Deb Vanasse | Book by Algorithm

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Artificial intelligence that advances real human creativity

This branding hits me straight on, and not in a good way.

First off, I’m bothered by “real.” It juxtaposes nicely with “artificial,” but in these days of fake everything, must we now also worry that creativity has gone the way of eyelashes and news?

I suppose this development was inevitable. After Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers published the results of their bestseller project, in which they ran text through a computer program to determine whether they could predict a bestseller, it was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to monetize it.

With their “real human creativity” branding, Authors.me can’t be the only platform now offering some variation of this model—for a small fee, you can “harness the power of the machine to understand your content’s potential.” But it’s the one I happened upon while researching a magazine assignment.

Click the “Get Smart” button, and you’ll see the full range of what Authors.me provides. Intelligent Editorial Analysis. An aggregate numerical evaluation. A “bird’s eye view” of your manuscript with regard to readability, diction, point of view, syntax, and word length.

A sample readout on diction slathers on this praise: “The software measured 527 multi-syllabic words in your manuscript, which places it in the typical range of bestsellers. This contributes to your book’s accessibility and potential audience size.”

Commissioned reports also address Story Arc, matching the submitted manuscript against six “literary archetypes.” Man-in-a-hole is one of the six. Archetype, it seems, has taken on new dimensions since I last studied literary criticism.

To “visualize” your book toward this end, the computer conducts a sentiment analysis. I can’t help but think that there are multiple markets for this service. Dating sites. Weddings. Funerals. Really, the sky’s the limit.

Oops. A cliché, something AI (Artificial Intelligence) would be happy to point out had I ponied up $49.99 for an analysis of this post.

I work as a freelance editor, so admittedly I’m biased toward the human in these endeavors. But there’s something to that old adage about getting what you pay for. If you commissioned this sort of work from me, or from any editorial professional, you’d expect to get a lengthy editorial letter that digs deep into the substance of your work. With this report, you get “Your writing uses hyperbole sparingly, which is ideal. You are a measured, objective writer” and “Explicit language was counted 33 times.”

Now that vacuum cleaners and cars drive themselves, I suppose it’s pointless to quibble. And yet there are those of us who do this work, writing and editing, who continue to believe that creativity is a process that defies algorithms.

Worthy of note: The list of publishers using authors.me to screen manuscripts is substantial and growing.

On second thought, strike that colon. A readability analysis suggests you won’t like it.

Deb Vanasse is the author of seventeen books with six different publishers. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography  Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon, where she relies on her non-algorithmic brain for creative work that seems real enough to her.

Literary Roundup | July 7-20, 2017

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Have news, events, or opportunities you’d like to see listed here? Email details to info (at) 49writers.org, preferably with “Roundup” as the subject. Items might get edited for length. Your message must be received by close of business the Wednesday before the roundup is scheduled to run at the latest. Unless your event falls in the “Opportunities and Awards” category, it should occur no more than 30 days from when we receive your email. Thanks! 49 Writers Statewide Roundup appears biweekly, on the first and third Friday of each month. If your short-notice event occurs between a missed deadline and an upcoming Roundup, email us a heads up anyway, and if we can help spread the word in other ways, we will.  

 EVENTS and ANNOUNCEMENTS

Michael Engelhard‘s book American Wild just won the 2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year gold medal for Adventure & Recreation writing. Kudos!

The application period closed and a cohort was selected and notified for our 8th Annual Tutka Bay Writers Retreat this September, led by Louise Erdrich. Thank you to everyone who applied; there was a great deal of interest. In the event of any cancellations, we will activate the waitlist. Other opportunities for the public to meet Erdrich will include a ticketed event in Anchorage on Wednesday evening, Sept 6, and a free public reading in Homer on Thursday, Sept 7. Details to come. Erdrich is the author of fifteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, children’s books, short stories, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novel The Round House won the National Book Award for Fiction. The Plague of Doves won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her debut novel, Love Medicine, was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Erdrich has received the Library of Congress Prize in American Fiction, the prestigious PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and more. She lives in Minnesota with her daughters and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.

An Alaska Native language advocate, a longtime librarian, an elementary school publishing program, and a project to give free books to children in Alaska’s airports are winners of the 2017 Contributions to Literacy in Alaska (CLIA) Awards. University of Alaska Southeast professor Lance Twitchell, newly retired Anchorage librarian Sherri Douglas, Muldoon Elementary School in Anchorage, and the statewide Read on the Fly program were chosen from nominations submitted from around the state. The CLIA awards have been presented annually since 1993 by Alaska Center for the Book, Alaska’s liaison with the Library of Congress Center for the Book. The CLIAs honor people and programs that have made a significant contribution in literacy, the literary arts, or the preservation of the written or spoken word. Nearly 80 individuals and agencies have been recognized over the years, ranging from authors, publishers and booksellers, to teachers and teacher aides, historians and linguists, and more. The 2017 CLIA winners will be recognized at a July 11 reception at Room 150 of the Arts Building on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. A dessert reception begins at 7:30 p.m., with the awards ceremony at 8 p.m. The awards will be followed by readings from authors Erin Coughlin Hollowell and Daryl Farmer, as part of the UAA Creative Writing and Literary Arts summer residency program. The evening events are free and open to the public.

SOUTHCENTRAL

Anchorage Sunday, July 9 through Tues, July 18, 2017. Public reading series from UAA’s creative writing MFA program. Public reception with Jo Ann Beard on Saturday, July 15. Details to come.

