Dear well-read reader,
I pick up books for a lot of different reasons – to learn, to be emotionally moved and challenged, to be immersed in the lyrical potential of language. But sometimes I read because I’m craving the sensation of being transported. I want the great escape. I love it when I am partly through a book and I don’t want be anywhere in the world but curled up in a chair, devouring the pages. The imaginary people and their concerns have become entirely real. I can’t wait to find out what happens, and yet I dread the end of the book and the end of this other reality.
Strangely, the more I read, the less frequently I fall under this spell. I don’t know if I have become too aware of how language and plot works – it’s like I can see the wires and pulleys that are enabling the characters to fly. Or maybe I am reading the wrong types of books, those that are considered the canon of tomorrow and make me work hard to understand what the author is trying to do and how it will influence literature. I enjoy these types of books, too, and I think they are important for me to read, but they rarely offer escape.
In other cases, a book seems to take me on that perfect little vacation – I rip through the pages, but when I get to the end? As one reader friend put it, it’s like you just scarfed down an entire box of doughnuts. It seemed like fun at the time, but now you are feeling slightly ill and kind of disgusted with yourself for having so little self-control.
It’s such a rare treat when I come across a book that is both well-written and page turning, satisfying in its emotional depth and entirely transporting. Some of the best escape books I’ve read in recent years– the Harry Potter books. There is nothing experimental about Rowling’s writing style. She falls prey to cliché now and again. In ways the characters and plot conform to existing molds. And yet, I can think of few books that have magically swept me off to such an unbelievable world and made me believe so fully.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See was another one of my rare escapes. This lovely novel set me down in 19th century China and wrapped me in the fascinating lives of the characters. I was entirely transported, and when I was finished with the book, I felt changed as a reader.
Just in the past few weeks, I’ve read some really terrific novels, books I think are well-written, important in our social context, entertaining and surprising. I cared about the characters, and the plot kept me turning the pages. And yet, none of them successfully cast a spell over me. I wasn’t swept into another world.
That’s what I want. I want that perfect escape book.
Dear determined reader,
I mentioned earlier this week that we were hoping to climb up to a nearby mountain to check out one of the last, dwindling patches of snow. The truth is, we’re wimps. When it gets above 70 degrees, which it did this week, we Alaskans overheat, and snow becomes very enticing. And as we discovered, brown bears must share this view.
Getting to the base of the mountain begins with an exciting drive down a deeply rutted four-wheel trail that is barely wide enough for one pick-up truck. Alder branches smacked at the side windows, and the truck lurched side to side. Part way down the bumpy trail, we stuck our truck in a mud hole. Even in four-wheel drive, the front tires just spun. While my husband and I lodged rocks and logs under the tires, our daughter bickered in the heat. We contemplated how long it would take to walk to our nearest neighbor’s house and ask for help.
But soon we heard the rumble of ATVs coming up the trail. I figured they would zip around us through the brush with maybe a quick nod in our direction. Instead, the family stopped and offered to hook their ATV to our truck and winch us out. (Note, the word “winch” rather than “wench.”)
Sam and I were skeptical that the ATV and its thin tether would do the job, but sure enough they pulled us right out of the mud. Whew.
We planned to park beside the mud hole and go on foot the rest of the way, though it meant we’d never make it all the way to snow. But the friendly people with the ATVs said, “Go for it. If you get stuck again, we’ll pull you out.” Hard to argue with that.
We drove to the foot trail without further incidence, waved goodbye to our new friends, and began the hike. We were sweating and hot, and our 4-year-old was whining before we even crested the first hill. But eventually we got into the rhythm of the hike and set our sights on that patch of snow.
As we walked, I told my daughters about how often we see bear tracks in the mud along this trail. Sometimes they’re smallish, black bear tracks. But sometimes they are huge brown bear tracks. The 4-year-old picked up her pace, hoping to catch sight of one of these curious animals. My older, wiser daughter began looking nervously over her shoulder.
After an hour or so, we climbed up out of the trees and into high alpine country. Lichen and blueberry bushes grew along the rocks, and the fragrance of blooming Labrador Tea filled the air.
