What did you want to be when you grew up? 1. A bush pilot 2. A switchboard operator for those old time telephones you’ve seen in the movies. They were SO cool, plugging in all those wires at top speed.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer? I can’t say I ever did until I got seriously broke and was casting about for a way to earn enough money for a new generator. (That’s how we made electricity in the bush.) That’s when I wrote my first book. I was forty.
What’s your favorite childhood memory? Playing pretend in the old cabins and sheds on our street, and best of all on a vacant lot we had an abandoned stage coach used on the run from Fairbanks to Valdez in the early 1900s. Pretend got so REAL when we were little. The things we pretended are more sharp in my memory than actual events!
As a young person, who did you look up to most? Eva Kozloski, my 8th grade teacher, a unique woman. She was so obviously intelligent, and also funny and quick with retorts –and unflappable. She told us about Einstein and relativity. Since the science curriculum those days was largely about health, you can imagine how that theory blew us away.
What was your favorite thing about school? Singing. All the teachers could plunk away on a battered old upright and we had yellow song books twenty or thirty years old and we rocked.
Did you play sports as a kid? Nah. We played baseball in the streets. That was about it. Got my nose broken when someone tossed a bat over his shoulder on his way to first base.
What was your first job, and what was your “worst” job? When I was 11 some teen age parents with their first baby left him with me. He was a week old and they were gone all day, desperate to go to a Fourth of July thing. I knew nothing about babies and I was beyond terrified all day. First job and worst job.
What book is on your nightstand now? Arthur Clark, whom I have never read and thought I should, Lapham’s Quarterly, Don’t You Have Time to Think by Richard Feynman, and I’m reading my granddaughter the Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. Brilliant. There are a dozen more of various kinds, including fiction of course, but I love history and science writing in particular.
How did you celebrate publishing your first book? Didn’t. I was in Galena, on the Yukon, so when I got the letter the kids and I looked at each other with disbelief for awhile and that was it.
Where do you write your books? Wherever the computer is.
What sparked your imagination for Bo at Ballard Creek? No imagination required. I’d always wanted to write about the mining camp I lived in when I was little, and about all the other aspects of mining which were around me all my life. I’ve collected a million stores from the oldtimers over the years and they had to be used.
What was it like growing up in Alaska? I think I’m beyond lucky to have had all this as a kid. Fascinating people, wonderful wilderness, and such freedom. No one paid the slightest attention to us kids, I don’t think. We roamed wild and unrestrained all those years, fell in the river a couple of times, broke through the river ice. We rode our bikes for miles and miles on all the dirt roads.
What type of research did you have to do for this book? I read a lot of books about Alaska in the 20s, and before. I wanted to make sure I got the 20s right because it was fifteen years or so before my time–I was born in 1938. So many of the people I might have asked had died, except for Harold Tilleson and Allan James who are listed in my acknowledgements. And right after the book came out both of them died as well. I was so lucky to have them critique everything technical.
What challenges do you face in the writing process, and how do you overcome them? Sitting. I hate to sit. But the really worst part of writing is the cyclic nature. On Monday, you’re pleased with yourself, think the stuff you’ve just done is quite good. On Tuesday you read it over and it’s “what was I THINKING!!” Despair settles over you. Next day, you tentatively decide you were a bit hard on yourself..it’s not all bad. Thursday it’s MARVELOUS and you walk on air. Friday, gloom again. It’s up and down like that, writing. Schizophrenic. How do I overcome it?? Hmm. Just expect it now, I guess.
Which of your characters is most like you? None of them, really, though maybe Sister in the first two books is a bit like I was.
What makes you laugh out loud? Anything silly. I LOVE silly.
What do you do on a rainy day? Feel absolutely euphoric. I love rain. Also snow.
If you could live in any fictional world, what would it be? I’ve lived in a lot of fictional worlds! I lived in Oz when I was a kid, read every single Oz book. I read once that Gore Vidal lived in Oz, too. First time I knew there had been other kids like me.
