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.