We were all a bit sunburned by now, and feet were aching and hot. We all kept our eyes to that patch of snow. And then I saw something else. At first glance, I mistook it for a huge stump perched on the rocks. Then it turned its head side to side.
“Brown bear,” I called ahead to my husband, who carried the rifle.
We all stopped in the trail. I lifted up my youngest daughter, so she could see. The bear was about 300 yards ahead of us, sitting on his haunches, turning his head this way and that. Then he looked down at what I had come to think of as “our” patch of snow. After a minute or so, the bear stood and ambled slowly away from us, down into a valley and out of sight.
The old bruin was letting us have the first run at the snow patch. We took off our shoes and socks and squished our bare feet in the snow. The girls and our golden retriever took turns slipping down the snowy hill.
We didn’t see the brown bear again, but I’m certain as soon as we hiked off the mountain, he was out there, sliding his belly across that cool snow.
I have a problem. If I were a chef or a visual artist, it might not really matter. But since I’m a writer, it’s a bigger issue. I’m homophone blind.
Waste paper basket? Or is it waist paper basket? Is it a bale of hay, or a bail of hay?
The first time my agent read my manuscript for THE SNOW CHILD, I’m pretty sure the first page had something about my main character “ringing” water out of a washcloth, rather than “wringing.”
Thank goodness, I have my mom. In addition to being an incredible poet, Julie LeMay is also a handy copy editor. She saved me on this last blog post when I wrote about planting “currents” in the back yard. “I think that should be currants, with an A,” she politely pointed out. All I could do was laugh, and count my blessing for her eagle eye.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t there the day of my downfall. Of all the homophone errors I’ve made, the most embarrassing went to print in our local newspaper, the Frontiersman. At the time, I covered the outdoors. Each week I would write articles and columns about the fishing season, great hikes, hunting opportunities and wilderness adventures.
I know next to nothing about mechanical things, but I decided to step outside of my comfort zone and write an article about ATVs (all-terrain vehicles such as four-wheelers.) They are popular in Alaska as a means to access remote areas.
I did my research – I visited a local ATV shop and talked with people who use them a lot. I wrote the article. It went to press. I was feeling dangerously proud. The next morning, the phone rang at my desk.
“Yeah, I was calling ‘cause I really liked that article you did on four-wheelers. Especially the part about having a wench on the front. Does she come with a six pack of beer, too?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, so laughed nervously and hung up quickly. Then I opened the paper on my desk. No less than half a dozen times I had referred to the need for a “wench” on the front of your four-wheeler. A wench, as in a flirty bar maid or something.
What I had meant was a “winch” as in a handy tool that you can use to pull yourself out of a mud hole. I could have used one right then, to pull myself out of the verbal mud hole I had landed in. A winch, that is. Not a wench.
This homophone blindness feels like a kind of dyslexia. If there are two words that sound the same I almost inevitably choose the wrong one. Each time I choose incorrectly, I have to commit it to memory, in hopes that I won’t make the same mistake again. But there are always knew ones to come across. Just kidding, I no that one.
P.S. Any homophone mistakes appearing in this blog are mine and mine alone, but words appearing correctly are thanks to my mom!
Dear sunny reader,
Sleep? Who needs it? We’ve got gardens to tend, houses to build, fish to catch, and mountains to climb.
Our neighbors, the Baers, have already put a new roof on their home. And to clarify, because I know sane people in other places actually hire someone to do these sorts of things, when I say they put on a new roof, I mean THEY put on a new roof. As in the two of them ripped off the old shingles and plywood, put a massive blue tarp over it, and hoped it wouldn’t rain while they rebuilt the whole thing.
Another one of our good friends is a farmer, which means he is in full-on frenzy mode. The fields are now free of snow and the summer sun has begun to dry up the mud, so he is riding the tractor, planting night and day until the hundreds of acres are ready to sprout potato plants.
Across the way, our other neighbors just returned from their spring bear guiding trips. My dad is booming logs out of a pile in his yard, and my mom is studying for her MFA residency in poetry. She also teamed up with some other artists last weekend to lead an outdoor retreat in creativity, and she went for a hike with my brother near a local ski resort. She said the smell of the sun-warmed hemlock forest was delightful.
