Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The best $20 an aspiring writer could spend

My online friend "Moonrat," a working editor who blogs at Editorial Ass, is auctioning off her very valuable services as a fundraiser for a friend struck by lymphoma. This is such an opportunity to do good while getting some really affordable writing assistance. For $20 you get a chance to win a full manuscript review. For $10 you might win a partial review, for $5 you might get a query review. At those prices, you can buy multiple tickets. It's a wonderful idea from a great person and it's a heck of a lot cheaper than attending a conference or spending gobs of money on postage trying to snag an agent before a manuscript is fully ready.

Write visually, get "published" on gallery walls

Here's an interesting writing opportunity with a short deadline -- October 4. The email comes from Bruce Farnsworth at MTS Gallery. He wants replies by email (no attachment, put writing in body of email) to whenpoetsfly@hotmail.com

Dear Alaskan Writer,
I would like to invite you to participate in an exhibition at the MTS Gallery in Anchorage. The MTS Gallery is a large, clean white-walled space with good lighting and a growing reputation for showing quality work and hosting innovative performance art.

I am co-curating, along with Bruce Farnsworth, an exhibition at the MTS gallery that will open on November 21, 2008, titled: Words and Pictures. The curatorial intent is to combine the literary and the visual arts, but to do so without either art form serving the other. For example, the visual work does not "illustrate" the written nor the written "describe" the visual.

Twenty each of Alaska’s best visual artists and writers will be asked to create work (existing work is permissible if it has not been shown in Anchorage) within a very broad theme.

Visual artists are asked to make work that is "narrative." Writers are asked to create a short piece that is "visual." Interpretation is open to the artist with a few caveats:

Visual art should not contain words or letters. Narrative refers to the ability of the artwork to evoke a story or narrative in the viewer’s mind. The artwork should give the audience enough material to work with without forcing him or her into a specific story. The more mysterious the better.

Writers are asked to write a short (250 words or less) piece that "paints" a picture. The work should be evocative and conjure up images in the reader’s mind’s eye. Please, no overt references to painting, photography, sculpture or other visual art forms.

Once all of your work is submitted, each piece will be printed out as attractive broadsides. Bruce and I will then lay out the show and pair up pieces of visual art with written pieces that, when read and viewed in context, will create a third impression on the viewer.

Your task: Reply to this email by the end of this week (Saturday, October 4th) to confirm that you will participate or to decline. Send Bruce Farnsworth your written piece by the end of the day, Sunday, November 2nd.

Looking forward to seeing your contributions, Hal Gage


Thanks to our celebrity governor, it might seem Alaskans are all about bagging moose and shooting wolves from planes. Truth is, most of us revel in simpler and less controversial pursuits like picking berries.

This hasn't been an especially good year for berries. They arrived late and are hanging on late. But I spent two glorious days surrounded by mountains, gathering blueberries from leaf-swept bushes and plucking clusters of cranberries hanging low to the ground, marveling at the bounty undeserved and the seemingly limitless supply. Kneeling in lichen and prickly crowberry leaves and spongy moss and minty labrador tea, you see layers of goodness that mostly just get stepped on.

Picking berries requires little. You decide whether this berry is big enough or that berry is ripe enough. You swoop on size and quantity, and you toss aside obsessions with picking them all. There's a satisfaction to filling your pail, but mostly you love the smell of smoke wafting from the chimney, the rattle of leaves fluttering to the ground, the explosion of colors on the fall tundra, the flutter of little white moths indifferent to the brevity of their lives.

Things you've felt in your gut gather in ways that make sense. Picking berries on the wide-sweeping tundra, I realized something bigger than me was in charge of the world, and that was very good. Picking berries in the shadow of mountains, I finally figured out that when who you are and what you want are overshadowed by what someone else wants you to be and what someone else wants you to want, that really is an irreconcilable difference.

When you pick berries, there's always hope. Antioxidants are a nice plus, but I love berries because I love to pick them.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Contest Guest-Post Winner: Bob Marshall's ALASKA WILDERNESS as remembered by Bill Sherwonit

Thanks to everyone who entered the latest contest: I'll be running several more entries, including a runner-up and a youth entry, over the next few weeks. This week, I want to thank Bill Sherwonit for sharing this personal reaction to an Alaska book that shaped his life.

By Bill Sherwonit

My choice for an inspiring book: Robert Marshall’s ALASKA WILDERNESS.

Here’s my story: I came north to Alaska in 1974, fresh out of graduate school with a masters in geology, and spent most of that summer exploring a place that has become my favorite wilderness, the Central Brooks Range.

For all of the range’s allure, by the end of the summer it had become apparent that my attitudes toward geology – and mineral exploration in particular – were considerably different than those of my friends and co-workers. For one thing, I clearly lacked their passion for the job. The ridges and valleys I traversed were often stunning in their beauty and wildlife sometimes spiced up my days, but the fieldwork itself generally bored me.

But something else gnawed at me. My buddies and bosses had nothing good to say about environmental groups. The depth of their anger shocked me. I didn’t consider myself an environmentalist and then knew little about the emotionally charged battle over Alaska’s wildlands, a battle that many of my peers considered a threat to their livelihoods. But I couldn’t see what was so awful about groups like the Sierra Club or The Wilderness Society. It seemed to me that they were trying to do some good. I was naive and uninformed enough that I didn’t realize many environmentalists would feel the same sort of disgust toward me, simply because I worked on a field crew seeking metal deposits in the Arctic wilderness.

At 24, my green ethic was still largely unformed. But I did know this: Sierra Clubbers were not my enemies. Still, it wasn’t a perspective I could openly share with my geologist buddies, so I hid my misgivings and questions. Yet little by little, my discomfort built.

Perhaps my uneasiness was nudged along by the spirit of wilderness advocate Robert Marshall. Or at least his book. Alaska Wilderness had somehow made its way into our crew’s library, along with assorted novels and other Alaska-adventure books. On one hand, its presence in camp made good sense; Marshall’s was a popular book about the mountains we were exploring. Caught up in the wild allure of the place, several of us – especially those new to Alaska – yearned to know more about the Brooks Range. And here was a story by the guy who’d explored and named many of the rivers and valleys and peaks we worked among. In a way, Marshall could be imagined as a kindred soul, someone who loved the mountains and paid close attention to their form, their geology.

Marshall’s insight that “only a small minority of the human race will ever consider primeval nature a basic source of happiness” may help to explain why exploration geologists could identify with his writing. Though their work might ultimately lead to mines and roads and toxic wastes, my co-workers loved being “in the field.” And the farther afield the better. That, in large measure, is why many had come to Alaska. They, like Marshall, delighted in long rambling hikes. But their jaws must have dropped, their tempers flared, when reading Marshall’s call to preserve Arctic Alaska: “In the name of a balanced use of American resources, let’s keep northern Alaska largely a wilderness!”

Marshall made no attempt to hide his biases. If you gave Alaska Wilderness (or even the book’s jacket) more than a cursory read, it quickly became clear that he sought – and found – far different riches than what we pursued. He reveled in the landscape’s primeval nature even as he relished the solitude, sense of well being, and spiritual refreshment to be found in this Arctic wilderness. In its advocacy of wilderness protection, Marshall’s book was a subversive presence in camp.

It’s a crazy thing, when you think about it. Here was a pro-wilderness treatise (wrapped inside an adventure tale) by a founding member of The Wilderness Society, being passed among people who, by and large, abhorred anti-mining, tree-hugging environmentalists. Yet no one seemed to notice the irony. I didn’t, certainly.

Once I gave him a try, Marshall quickly pulled me into his tales of adventure and discovery. Sitting in the cook tent before breakfast or wrapped in my sleeping bag at night, I eagerly followed him and his buddies up the North Fork of the Koyukuk toward the Arctic Divide; past Boreal Mountain and Frigid Crags, his literal – and now legendary – Gates of the Arctic; and to the flanks of darkly ominous Mount Doonerak. Marshall’s excitement became my own as he arrived “at the very headwaters of one of the mightiest rivers of the north, with dozens of never-visited valleys and hundreds of unscaled summits still as virgin as during their Paleozoic creation.”

The book didn’t make me question what I was doing, at least not consciously. But I’m sure that Marshall’s passion for wilderness touched mine. In doing so, his writings must have reignited long-dormant embers by reconfirming the importance of wildness in my own life. Here was a man who loved the mountain landscape and its wild inhabitants for what they are, not for what they might become when utilized by humans. Instead of seeing the Brooks Range as a warehouse of raw materials, Marshall understood its inherent value in a wild, natural state. And he joyously celebrated that wildness in ecstatic prose:

“Three miles up the plunging creek we suddenly came upon a gorgeous lake, a mile and a half long and fresh as creation. Great mountains rose directly from its shores and disappeared about 3,000 feet above the water into low-lying clouds. . . . seeing the sweep of mountains end in oblivion gave an impression of infinite heights above the experience of man.”