AnchorageMonday, July 10, 2017 from 4-6:00 pm, UAA Campus Bookstore
We Fought The Road
. Authors Christine and Dennis McClure, Jean Pollard, and Lael Morgan will discuss the building of the Alcan Highway as described in Christine father’s love letters written during WWII. Joining the discussion is Jean Pollard, who started the Alaska Highway Project, and author, publisher, and historian Lael Morgan. We Fought the Road is the story of the construction of the Alaska-Canada Highway during World War II where more than one third of the 10,607 builders were black.  The highway required punching through the wilderness on a route blocked by the Rocky Mountains and deadly permafrost during one of the worst winters on record. According to Christine McClure, We Fought The Road sets out to document the untold stories of the Alaska-Canada Highwayusing her father’s story to lead readers into the larger issues involved with the creation of the Alaska-Canada Highway and the cruel racism embedded in its construction. 2017 year marks the 75-year anniversary of the completion of the Alcan Highway. Free, with free parking for this event in the South Lot, Sports Complex NW Lot, West Campus Central Lot, and Sports Campus West Lot.

ANCHORAGE | Sunday afternoon, July 16, 2017 ~ Alaska Writer Laureate Ernestine Saankalaxt’ Hayes will be reading, joined by sculptors Donna Dodson and Andy Moerlein who will show their recent work. This collaboration is part of “Breath and Matter”, a Boston Sculptors Gallery project where visual artists and literary artists create a conversation between the physical medium of sculpture and tangible text.

ANCHORAGE | July 9-18, 2017 ~ Nightly readings at 8 pm in UAA’s Fine Arts Building Room 150, part of the Northern Renaissance Reading Series, part of the UAA Low-Residency Creative Writing MFA Program.

ANCHORAGE | Monday, July 24, 2017 from 4-6:00 pm at the UAA Campus Bookstore
Kate Partridge
and Alyse Knorr return to Anchorage to read from and discuss their new poetry collections, Ends of the Earth and Mega-City Redux. Poet Alyse Knorr is the author of the Mega-City Redux (Green Mountains Review 2017), Copper Mother (Switchback Books 2016), and Annotated Glass (Furniture Press Books 2013) and the non-fiction book Super Mario Bros. 3 (Boss Fight Books 2016). Poet Kate Partridge is the author of the Ends of the Earth (University of Alaska Press 2017) and the hybrid chapbooks Guide to Urban Reindeer (Essay Press 2017) and Intended American Dictionary (MIEL Books 2016). Both Alyse Knorr and Kate Partridge have taught at the UAA. Today, Alyse teaches English at Regis University and Kate is pursuing a PhD as a Dornsife/Graduate School Fellow at the University of Southern California. Free and open to the public. Free parking for this event in the South Lot, Sports Complex NW Lot, West Campus Central Lot, and Sports Campus West Lot.

ANCHORAGE | Friday, July 28, 2017 from 4-6:00 pm at the UAA Campus Bookstore
The Defiant Voice of Sandy Kleven: Poet, Writer, Editor, and Filmmaker ~ Sandy Kleven is an extraordinary woman whose open and honest nature has enhanced the lives of Alaskans. Editor of Cirque, a Literary Journal,  she is also author of the short film “To the Moon,” an homage to poet Theodore Roethke, and the poetry collections Defiance Street and Holy Land. Her writings have been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Oklahoma Review, F Magazine, Stoneboat and in the anthology, Cold Flashes (University of Alaska Press). Raised in Seattle, Sandy spent much of the last 33 years working in Alaska’s village communities.  Her early writing focused on the prevention of child sexual abuse throughout Alaska and led to her two children’s books The Right Touch and Talk about Touch. Sandy Kleven works as a clinical social worker. In 2011, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UAA. In 2015, she was inducted to the Northshore School District Wall of Honor for her contributions to the community and the world. Free parking at UAA on Fridays.

INTERIOR 

Denali National Park | July 9, 2017 6-8 PM at the Denali Education Center
Denali and the World: 100 Years of Boundaries & Migrations ~ National Parks are often framed as an escape, but Denali is more than a getaway. From migratory birds to social forces to global climate change, Denali is enmeshed with the wider world. Join three Alaskan writers as we mull over themes of respite and responsibility. Christine Byl is a trail-builder of 21 years and the author of Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods. She lives north of Healy, on the edge of the taiga and tundra, where she is at work on a novel. Erica Watson has lived most of her adult life on the boundary of Denali National Park. Her writing has most recently appeared on the Tin House blog, terrain.org, and ROAR Feminist. She works as the communications coordinator for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Kim Heacox is the author of several books, including Rhythm of the Wild: A Life Inspired by Alaska’s Denali National Park. He and his wife Melanie live in Gustavus, where they are building the John Muir Alaska Leadership School. More

Denali National Park | July 21 – 23 – My Wilderness: Storytelling Workshop, a field course offered by Alaska Geographic through the Murie Science and Learning Center. Do you have a story to share about an experience in Denali or another wild land? Join expert story coaches from Anchorage storytelling program ARCTIC ENTRIES as they reveal the secrets to capturing and keeping an audience’s attention just by talking about yourself! Your story can be funny, inspiring, humbling, or something else entirely. Immersed in the wilderness of Denali, we will explore storytelling principles, share our own stories, and learn how to make our story the best it can be. The workshop will culminate with a group storytelling performance — starring you — on the final evening of the course, on the theme of “In the wilderness: stories of being outside, finding yourself, and the trail less traveled.” Course will stay at a field camp located 29 miles inside Denali National Park along the Teklanika River. The Field Camp includes rustic tent cabins and a common dining tent. All meals, accommodations, transportation, and instruction are included in the $400 course fee ($360 for Alaska Geographic members). Professional development credit is available through UAA. For more information or to register, go to http://akgeo.org/field-courses/, email courses@alaskageographic.org or call 907-683-6432.

SOUTHEAST

WRANGELL | Flying Island Writers & Artists group meets every other Monday 6:30-8:00 pm. Contact Vivian Faith Prescott for more information doctorviv@yahoo.com

SOUTHWEST

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ARCTIC 

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CONFERENCES, RETREATS, and RESIDENCIES

Food writing retreat with Julia O’Malley and NYT’s Kim Severson at Tutka Bay LodgeJuly 21-23, 2017. $875 inclusive. Details.

