49 Writers Interview: Susan B. Andrews and John Creed, Purely Alaska, interviewed by Stephanie Jaeger

Purely Alaska is an anthology of 32 stories from diverse areas of Alaska. These stories are unique because most are told by the Alaskans who experienced them. An Inupiaq elder recalls a reindeer drive across northern Alaska in the 1930s during which she gave birth to two children and buried one. A young man recalls the trauma of his early childhood and its connection to his fight against adult addictions. A mother wants her son to go to college, but he decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a fisherman. A musher tells about the difficulties of mushing in Southeast Alaska where there is often only rain and no snow. This book reveals everyday life in the challenging conditions of rural Alaska.

Stephanie Jaeger brings us this interview with Andrews and Creed.

How does Purely Alaska: Authentic Voices from the Far North differ from your earlier anthology, Authentic Alaska: Voices of its Native Writers?

All the contributors in our first anthology, Authentic Alaska: Voices of Its Native Writers, were Alaska Natives living primarily in villages in the Kotzebue region of Northwest Arctic Alaska. This newest anthology, Purely Alaska: Authentic Voices from the Far North, contains 32 stories by 23 writers who are not just Alaska Natives but also non-Natives. They also represent a much broader geographic cross-section of rural Alaska, from the rainforests of Southeast Alaska to the vast expanse of Interior Alaska to southwest Alaska as well as our own part of the state, the Arctic, in addition to other rural regions of the 49th State. The second anthology is bigger, many of the stories longer than in our first book.

Tell us more about the contributors to your book. Were all of them students or did you solicit stories from other sources?

The contributors in Purely Alaska are rural and Alaska Native students of the University of Alaska, although approximately one-third of the book includes our own stories.

Since the late 1980s we have taught in the humanities at Chukchi College, UA’s branch in Kotzebue, which lies 26 miles above the Arctic Circle in Northwest Alaska. Most contributors to Purely Alaska do not live in Kotzebue or even Northwest Arctic Alaska, although all writers were living in rural Alaska when they wrote their stories. All the contributors have been our students. All but one student story was composed in a Chukchi writing class.

When we first began teaching in rural Alaska, we realized that our writing students’ subject matter might interest an audience beyond the classroom. So we started applying our journalism skills toward publishing our students in the Alaska press. Most editors welcome the opportunity to publish polished writing by rural University of Alaska students. We appreciate that.

The vast majority of our students are beginning writers, including many village students still struggling with basic, standard English in a cross-cultural setting. Most of our students have not been published before enrolling in our writing classes.

Not surprisingly, it takes a considerable mutual effort to bring our students’ writing up to publication quality. From an educator’s standpoint, however, the effort has proved worth it. We have found no better incentive for students to strive for excellence than demanding it through the incentive of publication in that vast world outside the classroom.

One of Purely Alaska’s stories was written by an 11-year-old taking college courses. How was she able to do this?

China Kantner did take college-level courses in Kotzebue at 11 years old, both in writing and math. Precocious would describe this child. As a student, she always came prepared for class and ready to participate. China’s mom, Stacey Glaser, is director of Chukchi Consortium Library on our campus and also oversees public libraries in Northwest Arctic Borough villages. Her dad, Seth Kantner, is a well-known local writer and wildlife/landscape photographer, so books and reading and writing run in the family.

In Purely Alaska, China Kantner tells the story of when she was even younger and a bear almost pushed its way into her family’s camp on the Kobuk River in Northwest Alaska. Mom was frantically pushing back on the cabin door while Dad shot the bear from a window in the cabin. Children don’t always sense danger the way adults do.

“Oh, he’s so cute!” China observes of the bear as it was trying to make dinner of her and her family.

How are you marketing your book? Have you found a readership for your book outside of Alaska?

We believe Purely Alaska is direct, honest and universal enough to interest readers around the nation and the world, as long as we continue to get the word out.

We have been marketing Purely Alaska pretty much on our own (with support from our publisher). All writers know the challenges of publishing and promoting books in today’s economic environment and in the age of Internet dominance. We have no agent or “publicist.” We are using mostly our own funds.

