Dear goodhearted reader,
My letters, I’m afraid, too often describe only the unique beauty and wondrous wilds of Alaska. Perhaps I wander off on tangents of romanticism or present an idealized version of my home.
Years ago in a graduate creative writing course, I discovered Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. It’s a 10th century Japanese equivalent of the memoir, but what stayed with me is her amusing, telling list of hateful things. I highly recommend it.
In honor of truthfulness and in respectful imitation of Sei Shonagon, here is my list of hateful things:
* One forgets to bring in the liquid laundry detergent from the car, so that when it is time to launder one’s eight loads of clothes at the laundromat, it is a solid chunk of frozen soap and impossible to pour.
* The flock of ravens that follows one’s pickup truck around town because of the collection of trapping bait in the back. To be the center of such an embarrassing scene — hateful!
* The 35th straight day of constant, grating, silt-laden Matanuska wind that rips one’s hat off one’s head and blows plastic shopping bags into the trees. It is quite unpleasant.
* January. Frozen, dark, gray, holiday-less January.
* One makes the long drive home from work behind a pickup truck pulling a trailer full of four-wheelers at an agonizingly slow pace, only to have the driver launch to illegal speeds once a passing lane becomes available. Such charmless, detestable behavior!
* Bumper stickers on Alaskan automobiles that say “I Hate Snow.”
* One stands, overheated and exhausted in winter boots and coat, in the crowded line at the post office for 45 long minutes to hand a slip to an overworked, quarrelsome employee, only to receive in exchange … the annual Cabela’s sporting goods catalog.
* One spends the entire day making homemade eggnog, handwhipping egg whites from one’s own chickens and pouring in lavishly expensive brandy, but when one sets it on the back porch to keep chilled until the guests have arrived, one’s dog laps up half the bowl. One is forced to confess the embarrassing mishap to the guests, who choose to drink the last of the eggnog anyway.
* The two hours required to inflate the tires and start the engine in the rusty plow truck in order to spend half an hour plowing the driveway before needing to re-inflate the tires. (This hateful thing contributed by my husband Sam.)
* Daylight savings in a place that has 4 hours of daylight on winter days and 20 hours on summer days.
* Rocks in an otherwise perfect sledding hill. Hateful things!
* One calls to order a product, a pair of socks or a dish towel, only to be told that it will cost double the advertised price because of the cost of shipping to Alaska, which the telephone associate is not sure is even part of the United States. What foolishness!
* A legal, spike-horned bull moose standing in one’s garden, chomping one’s precious, tender cabbages and broccoli, three days before the opening of hunting season. One is tempted to shoot the thing anyways, but then one remembers she is married to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist with a badge, so refrains.
* One wakens to howling wind, blowing snow, and icy roads, only to learn that school has NOT been canceled. (This hateful thing contributed by my eldest daughter.)
* A cold and rainy summer that allows for only one dip in the neighborhood lake.
* One sits quietly minding one’s own business on an airplane only to have the nearby seatmate strike up a conversation and, upon learning that one is from Alaska, ask if one knows a certain famous/infamous never-to-be-named-here Alaskan, and if one admires/hates this Alaskan. Why must this conversation ever occur?
* A broken car heater that requires one to wear mittens, fur hat, coat, scarf, and snowsuit and to scrape the ice from the inside of the windshield as one is driving to town. Most hateful!
* One plans a sledding party weeks in advance, only to have it unexpectedly rain in the middle of winter and turn the hill to slush.
* The constant complaining of people who have lived in Alaska for 20 years but have always wanted to live somewhere else. How tiresome!
P.S. My favorite blogger The Rejectionist did a similarly inspired post a while back. I highly recommend it, too.
Dear bookish reader,
Several years ago I attended the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show in Portland, Oregon. I went with Melissa Behnke, the co-owner of Fireside Books. It was so serious and so fun. We were bona fide booksellers with empty suitcases and notebooks, setting out on an important mission — to learn more about our trade and to discover, and bring home, exciting new books.