The Wrangell Mountains Center presents Writing on the River: RiverSong from July 26-31, 2017, a six-day, five-night adventure in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This year’s workshop will feature river sprite and musical poet David Grimes, songwriter and journalist Brad Warren, and workshop director Nancy Cook. Together we will explore the ways wilderness can help inspire songs, stories, poems, and essays. Activities include an opening reading/performance and craft sessions in the comfort of the Wrangell Mountains Center’s facility in McCarthy, followed by three nights and four days of creative inquiry along the Kennicott, Nizina, Chitina, and Copper Rivers. Space is limited to nine student writers/ songwriters. More info

2017 Writers Tutka Bay Writers Retreat with Louise Erdrich will occur September 10-12, 2017. Application period is closed. More.


OPPORTUNITIES and AWARDS for WRITERS

Alaska Women Speak is accepting submissions for Fall 2017: Berry Picking/Cherry Picking. Deadline for Submission: August 15, 2017. Guidelines: http://alaskawomenspeak.org

The Alaska Writers Guild will award three separate $500 awards in this year’s Lin Halterman Memorial Award grant program. Deadline: August 15, 2017. More info

Alaska Humanities Forum launches new social practice grant, called HUMAN:ties, offering $10,000 to activate the imaginations of creators statewide to build an advocacy project that defines and illuminates the fabric of homelessness in our state. The application for this grant opportunity is now open and available to all Alaskans. Please visit www.akhf.org/humanties-grants for more information on the invitation and the grant application itself. ELIGIBILITY: 1. Anyone can define themselves as a “creator”. You do not need to be an “artist” as it’s conventionally defined. No portfolio or formal training necessary. You just need to be able to describe a vision of a project that illuminates the features of homelessness and reaches homeless populations. 2. All creative disciplines… including the literary arts… are eligible. More info here.

Alaska Book Week will be October 1-7, 2017. Authors interested in participating are encouraged to contact Elizabeth Waetjen at akbookweek@gmail.com.

September 30, 2017 is the deadline to apply for a 2018 artist residency at Denali National Park. Visual artists, writers, and composers are eligible.

What’s missing? Submit your event or announcement by May 30 to appear in the next Roundup, scheduled to post June 1. Send an email with “Roundup” as the subject to info@49Writers.org. 


Thank You for Your Support! 49 Writers members and donors make this blog, our workshops, Crosscurrents events, Readings and Craft Talk series, and other special programs and activities possible. Not a member yet? Join Us 

Bausler & Houck | Northwords 2017: Discovering Paul Theroux

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Northwords 2017: Discovering Paul Theroux
By Katie Bausler and Amy O’Neill Houck, 49 Writers Board Members

“All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.”
~Mao Tse Tung (as quoted by Paul Theroux)

Before we signed up for the North Words Writer’s Symposium, held the first weekend in June in Skagway, neither of us had read Paul Theroux, the keynote speaker. We registered as fan-girls of Sherry Simpson and her work on, well, anything; of John Straley’s novels and haiku; of Tom Kizzia’s investigative nonfiction. We wanted a weekend away to re-invigorate our writing practices. We wanted immersion with words.

Upon meeting Paul Theroux, we are struck with his complexity as a human and as a writer—he’s awkward but engaging, he’s opinionated and outdated, he’s gracious and proud. He dismisses women writers like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood while acknowledging first world causes of colonialism and climate change. We buy his books at the Skagway bookstore, start reading, find more contradiction and compelling craft.

On the last day of the conference, we sit on a bank along an expanse of buttercups and dandelions. To our backs, the train tracks of the old White Pass Railway. Before us, mountains and blue sky. Beside us, the weathered and dapper Paul Theroux. At seventy-six, he’s tall and tanned, wearing jeans, a brown leather car coat, and a pork pie hat. Theroux has written more than fifty works of nonfiction and fiction over the past 50 years. His latest novel, Motherland, was published in May.

We’re on a field trip, having embarked on an early morning train from Skagway for a 45-minute ride along the gold rush era Chilkoot Pass. We hiked to a cabin and then beyond to the Laughton Glacier. At the foot of the glacier, Theroux, unable to contain his excitement, moved at mountain goat speed shouting, “Take my picture,” while handing his phone to Alaskan writer and journalist Tom Kizzia. They chatted about the landscape, the retreating ice, the difference between terminal and lateral moraine.

Now, as we wait for the train to take us back to Skagway, we interview Theroux, who is known for his train books, including The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, and The Last Train to Zona Verde. The route we took to get here, winding through steep, forested drop offs and sheer granite promontories, looks much like the cover of Theroux’s 2011 compendium of travel writer’s quotes, The Tao of Travel. On the train here, conversation amongst writers roared above the clatter on the tracks. Theroux read the New York Times.

He asks a lot of questions for someone being interviewed. On today’s hike to the glacier his answers were succinct, and with each one, he turned a question back. Are you married? Do you have children? It might seem like he’s politely making conversation, but you get the feeling what you say to him is potential fuel for his literary fire. The proof lies in vivid encounters retold in his travelogues. Yesterday, we bumped into Paul in front of the Skagway Public Library. He bubbled with conversation, pulling us in for a photo. He asked more questions. What do we love about this place? Why do we live here?

The conference opened with a panel titled after one of Theroux’s favorite lines, “Gawping at the Exotic.” The discussion included Theroux, Sherry Simpson, and Tom Kizzia. Sherry and Tom worried about the challenges of writing without cliché about natural grandeur, whereas Theroux had the bright eyes of a newcomer. The top of the Inside Passage and the gateway to the Yukon is Theroux’s introduction to Alaska.

In Skagway, where the tourist season is in full swing and “madams” lead tours through town, even the normal Alaskan detritus seems like a set piece. An old TV has become a planter in a yard where a chandelier hangs from a tree. We walk everywhere. The lilacs are bursting into bloom, and we slow to breathe them in. Theroux is charmed by Alaska, his amazement is infectious. He says of his travelling state of being, “I’m fully awake.”