Marshall’s wild desires, combined with his lushly dramatic descriptions of the Arctic landscape and the ecstasy he felt there, have prompted some critics to label him a romantic, an escapist. But I sensed the importance of what he sought, found, and then shared through his writings. More than any geologist, he would become a role model and inspiration.

Note: the book cover image above is from an antique book dealer that carries an old edition of the Bob Marshall book.

Friday, September 26, 2008


The Alaska Sisters in Crime have much to celebrate. On Monday, October 13, the group will receive the 2007 Alaska Contributions to Literacy Award for the outstanding work they've done promoting literacy in our state. Also on hand will be Scottish author Donna Moore, AKSinC's 2008 Author to the Bush, who'll do a short presentation on her work with students in Aniak. AKSinC invites you to join them for refreshments, door prizes, live music, and special guests, starting at 6 p.m. at the BP Energy Center. Be sure to RSVP by Friday, October 10, to info@aksinc.org.

Another Palin book is crashing to market. Assembled in a week by the folks at Collins (don't we all wish we could produce a book that fast?), Terminatrix: The Sarah Palin Chronicles will feature satire and digitally altered photographs ostensibly gathered by the Wasilla Iron Dog Gazette. They say even negative publicity is good publicity, but is anyone else doubting the rhetoric that the Palin candidacy is good for Alaska?

Google Previews, coming soon to your favorite websites, will allow readers to preview up to 20 percent of a book. I've been reading Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur, a timely analysis of the effect of the internet on our culture, and will have more to say on that next week.

Seems we may have to clone Mr. Whitekeys. No sooner had my friend invited me to his political show built around next Thursday's VP debates, and we learn the Whitekeys event is sold out. Stay tuned. After McCain proposed canceling his debate with Obama tonight and conveniently bumping the VP debate to reschedule it, anything could happen. Joe Biden could be left standing on an empty stage like Obama almost was, and we'd have to send Mr. Whitekeys as a Sarah stand-in.

Given our governor's stellar performance with Katie Couric this week (answer to why Alaska's proximity to Russia counts as foreign policy experience: "it's funny that a comment like that was kinda made to...charac...you know...reporters"), McCain must want to cancel her debate out of fear she'll upstage him. I'm sure glad I heard the Couric interview, because I discovered I've been asleep at the wheel these last 29 years. Turns out - according to Sarah - Russia has been buzzing all over our airspace and none of us knew it. Dang Russkies. But rest easy - "we've" been keeping a watchful eye on them.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Alaska Book guest-blog contest -- enter today

Readers and writers, I need you!

Until Sunday, I'm running a contest that is amazingly easy to enter (and maybe easy to win). But it's not really about that prize, it's about telling other people about great Alaska books. And it won't take you very long to do.

I'm asking readers to submit a short blog-post about an Alaska book that had special meaning. Tell an anecdote or story of about 200 to 1000 words about a book that inspired you, helped you, or had some other special meaning. And really -- in some cases, shorter is better! Don't be intimidated to enter because you don't have time to write a long essay. Just share a memory, a thought, and your heartfelt reactions to a book.

By submitting the story to me by email at andromeda@romanolax.com you agree it can be posted here. I will choose a winning post that will receive TWO Title Wave gift certificates ($40 value) and I plan to post runner-up entries to inspire readers to seek out more Alaska books. Can kids enter? Yes, as long as the adult submits the entry for them. I will also choose an additional entry written by someone 16 or under to win a single $20 gift certificate, so specify in your email if it is a child's entry. Stories accepted through 9/28 with selection announced 9/29.


I need to get out in the mountains. How's that for a follow-up to yesterday's post on the non-open, non-agreeable, introverted but at least non-neurotic Alaskan personality?

Something happens when I get couped up for too long. We've been painting and doing chores and getting ready for winter around here. I've been tinkering with stories and writing reviews and thinking deep thoughts about the state of our nation. I've gotten out, but not for long. Not in a meaningful way.

I listen better in the mountains and the woods. Out there I rediscover the fundamental connection between voice and truth, the one that comes by way of deep grounding with the earth, the one that for me happens best in wild and rugged places.

Author Jennifer Hubbard has a great post on voice. It got me thinking about the truest Alaskan voices, especially now as we're bombarded from the political arena with noises that are neither pleasing nor authentic.

Thanks be for writers like Dan O'Neill and Seth Kantner and Velma Wallace and a host of others whose voices ring true. And thanks be to my friend who invited me out to the mountains this weekend, where we can listen together and reflect on what's true.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Are Alaskans neurotic? Open? Agreeable? Conscientious? Extroverted?

Using a 44-question test to evaluate these five personality traits in 600,000 Americans, researchers have profiled all 50 states, with results reported in the Wall Street Journal's "The United States of Mind," .

Some states fit existing stereotypes; some didn't. As one might expect, our state's profile was, ahem, extreme. We scored as not at all agreeable, correlating with our already documented high rates of crime. The survey also showed us to be not at all open, translating as very conservative and, unfortunately for us writer-types, not very creative.

In keeping with our stereotype as a place that attracts rugged isolationists, Alaskans bumped bottom on extroversion. We also scored low on conscientiousness, a result that surprised me. The bright spot: Alaskans aren't overly neurotic, which should mean we're healthy, at least.

How does that stack up with what you guessed? This jumble of traits makes for interesting fictional characters. Politicians? Well, that's another story.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Obama Book Survey Continues: Vote for your favorite Alaska book!

Nope, I didn't forget about our "What Alaska Book To Send Obama" challenge -- I was just distracted by all the other political shenanigans of the last few weeks, and also waiting to see how the Alaska Obama campaign regroups. Energy and passion are still out there, with a rally planned for Oct. 4 at the Park Strip. I plan to watch the first Obama-McCain debate this Friday and I look forward to being at the Oct. 4 rally, which I hope will set Alaska attendance records!

In the meanwhile, back to our little survey here. That widget you see to the right is from Shelfari, and I'm using it to show off the 9 books that comment-leavers chose as some of Alaska's finest. So far, here are how the votes stand, but I'll keep taking votes (just leave a comment if you haven't already voted) through Oct. 3. I allowed previous comment-leavers to name more than one book; feel free to do the same if you can't decide.

As I'd hoped, this survey reveals more than what we want Obama to read. It also presents anyone stumbling across this blog with some really great Alaska reading recommendations. These are the books we take pride in, the books that truthfully portray the Alaska experience. It includes great books I'd forgotten about, like Sheila Nickerson's "Disappearance," as well as books I haven't yet read but plan to read, like the classic "Two in the Far North." One writer, Sherry Simpson, had two books named. But the top scorer, by far, has been "Ordinary Wolves" by Seth Kantner.

Voting so far: Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner, 6 votes
The Island Within by Richard Nelson, 2 votes
The Way Winter Comes by Sherry Simpson, 2 votes
Two in the Far North by Margaret Murie, 2 votes
The Accidental Explorer by Sherry Simpson, 1 vote
Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony edited by Servid & Lentfer, 1 vote
Living with Wildness by Bill Sherwonit, 1 vote
The Whale and the Supercomputer by Charles Wohlforth, 1 vote
Disappearance: A Map by Sheila Nickerson, 1 vote
Also: no specific book titles named, but these poets were recommended once each: Jerah Chadwick, Arlitia Jones, Peggy Shumaker, Tom Sexton, John Haines.

P.S. The Convention photo was taken by my friend Judith, a writer from Colorado who volunteered that night. Thanks Judith!


As if the writer's path weren't challenging enough, career specialist Penelope Trunk offers Five Reasons Not to Write a Book.

If you're looking for a platform for self-promotion or a surefire way to pad your bank account, book writing is hardly the way. I recently learned a new legal term for what I do: "voluntarily underemployed."

Offsetting Trunk's five reasons not to write books are at least five hundred reasons why we do. Ironically, most are imprecise, visceral, and hard to put into words. Like raising children, writing is hard work. It's an uncertain walk into foggy places. And if you can't revel in the sheer joy of something you can't fully explain, you probably shouldn't be doing it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Investing in yourself as a writer

I was out of town last week when most Alaskans had their $3269 PFD/resource rebate check direct-deposited, so I missed the crazy crowds at Best Buy as people lined up to buy big-screen TVs. Other people paid in advance for the coming winter's utility bills or donated to political campaigns.

Most years our newspaper is full of letters to the editor telling people how they should spend -- or refrain from spending -- their PFD. (For non-Alaskans reading this post, the dividend is what resident Alaskans receive each year, based on investment profits from the state's oil-revenue savings account.)

I have my own suggestion for spending the annual windfall or any other kind of unexpected cash that comes you way: invest in yourself.

Every writer is a small business owner, who – no less than a restaurateur, say – may need to spend money for many years before breaking even. Spouses and friends may not understand, and even we writers have trouble giving ourselves permission, which is why I’m writing this. I can’t promise worldly riches will come your way, but I can promise you won’t go far or find satisfaction if you don’t treat your writing like a respectable investment.