But we were also book lovers in a land of books. We went on giddy binges of greed, walking the trade show floor and filling our arms with free books. We sat in on panel discussions and visited with other booksellers. We talked books, and talked books.
By far the most memorable event was the “feast of authors.” We were all situated at tables in a dining hall. Throughout the meal, selected authors sat down at our table and visited with us. Several authors came to our table that night; I remember two vividly. Floyd Skloot, a wonderful poet, novelist and essayist, told us about his memoir, A World of Light. Since that dinner, his daughter Rebecca Skloot has published the bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Another visitor to our table was Laura Numeroff, author of If You Give a Pig a Pancake among may others sweet children’s books. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my daughter I had met her.
Never once did I think to myself “I wonder if I’ll be here again someday, but instead as an author.” It didn’t even cross my mind, even though I had already begun work on an early novel.
So imagine my delight and surprise when my publicist emailed the other day to say it was official — I am to be one of the guest authors at this year’s PNBA “feast of authors.”
I would be nervous, except I know how to dress in Portland, Oregon. And I also know — these are my people. They love books. I love books. We’ve got the whole world in common. We’ll talk about their bookstores and Fireside Books, and I’ll have to imagine Marlena my publicist at my shoulder, gently reminding me to not just talk shop with my fellow booksellers, but also tell them a bit about my debut novel. Maybe then I can describe how I was struck with the idea for The Snow Child when I was shelving books at Fireside. I can tell them that being a bookseller is the perfect day job for a would-be novelist.
I can’t wait until October!
Dear secret reader,
Pssst. I know a place where we can find blueberries. Fat, ripe, wild blueberries so thick on the bush that you can grab handfuls at a time. But first you have to hold up your right hand and solemnly swear on your neighbor’s blueberry pie that you will never reveal the location. No matter who asks or how they tempt or torture you, this secret must die with you. Really? Really.
You’ll need buckets. Gallon plastic containers with handles, the kind you can buy filled with ice cream at the super market, are perfect. Bring a few, just in case we get really lucky.
Dark thunder clouds are gathering at the mountains. It’s sunny now, but there will be a downpour later, and then more sun. So wear your rubber boots and bring your rain gear. Grab the mosquito repellent, a few snacks for the kids and the dogs, and a bottle of water.
We’ll drive a little ways, and then we’ll hike a little ways. We might see some grouse or ptarmigan. An owl might perch in a spruce branch over your head. We’ll probably see bear or moose tracks in the muddy trail. And eventually we’ll find ourselves at the edge of alpine tundra, where the spruce and birch forest gives way to Labrador tea bushes, lichen covered rocks, and knee-high berry bushes.
The lowbush cranberries aren’t ripe yet, so don’t pick them. And the blackish crow berries are edible, but not very good, so let’s leave those behind. Here — these are the ones you want. You see? The fat, sweet-tart blueberries.
When you first start dropping them into the bucket, they’ll make a loud “plunk,” but then, as your bucket fills, they will land silently on the heap of other berries. Your bucket will get heavy, and you’ll become completely absorbed in your task. You’ll skip over the skimpier bushes, the berries that are small or oddly shaped. You know what you want now. That luscious dark blue hanging heavily from the branch.
Tonight we’ll spread the berries on cookie sheets and put them in the chest freezer. Once they’re firm, we’ll transfer them into gallon plastic bags and put them back in the freezer.
When you climb, tired and content, into bed tonight, you’ll close your eyes and see the tundra, the bushes, one berry after another dropped into the bucket as you drift off to sleep.
Come early winter, when you’re yearning for those sunshiny days on the tundra when the cinquefoil and saxifrage bloomed in the marsh and the owl flew off into the trees, you and I together will make some blueberry jam or a whipped-cream topped pie, and we’ll pretend it’s August again.
P.S. Thanks to Mr. Baer and Chickaloon Jenny! 🙂
Dear reclusive reader,
In her 1929 essay, Virginia Woolf wrote her now-famous words.