Theroux has gone seemingly everywhere, and made a good living writing about it. He muses about Alaska and its landscape. “I was unprepared for the scale of it. Countless peaks. Do they have a name? Are they climbed, who lives there? You get this impression that it’s still being examined, or unexamined, or discovered.”

Over the past few days we’ve heard Theroux’s trademark unequivocal, unapologetic takes on writing, reading, and living. A running theme: he thrives on a sense of discovery.

“One of the things I’d like to say about this trip. This was done for me. I feel somewhat inadequate in that someone bought me a train ticket. Someone made me a sandwich. Someone pointed my way to the glacier. I did not do this on my own. That diminishes the experience for me. The experience is much greater when you find your own way. So, if I ever came back to Alaska I would do it as a road trip—hiking, camping, paddling a kayak.”

Throughout the conference, Theroux thinks aloud, stumbling, drawing out his words in a cross between a British and a Boston accent. He considers the massiveness of Alaska, concluding it puts our individual significance in perspective. He misquotes Flaubert, saying “Travel shows us how small we are.” “But in Alaska,” Theroux continues, “we’re nothing. We’re ants.”

“How do you write, undaunted, about a daunting landscape?” we ask. “The reader needs to see the experience and the physicality of the landscape,” he replies. “You’re bound to think of the cliché but you have to consciously rid your mind of it. The problem with the cliché is it offers no clear picture or vivid metaphor.” Theroux is known for his unexpected images in describing, for example, sunrise on a kayak trip from Cape Cod to Nantucket.

Sunrise was a messy reddened eruption out of the sea, and it kept spilling garish light everywhere, draining the redness into the water as the sun rose like a squeezed blood orange. A cloud the shape of a huddled animal soon smothered the brightness, and the sea turned the blue-white color of skim milk.

~Paul Theroux “Dead Reckoning to Nantucket”

“You cannot be a writer if you are not a reader, and you have to be a more diligent reader,” he intones in the closing night keynote. The proclamation came after reciting lines and quizzing us on the names of the famous writers. To a person, we came up blank and felt like failed English majors. Theroux has little patience for writers who don’t read classics of western civilization, what he considers “real writers” (the whiter, the deader, the better). He urges us to read deeply, not broadly, taking in an entirety of an author to fully know them.

Theroux rattles off the names of several in attendance and mentions their stories—he’s been paying attention. Learning us. Alaskan stories that might sound like adventure to folks from Outside. Perilous journeys, encounters with wild animals. He says, he has only one critique of us as a group—“You’re too modest.” Later, at the bar, Amy counters that as a population, we’re not modest, we’re understated. In fact, in reading Theroux’s essay, “The Maine Woods: Camping in the Snow,” it appears he’s encountered and understood this understatement before. He writes of running into hikers who have recently summited Mt. Katadhin. They sum up their week-long trek saying, “We had a nice view from the top.”

At that meeting in front of the library, Theroux told us that despite his job as a travel writer, he loves being home at his farm on Oahu. He waxed on about his chickens and geese, he showed us a photo of the AK47 he uses to handle the wild boar that have a habit of invading his yard and eating his crop of non-invasive bamboo. But in his next breath, he tells us he’s heading to his second home on Cape Cod, which will serve as base camp for his summer travels.

No doubt Theroux will continue to “gawp at the exotic,” even when it’s in his own backyard. Just like the rest of us.

Amy O’Neill Houck and Katie Bausler live in Douglas, Alaska and serve on the 49 Writers Board of Directors.

Guest Blogger David Ramseur | Lessons from a First Book Experience

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Juneau Russia teacher Janna Lelchuk is surrounded by her Russian high school students. Lelchuk moved to Alaska from the Kamchatka Peninsula in 1991 at the height of improved relations between Alaska and Russia.

I confess to being a little intimidated when 49 Writers Executive Director Jeremy Pataky asked me to write four weekly blogs about writing, subject to harsh dissection by Alaska’s best writers.

I lack a fine arts degree, never begin my day composing an original poem, and don’t even keep a journal—other than a log of how many miles I’m able to run on aging joints. But with considerable luck, good timing and persistence, I managed to get a book published that generally has been positively received and is selling well enough that my publisher, University of Alaska Press, has ordered a second press run.

Melting the Ice Curtain: The Extraordinary Story of Citizen Diplomacy on the Russia-Alaska Frontier has only been on the street about a month. So I’m hardly a veteran author with sage advice to dispense. But based on my limited experience, here’s a handful of lessons I’ve learned from researching, writing and now trying to market my first book:

Be impeccably organized – My non-fiction book focuses on a 30-year period in Alaska history shaped by thousands of Alaskans and Russians whose interactions generated hundreds of media accounts. I ended up interviewing more than 130 of those participants and tried to find every print and broadcast story on the era. Government reports added reams more to my files. I maintained that all material both electronically and in paper files for easy access and backup.

For example, my inch-thick file on endurance swimmer Lynne Cox’s daring swim between the Diomede Islands includes news clips, interview transcripts with her and several others who helped with the feat, the personal journal of a witness and a press kit she issued in 1987.

After engaging in Alaska-Russia relations for nearly 30 years, I spent nearly a year researching and organizing my material before starting to write. By the time my fingers hit the keyboard, I knew the details and significance of each event and where to find that obscure but compelling fact. In Cox’s case, her recollection of the warmth of the Soviet solders’ hands on her wrists when they fished her from the 38-degree Bering Sea hopefully helped make my account of her ice-breaking swim more memorable.

Take calculated risks for a nugget of new material—I thought I amassed all that had been written about the 1989 defection of two Soviet “journalists” during a good will mission to Alaska. Then I managed to track down two retired Alaska National Guardsmen who had been on the scene who handed me a gold mine: a minute-by-minute account of the asylum request included in an obscure internal military report.

