Alaska has a new anthology to enjoy this winter: Wheels on Ice, edited by Jessica Cherry and the late Frank Soos.
The story behind this publication is bittersweet, given that Soos, a former Alaska Writer Laureate, long-time teacher and 49 Writers board member, died in a solo cycling accident before the book could be completed. By email, Jessica wrote, Part of me still prefers to think that Frank is just “in Maine,” where he and his wife Margo have a house. … I was talking to Margo on the phone recently and she reminded me, “Jess, this is why we do art.” As bike riders and writers, we put our foot on the pedal, our butt in the saddle, and move forward, right?
Andromeda: What are some of the surprising or amazing things a reader learns about cycling, Alaska or both from this book?
Jessica: I hope everyone who reads the book learns something new about what is possible—that is, what’s possible both for them personally and for humanity at large. Yes, we have riders like Lael Wilcox and Jeff Oatley and the gold rush riders writing about extreme athletic feats, but we also have Kathleen McCoy and Clint Hodges linking their fond memories of youth with the kind of cycling they do today. You (Andromeda) and Eric Flanders write about mid-life training amid all of the other distractions, and Martha Amore writes about simply commuting to work in a busy urban landscape. MoHagani Magnetek, Rachael Kvapil, and Corrine Leistikow all link cycling to wellness and the mental tenacity it takes to make our way through the world in whatever form factor we inhabit. And I hope a few of these stories make the reader laugh!
Andromeda: This book is a partial reprint, with about 90% new material. Was it hard to find your publisher, Nebraska Press?
Jessica: We did our research and narrowed in on Nebraska pretty early because they have quite a few cycling titles and a sports editor, as well as a strong track record in Alaska and Polar history, literature, trade titles, etc. Then, once we had most of the stories, we invested time in a solid proposal and the Press was supportive.
Andromeda: Did editing a travel anthology teach you anything about how or why certain stories get accepted, or anything else applicable to your life as an editor and writer?
Jessica: Well, with this collection, our target was relatively narrow—stories about cycling in Alaska written mostly by locals—so we were able to meet the authors where they were at and work with them to get the pieces where we wanted them. Eventually the manuscript was too long and the Press asked us to cut it back by about 30% and that was another tough process. Anthologies can be a lot of work, but in the end, the joy of the final product is also spread over all of these authors and that is neat to see.
Andromeda: In one of your introductions, you write, “Reading and writing a personal essay both require wandering down a proverbial trail.” Do you care to expand on that?
Jessica: There’s something weird (ok, maybe call it magical for a more positive spin) that happens with non-fiction when you put your story down on the page as a written record. It actually changes the story itself because your understanding of it changes when it stares back at you from the page. Then the relationships between you, the writer, and your characters and your environment shift a bit. So, you start to feel this discomfort in your equilibrium because something that you were so certain was an immutable truth starts to feel malleable. For new writers, this can feel uncomfortable, but this is how storytelling works. In cycling and other sports’ psychology, I think this is closely linked to the power of the mind over your (the rider’s) success when you are taking physical risks. Writing an essay is a physical and emotional risk that can put your mind in an uncomfortable space. Then, here in Alaska, add the element of a harsh environment, not just for the body but the mind as well.
Many upcoming events will feature authors reading from the book. Find them at the Writer’s Block in Anchorage on December 8 at 6pm and the Bear Gallery in Fairbanks on December 16 at 7pm. More events will be announced on the book’s Facebook page.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach, the author of five novels, and a slow cyclist who picked up the sport again one year ago after a thirteen-year hiatus, in part thanks to inspiration from Jessica and her anthology. www.romanolax.com.