For those of you who (like me) don't have graduate degrees in writing: imagine how much an MFA would cost. Now take one-twentieth that amount and spend it on the resources you need now to learn to write better. This was an epiphany I had about three years ago, when I was tinkering with the MFA idea. It helped me feel more comfortable buying lots of reference books and literary magazines.

You don’t have to spend your whole PFD, of course, and with the economy floundering, plenty of us will want to hold on to all that we can. But here are some ideas on how to spend a little on yourself and your literary aspirations.

$10 range.
Off and on for years when I was trying to make it as a freelance writer, I bought myself a $5 batch of flowers each time I met some weekly wordcount-related goal. They wilted in about 5 days, so if I missed a week’s goal, there were wilted flowers on my desk. If the flowers stayed fresh-looking (thanks to regular replacements), I was truckin’. And yes, I did this for myself even when funds were extremely tight.

Other worthy expenditures: a gorgeous journal for logging books read or freelance submissions. A book mark or inspirational mug. (I used to have a mug that matched each book project I was working on at the time.)

$10 to $100.
The New Yorker. The Economist or the Atlantic. Poets & Writers (a good place to find grants and residencies). Orion. Smaller literary journals. Subscriptions are essential.

And how about giving yourself permission to stock your personal library more regularly? This may seem obvious, but I went years without buying books, even when it meant borrowing the same library copy over and over for research. Bad idea. Buy them, write in them, love them, pull them down again the middle of the night in search of that favorite quote; books are meant to be owned. Also, if you don’t buy books (including new hardcovers) who is going to buy yours?

A new door, to keep the kiddies out. For too long, I worked with children on my lap, or within hearing range, because my office was connected to the kitchen. An important stage in my career was the day I set up a physical barrier, thanks to Home Depot. My kids colored in a homemade sign for that door, with my encouragement: WARNING: HARDWORKING MOMMY ON DEADLINE.

Sound-cancelling headphones, for when the door still isn’t enough.

$100+ .
Screenwriting software. Each summer I toy with the screenwriting bug, and last year I treated myself to formatting software.

How about a more ergonomic office chair? I can’t believe I tortured my back all those years, thinking I didn’t deserve one because I worked at home. That’s nuts.

Conferences: I’ve spent hundreds, rather than thousands, by using frequent flier miles and sharing hotel rooms with strangers (met a good friend this way). Networking is so valuable.

Feel guilty running away from your sweethearts? Then send them on their own short adventure while you stay home and write. (I discovered this just this year; sent the family on a 36-hour fishing trip, ordered myself pizza, and finally broke through a difficult spot in my current project.)

$1000+ .
. Again, I was one of the last people to buy a laptop, and I love it. It enables me to work at local cafes, “my happy places,” and to bring novels-in-progress along to my kids’ various classes and lessons.

A website. They’re expensive, but nowadays, it’s hard to build a career without one. Potential interviewers need to find a way to reach you, and you’ll enjoy the reader letters that come your way. (Non-customized blogs, on the other hand, are free and insanely easy to set up and use.)

Research trips/Travel. Now we’re talking about my favorite expenditures, and the ones that non-writers might not understand. (Oh, a vacation? What about your kids’ college funds?) I traveled to California twice, and to the Sea of Cortez, to write one book. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Spain and France to write my novel. I traveled to Europe and the Middle East to write one of my current books-in-progress. Funny how I always seem to travel in October.

The first trips, in particular, wouldn’t have been possible without PFD help. It took a long time for the 1990s trips to pay back, but now they have. And what about the kids? Well, I take them with me. Have they learned anything from traveling to about 20 countries? Enough to earn a future scholarship or two, I bet.

Something I can’t afford now but hope to buy myself someday: Maid service, as a reward for publishing several more books. (Just once a month, please?) A research trip to Japan. (I’ve been trying to get there for 15 years.) A coastal cottage or cabin somewhere remote, which I promise to share with other Alaska writers needing solo writing immersions. We can all dream!

Does anyone else have a story to share about a great investment they made in their writing career?


Just when I've decided I can't read one more sentence about Sarah Palin, another Alaskan author pens an essay that gives me pause. Today it's Scott Woodham's "Why Sarah Didn't Blink," in The Alaska Dispatch.

Pundits have been dissecting Sarah's non-answer to Charlie Gibson's question about the Bush doctrine. Ironically, what caused the non-answer is Alaska's own Bush doctrine, otherwise known as "can-do" spirit. As Woodham points out, it's the reason why Sarah didn't blink when offered a shot at the VP slot.

When you live in the Alaskan Bush, you have to be resourceful. You rely on your own talents and skills, no matter how minimal, because the experts aren't around. You take your chances with things like home improvement and small engine repair, even if you know little about them. You muddle through. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Blue tarp roofs, Tyvek "siding," snowmachine carcasses, and personal junkyards of pieces and parts happen when the Alaskan Bush doctrine fails. "Can't do" trash litters yards throughout the Alaskan Bush.

You have to admire the guts, the self-reliance, the ingenuity. But our country's discard pile of failed policies and bad faith is already overflowing. Neither Bush doctrine is good for the long-term health of our nation, or our world.

Friday, September 19, 2008


The talk of the publishing world this week: Boris Kachka's article "The End," in New York magazine. It's a lengthy tome, but well worth the read. Kachka's hardly the first to declare the end of publishing as we know it, but the fact that the business is dying a slow death can't stop the funeral march. Books and readers will prevail. Despite what I wrote earlier about vetting in publishing, Kachka affirms that celebrity-making is as alive - though perhaps not as well - in book-selling as it is in politics.

Speaking of politics - you didn't really think I could breeze by that opening - a new Sarah book is in the works, and this one's not through a Christian publisher. 101 Things You—and John McCain—Didn’t Know About Sarah Palin should hit bookstores in a couple of weeks.

I'm working on a review of Willie Hensley's Fifty Miles from Tomorrow for Bookforum, so I'm thrilled to see that Barry Scott Zellen will be speaking Monday from 5-7 p.m. at the UAA Campus Bookstore on "Breaking the Ice: From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic." Important and timely issues all.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

She's mad now: getting (politically) engaged with columnist Elise Patkotak

Did you read Elise Patkotak's column this week in the Anchorage Daily News? She writes, "There was a time when I thought John McCain really was a different kind of politician, one who would put his country above his personal desire for grandeur. I stopped thinking that the day he announced Sarah Palin as his running mate. The sheer hubris that went into that selection simply takes my breath away. ... Yeah, I’m mad now. I’m mad because I truly thought McCain would run a campaign that did not cater to our basest instincts and the lowest common denominator but would engage Obama in a real exchange of ideas on the problems America faces."

Agree? Disagree? Respect her? Resent her? Whatever you care to say, Elise Patkotak has heard it all before. And this week, I wanted to hear from her -- about what's it like to be a columnist during these volatile pre-election days. I wanted to hear more from a transplanted New Yorker who lived for 28 years in rural Barrow and now lives in urban Anchorage; a woman who has been both praised and criticized for publishing her opinions about everything from domestic abuse in Alaska to the politics of Tibet.

And here's why: For the last few weeks, all of us have been -- or at least felt like -- public commentators. Even if we're not writing for a newspaper or blog, which one of us hasn't written an email, or fielded a phone call from some friend or relative wanting to more about Sarah Palin? I've always admired opinion columnists, but this month, I admire them even more. They have to think and write fast, and they have to take a lot of heat.

Andromeda: Do you think you’ve become more pointed and more political (less of a lifestyle humorist, a la Erma Bombeck) lately? Have you felt super-motivated this year or have you always felt motivated to share your views?

Elise: I think as the Current Occupier’s term in office has continued, I’ve felt less and less funny and more and more engaged politically than I’ve been in a long time. It’s like something woke the spirit of the sixties in me as I watched this administration destroy just about everything I ever held sacred and dear about my country and its constitutional guarantees.

I realized I frequently didn’t speak out in the past on political issues because I felt like those were topics for really important people and commentators who spoke on a national level and seemed to exude some air of gravitas that I could never hope to achieve. And then one day, I realized I was just plain mad at the way my country had been hijacked. I figured maybe all those powerful voices really didn’t know any more or less than me so why shouldn’t I jump in and offer a perspective from down here in the trenches where most of us live…you know, the place where you worry about paying the mortgage and the heating bill in the same month and wonder if your son will be the next sent to have his legs blown off in Iraq.

Andromeda: When you did start writing columns?

Elise: I started writing columns in the late 1980s (maybe 1988) for Jackie Lindauer who ran bush newspapers. The one in Barrow was called the Barrow Sun. I was the city recreation direction (recuperating from an extremely stressful stint as the state social worker on the North Slope) and she asked me to send her any material I wanted because she published out of Anchorage and depended on stringers to get news to her. Soon after I started writing for the Sun, the newspaper wars in Anchorage between the Daily News and the Times went into high gear. I sent a piece to Howard Weaver to see if he would be interested and the next thing I knew, I was in the Daily News. There was a period in the early nineties when my column appeared in the Barrow Sun, the Fairbanks Daily News Minor’s Sunday magazine and the Daily News.

