Monday, March 2, 2009

Seth Kantner: A 49 Writers Interview

Booklist calls him "impressively fluent and probing," an author whose "cultural insight, daring wit, and ecological vision echo those of Sherman Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Barbara Kingsolver."

"As a revelation of the devastation modern America brings to a natural lifestyle," says Publishers Weekly of his first novel, "it's a tour de force and may be the best treatment of the Northwest and its people since Jack London's works."

Winner of the Whiting Award and the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, Alaskan author Seth Kantner is undoubtedly one of the pre-eminent voices on the Northern literary scene. In preparation for the 49 Writers online book club discussion (anyone can participate) of Ordinary Wolves this weekend (March 7 and 8), we bring you this interview with one of our favorite authors.


Ordinary Wolves was ten years in the making. In your acknowledgements, you also mention a sock drawer. Could you give us a writer’s perspective on the novel – your inspiration, the process, what kept you going, and how you brought it to market? Twelve years, actually. I wrote the novel because I liked reading novels when I was growing up, but nothing I read about Alaska seemed anything like the Alaska I was living in. That bothered me. The process? I didn’t know how to write a novel; I just sanded down a tree, so to speak, hoping it would come out as a sled. What kept me going was having few other options, and being mister wolverine boy—an inability to quit. The New York houses rejected my manuscript, year after year. I kept rewriting each winter, still with no idea if the tree I was sanding on would turn into a sled. I was advised to quit by good friends and enemies. Each spring I had my agent send the ms out again. Finally a non-profit publisher accepted it. The book took four more years before it was published.

Autobiographical elements find their way into just about every novel, but Ordinary Wolves feels more autobiographical than most. In what ways is Cutuk you? The arc of the story follows my life fairly close. But all the scenes and dialogue and characters are made up--from experiences and imagination.

The sense of place in Ordinary Wolves is stunning in its breadth and accuracy. How tough was that to accomplish? I grew up on a hill beside a river. My parents didn’t get up and leave for work in the morning; my brother and I didn’t ride a bus off to school. We didn’t have TV, radio, etc. We lived on that hill. I was born on that hill. Most of our food walked to that hill, most of our furs; the fish swam by the hill in the river down below. I’ve spent a lot of time on that one small piece of the planet—that and traveling intensely. Also, keep in mind the twelve years writing the book. That’s 48 seasons--lots of time to notice details while your novel is busy not being published.

One of the great accomplishments of the novel is that is never skirts the truth, even when it’s unflattering, even when it touches on a culture that’s not your own. Most readers appreciate unflinching truth, but have you also been criticized for it – and if so, how have you dealt with the criticism? Local people have been amazingly supportive. Those who have read Ordinary Wolves by and large like it. Many think of it as comic, which is a compliment. I have heard just a few minor undercurrents, complaints that I say bad things about Natives. The one or two that have said that to my face have also admitted that they didn’t even read the book. Most of the “dealing with” I did previously, in my own head, while I was writing the book. I had to force myself over and over to set those fears aside and just tell it like it is as even-handed as I could, otherwise my novel was not going to be a book I wanted to write.

Which scenes and characters in the novel were toughest to write? Part 1 was the easiest. The characters were harder than the scenes. (Although knowing which scenes to cut was boggling.) I didn’t know how to form characters. I had to learn that along the way. I had a survival trick—kill off characters when they got hard to deal. Later in the process I had to bring them back to life. None of it was easy.

Following a successful novel with nonfiction is a great way to bypass “second novel syndrome,” but not every author is comfortable crossing genres. How tough (or easy) was the switch? Non-fiction is way easier to write, but for me dealing with details from the past--from other peoples’ stories--was a giant pain. And their stories kept shifting. Plus, you can only say so much with real people, with non-fiction. Are you going to talk about so-and-so teacher sleeping with their junior high students, or such-and-such Subsistence leader selling bear gall bladders to the Korean restaurant? I don’t think so. In fiction it is somewhat easier to say more, and to form it exactly the way it needs to be formed. If not, delete and try five hundred more times. Non-fiction is a slow flat trail to telling the truth and I hope I’m done with it for a long while.

I understand you’re now working on another novel. Anything you can tell us about it? It won’t be politically correct. I’m trying to figure out how much truth people can handle. It’s even harder than the first novel. And I was younger then, a thousand times more naive, a couple of million times more idealistic. It’s hard. Its midnight right now, and look, I’m writing this instead.

5 comments:

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I've searched the web for interviews with Seth Kantner and that captured his voice and process better than anything I've read before. Thanks so much for doing it, Deb & Seth.

Deb Vanasse said...

I especially love the contrast between Seth's take on nonfiction - "a slow flat trail toward telling the truth" and Ann Patchett, who according to one of our readers said that nonfiction was so easy (compared to fiction) that it was like writing a shopping list. Goes to show how different the experience is for each of us.

Don Rearden said...

Enjoyed the interview! Thanks! I'm going to be putting together some teaching materials for both of Seth's books on LitSite Alaska this summer.
I'm going to be out in the bush during your book discussion, but you'd better believe I'll be tuning in later on and asking to pilfer ideas and discussion points on behalf of students and teachers!

Also --- Kantner's new book -- Shopping for Porcupine -- will be one of UAA's books of the year next Fall.

ned rozell said...

Seth Kantner has succeeded because he's like Evander Holyfield, the Real Deal.

Deb Vanasse said...

Evander Holyfield. I like that. And Don, maybe you can give us an update on what's happening at LitSite. One of those guest posts, perhaps?