Andromeda: I stand corrected. You can see that my departure from nonfiction writing has allowed my memories to evolve unchecked.
Nancy Lord: It’s true that that contest was a great boost to me as a writer. I had written a small number of short stories, and entering the contest required that I gather them up (and retype them, in those days). When I won (judged by the awesome and intimidating writer Stanley Elkin) I thought, maybe I should do this with more seriousness. That’s when I applied to an M.F.A. program to actually study writing. But, to answer your question, I think Alaska’s writers today do have more opportunities than in the past, though we seem to have fewer than writers in most other states. Both the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Rasmuson Foundation offer individual fellowships, ASCA has “career opportunity” grants, the university brings in visiting writers as well as offering classes, and we’ve got a number of summer gatherings that highlight and inspire writers—the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference, the Valdez Theatre Conference, the Sitka Symposium, the Fairbanks Book Festival, and the public reading series at UAA that accompanies the new low-residency M.F.A. program there. When I was first writing I felt like I was truly “in the wilderness,” but today it feels like we have a rather solid writing community of shared effort and support.
Andromeda: I recently listened to the excellent UAA podcast of your lecture, “Why I Write.” I found all of it fascinating, including your review of Orwell’s four motives for writing – egoism (not in the bad sense, but only in the sense of recognizing one’s own ideas are important and worth sharing), aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. I imagine you write from all four motivations, but which one has the biggest pull on you now?
Nancy Lord: I do write from all four of Orwell’s stated motivations. Different stories, essays, or books have different motivational proportions, but I can’t imagine writing without clear purpose. Orwell defines “political purpose” as “pushing the world” in the broadest sense—essentially affecting how other people see and understand the world, that they might think or behave a little differently after reading what I (or another writer) have written. That doesn’t mean I think that all writing has to be seriously involved with big ideas. A simple story that gladdens a heart can “push the world” by granting its reader a small measure of pleasure or hope. As a writer, I’m interested in making both art and meaning. I’m not a journalist in the traditional sense because I’m not interested in being objective and generically voiceless; I have attitudes and opinions and want them present in my writing, even as I’m a stickler for being factual and fair in my nonfiction. I presented that lecture at the UAA M.F.A. program because I’ve found that students don’t seem to think very hard about why they write; too often they seem to limit themselves to a goal of “self-expression” and doubt they have anything to say that might be meaningful to another person. I’d like them to understand that each of them has unique gifts to give to the world.
Andromeda: In your UAA talk you challenged writers to ask What are the stories of our age? You answered that for you, one of the most important stories is climate change.
One of our contributors, Jeremy Pataky, suggested the following question, which may dovetail with anything you’d like to share about your current climate change writings: “Can you comment on the relationship between your political and creative activities? Does your activism as a conservationist and environmentalist and your efforts as a creative writer support one another, or do those dual roles demand distinctly different modes of thought and attention? Maybe they’re two sides of one coin?”
Andromeda: You’ve said that it took you a while to feel comfortable mining your own Alaska experiences, but later embraced them as your “heart’s field,” to use Eudora Welty’s term. When did you know you had found your subject and/or your voice?
Nancy Lord: That’s a tough one. I think I was scared off, years ago, by something John Haines wrote in “The Writer as Alaskan”: a kind of condemnation that new-comers to Alaska always mined the same myths, “odes to dead salmon,” and that it would take generations to develop a worthy Alaskan literature. I’d written a few odes to dead salmon and knew that I needed to get beyond the obvious. The writing that eventually came to seem most authentic to me was what I produced from my life at my fishcamp. I’d written several individual essays, and it finally dawned on me that I knew that place very well and “owned” my experience there, and from that I was confident enough to put together my book Fishcamp.
Andromeda: Every writer’s life has its ups and downs. What was one of the most important breaks or validations you got as a writer? Can you share an equivalent rough spell that might illuminate the writer’s path for the rest of us?
Nancy Lord: I’d have to say that 1983 contest that resulted in my first book of stories. I don’t generally need outward measures of approval or success to direct or keep me going, but that confirmation of some ability (even in the small pond that was Alaska) did encourage me to write more and even to go back to school to learn something about what I was doing. A rough spell might be the one right after that. In my naïvete I thought, I’ll just write a bunch more stories and have another book. In actuality, it took until 1991 before I had a second book accepted, and that was after twice being a finalist in book contests and getting and then losing an agent. And that publisher (Coffee House Press) was not the big fancy one I’d dreamed of but a small non-profit. I’ve still never had a big publisher or more than a small advance, but I’ve learned just how tough the publishing world is (and getting tougher), and to be satisfied with finding a few editors who love my work and a small readership who draws meaning from it. Then there are my four failed novels and the fact that when I sent a revision of the latest one to my agent, she liked it less than the first version of it.
Andromeda: I want to ask something lighter now. Tell us about your workspace – at home or wherever you work most, what’s on your desk or within view?
Nancy Lord: I’m very embarrassed about my workspace and glad you can’t see it. It’s a home office, and it’s incredibly cluttered. Piles everywhere. At my feet there’s a big bag of materials I brought home from an environmental journalism conference two months ago and haven’t unpacked yet. To one side I’ve got two file boxes of beluga materials left from that book but that I still rummage in, since that issue (trying to get the Cook Inlet belugas protected) lives on. A pile of stuff from my current project on my left, a pile of stuff that needs to be dealt with on my right, a pile of magazines, a box with teaching files, an overflowing paperbag of trash, multiple piles of books that have overflowed the bookcase, you get the picture. Shells and fossils on the windowsill and a piece of red ribbon from the opening of the new Homer library (2 years ago now) among photos and phone lists tacked to the bulletin board. A piece of paper on which I’d written (fading ink) “whatever keeps you from doing your work has become your work.” Amen.
Andromeda: You write both fiction and nonfiction. What do you get from each, and when you have a pressing question or idea, how do you know (or what point do you know) which genre you will use to tell your current story?
Andromeda: Related to the mention of writer’s colonies above, Ken Waldman wanted me to ask you this good question: how does your time out of state, for teaching gigs as well as retreats, affect your writing and your personal life? (I don’t know about Ken, but I suppose some of us would like to believe a trip out of state is just what we need… )
Nancy Lord: I don’t do the kind of constant travel and teaching that Ken does (and which I’m in awe of.) I’ve only had one Outside teaching job—one semester in Ohio a couple of years ago, which I did not enjoy as much as I thought I would. Going to a writers’ colony/retreat is my idea of heaven. I love not only the way I get so much work done, but being taken care of (the lunch basket delivered to the door at noon), the adventure of a new place (canoeing in the Adirondacks, walking the white sand beach in Florida), and particularly being with other writers and artists, many of whom have become good friends. I’m able to go away and do this because I’m not tied down by job or family here, and my partner has always been very supportive of this, because he knows it’s what I need as a writer.
Andromeda: How do you plan to focus your activities as our new State Writer?
Nancy Lord: I’m still figuring this out. The role seems to be a combination of responding to requests and to pursuing a project of my own. For example, I was asked to give a presentation at the women’s prison in Eagle River last month, which I did, and in March I’ll be one of the judges of the Poetry Out Loud student competition. I have a passion for libraries and am developing a project to work with the Alaska Library Association and individual libraries to encourage expansion and programming efforts. I anticipate visiting a number of small libraries, to share our story of how we built a new Homer library and developed a strong Friends of the Library group and to present readings and workshops.