Then came the bad times. Jackie died and the paper went under. Another paper, the Arctic Sounder, eventually took its place and I did write for them for a while. The Fairbanks paper “went in another direction” and my column got axed from the Sunday magazine. And the Times folded so the powers that hold the fiscal strings on the Daily News cut back the money they were putting into the paper drastically and suddenly my column barely appeared at all.

On a whim, I cold called Paul Jenkins from the Voice of the Times and asked if they’d be interested in my work. He said he couldn’t promise me a regular publication schedule but that they were interested. In about six months I had a weekly gig with them. When the Voice of the Times ceased hard copy publication, the Daily News asked me to join them and I did.

So, I’ve been doing weekly columns for almost two decades now…ohmygod, that’s the first time I ever actually realized that…I am older than death…and I have no idea how many I’ve written but my skill at math is such that it gives me a headache just to think about a way of trying to figure that out. So let’s just say more than five and less than five million.

Andromeda: Tell me a story. When was the first time you wrote something that felt sharp enough that you worried inside, just a little, about how people would take it? What is the angriest someone ever got at one of your columns?

Elise: This is easy. The first time I wrote about the abuse of Native women at the hands of Native men, my website was positively flamed. I had some of the most virulent hate mail you can ever imagine. So, just because I figured if I was in up to my knees, I might as well wade as far as my chest, I wrote a second column about the fact that killing the messenger doesn’t negate the message. I pointed out that the people flaming me were proving my point as to why abused women in villages felt so vulnerable and helpless about speaking out. If I was treated so badly for just pointing out the problem in a general fashion, imagine what a woman goes through in a small village if she tries to name an abuser who has power in that village. I still hear from women who call me a hateful white woman who doesn’t get how wonderful Native men are and from women who tell me I am very, very right in what I’ve said but they can’t sign their names for fear of retribution.

I knew when I wrote the first column that I was opening a can of worms that most people ran from. But I figured someone had to speak out for the dead Native women here in Anchorage and all over the state. And my thirty years in Barrow, including many, many years in the area of social services, gave me a unique perspective. My writing skills gave me the ability to express this perspective. I figured getting flamed on the Internet doesn’t hurt half as much as being raped and killed.

Andromeda: OK, the Sarah morning. When did you know, and how long did it take you to sit down and start typing your thoughts? ( I think this must be what separates the amateurs from the pros, the ability to organize one’s thinking and get to the task at hand.)

Elise: A friend from the East Coast called and woke me up VERY early to tell me the news. I thought it was a bad joke or a bad dream. Unfortunately, it turned out to be neither.

I started pounding away just as soon as the six birds and two dogs were fed and given their medication and I had enough coffee in me to see the letters on the keyboard. It was one of those times when there is so much going through your mind at once that you just need to write it all down and then worry about actually organizing it later. This is clearly the biggest thing to happen in Alaskan politics since…hmm, I guess what with Ted’s indictment, Don’s investigation, multiple convictions of public officials, this story does have competition for story of the year here. But since it’s national and brought national attention to Alaska, it seems like the biggest one. My ongoing columns about Sarah’s selection are almost all part of the outpouring from that first morning of thoughts.

Andromeda: Some of us MAY have friends and family that we can’t seem to convince about anything, even when we are right and they are wrong, or we live in Alaska and they don’t! (Ha-hem.) Tell us please, HOW TO BE PERSUASIVE. What’s your trick?

Elise: Wow, that’s really an insane thought. Do people really think I have some idea of what I’m doing? If so, let me relieve then of that misconception right now. What I do is write my opinion. My skill as a writer has given me access to a wide audience but doesn’t necessarily mean my opinion is right or better than anyone else’s. It’s just I can express it better and that gets me in print. Of course, I do think I’m right about 100% of the time and if the world would just get a grip and make me queen, I’d take care of everything immediately.

For what it’s worth, having some facts to back up your opinion actually helps a little but not as much as you’d think since most people’s opinions come a place where facts do not necessarily reside. Opinions tend to be gut reactions more than anything else so a very pedantic and boring recitation of facts, while probably very true in all respects, rarely changes someone’s mind. I think that’s how we made the tragic error of re-electing George Bush. The Dems were talking facts about his failures and the Republicans were appealing to the fact he was the kind of guy you’d be able to share a beer with. The fact that drinking beer and running the country were two quite different qualities didn’t really register because people’s opinion of George came from the fact that he looked just like the doofus working in the cubicle three down from you and that guy was pretty ok.

What I’m told most often by people who like my work is that I write from a very basic, common sense level and don’t attempt any pretense of being more in the know than anyone else about politics or world events or Alaskan stuff. I write from a very Everyman’s perspective and relate to people on a level of what just seems to me to be common sense about issues. But honestly, there are some people who will never be convinced that what they believe is wrong no matter what you do or say or what facts you present. That’s why there are still arguments over teaching creationism in school science classes. (See Palin, Sarah, religious scientific beliefs)

Andromeda: Do you believe that people’s ideas change as a result of what they read? I so desperately want to believe this but the last 8 years have made it difficult!Are you talking to people on the fence, or giving strength to those who already agree with you but can’t summon the particulars; or something else entirely?

Elise: I think people tend to read what they already believe in order to bolster their belief. Few people are brave enough to venture into a new area of thought that might challenge their most precious memories or values. But I also think that some writers can walk a middle line and get people to read them because they don’t rant for one side or the other and those writers are able to exert some influence. Unfortunately, in this world of divisive politics and right wing radio rants, it’s harder and harder to be heard if you’re not screaming as loudly and ridiculously as the guy on the next page or channel.

Andromeda: Point me toward some of your favorite columns.
Elise: May 2, 2007 – This is the first column I wrote about abuse of Alaska Native women in their own villages.
May 9, 2007 – This is my response to the hate mail I received about that column
March 13, 2008 – This is my response to finding out Sarah was pregnant but it didn’t show…AT ALL! (Note from Andromeda -- this one is actually pro-Sarah, by the way, which shows the mixed feelings that many of us have about our governor.)
March 21, 2007 – Explains why Sarah’s babe factor throws male politicians in Alaska for a loop. (Note from Andromeda -- wow, if we only knew how far the babe factor would take her...)


"I've lived in Alaska for ____ years." Fill in the blank, the bigger the better. We've heard it often of late, especially as our rank and file have weighed in on the Palin candidacy.

I invoke it myself, because in Alaska, years-in-state offer street cred. Where else do residents talk about everyplace else as "Outside" and draw dubious lines of distinction between cheechakos and sourdoughs?

Dating back to 18th century Russians and going right up to present-day oil field workers who get the hell out of here at the end of their shifts, we've had more than our share of those who take and run. So sheer staying power means something. But how much?

We can make a good case that Alaska is more than just a state or even a place - it's an experience. We've got more than our share of quirky independent types. Heck, we even have a political party that wants a re-do on the statehood vote. And most of us would agree that Outsiders who wheel in, muck things up and leave (are you listening, Truth Squad?) - they can go home anytime.

It's all well and good to feel special, but at some point that crosses into arrogance. Denying Alaskan arrogance is a lot like denying that shrinking sea ice affects polar bears.

Starting with Jack London, transplanted authors have written deeply and well about the Alaska experience. Like London, not all of them did long shifts in the North, but they managed to pen eloquent, thought-provoking reflections anyhow.

Seat time doesn't count much when it comes to real learning, and we should take care in assuming how much it counts in our state. What matters is that Alaskans think and care and act in ways that promote the good of all that's genuine and worthwhile in this thing we call the "Alaska experience."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Visit me at Librarything!

I know you've seen the image before, but I'm posting it BIG to celebrate the release, last week, of the paperback edition of my debut novel. Any of you who want to be virally helpful by telling potential readers about my novel, you will have earned my deepest gratitude. Word of mouth is everything these days, so if you've read the book, let others know about it; if you are interested in Spain, the cello, music, Picasso, Franco, politics, love, or red wine & olives, please check it out.

As a next stop on my virtual book tour (now that I am back from the Alaska wilderness) between now and October 1, I am taking part in an author chat at Librarything, where I hope at least a few of you will visit me! (Solitude in the woods is nice; solitude online at a chat-group, not-so-nice.)

What IS Librarything? Like Shelfari and Goodreads, it is a social networking and cataloguing site for bibliophiles. Some call it "MySpace or Facebook for books." A half-million members strong, it's also been called "one of the Seven Wonders of the Web."

At Librarything, you can do several things. If you catalog all of your books, the site can give you relevant reading recommendations based on your current collection, or show you other people who read the same books you do, or provide other weird info, like how your library matches the library of famous dead people. (This is made possible by a group called "I see famous people's dead books," which has catalogued works owned by JFK, Kafka, and Mary Queen of Scots, just to name a few.)