Likewise, with only weeks until my final manuscript deadline, I decided to take two weeks away to venture up the Russian Bering Sea coast. The fresh observations of villages I last visited three decades ago and our arrest by Russian border guards significantly enhanced the book.

Set goals, seek inspiration—Facing a blank screen on my laptop or a seemingly never-ending list of news clips in the UAA library was easily demoralizing. So I played games with myself: download just 10 more stories for a latte reward or write until 3 o’clock and you can take a walk in the sun.

New to the literary community, the numerous 49 Writers workshops, readings and chances to interact with other budding authors offered invaluable advice and encouragement.

Capitalize on contacts, no matter how remote—I’m fortunate my 30 years in Alaska politics produced invaluable contacts. That paid off with book blurbs. Seventeen years ago, I shared a small plane with my boss, Gov. Tony Knowles, and then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott on a visit to St. Lawrence Island. As my book was readied for print a few months ago, I asked Knowles to email Talbott, an old college buddy, who provided one my best blurbs now featured on the book jacket.

Find a news hook—In 2016, it dawned on both me and my publisher that 2017 was the 150th anniversary of America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia. So we agreed to hustle publication to coincide with heightened public interest in Alaska-Russia relations. The anniversary hook helped land me public lectures even before the book was released and I’ve yet to be turned down for a speaking request or book-signing opportunity.

Next year, I’m hoping to capitalize on the 30-year anniversary of Alaska Airlines 1988 Friendship Flight between Nome and Provideniya, Russia.

No matter how tenuous the connection, I try to plug the book at every opportunity from Facebook to a guest column I wrote about a February bike trip across Cuba.

Be flexible—As I wrapped up the manuscript in Fall 2017, I assumed President Hillary Clinton would largely continue the Russian policies of President Obama. Donald Trump’s surprise election required some hasty rewriting, but fortunately for me, he’s keeping Russia on the front pages like nobody’s business.

David Ramseur is a visiting scholar in public policy at the University of Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. He served as press secretary, communications director, chief of staff, and foreign policy adviser to Alaska Governors Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles and to Anchorage mayor and US Senator Mark Begich. He has visited the Soviet Union and Russia more than a dozen times starting with the Alaska Airlines’ Friendship Flight in 1988. 

Guest Blogger David Ramseur | Selling the Ice Curtain

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Alaska Governor Steve Cowper and his then press secretary, David Ramseur, in Chukotka, USSR, during a 1989 trade mission across the Soviet Far East.

My lifelong obsession with Russia was about to be realized: the book I’d been contemplating for decades and to which I devoted almost three years full-time researching and writing was nearly in hand.

My publisher, the University of Alaska Press, announced the release date: June 1, 2017. To accommodate the frenzied demand I was certain would greet Melting the Ice Curtain, an immediate book launch was required along with a fist-full of quick-flowing pens for all those autograph seekers. Ah, not so fast.

I soon discovered that marketing my book was nearly as difficult and inventive as writing it. And doing so in Alaska presents unique challenges. Starting with getting the book here.

UA Press distributes its books through University of Chicago’s Distribution Center, so trucking and barging hundreds of pounds of books from a Midwest printer takes weeks. My plan for a June 1st Anchorage release party was quickly nixed.

The owner of Alaska’s major book distributor, Todd Communications, warned me against scheduling to sell a single book until they physically arrived in Anchorage. Orders get screwed up, books wash off the barge, forklifts spear your treasured work, he said. Too excited to get my book in the hands of friends and family, I ignored him.

Sure enough, even after pushing back my big launch to mid-June, the order apparently got lost. Facing the prospect of a launch party with no books, the publisher and distributor graciously expedited delivery of an initial batch.

The June 15th launch event went beyond expectations, thanks to many friends and the host, Blue Hollomon Gallery, which supports Alaska authors and artists. Scores crowded the gallery to munch snacks from Fromagio’s Artisan Cheese, hear an introduction from former Governor Tony Knowles, and stand in a long line to get more than 100 books signed. This success has prompted UA Press to order a second printing.

I suspect all these early sales were the easy ones. My bigger challenge is reaching readers I don’t know personally.

My strategy is two-fold: generate publicity wherever possible and speak to any gathering that will have me. I’m thankful Alaska Dispatch News carried a chapter excerpt the Sunday before the book launch. I’m now working on other media outlets across the state as I plan visits to their communities.

As this blog installment gets posted, I will have presented to two Anchorage Rotary Clubs, at Palmer’s Fireside Books and Turkey Red Restaurant, and interviewed with Charles Wohlforth’s Hometown Alaska public radio program. Numerous other presentations are in the works as I gear up to travel the state.

Book sales at business meetings seem to start slow, even with the 8-foot-tall advertising banner I erect in a conspicuous spot. But after a nearly 30-slide PowerPoint with historic and funny photos I assembled for the book, I’ve managed double-digit sales.

Another unexpected skill I’ve found necessary to master is accounting for book sales. At the suggestion of other authors, I bought a credit card Square which makes transactions at events such as Rotary Clubs easy and trackable.

I’m finding business and civic groups are often looking for speakers, so I’m booked for Rotary Clubs and the World Affairs Council in Juneau and the Chamber of Commerce and Historical Society in Sitka in July. Juneau is installing a new statue of William Seward over the July 4th weekend, so Hearthside Books there has scheduled a public library talk and book signing at the bookstore. My plan in each community I visit is to try for a local newspaper story and broadcast interviews.

One unique Alaska challenge is that many of us don’t want to be inside on summer days. So, my pleas for events in Fairbanks, Nome, and the Kenai Peninsula were pushed off to the fall. Even with my book hot-off-the-press now, I hope to keep it timely by capitalizing on historical fall events, such as Alaska Day on October 18th.