Sam, my husband, put on a dive suit and helped install a salmon weir on the Deshka River as part of his job as a fishery biologist, and in his off-hours he took out a window in our house and built our first staircase.
In the meantime, I tilled up our garden, hauled buckets of water from a creek, and planted cabbage, kale, broccoli, carrots, turnips and a few flowers, and set up my pea fence. Last night at 11 or so, I stood on our back porch. The sun had just set, so it was the soft blue of twilight. Looking out over the garden, I admired the neat rows of moist soil and lovely little seedlings. Then I saw the currants I had forgotten to transplant.
But today is a new day. We’re thinking about fertilizing the rhubarb, finishing the Sheetrock in the stairwell, and transplanting the currant bushes, as well as a lilac and mountain ash. We need to feed the chickens, water the garden. Oh, and we’re planning to climb up to the mountain behind our house to check out a little patch of snow that has lingered in the sun.
Our oldest daughter is worried we won’t have time to do it all, but I reminded her – we’ve got all day, and all night.
Dear dedicated reader,
When THE SNOW CHILD first began to move toward publication, I got two seemingly conflicting impressions from seasoned authors. Some told me that publication would change my life. Others warned me it would change nothing at all. After this past week, I’ve come to a conclusion — they were both right.
I spent several days in New York City during Book Expo America, one of the world’s largest publishing events. When I was first invited, I fretted over what to wear and what I would say. Once I got there, I was struck by an important realization – I was among my own people. People who love books.
During this whirlwind trip to New York, I talked with the editors of some of my favorite books. I visited with booksellers from around the country – Colorado to California, New York to Ohio. I talked with sales representatives, who help get books into stores. I met publishing CEOs and directors of publicity and marketing. I even had a chance to visit with Malcolm Jones, the book reporter for Newsweek Magazine,who had his own memoir, LITTLE BOY BLUES, published last year.
What did we talk about? Books. What books to recommend to middle school readers like my daughter. What book we had read most recently and loved wholeheartedly. What it’s like to have hundreds of books pass before you, whether you’re a reviewer or a bookseller, and know there is never enough time or space for all of them.
I also got to have dinner with some amazing authors:
- Pete Hamill. His newest novel is TABLOID CITY and he was recently interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. His writing evokes a deep, loving knowledge of New York City.
- Josh Bazell. His second novel, WILD THING, comes out around the same time as my book in February. I recently read his first novel, BEAT THE REAPER, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so did both.
- Luis Urrea. The critically acclaimed author of THE HUMMINGBIRD’S DAUGHTER and several other books. His newest novel is QUEEN OF AMERICA, a fantastic, historical story of a saint making her way through the United States.
- Ayad Akhtar. He wrote AMERICAN DERVISH, a moving novel that I think will contribute to an important national discussion. Ayad also happens to be an actor starring in the HBO movie Too Big To Fail.
- Chad Harbach. His debut novel THE ART OF FIELDING is one of the most surprising and wonderful love stories I’ve read in a while, and I don’t even know anything about baseball.
And what did I talk about with these novelist superstars? Books, of course.
The truth is, if it weren’t for THE SNOW CHILD, I would never have had this opportunity. I had stepped into an entirely new, exciting world where you chat with renowned editors and dine with famous authors.
For about 12 hours. Then I got on an airplane, and I came home.
Where, thank goodness, everything is how I left it. My husband, Sam, is still working on our house, building walls and hanging Sheetrock. My daughters are still excited to see me and to find out what treasures I brought in my suitcase from the big city. The chickens are still clucking around the yard, and the tadpoles are still growing in the aquarium.
There are also still dishes to be washed and seedlings to be watered. The checkbook needs balancing, and no one did the laundry while I was away. My mom and I still talked on the phone at 9 a.m., and I still had to remember to get a moose roast out to thaw for dinner. The sun is shining, and will continue to do so until 11 tonight. The cottonwood trees are suddenly fully clothed in green leaves, and the snow is melting off the mountainsides. Yesterday, Sam spotted one of the first king salmon of the season while he was out on the river.