If you, like me, don't feel ready to catalog your personal library, you can still use Librarything to find chat groups, reader reviews, author chats, and book giveaways, just by registering. It's like amazon and the Library of Congress and your friend's personal book blog, all in one.


Still pondering that pesky distinction between fact and fiction? Never fear, the Truth Squad is here.

Yes, according to KTUU and confirmed in the Alaska Dispatch, John McCain has sent his self-proclaimed Palin Truth Squad to set you straight on the ever-complicated details of Troopergate.

You thought a bipartisan committee voted 12-0 back in July to investigate whether Palin abused executive powers in firing Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan? You thought Palin agreed to cooperate fully with the investigation, saying she had nothing to hide?

Boy, did you get that wrong. Check out the Truth Squad's poster (suitable for recycling in your high school student's current events report). All roads lead to...you guessed it, Barack Obama. Yup, all that stuff you thought happened back in July - lies. Apparently back then even Sarah Palin was drinking the Democratic Koolaid the neo-cons keep talking about.

Thankfully, the McCain campaign rescued her, and they've come to rescue Alaska, too. Although Palin never mentioned it in the past two months, turns out Monegan was "insubordinate." Independent investigation? That's actually "McCarthyism." A three-person personnel board, appointed by the governor herself, with a legendary record of firing all those who cross her, is all the independence we need.

Subpoenas? Former no-name lawyer-turned-Attorney General Talis Colberg says the Palin folk don't have to answer to those. (Note to criminals: consider donating to the McCain-Palin campaign, and maybe you, too, can dodge subpoenas.) Palin's commitment to be open and transparent? Not when it comes to explaining her role in this mess - she won't testify. Oh, and Republicans supporting McPalin have filed two separate lawsuits to stall the investigation, which they say is tainted by partisanship.

All these details are so complicated, aren't they? Our friends in the Lower 48 can't be bothered. Thank heavens for the Truth Squad, which makes everything simple and crystal clear: this whole mess is the fault of the Democrats.

By the way, all questions on the investigations are now to be funneled through the TS. No fair asking the gov's attorney or, heaven forbid, the governor herself.

Time to dust off your copies of Brave New World.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Is Alaska really a big small town, as claimed by our governor and her party as they stump for a four-year stint in Washington?

Who can argue the appeal of a small town, with its good and honest and hard-working people? Quintessential America. John McCain invoked it yesterday, as Wall Street was collapsing around its ankles, in an attempt to convince us that the economy is fundamentally sound because America has the same good, hard workers it has always had. Funny, but I think we had that same small-town work ethic when the market crashed in 1929.

True, Alaskans run into friends from far-flung parts of the state all the time - usually in Anchorage, derided as "Los Anchorage." But beyond that, I'm having a hard time plastering the small town sticker on the largest state in the Union. We're caretakers of vast chunks of real estate most of us will never see. Most Alaskans haven't a clue how folks live on the other side of the tracks, in Chefornak or Shishmaref. We entertain millions of visitors every year. We've got oil and gas and gold and sticky issues associated with development. We've got wildlife to manage and oceans to protect and species to ponder (or plunder) in the face of global warming.

Alaska has some fascinating small towns. Heather Lende writes beautifully about Haines in If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name. Amanda Coyne has a nice piece in Newsweek about Wasilla. But to characterize the whole state as a big small town is wrong.

The more we learn about how our state has been run like one - from our legislators pandering to oil companies to our governor appointing high school classmates to head state divisions on flimsy qualifications such as "I've always liked cows" - the more we should reject the notion that we're just one big small town.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Alaskans are the first to complain when people Outside don't "get it right" about our state. But there's a lot more than geography at stake as the line between fact and fiction blurs.

We used to think we knew. Books from reputable publishers, newspapers (other than tabloids), and stuff filed as non-fiction in the library - that was Truth, vetted and substantiated. But in the Information Age, entertainment and political purposes trump facts. We're inundated with information from blogs and tabloids and 24/7 cable channels owned by entertainment giants. You don't have to look far for evidence that the current occupants of the White House have taken every advantage of avenues for creating and promoting their own versions of Truth.

With Sarah Palin thrust in the national limelight, distortions fly hard in Alaskan faces. Our governor still claims she told Congress "thanks but no thanks" to that Bridge to Nowhere. She told almost 40 million people we've got a natural gas pipeline under construction. Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell and former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani, among others, chide Obama campaign for the Troopergate mess, even though every non-comatose Alaskan knows it began more than a month before McCain made his VP pick, with a Republican majority overseeing the investigation.

As people turn selectively to news sources they agree with, and as these distortions (dare we call them lies?) are repeated, they become accepted as "truth." In the midst of this perfect storm, along comes J. Frank Prewitt's self-pubbed Bridge to Nowhere, subtitled an "FBI confidential source account of Alaska's political corruption scandal."

Not having read the book yet, I can't comment on its quality or value. What's of interest is that Prewitt, according to Sunday's ADN, categorizes his book as "creative nonfiction," going on to say he replicates scenes "in a way that enables people's mind [sic] to step into the picture and have a good time."

Authors, what's your take on this definition of creative non-fiction? Readers, what sort of Truth do you expect when taking up a book like Prewitt's? How about Prewitt's decision to self-publish, admitting to typos and all, because he wanted to get it out in time for the election?

And finally, from teachers, I'd love to hear if media literacy is taught in any substantial way. Given the narrow onus of No Child Left Behind, my guess is it's not. Which means, information-wise, we've got lots more to worry about than whether some folks still think we live in igloos.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Plenty again to round up this week. First, go to 49 Writers, No Moose, where blooger Andromeda Romano-Lax is launching the Equinox Book Club. John Straley's The Big Both Ways is the club's first pick. No long-term commitment, and you've got till November to read the first book.

Mark your calendars for Kaylene Johnson, signing copies of Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned Alaska's Political Establishment Upside Down, on Saturday, Sept. 20 from 1-3 at Title Wave Books. You may want to get in line early. Tyndale, now distributing the books, reports 350,000 copies going into print.

On the same day and time, you can catch a book signing for Captain Cook in Alaska and the North Pacific at Pandemonium Booksellers in Wasilla. (Wow - did they have some sort of premonition in naming that store or what?) The print run's not nearly as large, but I've got it queued up on my shelf.

Speaking of Sarah (is anyone not?), the ADN reports on several Alaskan writers who are getting lots of hits - as in one million, per Andrew Halcro - on their political blogs. Check out the story for a list of the featured blogs.

I've only read excerpts of Sarah's first interview since she turned V.P. pick; plan to watch the whole thing tonight. I did get the impression that she's not going to second guess what Israel will do - possibly because she repeated it three times. Expect the rhetorical line between fiction and nonfiction to blur even more as the campaign heats up. Several Bush (as in W., not Alaskan) campaign vets have jumped on to manage and prep Sarah. Enough said.

The Constitutional free speech doctrine has come up with Palin's questions about removing books from the Wasilla library. Now it's coming up again as a group calling itself Alaska Women Against Palin plan a rally for tomorrow, Sept. 13, and local radio host "butt-whooping" Eddie Burke called the organizers "maggots" and gave out their personal phone numbers over the air. According to the organizers, threats of violence ensued. And Representative Jay Ramras is worried that we'll be airing our dirty laundry with Troopergate? Come on, people. Let's show the rest of the world that the freedoms we enjoy in our country can do better than name-calling and threats of harm to people who have the audacity to express opinions that differ from ours.

Speaking of the Constitution, Alaskans will have an opportunity to hear from an influential author of legal opinions, Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He'll by speaking on another Palin-timely topic, "The Curious Case of Free Exercise: Religion and the First Amendment," at the Loussac Library's Marston Theater at 3 p.m. on Saturday, September 27.

And finally, on an infinitely lighter note, sometimes author and always funny Mr. Whitekeys is appearing tonight at 8 p.m. at the Palmer Depot. Subject of his $30 show: "Mr. Whitekeys Does the Valley."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Celebrate Alaska and support these nature writers at Thurs and Fri signings. Also, a John Straley announcement.

One last reminder: on Thursday, LIVING WITH WILDNESS author Bill Sherwonit will be at Title Wave at 7 PM.

On Friday, many contributors to CROSSCURRENTS NORTH will be at the Anchorage Museum: Marybeth Holleman, Anne Coray, Mike Burwell, Ann Dixon, Jo Going, Kaylene Johnson, Steve Kahn, Joan Kane, Buffy McKay, Sue Pope, Libby Roderick, Eva Saulitis, and Bill Sherwonit. (There are other signings as well; see bottom of my 9/20 post.)

I won't be there on Friday, because -- in keeping with this week's theme -- I am actually going offline (is it possible?) to enjoy some real nature. I'll be backpacking for 5 days on Resurrection Pass Trail, enjoying the yellow aspen/poplar leaves and smell of mouldering high bush cranberry, hoping to see animals (at the proper distance) and hoping also to stay relatively warm, while working off all the yogurt pretzels, chocolate, jerky, and schnapps we'll be carrying in those heavy packs.