I’m also calling in favors with contacts in Washington, D.C., where I worked for six years for Senator Mark Begich. I’m fortunate one of the nation’s top Russian think-tanks, the Kennan Institute, will host me for a book talk in mid-September.

A social media novice, I’m relying on the guidance of a colleague for my website and regular Facebook postings. I barrage contacts with emails in advance of heading to their hometowns. I’m told Sundays is the most-read day for Facebook, so for months I’ve been posting a countdown of updates about the book. Good-natured friends tell me they’ve only received six or eight reminders of the various books events.

I stopped by the Anchorage Barnes and Noble recently for a book on an entirely different subject I heard profiled on NPR. Spotting my own book on the shelf made all the continuing persistent work worth it.

David Ramseur is a visiting scholar in public policy at the University of Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. He served as press secretary, communications director, chief of staff, and foreign policy adviser to Alaska Governors Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles and to Anchorage mayor and US Senator Mark Begich. He has visited the Soviet Union and Russia more than a dozen times starting with the Alaska Airlines’ Friendship Flight in 1988. 

Spotlight on Alaska Books | Life with Forty Dogs, by Joseph Robertia

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My daughter seemed to see everything in her world through a lens of dog culture, much of it learned from her daily and personal interactions with Metoo. Cole’s hair flows to past her knees, and when she French braided it, Lynx would say “Mommy has her tail on.” When I used the chainsaw, she would tell me it “barks loud.” Being raised in the woods, when we made shopping forays in town, she described the speeding cars as “running by too fast.” And, for months Lynx called her hands her hands, but referred to her lower extremities as her “hind feet.”

With mixed emotions, we even realized Metoo had taught Lynx how to howl, as all the dogs do after mealtime and at dusk. Together they would sit on the couch, their noses pointed to the ceiling, crooning at the top of their lunges, and each loving every minute of the shared song. Lynx learned the language of the pack—her pack, the one she was born into—and she learned it long before she acquired the language of her own kind.

(From Life with Forty Dogs by Joseph Robertia)

The driving force of sharing these stories is also to give readers a glimpse of what it’s like to truly live a half-feral Alaskan lifestyle as we have and still do, so they can vicariously experience and comprehend the magnitude of responsibility, and all the joy, pain, and myriad other emotions that come from the fabric of a life threaded through and through by the fur of forty dogs.

We don’t own our dogs; they are a part of us, our lives inextricably intertwined. For those who spend more time around people than animals, this is a tough concept to comprehend. Looking at a yard full of high-strung huskies, most outsiders to our world don’t see the individuals, distinctly dissimilar from each other. To most folks, they’re merely different sized and colored canines. They don’t see what we see. They don’t understand the unique personalities or our shared histories with each one. But this is a chance to see it all.

“I could not put [Life with Forty Dogs] down and finished it in less than a day, even with going into work! As someone who rescues huskies in the lower 48 (California, to be exact), the topic of sled dogs is near and dear to my heart. Thank you for thoughtful stories—some of which were laugh-out-loud funny, others brought tears to my eyes. A great read for anyone who loves dogs, especially rescue dogs.”—Jane Cordingley, www.NorSled.org

Joseph Robertia is a UAA graduate who has been writing professionally for the past 16 years, in which time he has won several Alaska Press Club awards including: Best Outdoor Column, Best Outdoor Story, and Best Use of Story and Photos by a Journalist. He has also twice won the American Association of Zookeepers Excellence in Journalism award. He is a regular contributor to Alaska Dispatch News—the state’s largest newspaper. His first book, Life with Forty Dogs, published by Alaska Northwest Books, launched this April. It is available in hardcover and paperback from several book sellers including Amazon.

Watch for upcoming book events at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on July 15, 2017, Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center on July 22, 2017, the Soldotna Market every Wednesday in July 2017, and various easy coast events this August.

Jeff Brady | 2017 North Words Writers Symposium Rundown

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North Words Writers Symposium wrapped up in Skagway recently. Jeff Brady, co-organizer, provides a vicarious look at this year’s conference. ~ JP 

Paul Theroux experienced a hike to Laughton Glacier with North Words participants.

The 8th annual North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway was the biggest yet. About 40 participants from all over Alaska and the Yukon were extolled by keynote author Paul Theroux to get out and work hard to experience life worth writing about. Theroux championed traveling, which he is best at, while our own John Straley said those experiences can also be found close to home. We also were entertained with a fun sex writing panel and “afternoon delight” workshop with romance writer Lenora Bell (originally Lenore Nash from Haines). Avoid the word “moist,” she advised. Similarly, in another panel, Sherry Simpson cautioned us to avoid using “majestic” when describing anything in Alaska. Sherry and Deb Vanasse led us in early-bird workshops, and first-time North Words Alaska authors Tom Kizzia and Andy Hall also shared some great stories. We also took time to remember Oregon writer Brian Doyle, our 2016 keynote, who died from brain cancer the weekend before this year’s conference. His message to us a year ago was that we had a duty to go out and “catch stories.” Theroux took that a step further, launching into the experience of gathering those stories. This was Theroux’s and his wife Sheila’s first time in Alaska. He said it was “four of the best days he has spent anywhere in a long time.” We hope we see him again on a nearby river, railroad or highway. ~ Jeff Brady, North Words organizing faculty

 

Guest Blogger David Ramseur | Crazy Russian Stories Alone Don’t Make a Book

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Author David Ramseur poses with a can of Spam at Provideniya’s House of Culture during the 1988 Alaska Airlines’ Friendship Flight to the USSR.

Spritzing vodka on an Alaska Airlines jet when de-icing fluid couldn’t be found in the Russian Far East. Alaska’s First Lady forgetting her passport on the first high-profile visit to the USSR in 40 years. Launching notes of friendship across the Bering Strait tied to weather balloons instead of messages in a bottle to re-establish ties with Russia.