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Lately I’ve been daydreaming — as I type on my laptop at our dining room table covered with books and papers, my husband at the other end with his stacks of work documents and his own laptop, my oldest daughter singing into her ipod, my youngest playing with her train set and watching Spongebob Squarepants with the volume on high, all of us together in our cozy home. I sit and I daydream about a quiet place. A room, with a closing door. A room of my own.
My daydreams have lingered here recently, in this hobbit-style house in Wales, but I’ve also daydreamed about a private library like one of these or a writerly cabin along these lines. Here, in one of these secluded, quaint, peaceful locations, I could lose myself in my next novel. I know I could. That is all that separates me from the freedom to imagine.
But before family guests arrived last month, I took the time to clean out my upstairs “cloffice.” It is an unfinished, windowless walk-in closet with an open doorway. The walls are unfinished Sheetrock, and a bare lightbulb hangs from the ceiling. When I sit in the metal folding chair at the rickety desk, my back touches the clothes on the rack behind me. Books threaten to bring down the one little shelf, and dozens of other books are piled in three-foot high stacks at my feet.
This is where I wrote The Snow Child. Two hours every night, one chapter at a time. It’s strange, but I don’t remember ever sitting here. All I can recall is the unfolding story, the words sometimes flying from my brain, other times coming slowly, painfully.
As I stood in my “cloffice” I realized I have a room of my own, and yet even it is only a metaphor. There hangs my wedding dress in its crinkly bag from nearly 20 years ago, and there my late-grandfather’s corduroy work shirt. Here is my bathrobe beside my husband’s, and there my daughters’ Christmas dresses with their satin green bows. The books have their own titles — Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Louise Edrich’s Love Medicine, Report of an Expedition, Fieldguide to Alaskan Wildflowers …
This is the space I occupy when I write.
If I want to lose myself in my next adventure, I don’t need a private hobbit house or an ornate library. If only it were that simple. Instead, I have to be ready to spend some time up here, in my own mind. It’s not a vast space, and it’s a little rough around the edges, never tidied up or completely finished. It’s plastered with memories, some of the magical and joyful, some melancholy and frightening. Its decor is a haphazard gathering of books and words and art and music.
It isn’t perfect, but it’s my own.
This is a quick shout out to several new subscribers to my blog — Dan in Boston (hi!), the North Carolina clan, and here in Alaska, the amazing artist Peggy! Thanks guys. It’s so much fun to know who is receiving my letters each week. By the way, all I can see when you subscribe is your email address and the general area of the country where you live. So with that in mind, I also want to say hi to Carol and a new follower from West Virginia.
Subscribing to the blog just means that each week the letters will be delivered directly to your email so you know when there’s a new letter. I try to post new letters on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The subscriptions help me know how many people are reading.
The only other way I know you’re reading my letters is when you leave a comment on my blog. I LOVE the comments. You all make the blog fun. It’s fantastic to see a conversation develop between readers in Alaska and Italy, or the Netherlands and Chicago. All the comments together give a more complex, interesting perspective on the topics I’m writing about. So please, if you ever have the slightest notion to participate, please, please do. Comment every day. Comment twice on the same letter. Whether you’re my neighbor, a relative, a friend, or until now a complete stranger, I’d love to have you share your thoughts.
Now, if it will only stop raining, we’re heading out to pick blueberries. I’m being led blindfolded to a secret spot and told I can take no photos that will give away our whereabouts (really), but I’ve been promised 10 gallons.
Dear reader, near or far,
You might have noticed in my P.S. on Friday that I mentioned the “humped-back pink” on the end of my fishing line. And, if you read the comments from my fellow Alaskans Jim Novak and Mr. Baer, you saw it described as a “trophy.” Unfortunately, sarcasm doesn’t have its own font. If it did, theirs would have been in bold
Pink salmon, also known as humpies, are a lesser fish for someone angling after a trophy, or dinner. In Alaska, we have five different types of salmon, and they are all not created equal.
