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.