There are enough zany stories about Alaska-Russia interactions to fill a book with them alone. My challenge as I amassed boxes of files for my contemporary book on Alaska-Russia relations, Melting the Ice Curtain, was which ones to use in a context which advanced the overall story.

After about a year of tedious research and more than 100 interviews, my mental health required I break the monotony by starting to write. The first challenge was structure. My initial draft included about a dozen chapters organized chronologically. It quickly became obvious I was compressing far too much extraneous detail into chapters running more than 30 pages, losing test readers over years of time and obscure Russian locations.

Thankfully a small Anchorage writers’ group I joined and my former newspaper editor were invaluably brutal with my first draft. Based on their suggestions, I rewrote the manuscript into twice as many shorter, punchier chapters organized according to significant events. I moved to appendices material which interrupted the story flow but which I consider useful, such as the passenger manifest for the historic 1988 Friendship Flight and a recap of key players.

Early on, I had agreed with my publisher, University of Alaska Press, that an advantageous marketing hook was this year’s 150th anniversary of Alaska’s purchase from Russia. So I maintained an aggressive pace to produce a final product to meet a June 2017 publication date.

Two events interrupted that tight schedule: an unexpected opportunity to explore some of Russia’s most remote Bering Sea villages, and the surprise election of Donald Trump with Russia’s apparent assistance.

Just a couple of months before my manuscript deadline, I joined eight other adventurers in 18-foot whale boats along nearly 350 miles of Russia’s Chukotka coast. My goal was to compare the health of these remote Native villages since I last visited several of them nearly 30 years ago.

Hesitant to take nearly three weeks away from finalizing the manuscript, the investment paid off. I conducted dozens of fresh interviews of Russians, from local mayors to walrus ivory carvers, about how local conditions had changed since the Soviet Union’s collapse and their current attitudes toward Alaska. I returned with detailed notes I transcribed on my Surface Pro vigilantly protected from Bering Sea waves which regularly crashed over our boats.

Back home, I revised the manuscript to devote a full chapter to the trip, giving the book a contemporary perspective after three decades of Alaska and Russia citizen diplomacy. Plus our menacing 16-hour detention by Russian border guards reinforced a key theme in the book: that international progress can be advanced locally.

Just weeks before my final deadline, Trump’s election reverberated across the world and made Russia coffee shop conversation for typically foreign affairs-adverse Americans. This demanded yet another revision. With his campaign’s connection with Russia just starting to emerge, I struggled to forecast what a Trump presidency might mean for US-Russia relations.

I was elated to return from Russia to receive a generous Rasmuson Foundation grant for publishing and marketing expenses. Instead of writing more personal checks, the grant covered the cost of photo acquisition and index preparation.

As I made final tweaks to a 90,000-word manuscript and nailed down permissions for the 50 photos I collected, I continued a steady drumbeat of public chatter about the book. I wrote guest columns about the Russian Far East trip for the Alaska Dispatch News and for a Washington, DC, think tank which ended up in Newsweek’s online addition. I launched a website and regularly posted about Russian news developments on Facebook.

I taught a four-week continuing education class at UAA on the book subject. Even before the book hit the street, I offered to give talks to the Anchorage Museum and in a community lecture series at Chugiak High School. More than 100 attended each presentation where I distributed “book soon available” postcards produced by UA Press.

Looking forward to putting my feet up while banking book royalties, little did I know the hard work continues. As Melting the Ice Curtain hits the streets this month, I’m now hustling daily to set up marketing opportunities for the rest of this year as the sesquicentennial anniversary of Alaska’s purchase continues.

All about book marketing in my next installment.

David Ramseur is a visiting scholar in public policy at the University of Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. He served as press secretary, communications director, chief of staff, and foreign policy adviser to Alaska Governors Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles and to Anchorage mayor and US Senator Mark Begich. He has visited the Soviet Union and Russia more than a dozen times starting with the Alaska Airlines’ Friendship Flight in 1988. 

Linda Ketchum | Thoughts of an Itinerant Writer

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Explaining what I have been doing in Europe for the last eight months has proved almost as difficult as articulating what I write. (Umm…travel memoir? Personal essays about identity and place?) Since October I have rented apartments in Vienna, Madrid, and Cáceres, so I can explore these cities at leisure and write about my experiences. Eventually, I hit on the description “itinerant writing retreat” to characterize these slow travels. I’m not “on holiday” and bristle at the suggestion. I don’t consider myself a tourist, because even when I nip off on short side trips to places such as Seville and Lisbon, I no longer make a frenetic effort to check the main sights off a “Top Ten” list; instead I just walk around to get the lay of the land and discover for myself what is worth noticing. So more of a reconnoiter than a getaway.

As one writer friend of mine reminded me, quite rightly, “It’s called living.” But not everyone sees it that way. As humans, we feel compelled to categorize everything. Lawrence Durrell, the English writer who lived abroad almost all his life and rejected the label “travel writer,” described himself as a “residence writer” – someone who gets to know a place well over time by living in it. Not a writer-in-residence or a resident writer. The former implies an institutional attachment of finite duration and, in my mind, a resident is someone who declares a place their primary abode. I’m leaning towards the flexibility of “a writer based in __________.”

A year ago, my bio noted that I had completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Alaska Anchorage and immediately stopped writing. This attempt at humor was the bald truth, and I fretted about letting my creative side wither away. I could always find a reason to do something else with my time and, more worrying, there were no ideas bouncing around my brain urging me to write. I berated myself for being lazy, unimaginative, cowardly. But I could imagine giving reign to my curiosity about other parts of the world (a curiosity that had led me to Alaska in 1985). This would mean leaving my current life and its obligations behind to become responsible only for myself and my writing. I did possess the courage to do that.

