Next week, we'll feature the first of four posts from Bill Sherwonit, 49 Writers Featured Author for December. Here, an interview with Bill on his most recent book, Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness.
How is Changing Paths different from your previous books, especially Living with Wildness, also from the University of Alaska Press?
The biggest difference between my two most recent books is that Living with Wildness is a collection of essays while Changing Paths is narrative nonfiction, a start-to-finish story if you will (but with lots of necessary digressions along the way). The new book differs from my earlier work in that it is creative or literary nonfiction. Or at least it’s the closest I’ll probably ever get to that genre.
In some ways, Changing Paths builds on Living with Wildness; I’ve gone deeper into some of the ideas and experiences I wrote about in the latter. It’s also by far the most personal book I’ve done and is, in a way, a memoir (thus requiring me to more fully engage with that trickster, memory). Through my own life’s story I’ve tried to touch on larger, more universal themes. One example would be the lasting impact of early influences, in my case fundamentalist Christianity and wild nature. Another would be the role – and in my opinion, the necessity – of wilderness in modern American culture. Or how a place can influence or even dramatically change a life (thus the title). In Changing Paths the primary place I explore is one of deep wildness, the Central Brooks Range. But I also reflect upon the influence of the Connecticut woods and my neighborhood swamp.
I appreciated your honesty about having to pay Raymond Paneak for an interview. What factors did you consider in deciding whether to include that in the book?
It seemed perfectly natural to include details of my “exchange” with Raymond (a Nunamiut elder who lives at Anaktuvuk Pass, deep in the Brooks Range). I did so partly because it was a curious and illuminating part of my personal journey. But I also wanted to show readers that the Nunamiut – and from what I’ve been told, Native residents in some other remote communities – feel that outsiders have for too long “stolen” their stories (and other cultural treasures) and gotten rich at the expense of the locals. While I think that’s rarely the case with “collected” stories, I do believe that people like me have profited in one way or another from indigenous tales, if only by including them in our own published work. I think it’s one of many cultural tensions that exist in Alaska and found it both fascinating and a bit disturbing. So how could I not share that? Again, it was a way to touch on larger issues and realities through my own experiences.
You’ve skillfully woven your experiences in the Brooks Range with Bob Marshall’s accounts. To what extent was this part of the initial vision for your book?
Early on, I expected the story to interweave my Brooks Range story much more intimately with Marshall’s arctic explorations (recounted in his book Alaska Wilderness). One early idea, maybe the initial “vision,” was to make the book a following-in-the-footsteps-of-Bob-Marshall kind of story. More than anything else, one particular conversation with the celebrated essayist and author Scott Russell Sanders changed my vision for the book. After reading an excerpt and tossing some questions my way, Scott said something like, “I think the book you really need to write is less about Bob Marshall and more about Bill Sherwonit.” We then talked some about possible ways of doing that, which led to the three-part structure and the more personal, memoir approach. Marshall remains an important figure because of his huge influence, both on me and the wilderness-preservation movement. But for better or worse, the book became more about my life experiences than his.
How tough was it to arrive at the three section structure, which works quite nicely?
I think Scott first suggested the three-part approach, at least partly because it was something that he’d been experimenting with, in one of his books. We brainstormed a bit and a picture began forming in my mind. Besides the central narrative of my solo trek through Gates of the Arctic National Park, I began thinking about times or episodes in my life that put me on the track or path that I am following today. Right away, two ideas came to mind: my geology days, which brought me to the Brooks Range and forced me to look hard at my values and what really mattered to me, in a way I hadn’t done before; and the two huge influences of my boyhood, religion and wild nature. Once I had those, it became easy enough to figure out the third part, my shift from geologist to journalist and then nature writer and wilderness advocate, and also my permanent settling in Alaska. Once I imagined the possibilities, I fully embraced – and enjoyed – the movement through time and space, all the while keeping the reader grounded in the Brooks Range. At least that’s what I hope.
Your first book, To the Top of Denali, came out nearly twenty years ago. In what ways have you changed as an author over the past twenty years?
I hope I’ve become a better storyteller, that I’m more creative and engaging – and at least occasionally, provocative – in my writing. I’m devoting more of my creative energy to writing about things that are greatly important to me, for instance our species’ relationship with the larger, wilder world we inhabit. And I’ve certainly become more ambitious, while weaving my journalism skills with more creative approaches to writing. So I guess I’ve become more of a risk taker. That shift has proved challenging not only on the writing end of things, but also on the business end. And like it or not, as someone who makes his living as a freelance writer, I have to deal with the business of getting published. Although I’m pretty darn sure that I’ve become a more skilled writer, “selling” my more creative and often personal stories has proved much more challenging, whether essays or books. At times that’s been frustrating, even deeply disheartening. Thank goodness for the University of Alaska Press, which has embraced my work and given my more creative books a home! I’ve also become much more involved in the marketing of the books, doing whatever I can to help spread the word. The Internet – and intersecting circles of friends and colleagues – has helped in that regard.
Finally, I’m now more engaged with the larger community of authors/writers, particularly here in Alaska. I was still working at The Anchorage Times when I wrote To the Top of Denali (amazingly, Alaska Northwest Books actually approached me to do a mountaineering book) and my sense of “writing community” was narrow, essentially limited to the newsroom. Now it’s much more expansive and I’ve benefited in many ways through my participation in a writing group, my teaching, and attendance at all sorts of “literary events,” from readings to workshops and conferences. I’m much less isolated now, though sometimes I still feel that way. Which is another whole story . . .