Everything changed, and everything is still the same. What a wonderful feeling.
Just a quick note today to say I’m back from my New York City trip. I had a fabulous, whirlwind visit. And when I got back home, summertime green had erupted all over Alaska. What a perfect welcome back.
I have lots to share with you, but right now I’ve got to unpack, water the garden seedlings, feed the chickens, and wrap myself in the comfort and quiet of my own home.
More soon —
I admit it – I’m somewhat of a romantic. I daydream about my home becoming a kind of Eden, where the golden retriever lounges on the porch, wildflowers bloom along the hill, chickens cluck about the yard, and strawberries ripen in the sun.
Reality isn’t as idyllic. They failed to mention it in THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA or ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE. Or if they did, I skimmed over it in with my rose-tinted glasses. But there is a dark side to paradise.
True, chickens are productive members of a farmish life. During the height of summer, we get as many as seven or eight fresh eggs a day, and because of the different breeds in our 12-chicken flock, the eggs come in blues, greens, tans, and speckled browns. They are beautiful, and flavorful.
And when we are feeling more pragmatic than sentimental, chickens make an excellent dinner. Keep in mind that “free range” also means “tougher than hell.” But that’s why we have a pressure cooker.
In addition to being productive and delicious, however, chickens possess another prominent characteristic – they will eat anything. Absolutely anything. They are like feathered locusts.
In Eden, that means they eat the leftover table scraps and the unwanted weeds and bugs in the yard. Here in the real world, though, it means they eat everything else, too.
I’m not always quick on the uptake. Last summer I planted two raised beds with strawberry plants. I watched the flowers bloom and tiny green strawberries appear. And, just as they began to ripen, disappear.
In the meantime, there were other mysterious goings-ons. Like the rhubarb plants whose leaves were riddled with bite-sized holes.
And then it struck me. Chickens! As they free-ranged their way across our yard, they were consuming everything. Including just-ripened strawberries and rhubarb plants. Yes I know, rhubarb leaves are supposed to be toxic. Our chickens appear to be perfectly healthy eating machines.
I announced loudly off the back porch that if they attacked my plants again, we would be having chicken for dinner, with a strawberry glaze. The flock seemed unfazed. My dad later suggested it might be easier to just put a fence around the strawberry beds.
So this past week, when I noticed the strawberry and rhubarb plants emerging from the moist soil, I got out the heavy artillery. I will not relinquish Eden! Our chickens WILL free range, and our strawberries WILL be fruitful. I spent most of an afternoon erecting around the strawberries what I learned at the local hardware store is called “welded wire fencing.” And tomorrow I will do the same to some of our many rhubarb plants. Be forewarned, chickens – the free-range smorgasbord has been closed!
Dear debonair reader,
Unlike my grandmother, I’m not much of a shoe girl. I buy them when I need them, and I don’t generally appreciate them on an aesthetic level. But hats are another thing. I have an embarrassingly large collection, and I’m always on the look-out for new acquisitions. Because of my lifestyle, they are mostly of the felted/fleeced/woolen ski hat type. But over the years I have branched out into sun hats and even a few dress hats.
But it is a lonely endeavor.
For inspiration and emotional support, I went in search of famous hatted (not HATED, but HATTED) writers, and mostly had to go to previous generations. But weren’t they gorgeous?
Among more modern authors, men seemed to be the most likely hat wearers.
Ball caps and berets are all fine and good — but I own a few already.
Looking to the poets, I hoped to find a new hat that would speak to a certain writerly style and “je ne sais quoi.”
I’m pretty sure I already have that one, Ms. Oliver.
I did find one of my very favorite authors wearing some surprising thing on her head that might be a hat. I’m not exactly sure what to make of it.
Isn’t that a crow or raven on top of her head? Ah well. I think, for now, I’ll stick with my knitted ski hats.
During my first trip to visit my publisher in New York City, I was talking with one of the editors when, in passing, he said something about Alaska being somewhat exotic.
“Oh, I don’t know. Not really,” I said. “I mean we have our Wal-Marts and Targets and McDonalds.” We went on to talk about skiing and traveling. Then I mentioned we had just returned from our annual caribou hunting trip. We had traveled to what is called the “North Slope” near the Arctic Ocean and brought back several caribou.