I have been spending the last five weeks blogging like crazy (as many of you know) and balancing a bunch of other writerly duties, and I look forward to this time to regather my energies and rest my twitchy mouse-clicking fingers.

What will I be reading on the trail? (You ask...) John Straley's new mystery novel, THE BIG BOTH WAYS, which Publishers Weekly called "a gripping tale of survival, betrayal and murder set in the Pacific Northwest in 1935."

When I return, I will be unveiling the complete plans for inaugurating an online "Equinox Book Club," which will feature a bunch of us posting comments to discuss Straley's book.

Do you love Straley and all he has done for the last two years as Alaska State Writer? Do you like the fact that Alaska Northwest Books, Straley's publisher, has added fiction to their list? Do you appreciate this blog? Do you appreciate Alaska writers in general? Then add a comment and sign up below, promising you intend to read THE BIG BOTH WAYS between now and November 1. More details will be announced, but I can't tell you how happy I'd be to come home to a pile of comments from readers willing to take part. (You're committing only to this one book, not an ongoing book club -- it's our first experimental effort in that arena.)



At 49 Writers, No Moose, Andromeda Romano-Lax is sponsoring a contest for readers who post on Alaskan books that hold special meaning for them. Borrowing a phrase from blogger Patrick Brown, reported in Paper Cuts, which book got you hooked on Alaska and the North?

For me, it was Mrs. Mike, which I recently learned is also one of my Alaskan-born daughter's favorite Northern reads. No matter that it's technically set in the Canadian North - it opened up the subarctic for me. On its heels I read Tisha and later, after I'd accepted a job in Alaska, John McPhee's Coming into the Country.

Special meaning or gateway drug - post your thoughts at 49 Writers, No Moose.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Alaskans speak out: Q & A with Crosscurrents North Anthology editors Anne Coray & Marybeth Holleman

Anne Coray and Marybeth Holleman agreed to take turns answering questions about their environmentally-focused anthology, new from University of Alaska Press. They have lots of events set up, not only in Anchorage, but across the state. (See bottom for details.) As we all know, Alaska is big in the news right now. There couldn't be a better time for looking at some of the environmental challenges facing the 49th state.

Andromeda: With other anthology titles out there, what gave you the idea to create a new Alaska anthology?

Anne: Even though there are a number of literary anthologies that include Alaska writers, none is written entirely by Alaskans and has an exclusively environmental focus. Given the recent primary election and the failures of two important ballot measures—#2, (which would have restricted predator control), and #4 (which would have ensured clean water standards for all large-scale mining operations such as Pebble), the necessity of hearing from Alaska’s “minority voices” is more important than ever. People in the Lower 48 need to know that there are longtime and even lifelong Alaskans who strongly object to what one newspaper reporter for the Seattle P-I called a “dig it-drill it-chop it mentality.”

Another driving force for this book was the fact that many “Alaska” anthologies include well-known writers such as Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, or Rick Bass, who are nationally recognized but are not residents of the state. We wanted to give voice to people who actually live here—or have, for a significant amount of time. So we included a ten-year residency requirement in our call for submissions.

Marybeth: The initial idea for the book was Anne’s. She contacted me through a mutual writing friend, and first thing I did was to read some of her poetry—where I was struck by some of the finest poetic evocations of Alaska’s environmental dilemmas I’d ever read. After that, what drew me to the book was the coincidences of things I love. First, I love poetry. While I’m primarily a nonfiction writer, it’s poetry I turn to when I’m in need of the deepest kind of insight, solace, awareness. There are poems that have, quite simply, saved my life. Second, I always loved the idea of a book of poetry AND essays, side by side. I think there’s a certain kind of magic in the way the two forms, poetry and prose, work together. The anthology is a kind of conversation between those two forms, a conversation about Alaska’s wild.

And third (but by no means least) I love Alaska—that is, its mountains and deltas, its seas and coasts, its astonishing diversity of wildlife. But in my nearly 25 years here, I have never felt represented by any elected official or government entity. In fact, in the last few years, it’s gotten much, much worse. As Anne points out, this recent primary election clearly shows that those of us who care deeply for this place, Alaska, have next to no voice in politics. But we do have a voice. A deep, resounding, vibrant voice. And I see this anthology as amplifying that voice.

Andromeda: Tell us about some of the better-known contributors to your book.

Anne: Some of the most recognized writers in this anthology are Nancy Lord, Richard Nelson, and Nick Jans. Nancy (who was just named Alaska Writer Laureate) has two pieces in the collection—an excerpt about commercial fishing, from her book GREEN ALASKA, and a new piece titled “The Experiment.” In the first piece, she contrasts two approaches to fishing—small scale versus large-scale, and takes a hard look at giant factory trawlers. “The Experiment” addresses the impact of global warming on the Homer landscape.

Richard Nelson’s piece is excerpted from THE ISLAND WITHIN. He describes walking through an old-growth timber clearcut in Southeast. He notes the disastrous results of this method of logging, and pleads for more environmentally sound and aesthetically pleasing practices for timber harvest.

Nick Jans also has two pieces. In “Crossing Paths” he expresses joy in watching wildlife in its natural environment. His other contribution, “Wolf Wars” gives a glimpse of the nitty-gritty, hands-on work he undertook in gathering signatures for a ballot measure that would have limited aerial wolf control.

Marybeth: We’ve got some well-recognized poets, too, including John Haines, Tom Sexton, and Peggy Shumaker. And, I’m extremely happy to be offering Walter Meganack’s “The Day the Water Died” to a larger audience. I can still remember the first time I heard that speech, months after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Andromeda: Can you also tell me about some “less-known” contributors and what they’ve had to say?

Anne: We are especially excited to bring to people’s attention the work of Joanna Wassillie and Joan Kane, both Alaska Native writers. Joanna is Inupiat, born in Nome and currently living in White Mountain. In her piece “That Which Sustains Us,” she celebrates the landscape of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, stressing the importance of responsible garbage disposal and maintaining clean water.

Joan Kane, also Inupiat, is an amazing poet. In her work, she manages to fuse a love of place with an almost eerie distancing technique. The voice surreptitiously draws us in while simultaneously creating a sense of removal…it is a refreshing counter-style to much Alaska nature writing, which tends to be overtly celebratory and sometimes risks falling into the mundane.

Marybeth: Yes, the new Alaska Native voices really energize this whole anthology. What’s refreshing in Joanna’s piece is her clear-eyed look at the way modern life has affected the environmental ethic in Alaska Native culture.

We are excited about all the new voices. That’s one of the things I most enjoyed about this project: publishing the works of lesser-known contributors alongside well-known names. It’s a reminder of how much great writing there is out there, and how little of it escapes from what Marge Piercy called “the jagged/ bottleneck sewer of the industry.”

Andromeda: What was the biggest challenge in putting together this anthology?

Anne: The whole project was challenging, from start to finish. It’s been in the works for about ten years, and the work was exhausting. The first lesson was that publishers weren’t interested in too many poems, so the manuscript underwent several cuts as we received feedback from various editors. We are both happy that we managed to retain as many poems as we did for the finished book.

Marybeth: Yes, we were both absolutely committed to keeping the balance of poetry and essays as near even as possible. It remains a puzzle to me why so many publishers shy away from poetry. But it was a lesson, for me anyhow, in when to listen to publishers’ feedback and when to remain true to one’s intentions for the work, regardless of what publishers say.

Anne: Another huge challenge was the number of contributors. Keeping up correspondence with over forty writers over such a long period of time was difficult, to say the least. Then there were revisions to essays and bios, reviews of the changes made by the editor at the press in Fairbanks, agreeing on a cover image, etc. It seemed the emails would never stop.

Now that the book is in print, we find that the job of marketing is another huge challenge. As most authors and editors learn, books don’t sell themselves. So we have set up several readings around the state for promotional purposes.

Marybeth: This was also my first editing project. It’s given me great empathy for the work of an anthology editor. It was far more work than I could have ever imagined to read all the submissions, make the decisions, and keep up with all the correspondence. What was especially difficult for me was telling some very good writers that we couldn’t use their work. It’s helped me accept the rejection letters I get!

As for marketing, one thing that’s been rewarding is the way several contributors have stepped up and helped to organize readings in their neck of the woods. For example, essayist Dan Henry has organized a reading and discussion in Haines and in Skagway at the end of September.

Andromeda: Tell me one misconception you think Outside readers have about Alaska – and address how your anthology responds to that misconception.

Anne: I once had a famous poet tell me “Alaska isn’t exotic anymore, with the Internet and all. Write about Alaska things, but don’t stress being Alaskan.” As someone who was born and raised in this state, I felt that was kind of like telling me to cut off my right arm.