When I’m writing I get so deep in the world I’m writing it’s a shock to raise my eyes from the screen and look outdoors. It’s like having a Tardis, writing! When I was doing Bo and the sequel I pushed the 20’s music tab on Pandora and surrounded myself with Eddie Cantor and all those funny old 20s songs. Ordered old movies from Netflix. It’s easy now to be a writer with modern technology, especially Google. My first book was done on an old typewriter in a cabin with no electricity and only a cassette recorder for background music.
Of all my books,though, I think I’d most like to live in Bo’s world. My world in the mining camp was something like that when I was a kid, but I’ve romanticised it of course, took out all the bad stuff. A world without bad stuff would definitely be one I’d like to live in.
What’s your favorite song? I am obsessed with music, and to name a favorite anything would be impossible. I have 30 Pandora stations and 12,000 songs of my own on I-tunes. I will say that I think Hallelujah is one of the most beautiful songs ever written (Leonard Cohen) and that Boccherini’s Night Music in the Streets of Madrid is what I give to all my friends.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid? Do you have a favorite book now? I loved Boxcar Children so much. Used to play it endlessly, setting up little “camps” and waterfalls to bathe in and so forth. That was my first beloved book, but there were thousands after that. I wanted my first book, Toughboy and Sister, to be magic like that.
I often think that I should make a shrine to Andrew Carnegie. What would any of our lives be like without the unquestioned access to a library? What if you could never find answers to all the questions you have? (I’m unhappily aware that I’m talking about the condition right now of most of the people in the world.) Of course the internet is even a step beyond that. But for a lot of us, it was the libraries that opened the world to us.
Who is your favorite fictional character? Well, every July I read the entire 20 books of the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, so you can see those characters have staying power.
What’s your favorite TV show or movie? I love movies. When I was a kid I fell in love with John Wayne’s Irish movie, The Quiet Man. Named two of my kids from that movie, and my daughter and I went where it is was filmed some years ago –on pilgrimage! Well, that was back then and this is now–I just saw an Indie film called June Bug the other day that was beautiful. I don’t watch tv, but I do Netflix and buy lots of DVDs. I’ve been crazy about Firefly, Mash,lots of cop shows, Dr. Who! Monty Python. I could go on forever.
If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want for company? I have grandchildren- and their friends–who are more than fun and amazingly clever, and I have children who are the same. I don’t suppose it would do to mention Vincent D’Onofrio.
What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing? Never received a shred. That’s because I’ve never known another writer until just recently, and I never talked about writing to anyone except my daughter and my friend Lou. Writing was just something I did on the side to make a little money.
What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were younger? To make observation one’s habit and hobby. I am probably the most unobservant person in the universe. I’ve walked around in a fog all my life. (A dear friend of ours was missing several fingers and had a glass eye. I never noticed.) I can hardly recognize my own family’s various cars, and I was always sure that if one of my kids were missing I’d never be able to describe their clothes.
Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do to get back on track? Don’t think I have. But there have been times when I just couldn’t get something right. I’ve concluded that I need to write with something joyful in the back of my mind.
What do you want readers to remember about your books? I want people to remember the history, the events, the things that happened in the past, the feeling of those old days. I hate it that people know so little about their own history. I hate it that whole epochs are lost.
What would you do if you ever stopped writing? Wouldn’t miss a beat. I have a thousand interests and things to do, and writing is not one of the most important. After I finish writing about the mining years in Alaska I’ll probably consider my job as preserver of the past well finished.
What do you wish you could do better? Everything I know how to do I taught myself,therefore I don’t do anything well. It’s downright embarrassing to be such so second-rate at everything.
What is your earliest memory of writing? I was about twelve when I suddenly began writing doggerel and plays with two characters which were meant to be riotously funny. Really awful. Then just as suddenly I left off, and I don’t remember writing again until I was in my twenties.