My husband is a fishery biologist who manages salmon in our area for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He could give you all the Latin fish names, complicated run data, detailed regulations, and much more. But I have decided to give you my own glossary of Alaskan salmon.
* Kings, also known as chinooks. They have the name for a reason. The biggest ever caught weighed nearly 98 pounds. Kings are enormous and delicious, especially grilled the same day they are caught. Despite all of this, I personally find king fishing frustrating. It means getting up at 3 a.m., traveling by car and/or boat for hours, only to fish beside 75 other people who are winging hooks past your ear. You can stare all day at the end of your line and never get a single bite. The next morning, your husband can go to the same spot, while you stay in bed with the pillow over your head, and he’ll reel in a 45 pounder on the first cast. Not that I’m bitter.
* Reds, also known as sockeye. One of the most prized salmon. You can buy Alaskan sockeye fillets in markets around the world, for roughly the cost of your arm and leg. Reds aren’t huge, usually around 8 pounds, but their meat is bright red, flavorful and my personal favorite to eat. Sockeyes aren’t easy to catch — they don’t bite hooks. A bit inconvenient when you’re fishing for them. You can get them on hook and line by miraculously sliding the line through their open mouths and catching them unawares on the hook. It’s about as easy as it sounds. We get sockeyes with dipnets during a season opened specifically to help Alaskans fill their freezers.
* Pinks, or humpies. This is the so called “trophy” fish in last week’s photo. While commercial fishing relies heavily on pink salmon, they are considered junk fish for many anglers. When we catch them, we release them. They are small and not particularly tasty because their flesh tends to be paler and mushier than kings or sockeyes. The irony — on odd years like 2011 they are also the most abundant salmon in our part of Alaska. Inevitably when you are trying to catch a coho, you will instead reel in seven pinks. Hence last week’s photo.
* Chums, or dogs. These are the most disparaged salmon. Locally they are called “dogs.” Maybe it’s because they are so ugly, with their splotchy skin and oversized teeth, or maybe it’s because their flesh is so bland, it has traditionally been dried and used to feed dog teams through the winter. Enough said.
* Cohos, or silvers. This is my favorite salmon to catch, partly for the thrill of it. They come bright and silvery into the rivers, and they are feisty as they splash and roll in the water. They often weigh around 10 pounds, sometimes larger. They are wonderful to eat jarred or filleted.
And so, to make up for my photo last week, here I am with two of the coho salmon I caught over the weekend.
Be back Monday, hopefully with fresh salmon for the grill. Have a great weekend, dear reader.
P.S. Yes, Mr. Baer. That IS a hump-backed pink on the end of my line. I let it go — I promise.
Dear kind reader,
Lest you get the impression after my recent letters that I am some kind of gun-slinging, calmly perceptive and quick thinking outdoor superhero, I feel the need to shatter the illusion. This is the advantage of telling my own stories — I can highlight the parts that seem the most interesting, the most exciting, and the most flattering to myself. I can leave out the embarrassing missteps, the silly goofs and bad choices.
But it’s time for me to come clean.
When my husband and I floated the Copper River last month, we launched the raft into beautiful, sunny skies. The sun shone out of the blue and glinted off the water. The air, cooled by glaciers and heated by the sun, blew a powerful wind up the river. This breeze kept me comfortable even as I basked in the sun. Sam rowed, and I watched the mountains and trees slip by. I snapped pictures. I smiled. I talked. The world seemed good and sunny.
The next morning I woke up in the tent with a fat lower lip. Or “fat-ter” as my husband kindly pointed out. Over the years I have been both teased and envied for my genetically acquired full lips. But this morning, I knew something was not right. I felt as if someone had punched me in the mouth, but I had no recollection of any injury.
We got in the raft and floated off into the sun, wind, and water once again. It crossed my mind that my face was getting a bit burned, and that my lip was increasingly uncomfortable, but I was still mystified by the situation. Could I have suddenly developed an allergy?
