Coming soon (January 2009) from Inupiat elder and activist Willie Hensley is Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People . We caught up with Willie as he’s preparing for his first book tour.
Deb: Fifty Miles from Tomorrow is your first book. What inspired you to write it?
Willie: I wrote Fifty Miles from Tomorrow, in part, to inspire our own people to tell their story and to convey their knowledge of culture, history and the natural universe–that we didn’t need our story to be filtered through people from the Outside.
Deb: Tell us how the process of writing was for you. What were the greatest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
Willie: I was fortunate to have a good editor who took my early writing and described what she thought would be a successful way to write for me. My sentences tended to be too long and I didn’t realize how much my early cultural upbringing affected how I wrote. It is very hard for an Inupiaq to take credit for anything due to our understanding that it takes many people to create success. I didn’t find the writing too difficult and I did very little rewriting. I tried to describe the images in my life and my feelings and recollections of the various stages and efforts in my life.
Deb: Memoir is a tough genre, because you end up telling truths that may cause some discomfort for people you love. How did you resolve these issues when crafting your story?
Willie: Very early on I realized there were painful experiences that our people felt uncomfortable in expressing. We have lived in a harsh universe and for over ten thousand years, we learned to suffer through difficult circumstances without becoming whiners. To me, it was important that I not only try to describe our way of life before great changes began to occur–it was also important for us to expose the human toll of government and missionary policies and practices on our people. Before I started the book, I called my relatives to let know that I was going to write a book and they encouraged me–painful subjects and all.
Deb: What has been most rewarding about seeing your project through to completion?
Willie: The reward is the result. I never in my wildest imagination thought that I could write. The thought that I could write something that others will find worth their time and money is exhilarating. Also, I wanted our own people to know that despite my college degree and succession of good jobs and experiences, I also had to deal with my own adjustments to difficult circumstances that we all have faced due to forces beyond our control. I also am proud of that fact that other Americans and the world will have a book that sheds some light on a part of America that people know virtually nothing about.
Deb: What creative work has engaged you since finishing the book?
Willie: I had to work on the book at night, weekends, holidays and on planes–as I had not retired at the time I was writing. Since then, I have retired and tried to learn to be less driven–now beginning the effort to help my publisher publicize the book. I will spend most of January and the first quarter on the road. If the book sells reasonably, my publisher has first option on another book. I have not decided what the subject might be but I have some thoughts. I am not like most writers who are “driven” to write. I would like to try a novel.
(Deb’s note: For a schedule of Willie’s book tour, including stops in Seattle, Portland, California, Washington DC, and Anchorage, go to http://us.macmillan.com/Tour.aspx?id=246)