday of one of the nation’s premier literary magazines, the Alaska Quarterly Review. While you’re at it, check out the ARQ 25th Anniversary Photographic Exhibition. A host of photographers will be featured, my favorite being James Barker. If you haven’t read his 1993 book Always Getting Ready, you should. Barker’s black and white images are stunning in their portrayal of the Yup’ik way of living.

If you can’t pull away from the game, don’t worry. The exhibit lasts all month. And if you don’t live in Anchorage (or even if you do), make a point to pick up a copy of the Alaska Quarterly Review. If you don’t believe me, these kudos should be enough to convince you:

"That one of the nation's best literary magazines comes out of Alaska may seem surprising, but so it is."
-- The Washington Post Book World

"When all is said and done, Ronald Spatz and his crack team of editors put together one hell of a magazine. Read it cover to cover; put it on your coffee table; impress your friends. This magazine's so hot, it makes any number of editors in the lower-48 look like they're living in the ice age."
--John McNally Literary Magazine Review

"...Among the top literary journals in America... Alaska Quarterly Review is holding its creative course and staying true to its original vision of promoting new writers and giving a home to fresh voices on the writing scene. ...This is storytelling at its finest."
--Phoebe Kate FosterPopMatters Associate Books Editor

Friday, January 25, 2008



I met Jane Haigh several years ago through my good friend Claire Rudolf Murphy. She’s a delightful person and an accomplished Alaskan author and historian. With Claire, Jane co-authored Gold Rush Women, Gold Rush Dogs, and Children of the Gold Rush. She’s also the author of King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith, Denali: Early Photographs of our National Parks, and Searching for Fanny Quigley. Jane has lived in Fairbanks for most of the last 35 years, though she has spent the last few winters in Tucson working on her PhD in U.S. History at the University of Arizona. A popular speaker for the Alaska Humanities Forum, Jane has also been active in local politics. You can visit her at

In what ways has being Alaskan helped to define what you write?
In almost every way possible! I really have a focus on geography, and I like to see the places where my subjects lived and traveled, so I can try to understand what they went through. So I have been lucky to have been able to travel all over Alaska and the Yukon multiple times.
Also, I have been lucky to have had so much time to spend in my ‘home’ archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. That is where I got my start as a researcher, and it’s where I learned to find and work with historic photographs. There are so many stories buried in the files down there.

On your website, you discuss the idealist/pragmatist dichotomy that distinguishes Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless from Fannie Quigley and other Alaskans. What other traits do you find characteristic of longtime Alaskans?
Alaskans have a deep connection with the outdoors. We used to talk all the time about “A Sense of Place,” which has now become something of a cliché. But there is something special about really getting to know a particular environment.

Your search for Fannie Quigley grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go. Why?
I think that kind of attachment is true of all biographical projects- the author has to feel a strong connection, or else she would never have the perseverance and energy to continue. But with Fannie, it was the mystery about her marriage that grabbed me. The first author’s I read said that she had been married to Joe in 1906. Then I found out that that wasn’t true. Actually they had lived together from 1906 until they finally married in 1918. So popular authors had simplified the story and I wondered why? And how did that change perceptions of her? And what I found out is that the real story was far more complex.

You collaborated with Claire Rudolf Murphy on several books about the gold rush. What is most challenging and most rewarding for writers who collaborate?
I loved collaborating with Claire. So often writing is a very lonely pursuit. It was great to have someone to talk over the stories with as we did the research. And I learned so much about writing from Claire as we worked. Having collective deadlines was also helpful, spurring me on to write or revise sections when I might have otherwise procrastinated. WE had to learn to adopt a common writing style. Usually one or the other would do a first draft, and then the other would revise. Toward the end, she would take out my favorite sentences! Then I would put them back. And then we would have to hash it out. So you have to really have a relationship of mutual respect, and be able to get along.

What can we learn from the gold rush to apply to our lives today?
While some people went North strictly for the adventure, many more, I believe, went because it was a very difficult time economically in the U.S., and they hoped that they could simply find a paying job and support their families. Most did not return rich to build their dream homes or buy their farms. Instead they set their lives on an entirely new path. Certainly they learned to live in and deal with a very different environment. But the gold rush also had many unforeseen consequences for the environment and for the Native people. So what can we learn? Be careful what you wish for.

You’ve published with both U.S. and Canadian companies. How has that worked for you as a writer?
The publishing world is forever changing. The Canadian companies had an advantage six or eight years ago, when the Canadian dollar was worth less than the U.S. dollar. Printing in Canada was comparatively cheap, and my publisher in Whitehorse could just truck books over the border. Now nearly everything is printed in Asia, customs has become far more complicated, and shipping costs have gone up. That has changed the publishing equations for everyone.

Aside from your dissertation, what writing projects do you have in progress?
I have nearly run out of projects that I can pull out of the file cabinet, but when I finish the dissertation, I may continue on a planned biography of Josephine Earp. in the “dreaming about” stage are a photo history of mining in Fairbanks, a book about gold dredges, and a road trip guide to Alaska with stories about some of the old places, some still there and some gone.