What inspired you to write your first book? I was teaching school in our home town, an Athabascan village on the Yukon. I read out loud to them every day and when we read books about Alaska the kids and I were most disgruntled when the author got it wrong. (Most Alaskan books then were written by non-Alaskans.) So I decided to write one for my kids that was absolutely authentic and real. That was Toughboy and Sister.
Do you use your childhood as inspiration? Constantly. I remember exactly what it felt like to be a kid, and I grew up in interesting times.
What are your hobbies and interests besides reading and books? I’m always saying I’m interested in everything when asked this question, but of course that can’t be true. There are a zillion things I’m not interested in, if I consider the stuff I skip when reading the newspaper. But – science and history and the arts – even politics – are my things. Animal rights. Teaching. (I home school one of my granddaughters and so I’m often immersed in lesson plans.) I collect children’s art and Alaskan history books. I have three dogs and two cats.
The new technologies have changed our Alaskan lives so much. I have 30,000 songs on my iTunes, and my current delight is in Pandora, where I hear something new a dozen times a day. And with Netflix I’ve got foreign films, British mysteries. Before video recorders I hadn’t seen a film in twenty years! And research: the minute a question occurs to me I can find some kind of answer on Google. So because of technology, all of my interests have grown to unmanageable sizes.
I cook and bake and knit and do Alaskan skin-sewing, i.e. making fur mukluks and fur mitts for my kids and grandchildren. I play the guitar and fiddle badly and have always been obsessed with music.
Who are a couple of your favorite authors? What is it about their work that inspires and interests you? Which books from your childhood have most influenced your work? Which adult titles? When I’m getting ready to write a book I read every book Ann Tyler has ever written. (There are eighteen now, but I read very, very fast.) Were there ever people in literature so clearly described as Ann Tyler’s? In spite of this ritual, I have never yet written even one paragraph that’s Tyleresque. Apparently it doesn’t rub off.
And every July I read all of the Aubrey and Matchurin series by Patrick O’Brian. It’s like taking a trip every year to an absolutely real alternative world. I notice in thinking about this question that my favorite writers write mostly about the working classes, and often – especially with Willa Cather – the characters are desperate to learn. My characters are too.
I’ve read so much, thousands of books, that I’m loathe to leave this question and not mention dozens of others I’ve loved, for instance all the good eighteenth and nineteenth century literature. Okay, I’ll quit.
I’ll just mention two children’s books which have influenced me, then and now.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books – whether we credit her or her daughter for them – were my favorites as a child and I’ve read them out loud at school and at home about thirty times by now. I love them best for the exquisite detail of nature in her various worlds. The description of the land in Little House on the Prairie is incomparable.
And Lauren Child, the Brit who does the Charlie and Lola books and the video series, is a genius. She does the world of contemporary children, but she deals with the universals, nothing trivial.
What words of advice would you give for young authors? Of course the first thing I would advise is that they should read. What I’ve learned from books, fiction and non-fiction, makes my academic learning look insignificant.
And next I would advise them to make observation their habit and hobby. I myself am probably the most unobservant person in the universe. I’ve walked around in a fog all my life. (A dear friend of ours was missing several fingers and had a glass eye. I never noticed.)
James Joyce had terrible eyesight and he’s famous for describing so little of the visual world. I have wonderful eyesight, but some sort of disinterest in externals. I seldom describe anyone in my books. I like kids to be able to paint their own picture in their heads for one thing, and for another I don’t see the characters in my head. When I got my first published books in the mail and saw the cover picture of the two kids I said – truly – “Oh that’s what they look like.”
On the other hand, while I’m busy not noticing, I DO remember what people say, every word. So I’d tell these hypothetical kids to also practice listening.
And I’d tell them to be sure and find every talent and interest they have, and then develop those talents. Nothing worse than being a frustrated zydeco star or botanist or cinematographer.