Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Andy Hall: Finding the Narrative

On Thursday, Feb. 5, Andy Hall and David Stevenson meet for an onstage Crosscurrents discussion titled "Fact or Fiction: Common Challenges in Finding and Creating the Narrative."  Join us from 7:00 to 8:30 pm at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Auditorium, the 7th Avenue entrance.

I had no idea that I’d write “Denali’s Howl” when I was 5 years old, living in Mount McKinley National Park during that tragic summer when Denali’s deadliest climbing accident killed seven young men.

I had no idea I’d write the book when I was 45 years old.

But when I was 49, I was deeply dissatisfied with my job at Alaska magazine and looking to make a big change.

I’ve been a writer and editor since graduating from the University of Alaska in 1986 and had always thought about writing a book, but I could never settle on a subject. The Wilcox Expedition had always been of interest to me since my father was superintendent of the park at the time, and my own fuzzy memories popped up whenever I heard reference to the expedition. My dad had passed away by the time I was ready to tackle it, so I had lost not only a cherished person in my life, but also a critical source for the story.  Still, I had been loosely researching for many years and even without my father, I knew I had enough material that had not been seen before.

Though the accident had been written about a number of times, a comprehensive account of the tragedy—including the rescue effort—had never been done. So, I quit my job and went to work on the book.

I spent nine months researching and writing the proposal; I travelled to Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Atlin, British Columbia, and Kona, Hawaii, for research before I had enough to write it. Once that was done, an agent agreed to take me on, and she quickly sold the idea to Dutton. When I signed the contract, I had a year to write, but I continued to research for another seven or eight months before I really began putting it together. By the time I began putting words down, I had close to 100 hours of interviews with survivors, rescuers and others involved with the incident – as well as modern-day experts.

I filled two accordion-style briefcases with hundreds of documents related to the event, including letters, reports, journals, official exchanges, maps and photos. I had an equal number of similar documents in digital format stored on my hard drive. I read many books on climbing and did a fair amount of sleuthing, too. Some of the people I wanted to interview had left Alaska years ago, or never lived here at all, and I had to find them. It was challenging, but strangely addictive, so much so that when I had to stop researching and start writing, I missed it terribly.

One of the oddest things to happen during the research occurred when I was in the storage unit where my father’s belongings are stored. I was looking for some papers from his time in the Park Service but had no luck finding them in the crowded unit. While moving boxes I uncovered the large wooden desk that had occupied his den for as long as I can remember. I walked over to it, slid the middle drawer open and was surprised to find it still held the jumble of stuff I remember from when I was a kid, digging around in my dad’s desk: a pocket knife, postcards, stamps, coins, a magnifying glass, pictures of long-dead relatives, small human teeth—probably mine—and myriad other paraphernalia that had accumulated there over the decades that he had owned it. I ran my hand through the hodgepodge and randomly picked up a small, black box four or five inches square. I turned it over and saw a name scrawled on lid: Wilcox. Incredulous, I opened it and found a reel-to-reel tape labeled, Mountaineer Statements.

Afraid to play it, I had the tape digitized and when I finally listened to the audio, I heard the voices of the rescue climbers telling the park rangers what they had seen as they ascended the Harper Glacier and encountered the frozen bodies on the upper mountain. Those descriptions and the other details the tape contained were integral to the book. I don’t know how I could have detailed that part of the climb without them. What drew me to the desk and to that tiny box amid the scores of boxes, trunks and cases of stuff? I don’t know but it was eerie, and felt like more than just a chance discovery.

When I started writing in earnest, I tried to follow the outline I had provided in the proposal. I had planned to jump back and forth between 1967 and some of the present-day research I had conducted, but it just wasn’t working. Then I realized why I was having trouble: The core of the story is linear; it’s about climbing a mountain; it starts at the bottom and ends at the top. I had to write it that way, so that’s what I did, figuring I could move the chapters around later if it felt right.

Once it began to flow, all of that research paid off. I believe nonfiction is nonfiction. You don’t make things up, you don’t speculate, you don’t put words in people’s mouths or thoughts in their heads. You report what was said or what happened in as much detail as possible so the reader can visualize it, and decide on its accuracy and significance. I felt lucky that I had such rich material with which to work.

Still, there were plenty of times when I doubted my ability to get it done.

I had a daunting pile of research on my desk, and I knew I had hundreds of hours of writing time ahead of me. In the last two months, I started calculating the number of words I had to write and the number of days until my deadline, and then how many words I had to write each day. That really freaked me out, and it made it hard to get going some mornings.

Around that time, I read something that really helped. Roger Ebert had died while I was working on the book, and one day while I was procrastinating, I found one of his quotes that really resonated. He said, "The muse comes during the act of creation. Don't wait for her; start alone."

So I'd set the timer on my phone for 30 minutes every morning. I told myself that if the writing doesn’t flow, if the muse doesn’t appear before the alarm goes off, I'll go do something else, usually chopping wood. I guess the muse favored me because things were usually cooking before the timer sounded and I rarely stopped writing in those last few weeks. I delivered the first draft on deadline and spent the next seven months working with a brilliant editor at Dutton named Stephen Morrow, who helped me fine tune the narrative. It wasn’t until six months after I turned in the draft that Stephen told me the book wasn’t quite finished.

I had started the story with the memory of my father and I being chased along a river inside the park. We thought it was a bear at first but it turned out to be a climber wearing a pack, covered by a poncho. I never returned to that story, and the identity of the mysterious climber was never revealed in that first draft. He said, “You can’t leave us hanging regarding who it was who chased you along the river.”

Without spoiling the ending I can say there is some ambiguity in answering that question. So I just embraced that ambiguity. Memory was a big factor in this book, the memories of the rescuers, the rangers, the survivors, and my own. I just let it flow and wrote that entire epilogue in a matter of an hour or so. I let my wife read it and she said. “That’s it, you’re done.” I read it again and realized that she was right.

Lifelong Alaskan Andy Hall is the author Denali’s Howl, The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America's Wildest Peak, a non-fiction account of the tragic 1967 Wilcox Expedition. Andy lived in Mount McKinley National Park as a child; his father was superintendent there when the accident occurred. In addition being an author, Andy is a commercial salmon fisherman in Cook Inlet and a ski coach at Chugiak High School. He lives in Chugiak Alaska with his wife, Melissa DeVaughn, and their two children, Roan and Reilly.

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