That night, it finally dawned on me. I had sunburned my lower lip. I was mortified. My lips were so freakishly large that they were an extra extremity that could, unto themselves, be sunburned. All the teases and taunts of my childhood came rushing back to me.
And the next morning when I woke up, I looked and felt like a street boxer, or a mutated fish. My lower lip was as fat as a hot dog, and had the same unpleasant sheen as one glistening on the grill. It was so swollen I had difficulty swallowing or chewing or drinking. And all I wanted in the world was to shove my face into a glacier. In our emergency kit we had a plastic ice pack, the type where you burst the bubble inside the packet and it turns cold. I took several ibuprofen and held the ice pack to my lips. Neither made any noticeable difference.
“There is no way I can go into Cordova like this,” I mumbled to Sam. “I look hideous.” I spent the next hours with my long-underwear shirt pulled up over my face like a bank robber. Even though we didn’t see another soul on the river for days, I didn’t want to risk scaring off even the wildlife.
Finally we floated past a snow field. I jumped to shore and packed my canteen with snow. For the rest of the day while we floated, I pressed my mouth into the snow.
Thankfully, by the time we met up with our two daughters and my mom near Cordova, my lip had returned to somewhat normal size, although it was still painful. I vowed there and then to never go on a trip without sunscreen chapstick.
But this isn’t the end of my tale of ineptitude and woe. As we were driving back from Cordova, we hit a stretch of highway where permafrost has caused great heaves and buckles in the road. I was casually rubbing my eye when Sam hit one of these bumps, and I jammed my thumb into my eye. It hurt, but not too terribly. But when I turned to Sam, he squinted at me and frowned. “Your eye …” he said. I looked in the truck mirror to discover a huge blood spot in the white of my eye.
Now I really did look like a losing boxer. I would have liked to tell everyone that I had survived a fight with a bear. Instead I confessed — my lips are so big they got sunburned and my hands so clumsy I thumbed myself in the eye.
So there’s a snapshot of my less graceful, less competent side. But, for all our good, I’m not including an actual snapshot. No one needs to see that.
There is no place I’d rather be during the summer than Alaska. If family and friends want to see us, they’ll just have to come north.
And come they have. We currently have nine relatives from my husband’s side of the family staying with us, including five cousins for my two daughters to play with. Some of them, like my father- and brother-in-law, lived here for many years before heading south to Florida and North Carolina. For my 16-year-old and 9-year-old nephews, however, this is their very first visit to Alaska.
No matter where we live, many of us find that when visitors arrive, we discover all the local places and activities we ignore because they’re just down the road, too close for notice. I’ve walked on glaciers I never paid any attention to, gone to musk ox and reindeer farms I had never stopped by, and driven to parks I never gave any thought to, all because we had relatives in town.
But this time, my house guests have reawakened my senses to some of Alaska’s most basic elements.
“The air,” said my 16-year-old nephew. When he first arrived, his mother (who grew up here) said to him on Facebook, “Just smell that air …”
Air? It doesn’t get more basic than that, but as I stood on my back porch and breathed in deeply, I thought I could almost smell what they do — a cleanness, a hint of birch boughs and spruce trees and mountain rock and snow melt, dry, clean, good air. If air could sparkle, this air would.
It got me thinking. So I asked my 9-year-old nephew what he liked about Alaska so far.
“It’s cold, and there are mountains everywhere.”
Cold? We’d had a regular heat wave, highs close to 75 degrees that day. But compared to Florida’s near 100-degree temperatures, I suppose it does feel colder. And at night it drops to the 50s or lower, and all the time there is a kind of crispness beneath the warmth, the glaciers and mountaintop snow fields always blowing a cool breeze against your skin.
Then I asked my mother-in-law what she notices when she visits.
“The silence. It’s so quiet, especially when you’re out on the river.”