I lived in Seattle for six years; I’ve visited Hawaii, the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountain States; I’ve been to Europe and even Martinique. No, I’m not as “worldly” as some people, but I’ve seen enough of the world to realize that Alaska is different, and by extension, exotic. We really do have an incredible amount of unspoiled land up here and our human population is small. I think the misconception from a literary standpoint is that there is still a lot of provincial writing coming from Alaska. I believe our anthology demonstrates the quality of work that writers here can produce, while still writing about the “expected” topics—wildlife and landscape. I firmly believe that it’s not what you write about, it’s how it’s done.

Marybeth: Yes, Alaska IS different. I’ve been here nearly 25 years, and as I say in the introduction, Alaska still knocks me off my feet. This summer, my husband and I hiked up to Crow Pass. Now, I’ve hiked Crow Pass probably 20 times over the years. But there we were, like a couple of tourists from Tampa, in awe at those mountain goats perched on the rocks above the waterfall, at the lynx bolting up the mountain on the other side of the lake.

Plus, as Bill McKibben points out in the preface, Alaska is different because it’s not too late to save these vast wild places. Of course, now with the melting ice pack and drowning polar bears, it’s starting to feel too late, but I’ve got that “Galaxy Quest” motto in my head: Never give up, Never surrender.

The other big misconception about Alaska (heightened by current political events) is that Alaskans are as about environmentally aware as the wild-wild-west yahoos that gunned down hordes of buffalo and took nothing but their tongues. So it’s back to one of the driving forces for the book: to give voice. Again, while we may be a minority in the voting booth, we’re still a force for change.

Anne Coray is the author of BONE STRINGS, SOON THE WIND, and coauthor of LAKE CLARK NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, forthcoming from the Alaska Geographic Association.

Marybeth Holleman is author of THE HEART OF THE SOUND: An Alaskan Paradise Found and Nearly Lost, and her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, most recently THE FUTURE OF NATURE.

Readings from Crosscurrents North: Alaskans on the Environment: Friday, September 12, 7 PM, Anchorage Museum.

Saturday, September 13, 7 PM, Kellogg Farm, a remote campus of Alaska Pacific University. For directions log on to the web site, http://www.alaskapacific.edu/kellogg/group.php click on Bringing a Group, and scroll down.

Sept 25-27: Haines and Skagway. Babbling Book, Friday 12:00 to 2:30 in Haines.
Friday, reading at Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Theatre and signing at the News Depot.

Oct 11, 7 PM, Fairbanks.


With no end in sight for the Sarah-frenzy, it's fascinating how much of the dialogue swirls around issues of language and literacy. This campaign offers so many teachable moments on audience and rhetoric that it almost makes me wish I was back in the classroom.

Depending on whom you ask, it's okay to talk lipstick with pitbulls but not pigs. Then there's the issue of book banning and censorship. Are questions posed by the mayor to the town librarian about whether she would remove questionable books from the library - followed by a termination letter when the librarian says banning is not a-okay - reflective of a book-banning stance or merely, as the mayor-cum-Veep says, "rhetorical"? You'll find lively discussions on both sides of that topic on the blog Librarians Against Palin .

Also of interest is the fact that a new Palin bio comes out in a few weeks from Christian publisher Zondervan. Another Christian publisher, Tyndale, is taking over distribution of the current bio from Epicenter, which has been overwhelmed with orders.

For a fascinating look at rhetoric and image building in the modern American political arena, check out Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold. It's a captivating treatise on the misuse of language and what passes for truth - a timely read with 55 days and counting until we elect a new President.


With no end in sight for the Sarah-frenzy, it's fascinating how much of the dialogue swirls around issues of language and literacy. This campaign offers so many teachable moments on audience and rhetoric that it almost makes me wish I was back in the classroom.

Depending on whom you ask, it's okay to talk lipstick with pitbulls but not pigs. Then there's the issue of book banning and censorship. Are questions posed by the mayor to the town librarian about whether she would remove questionable books from the library - followed by a termination letter when the librarian says banning is not a-okay - reflective of a book-banning stance or merely, as the mayor-cum-Veep says, "rhetorical"? You'll find lively discussions on both sides of that topic on the blog Librarians Against Palin .

Also of interest is the fact that a new Palin bio comes out in a few weeks from Christian publisher Zondervan. Another Christian publisher, Tyndale, is taking over distribution of the current bio from Epicenter, which has been overwhelmed with orders.

For a fascinating look at rhetoric and image building in the modern American political arena, check out Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold. It's a captivating treatise on the misuse of language and what passes for truth - a timely read with 55 days and counting until we elect a new President.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

National publisher seeking climate change stories

Thanks to Rebecca, Julie D., Deb and others for sharing this. I'll send you over to Deb Vanasse's ALASKAN AUTHORS blog to check out this great opportunity, and while you're there you can see what a good job she is doing helping us give Alaska books a bigger voice in the blogosphere.

Calling All Science Writers

Alaska has spawned some fine science and nature writers. I hope we'll be reading new essays by some of them in response to a joint call for manuscripts by Penguin Classics and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The online collection, Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories about Global Warming, is slated for publication in 2009. From all appearances, it will be a high-visibility effort. Ned Rozell, Bill Sherwonit, Debbie Miller, Susan Quinlan - and many more of you out there - let's have an Alaskan or two in the mix.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Living with Wildness: Q & A with Bill Sherwonit

I sat down with Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit at a local coffee shop a few weeks ago. He was just back from a 10-day solo trip in the Brooks Range, during which his tarp and tent had been "investigated" by an unseen grizzly -- just one detail on an sometimes quiet and contemplative, sometimes challenging trip alone. I had just started this blog, and so my caffeinated, internet-jumpy pulse was racing about a zillion times faster than Bill's, but I appreciated that we could still find time and a mutually acceptable pace for talking about home, nature, solitude, and spirituality -- topics I've enjoyed discussing with Bill for a decade.

The contrast between urban and wild -- as well as the distinction between wildness and wilderness, is one of many themes in Bill's current essay collection, published by University of Alaska Press. LIVING WITH WILDNESS is the author's eleventh book about Alaska; he has written three books about Denali, two about the Iditarod, and others about Alaska’s bears and state parks.

One other note this week, during which I'm profiling nature writers -- I've chosen to let these blog posts run longer than usual (a choice relevant to the very topics of nature and thoughtful living). Some future Q & As will be shorter, of course. What length and style do you prefer for your online reading about books and writing?

Andromeda: The title of your book is LIVING WITH WILDNESS, not WILDERNESS. What’s the difference?

Bill Sherwonit: It’s remarkable how often people confuse the two. I even had a person at the University of Alaska Press (not my editor, I should point out) send me an email about the new book and the subject line was “Living with Wilderness.” Another good example is Thoreau’s famous quote, “In WILDNESS is the preservation of the world”; many people unconsciously and mistakenly substitute wilderness.

I go into an in-depth discussion of the difference in my book, but getting to the heart of it I’d say wilderness is first, a place, and second, an idea, while wildness is a quality, a state of being.

As many other writers and scholars have noted, “wilderness” has no meaning to humans who live (or once lived) in hunting-and-gathering cultures, because the larger, wilder world is their home. Only when humans began to settle into communities and separate themselves from the larger world did the idea of wilderness as the wild “out there” begin to emerge. Most Americans today tend to think of wilderness areas as pristine and largely untouched – even uninhabited – by humans, but in fact even most places in the U.S. now defined as wilderness (by The Wilderness Act) have been occupied by people.

Over time I’ve become more interested in “wildness” than wilderness, because wildness, as Gary Snyder and others have pointed out, is everywhere, including within us “civilized” humans. Because it’s a state of being, wildness is harder to pin down than wilderness. Yet it’s easy to recognize in the fierce presence of a grizzly bear, the howl of a wolf, the power of a fierce storm, the shimmer of the aurora, or even the feistiness of a chickadee. All of these things can send shivers of recognition through our body.

If I may quote from the book, “Even in our high-tech, polluted world of the early twenty-first century, wildness is all around us. And within us. Our physical bodies – some might say our animal nature – our imaginations, our dreams, emotions, and ideas are wild. But in going about our busy, modern lives, we consciously or unconsciously suppress, ignore, deny, or forget our wildness.”

This is one of the major points I’ve tried to make in the book: that we are constantly immersed in wildness – and carry wildness within us. We are, after all, animal beings. Such qualities as spontaneity, zestfulness for living, ferocity, playfulness, the feeling of connectedness with the larger world, free-spiritedness, sensuality, even the sense of the sacred when in nature, all hint at our inherent wildness.

Most of us modern humans are a little bit frightened by our wild, animal nature, or anything that hints of wild (i.e., “animal”) desires. I think that’s why we have so many issues around such things as sexuality, eating, and death, because they bring us face to face with our wild, animal nature.

ARL: While the details of your Brooks Range trip are fresh, tell me about that and contrast it with the local pockets of wildness that enrich your daily life.

Bill Sherwonit: For those who may not know the Brooks Range, let me first say it is the continent’s northernmost major mountain chain, located entirely above the Arctic Circle and stretching east-west across the width of Alaska. Much of the Brooks Range is now protected as officially designated Wilderness, in a series of parks, preserves, and refuges.