I have been living in Cáceres, a small Spanish city equidistant from Madrid and Lisbon, since the middle of January. In October I started blogging privately, figuring that the informal nature of a blog would be a great way to warm up creaky writing muscles and establish a voice. It seemed important to develop the habit of writing regularly first, and the blog turned out to be a great tool for me: Choose a post title, insert a photograph, and thoughts start flowing. Once I settled into an undemanding daily routine here, serious writing momentum built. I’ve written about Extremadura, the history of Cáceres, birding in Monfragüe National Park, the Spanish Habsburgs, the appreciation of art, and more. The result is not exactly literature but I’ve put time into researching these embryonic pieces and am now thinking about each of them in greater depth. Essays are emerging and I am submitting to journals at last.

Just recently I moved into a new apartment, a casita reformada in the Old Town close to the Plaza Mayor. Life here agrees with me and I want to stay on. Slowly, I have adjusted to losing both the spectacular view across the city from the balcony of a fourth-floor walkup and 24-hour wifi. The removal of these distractions has focused my mind wonderfully. Now I stare at blank white walls for inspiration or gaze at the birds passing across my sheet of sky, as I sit in my writing chair in the patio doorway. Once a day I make the 15-minute walk to the public library with my MacBook to check and send messages and look up information.

Downhill from the library, the Paseo de Cánovas is another favorite destination – a long park strip where you can promenade under an umbrella of mature greenery and find respite from the sun on one of its many wrought iron benches. The unexpected appearance there of waxy magnolia flowers at the end of January delighted me. Last month, blowsy rambling roses of all hues wrapped themselves around tree trunks with abandon. I don’t usually care for roses but these contrasted charmingly with the spiritless bushes in Scottish gardens that are ruthlessly secatured into respectability. The tall trees with heart-shaped leaves, sweet-smelling white blossoms, and long pods that dangled elegantly from the branches turned out to be the catalpa or bean tree. At the moment, a riot of magenta hibiscus is blooming, competing for attention with the delicate lavender flowers of the jacaranda tree that towers over the Kiosko Colón, a busy little café where I sometimes enjoy breakfast outside.

I am living alone but not lonely. Unseen neighbors, whose disembodied Spanish chatter periodically breaks the silence of my high-walled back patio, cook with garlic and listen to classic Rolling Stones. The usual business of life – shopping, getting a haircut, going to the post office, topping up my mobile – brings me into contact with people daily. Yesterday a woman on an adjacent bench in the Plaza Mayor struck up a conversation with me. People still ask me for directions, as they did in Madrid. On Friday afternoons, a regular group meets up at the café-bar of a small hotel, and now that I know many of them through my first landlady, I run into these acquaintances often around town. And the internet keeps me connected to family, friends, and a writing community spread across three continents.

Birds feature in my life too. Each morning I wake to the dulcet notes of a blackbird’s dawn song; its upward-lilting bars suggest that he, too, is questioning life. This melody is so engrained in memory it transports me back to childhood gardens in a heartbeat. The storks that nest a street away in the Iglesia de Santiago clapper their bills at all hours but appear to be most active when the stars fade from the sky. I lie in bed listening to their muted rat-a-tat drift through the wooden blinds at the open window and imagine them extending their slender necks backwards to emit this extraordinary sound, their only vocalization. Soon it’s the turn of a collared dove to croon its insistent refrain. When I get up to make coffee, the now-blue sky has thickened with swifts scything the air in their first feeding frenzy of the day. Every so often a lesser kestrel flits into view – a graceful bird that nests in protected urban colonies throughout Extremadura. Then the raucous caw of a jackdaw interrupts my thoughts. It’s not even 8 am and the day already feels rich.

Linda Ketchum, a former executive director of 49 Writers, currently lives and writes in Spain. She has work forthcoming in Elsewhere: A Journal of Place.

Deb Vanasse | A Writer’s Garden

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It’s that time of year when I begin my days at the keyboard and end them in the garden. It’s hard not to notice the ways one activity informs the other. I’ve written about this before, but after returning from a faculty stint at a writers conference in Alaska’s Garden City, how could I not say more?

It started with keynote speaker Paul Theroux, who spoke in his introduction of his Hawaiian garden, guarded by geese. The discussions continued with Bob, who’s transforming twenty acres outside of Homer with fruit trees, nut trees, and other permaculture favorites.  Then Sherry Simpson and I talked as much about gardening in our newish locales as we did about writing (and politics and murders, but those are stories for another day).

I’ve been expanding my gardening perspective to include permaculture principles. Giving more than you take is one of the key tenets of permaculture. I like that concept for writers as well. There’s also a good deal to be said for knowing your vectors—the forces of sun, wind, water, and fire that affect your plot of land. This is a lot like what I find myself telling writers about knowing themselves. It’s great to talk with others about how they do what they do, but ultimately, you should consider your own set of psychological quirks and habits as you determine how to do your best work.

I used to think that planting decisions were mostly permanent. Happily, I’ve discovered that’s no truer in gardening than it is in writing. This spring I dug up pretty much every woody ornamental I’d planted on the east side of the house and replanted them to the west, where they’re more sheltered from storms. I expect their wind-resistant replacements to thrive. In a similar manner, shifting sections of narrative can be a worthwhile endeavor.

Gardeners understand that pruning can be every bit as important as planting. That’s because pruning stimulates growth. Cutting words may be harder than lobbing off limbs (when they’re not your own, that is), but the growth that follows is its own reward.

Then there’s seasonality. In gardening, we do best to work in sync with external conditions—heat, sun, rain, frost. Plants require periods of darkness, of dormancy. It’s as foolish to fight that in gardening as it is in writing.

Finally, as any gardener will tell you, it’s all about the dirt. No one’s is perfect. Nutrients, pH, drainage—the adjustments never end. If what you’ve got isn’t working, you start over, make your own. It’s a marvel, what grows out of that dirt, the workings of forces we scarcely understand.

Deb Vanasse is the author of seventeen books with six different publishers. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography  Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon, where she continues to write while doing freelance editing, coaching, and writing instruction.