“You hunted caribou?” he asked.
“Sure. It’s our meat for the year,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s kind of exotic.”
And I knew he was right. In most parts of America, people don’t go caribou hunting for their family vacation.
But here among other Alaskans, we are not exotic. We are actually kind of run-of-the-mill. We have neighbors who eat exclusively from the garden and the wild. They store their cabbages, beets, potatoes and other vegetables in a large root cellar. Salmon, moose, wild berries. That’s pretty much it. They also built their small log cabin with lumber they milled themselves off their land.
Up and down the road, you can also find big-screen TVs, hot tubs, and hybrid cars. And most of us straddle a kind of middle ground. Many of us raise gardens and farm animals, harvest wild berries, and fill our freezer with salmon. Alaskans who don’t hunt will rarely turn down a moose roast if one is offered, and like in Lake Wobegon, people are apt to find zucchinis at their doorstep when harvest comes.
We live too far out to have it delivered, but some Fridays as a treat we bring pizza home from town. We top it with caribou pepperoni and watch a movie from Netflix. Other nights, dinner might be moose steak, potatoes from our friend’s field, a salad from our garden, and homegrown rhubarb in a pie for dessert.
True, my husband runs a 50-mile trapline each winter in glacier country. And it’s also true that I once shot a black bear off our front porch and turned it into hot dogs. Our place is like many modern Alaskan “homesteads” – a nearly finished house, a stack of firewood to be split, a garden that gets munched by moose occasionally, and an incredible view of the mountains. But my kids also love macaroni and cheese and SpongeBob Squarepants DVDs. And I have a weakness for good espresso and the gourmet chocolates made at a local shop.
It’s a similar line I straddle when writing this blog. I hope to share some of what makes our home unique. But the journalist in me also wants to paint an accurate picture.
And I promise to tell you about the black bear on the porch.
Dear tweeting reader,
For years I wore a badge of honor – no social networking for me. I didn’t care how hard anyone, whether it be agent, editor, publisher, or friend, pushed me, I would resist. I would not become one of THOSE people.
Funny thing, no one pushed. So then, like a reluctant toddler with a strange meal in front of her, I got curious. I started poking around on Facebook and Twitter. “Well, maybe I’ll just try it for a bit,” I thought. “But if I hate it, I’m quitting. No one can make me eat this if I hate it.”
So here I am. Tweeting. Blogging. Facebooking. And I have to say, it’s a lot of fun. But of all the new avenues I’m exploring, Twitter is by far the most surprising and weirdest. You’re limited to 140 characters, so it’s like a social networking haiku. And there are thousands upon thousands of possible listeners and speakers.
I started tossing one-liners out into the fray, not entirely sure who might be listening. I began following a few people, a few people signed up to follow me. Before I knew it I had a little community that includes me, my editor, my publisher, some fantastic writers, a few old friends, my mom, and a brown bear in Denali.
Some of my favorite comments are funny. DenaliBear tweets about his life on the tundra, at least I think it’s a “he.”
And I also follow Conan O’Brien on Twitter, since I don’t have television reception.
Twitter is also a great way to find out what other writers are reading, including Alaska’s own Don Rearden.
Don Rearden @nprbooks Favorite short stories? I’m a big fan of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things they Carried”
But there is a surprising, heartwarming aspect to Twitter that I didn’t expect. Fellow authors are encouraging me, and I have a chance to speak out for authors I’m enjoying.
Urrealism Luis Urrea — Missing my newspaper days while finishing up @petehamillnyc’s Tabloid City. Also loving @EowynIvey’s The Snow Child. #beaprep #fridayreads
And in some small way I feel closer to the crew at Little, Brown & Co., my publisher.
One of the reasons I resisted social networking is because I didn’t want to do the hard sell. I didn’t want to be out there pushing my wares like a street vendor with a trench coat. “Pssst. I’ve got some books over here. Cheap books. Come on, take a look.”
But I see that I can come at it from a different angle. It can be about supporting other authors, cheering on other people, making new friends, and sharing a few laughs along the way.