One of our main and most important audiences for Purely Alaska is rural Alaskans themselves. Like the first book, we expect that college and K-12 educators will use Purely Alaska, such as a teacher in Nome teaching it in a Native American lit class. Urban school districts also are expressing interest in adopting Purely Alaska for classroom use. Rural Student Services at the University of Alaska Fairbanks also uses it with rural students, as another example of interest in this book from fellow educators.

If the experience with Authentic Alaska is any indication, Purely Alaska also will sell well through the visitor industry, particularly because this book has such a strong geographic representation from throughout the Bush. Alaskans are also buying Purely Alaska to send to friends and relatives living Outside. Purely Alaska does not “sugar coat” life in the outback.

We also believe the book has a niche in addiction treatment and recovery programs.

Tell us about your choice of Epicenter Press and your publisher Kent Sturgis.

We have had a wonderful experience working with Kent Sturgis, who not only is the publisher of Epicenter Press but also was the editor for Purely Alaska. Kent grew up in Fairbanks, where he eventually became managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. He left the paper in the mid-1980s to start Epicenter Press with Lael Morgan, another long-time Alaska journalist.

It has been refreshing to work with a journalist on this project, especially one who knows Alaska so well. When Kent first read the manuscript, he recognized Purely Alaska’s potential immediately as a book with a long shelf life and the possibility of becoming a classic about Alaska.

We chose Epicenter Press because John had worked with Kent at the News-Miner in the 1980s and remembered his professionalism and editing talents. We knew we could work together under deadline pressure because as former full-time journalists, we had all done just that for years in the news business. The editing and production moved along smoothly and efficiently. Production moved quickly after signing our book contract.

What was the biggest challenge in putting this anthology together?

Every writer knows the work required in publishing his or her own work, but even among writers there may be a misconception that most anthologies are easier to put out than a book they write by themselves. Not true. Or at least not for us. That may be the case for an editor who pulls together an anthology from a corral of professional writers who typically would submit very polished work. Our journey with most of these student contributors begins at a much more basic level.

We spend much more time bringing student work up to publication quality because the voyage almost always proves longer, and less predictable. As educators, writing instruction always comes first. Consequently, edits and restructures necessarily need more explanation to our students because of the pedagogical dimension of the process. (Yes, we really did use a form of that awful academic word, pedagogy.)

One of Purely Alaska’s anchor pieces, Burt Haviland’s “The Long Road to Recovery,” started out as a 750-word narrative essay in a basic composition class. Over the course of many months and numerous revisions, restructures and rewrites, this initially short essay mushroomed into a 14,000-word treatise on a lifelong struggle with addiction (and a journey that never really ends for the addict). The result catapulted itself far beyond the requirements of a basic writing class in so many ways, including balancing the courage of a writer to reveal some of the most haunting and private parts of his life with, well, the courage of a writer to reveal just that.

But we’ve committed our careers to assist the publication of those who might otherwise not have a voice, or stories that might otherwise be lost—such as Noatak elder “Aana Nellie” Woods, who helped drive a herd of stubborn reindeer along the shore of the Arctic Ocean in the 1930s. That story took years for the writer, Steve Werle, to complete

We always try to hold our students to the highest standards in their work. We did not want to let our students down. We wanted to produce a timeless work of art. We wanted to create something that our students, our employer, and the reading public could point to with pride for many years to come. We can only hope that’s the case

Susan B. Andrews and John Creed are professors of journalism and humanities at Chukchi College, the University of Alaska’s branch campus in Kotzebue. In 1988, John and Susan founded Chukchi News and Information Service, a cultural journalism project for publishing student writing in newspapers and magazines throughout Alaska. As freelance journalists, John and Susan have been recognized for their reporting on dog mushing, education, and global warming in rural Alaska. For work on First Amendment issues, they have received “Champions of Free Speech” awards from the Alaska Civil Liberties Union “for zealously challenging public policies that deprive Alaskans of their civil liberties and for courageously defending academic freedom, free speech and a free and independent press.” For work on Alaska Native issues, the American Bar Association recognized them with a Silver Gavel Award.

1 thought on “49 Writers Interview: Susan B. Andrews and John Creed, Purely Alaska, interviewed by Stephanie Jaeger”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thank you John and Susan, and thanks Stephanie for bringing us this great interview. I hadn't realized this anthology was comprised of college students' work. What a great process, what a service to the students and to Alaska, what an inspirational project. In addition to everyday readers, I hope that teachers find this book and use it as a model.

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