Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Brendan Jones: Look forward to being back

As I sign off here as January blogger for 49 Writers, I’d like to thank Deb Vanasse and Linda Ketchum for giving me this opportunity. Thank you for your patience and thoughts and communication – it has been a true privilege.

Through the blog comments, and individual emails, I also feel like I’ve started to get a sense of the larger Alaskan writing community. I very much look forward to visiting Anchorage in March, to teach my class “Submitting the Novel: the First Twenty Pages,” where we’ll have time to workshop and buff these beginnings, so important before submitting to agents or editors. I’ll also be reading at the library in Homer, on March 18th, and I’m working with Linda to coordinate an Anchorage reading. And perhaps I’ll see some folks at the circus of AWP in a month’s time. In any case, I feel very honored to have been offered this platform to write and reflect.

I’d like to end by chatting about one of my favorite writers, who has been on my mind as of late, Wallace Stegner. Particularly his final novel, Crossing to Safety, which begins:

“Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving through a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface. My eyes open. I am awake.”

I mimic this beginning in my own novel. It seems to work pretty well. There’s a scene in my book that occurs in a South Philly bakery. The main character’s father shuts his daughter and her friend in the walk-in freezer, and tells them to pretend they’re “Eskimos.” This is a set-up for the eventual (educating) trip to Alaska. The other day I remembered a description of these gorgeous cowled white burnoose coats from Crossing to Safety, and had hopes of stealing once again. Predictably, once I opened the book, I couldn’t stop reading, and there went an hour of writing time.

The book is a thinly-veiled remembrance of a friendship between Stegner, his wife Mary, and Phil and Peg Gray. Along with mulling over the nature of friendship – the original title to the book was Amicus – there’s an underlying meditation on community, and what home means. Is it something you’re born into? Or is it something that can be intentionally created? Stegner grew up in the West, and spent a lifetime writing about it – and yet he chose to have his ashes scattered on Baker Hill, in Greensboro, Vermont, which serves as the setting for Crossing to Safety.

Characters in the book break down geographically as well. It is told from the point of view of Larry Morgan, a New Mexican. Charity, an intractable go-getter from the Northeast, clashes with Larry, a resilient Westerner alternatively proud of and self-conscious about his origins. Larry takes exception to Charity’s puritanical assuredness and drive, while she shows no understanding of Larry’s deceptive lightheartedness, and his willingness to gamble his future on a writing career.

Perfectly, East and West are reconciled in rural Vermont, where Charity’s family has a compound amid the hayfields, sugar bush, and black spruce of Baker Hill. Once she arrives Charity is able to calm down and still her drive for improvement, while Larry finds comfort in the unchanging nature of the place, which offers a counterpoint to his sense of the mercurial West, where both of his parents died in an accident when he was a teenager.

I wonder if Stegner’s decision to set his final book in Vermont, and to have his ashes scattered there, underscores for him the importance of transcending geography in favor of people who form a lasting community. It’s a point that resonates with me, and I would guess, with a number of Alaskans who have left their birthplaces for the state. I was born in Denver, in the center of the country. I grew up on the east coast, and I’ve chosen to live on the west coast.

A couple paragraphs into the first chapter, Stegner writes, “There is even, as my eyes make better use of the dusk and I lift my head off the pillow to look around, something marvelously reassuring about the room, a warmth even in the gloom. Associations, probably, but also color. The unfinished pine of the walls and ceiling has mellowed, over the years, to a rich honey color, as if stained by the warmth of the people who built it into a shelter for their friends. I take it as an omen; and though I remind myself why we are here, I can’t shake the sense of loved familiarity into which I just awoke.”

The sense of loved familiarity. Floating upward out of the confusion of dreams into that. That would seem to be home to me.

Look forward to being back, Alaska. 

Brendan Jones is from Sitka, Alaska, where he commercial fishes, and works on restoring his home, a World War II tugboat. He graduated from Oxford University, and has published pieces in Ploughshares, Fine Woodworking, Narrative Magazine, The Huffington Post, and recorded commentaries with NPR. He is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University. His novel, The Alaskan Laundry, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2015.

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