So I listened, and I heard the silence. We can go hours at our house without hearing a single vehicle or airplane. Sometimes the silence has unnerved our visitors. They have trouble sleeping when it is so quiet. But Pam said she found it restful and serene, and I agreed.
As we talked, though, we started talking about bigger things, like culture and attitude. She said she appreciates the way people feel like they can be themselves up here, they can dress the way they want to dress, and don’t seem to be as consumed with technology and materialism.
Then my father-in-law offered his view, which is unique, too. Jim grew up in Florida, then raised a family here in Alaska for 30 or so years, and then moved back to Florida. His visits north are a kind of homecoming. When he first came, he came for the wilderness, he said. And then he grew to love the people. With Alaska’s small population, a person can feel immediately a part of things. But now, these years later, he says once again it’s the wild that draws him.
So now as I drive along the highway, I am noticing all of this — the quiet, the gray-blue mountains, the crisp air, the great swaths of wilderness and the sense that I could step out of my vehicle and immediately be swallowed by that wilderness.
Once again I am grateful to be here, at home, in Alaska.
Dear lovely reader,
There is a myth about publishing, that it is an insider’s club, that the people who get published do so because they are friends with this author, or went to school with this editor, or have an uncle who knows a lawyer who knows an agent. I admit that before my debut novel was picked up by Little, Brown & Co. I worried I didn’t have enough “connections.” I have lived all my life in Alaska, and the closest I had ever come to New York City was to visit my grandparents in Buffalo, NY.
But I have discovered something very exciting along the path to publication — you can start out with no connections whatsoever and, if you’re willing to reach out to others in the writing/reading world along the way, they’ll often extend a hand to you.
When I attended the Kachemak BayWriters’ Conference in Homer, Alaska, several years ago, I couldn’t have been more utterly disconnected from NY publishing. I went to the conference with my mom, Julie LeMay, who is a poet, and she prodded and encouraged and, actually, insisted that I set up a meeting with the New York literary agent presenting at the conference. I had never met a New York literary agent before, and I wasn’t finished with my novel. But I signed up to meet with Jeff Kleinman and gave him my pitch. By the end of the conference, he had offered to represent The Snow Child.
I was thrilled, and a little overwhelmed at this turn of events. Normally I wouldn’t have done such a thing, but I reached out to John Straley, then the Alaska Writer Laureate and one of the biggest names in Alaska’s writing world. He has numerous critically acclaimed novels, and was a lead presenter at the conference. I had read his books, but he didn’t know me from Adam, as they say. Yet, when I asked for help, he extended a hand. He sat down with me at the conference and calmly said “Stay calm.” Several months later, he read my early draft for me and gave me his thoughts and recommendations. This was my very first introduction to the “inside circle” of the publishing world — authors helping authors, readers and writers and book lovers joining forces.
Later, when the owner of Fireside Books casually mentioned to Andromeda Romano-Lax that I was working on a novel and had an agent, Andromeda showed the same kind of generosity and comroaderie. She is an Alaskan writer who has numerous books with major publishers, including The Spanish Bow and the upcoming The Detour. She invited me to guest post on the blog 49 Writers, and agreed to read The Snow Child and endorsed it, even though she must get an overwhelming number of such requests. We regularly “talk shop,” and I am always grateful for her advice and experience.
But this was just the beginning. You know the quotes from big-name authors on book covers? I, too, assumed that they came through insider connections — the same agent, the same publisher, the same MFA program. Not for me. I cold wrote to my favorite authors, explaining how much I loved their books and asked them if they would consider reading my novel. In the case of every endorsement I got, from Robert Goolrick, Sena Jeter Naslund, Robert Morgan, Melanie Benjamin, Keith Donohue, and Ali Shaw, I had absolutely no connection or inside track. I just wrote a letter and said “please,” and they each extended a hand to a fellow author.
I can’t describe how grateful I am to all of these people for being so generous with their time, experience, and credentials. And now I know — the myth, at least in my case, is not true. You don’t have to be an insider with New York connections. You just have to be a writer and book lover who is willing to reach out.