You describe yourself as having been an “amateur” when you became interested in Fannie Quigley some twenty years ago. Today you’re a respected Alaskan historian. What advice would you give to historians and writers who would like move from amateur to respected status?
I recommend at least attending classes at a good academic history program, someplace that offers Phd’s. Writing academic monographs has helped me to tighten up my working habits. I also have broadened my range by learning new theories and new ways to approach the material. It’s not enough to find out a bunch of facts and string them together to tell a story.

Your research on Soapy Smith led to doctoral research on politics and corruption in Colorado. What unique challenges are you finding in the doctoral process as compared to writing for the general public?
The dissertation is the hardest thing I have ever written. It is nothing like writing for a popular audience. For one thing, the academic world is very, very, critical. I have learned to be very specific about every assertion or idea that I put into my work. And that is a good thing. Also, academic work is much more focused on theory than on story telling. It’s not enough to just tell one story; the idea is to try to understand and explain the story’s connection to the bigger picture, put it into context, or multiple contexts. This is much harder than just digging up a historical story and telling it in an interesting way. But I am sure it’s good for me.

What are some of your favorite Alaskan books and Alaskan authors?
I love women’s memoirs, some of the women we wrote about for Gold Rush Women, and some we could not include, or that have come came out since. Anna DeGraf’s Pioneering on the Yukon, and Francis Fitz’s Lady Sourdough. Margaret Shand’s To the Summit and Beyond, and Clara Burke’s Dr. Hap. All these you can get from antiquarian web-sites like And the book Jane Jacobs wrote about her aunt, A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska. I have a dream of getting some of them re-printed, along with Baldy of Nome. Then I have to mention the biography of Belinda Mulrooney which came out after our book: Staking Her Claim by Melanie Mayer and Bob DeArmond. Reading this list, someone might want to know why I stopped writing about women…I just didn’t want to be boxed in.

Anything else you’d like to say to readers who love books written in and about Alaska?
I used to think that only Alaskans could really write “authentically” about Alaska. But now I know that that is not necessarily true. Some great books have been written by people who come from elsewhere with a fresh perspective, like John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country. And Gay and Laney Salisbury from New York did a very creditable job with their book on the serum run to Nome, The Cruelest Miles, a topic no Alaskan author wanted to touch, because we all thought it was overdone.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

White Darkness

All of us trotting around in the polar regions, including you penguins down in Antarctica, should be happy with Monday's announcement that Geraldine McCaughrean's WHITE DARKNESS had won the Printz Award for best book for young adults in 2007. I'm among the legions who hadn't read or even heard of WHITE DARKNESS, but I plunged right into it and am finding it's a remarkable read.

For those of you who read and/or write mostly for adults, awards may not bedazzle you. But in the world of children's books, awards mean a lot. The readers of children's books aren't usually the ones buying the books. Adults - parents, librarians, sometimes teachers - buy books for children. So there's this additional layer, the "expert" layer, that doesn't matter much in markets where the readers make their own choices. Awards are well-meaning. But while committee members try hard to be unbiased, we're kidding ourselves if we pretend that there's not a certain amount of politics that comes to the award-granding table, subtle though it may be.

All that being said, WHITE DARKNESS is a lovely, richly textured book, fully deserving of honors. The intangible, haunting lure of polar places threads deeply through the story, with McCaughrean's descriptions of the Antarctic landscape resonating long and deep. Take Sym's first look at the "dazzling white shield of Antarctica, clinging to the curve of the planet":

"...the filigree lace of blown snow on volcanic rock; the fancy knotwork of a seal colony; the towering ruck of an ice barrier, snow pluming off its rim; dark hummocks of stone that were really the tips of mountains buried up to their necks; the black axeheads of far-off mountain ranges."

But this is hardly a book that wanders lyrically away with itself. It's the story of a girl hovering between the real and the imaginary, struggling with who she is and whom she can trust. McCaughrean merges place and character with gong-sounding truth for those of us drawn to landscapes, especially those of the cold, arctic sort which we acknowledge as a metaphor for things we can't or don't dare to explain.

"God sketched Antarctica," she writes. "then erased most of it again, in the hope a better idea would strike Him. At the center is a blank whiteness where the planet isn't finished. It's the address for Nowhere."

I'm eager to see where McCaughrean takes this story. From what I've read so far, it's a beefy read worthy of a few hours of anyone's time, be they children or adults.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ready, Set, Focus?

I spent enough time in the business world to understand the benefits of specializing, but I've had a hard time subscribing to that message for my writing life. After publishing a couple of young adult novels, I switched to picture books. Novels are fun, but I loved the succinct, lyrical form of the read-aloud. A few picture books later, I did a travel guide. I love visiting new places, and what better excuse to tour my state? Middle-grade non-fiction? That sounded fun, too - it's being illustrated as we speak, and it comes out next year.

I guess you could say I'm all over the map. The unflattering version is the old cliche, Jack of all trades, master of none. I prefer to think of myself as a generalist. That's what they called me when I took my first teaching job in rural Alaska. No Child Left Behind has put generalists out of favor, but they're still something of a necessity when you run the numbers in small village schools.

I'm sure there are practical reasons to specialize, even in creative pursuits. Readers like to know what to expect from an author. But maybe they also like to be surprised. I hope so.