The Brooks Range has been my favorite place of wilderness since the mid-1970s, when I first went there while working on a geology crew, and I try to get back there every few years, whether alone or with friends. It is a vast place of immense wildness, where you can go days or even weeks without seeing another person. What I’ve discovered is that the longer I remain in such a place, the more I shed my urban, “civilized” persona and more easily touch the wildness that resides within me.

This is especially true when alone. Things begin shifting; I think less and get more fully into my “animal body.” Usually my dreams become more vivid and I move into “wilderness time” while also more easily feeling my connectedness with the wild “other.” Ego shrinks and I better sense my place in the larger, wilder world, even if briefly. I’ve actually written a book about my decades-long relationship with the Brooks Range and it’s importance in my life. In that book I go into more detail about some of these ideas. In the book-length narrative (which I’m happy to say the University of Alaska Press has decided to publish), I have the ability to show some of what I’m telling here. You know, that whole show-vs.-tell issue that writers constantly struggle with.

While I treasure places like the Brooks Range, in recent years I’ve come to more fully appreciate and savor the pockets of wildness that are scattered through my adopted hometown of Anchorage. I’ve learned that when I pay attention, wildness is manifested everywhere, including my yard – and even inside my home at times. I truly believe that when we open ourselves to new possibilities, amazing things begin to happen that remind us we’re part of amazing, wondrous world. In my Turnagain neighborhood I’ve watched a northern goshawk chase down a magpie right in my yard; my neighbors and I have shared the block with nesting merlins, we’ve had our yards visited by hundreds of berry-picking bohemian waxwings, and we share the area with moose and foxes and all sorts of birds. And these are just the most obvious manifestations of wildness. Each encounter, each experience of the “wild other” can be a reminder of what a miracle it is to be alive and part of this larger spectacle. What I’ve learned – or relearned in my middle years – is that these moments of wonder and magic are possible anywhere, not just in deep wilderness.

Several of my favorite writers, philosophers and “wisdom keepers” address the importance and value of experiencing the wonder and mystery of life. These include Loren Eiseley, Wendell Berry, Matthew Fox, Terry Tempest Williams, Scott Russell Sanders, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Gary Snyder. Another is Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve pinned a quote of his to the wall above the desk where I work: “People usually consider walking on water on in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

My encounters with wild nature are what most remind me that “all is a miracle.” It’s easiest for me to experience that sense of wonder in deep wilderness, and I will always have the need for the renewal and refreshment and amazement that wilderness trips provide. But by relearning to slow down and pay attention – and to be open to mystery and magic, something that we seem to lose as we grow from childhood into adulthood – I also have learned to experience and appreciate the miraculous right here in town.

ARL: As a teacher of nature writing, you’ve worked with many students. What is one thing you think you’ve been able to get across to other apprentice writers?

Bill Sherwonit: I emphasize that writing, to me, is a three-step process. No. 1 – and most important – is the experience itself and the act of paying attention, being (or becoming) aware of the larger world and what’s happening within it. I think the best, or at least most interesting, writing is about relationships: with self, among humans, between humans and the larger world, and between humans and “the divine,” however you imagine that term. Only by paying attention can you write well about relationships.

The next step is going from experience to notes. I am a firm believer in journals and note taking. It’s in taking notes, I think, that many of the essential details critical to story telling are recorded. The third step (and beyond) is going from experience and notes – and tossing in memory and reflections – to story. And then the polishing, of course, the willingness to refine and polish and take others’ feedback to make a story as powerful as it can be. I also firmly believe that the best writing comes from the heart. We write best and most movingly about what means the most to us, what we care most about.

ARL: Finally, this book is published by a university press. How is that process different from say, an Alaska regional publisher?

Bill Sherwonit: Well, for one thing the regional publishers I have worked with (most notably Alaska Northwest Books, The Mountaineers Books, Sasquatch Books) all shied away from a book of creative nonfiction that is essentially a collection of essays, and they did so for marketing – i.e., economic – reasons. The sad fact is that essay collections don’t sell very well unless the author has achieved a certain level of celebrity or notoriety. I was fortunate to approach the University of Alaska Press (without realizing it) at a time its staff had decided to expand the press’s line of books to include more literary works.

The actual process of getting a manuscript accepted for publication is actually quite an ordeal. Getting the editors of a university press interested in a manuscript is merely the first step. The manuscript is sent out to at least two reviewers who are considered experts in the “field” or area that the book addresses. From past experience I can tell you that one bad review can sink a manuscript, even if the review is illogical and fails to properly address the merits of a book, and can even override the editors’ enthusiasm for a project.

In my case with the University of Alaska Press, the reviewers recommended publication, subject to some revisions. I made some changes, resubmitted the manuscript and got both the reviewers’ and editors’ approval. Then it had to go to the press’s advisory board for final approval. The UA Press advisors were highly supportive of the book project and that led to a contract and eventually the book. The entire process, from my initial submission of the ms. to publication, took just over a year and half.

One other thing: university presses don’t usually have much money for advances, so it’s not an easy way for a freelancer to make money. They also don’t have a lot of resources for marketing the book, so I’ve been putting in a lot of time and energy helping out in that regard. But I’m happy to do that, because I want to reach as large an audience as possible.

You can hear Bill speak and celebrate his new book -- and taste some wild berry treats as well -- at Title Wave this Thursday, at 7 pm.

Bringing Out the Best

Despite all the criticisms hurled at the oxymoronic "publishing industry," it does - with some notable exceptions - keep the Peter Principle at bay, at least in terms of authors and their published work. As anyone who's tried will attest, it's darned hard to get published. Which is why I make a distinction between the Peter Principle at work in Alaskan politics and the markedly non-Peterish showing of Alaskan authors.

Outside a few notably literary enclaves like New York, it would be tough to find a collection of really fine writers like we enjoy among the 600,000 folks who call Alaska home. Sure, we've got our literary yahoos and embarrassments, but for those who rise beyond self-publishing, the Alaska card plays only so far. Call me a romantic, but I believe Alaska attracts insightful writers for whom relative isolation offers an opportunity to hone their craft, with results that are vetted by the quirky, skittish publishing markets Outside.

Not so with politics. I'm no sociologist, but the inverse may well be true. Look no farther than Joe Vogler and the AIP, with whom the nation's Darling Sarah Palin flirted as she made her rise to the top.

The interplay between our fair Governor and the press continues to fascinate. A Peter Principle corrolary is that once you rise beyond your level of competence, you must shield yourself from anyone and anything that could send you crashing. No surprise, then, that Sarah's new bio will be penned by a Christian novelist and pubbed by Zondervan.

No surprise, either, that McCain campaign manager Rick Davis has said, by all reports with a straight face, that Sarah's not going to make herself available to the media until they agree to treat her with deference. Or as one letter-writer to the ADN admonished the press, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Goodbye, Press. Hello, Brave New World. Fortunately, Alaskan authors continue to speak articulately on the current Alaska-spawned national obsession. Check out, for instance, Nicole Stellon O'Donnell's articulate essay "The Sarah Myth" in Literary Mama. Whether you agree with her or not, Nicole speaks brilliantly of how Sarah's thrust into the limelight has left her tarnished in the eyes of some who used to be proud to call her their own.

It's too bad that great opportunities don't bring out the best in politicians the way they seem to in writers. Maybe that's because writers have to fight so hard to get where they are. It pains me to say it, but thanks, publishing industry. McCain could learn a few lessons in vetting from you.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Agent Advice: The Epilogue

And now, we need to talk about ... when agents are wrong. It happens. And we all love those stories about the novel that almost went into the Dumpster, only to be retrieved at the last minute by some prescient spouse (like Stephen King's wife, who supposedly saved CARRIE) or editor (like the one who saved the book at left, by Lionel Shriver).

I just started reading WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN yesterday, in fact, and I'm on p. 77 and absolutely savoring it. I knew I loved it from about page 7: great plot (mother recounts in letters to estranged husband about what went wrong in the years leading up to their teenage son murdering people in a school-shooting). But even more than great plot, great voice: dark, caustic, honest, smart, and willing to say a whole lot of things about women and motherhood that few people are willing to say. In an entertaining way, no less.

The point is, her agent hated it. The agent wrote to Shriver (according to an author interview in the paperback edition), "For the life of me, I don't know who is going to fall in love with this novel." The timing was especially bad: just post-9/11, when America (in Shriver's words) was feeling particularly "defensive and self-righteous."

Shriver left her agent and went to 20 other agencies in 8 months. No takers. Then she broke the rules (including ones outlined below) and submitted it, unagented, to an editor who immediately recognized the book's brilliance and bought it. Next: major reviews, foreign sales, bestsellers lists, and the UK Orange Prize for fiction. Shriver appreciated it all, having previously published six novels that all lost money.

So there we go, a Cinderella story to end on, just as we began earlier this week. And now: I've had my say about agents and welcome, as always, any experiences you want to share.