I met Jane Haigh several years ago through my good friend Claire Rudolf Murphy. She’s a delightful person and an accomplished Alaskan author and historian. With Claire, Jane co-authored Gold Rush Women, Gold Rush Dogs, and Children of the Gold Rush. She’s also the author of King Con: The Story of Soapy Smith, Denali: Early Photographs of our National Parks, and Searching for Fanny Quigley. Jane has lived in Fairbanks for most of the last 35 years, though she has spent the last few winters in Tucson working on her PhD in U.S. History at the University of Arizona. A popular speaker for the Alaska Humanities Forum, Jane has also been active in local politics. You can visit her at

In what ways has being Alaskan helped to define what you write?
In almost every way possible! I really have a focus on geography, and I like to see the places where my subjects lived and traveled, so I can try to understand what they went through. So I have been lucky to have been able to travel all over Alaska and the Yukon multiple times.
Also, I have been lucky to have had so much time to spend in my ‘home’ archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. That is where I got my start as a researcher, and it’s where I learned to find and work with historic photographs. There are so many stories buried in the files down there.

On your website, you discuss the idealist/pragmatist dichotomy that distinguishes Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless from Fannie Quigley and other Alaskans. What other traits do you find characteristic of longtime Alaskans?
Alaskans have a deep connection with the outdoors. We used to talk all the time about “A Sense of Place,” which has now become something of a cliché. But there is something special about really getting to know a particular environment.

Your search for Fannie Quigley grabbed hold and wouldn’t let go. Why?
I think that kind of attachment is true of all biographical projects- the author has to feel a strong connection, or else she would never have the perseverance and energy to continue. But with Fannie, it was the mystery about her marriage that grabbed me. The first author’s I read said that she had been married to Joe in 1906. Then I found out that that wasn’t true. Actually they had lived together from 1906 until they finally married in 1918. So popular authors had simplified the story and I wondered why? And how did that change perceptions of her? And what I found out is that the real story was far more complex.

You collaborated with Claire Rudolf Murphy on several books about the gold rush. What is most challenging and most rewarding for writers who collaborate?
I loved collaborating with Claire. So often writing is a very lonely pursuit. It was great to have someone to talk over the stories with as we did the research. And I learned so much about writing from Claire as we worked. Having collective deadlines was also helpful, spurring me on to write or revise sections when I might have otherwise procrastinated. WE had to learn to adopt a common writing style. Usually one or the other would do a first draft, and then the other would revise. Toward the end, she would take out my favorite sentences! Then I would put them back. And then we would have to hash it out. So you have to really have a relationship of mutual respect, and be able to get along.

What can we learn from the gold rush to apply to our lives today?
While some people went North strictly for the adventure, many more, I believe, went because it was a very difficult time economically in the U.S., and they hoped that they could simply find a paying job and support their families. Most did not return rich to build their dream homes or buy their farms. Instead they set their lives on an entirely new path. Certainly they learned to live in and deal with a very different environment. But the gold rush also had many unforeseen consequences for the environment and for the Native people. So what can we learn? Be careful what you wish for.

You’ve published with both U.S. and Canadian companies. How has that worked for you as a writer?
The publishing world is forever changing. The Canadian companies had an advantage six or eight years ago, when the Canadian dollar was worth less than the U.S. dollar. Printing in Canada was comparatively cheap, and my publisher in Whitehorse could just truck books over the border. Now nearly everything is printed in Asia, customs has become far more complicated, and shipping costs have gone up. That has changed the publishing equations for everyone.

Aside from your dissertation, what writing projects do you have in progress?
I have nearly run out of projects that I can pull out of the file cabinet, but when I finish the dissertation, I may continue on a planned biography of Josephine Earp. in the “dreaming about” stage are a photo history of mining in Fairbanks, a book about gold dredges, and a road trip guide to Alaska with stories about some of the old places, some still there and some gone.

You describe yourself as having been an “amateur” when you became interested in Fannie Quigley some twenty years ago. Today you’re a respected Alaskan historian. What advice would you give to historians and writers who would like move from amateur to respected status?
I recommend at least attending classes at a good academic history program, someplace that offers Phd’s. Writing academic monographs has helped me to tighten up my working habits. I also have broadened my range by learning new theories and new ways to approach the material. It’s not enough to find out a bunch of facts and string them together to tell a story.

Your research on Soapy Smith led to doctoral research on politics and corruption in Colorado. What unique challenges are you finding in the doctoral process as compared to writing for the general public?
The dissertation is the hardest thing I have ever written. It is nothing like writing for a popular audience. For one thing, the academic world is very, very, critical. I have learned to be very specific about every assertion or idea that I put into my work. And that is a good thing. Also, academic work is much more focused on theory than on story telling. It’s not enough to just tell one story; the idea is to try to understand and explain the story’s connection to the bigger picture, put it into context, or multiple contexts. This is much harder than just digging up a historical story and telling it in an interesting way. But I am sure it’s good for me.

What are some of your favorite Alaskan books and Alaskan authors?
I love women’s memoirs, some of the women we wrote about for Gold Rush Women, and some we could not include, or that have come came out since. Anna DeGraf’s Pioneering on the Yukon, and Francis Fitz’s Lady Sourdough. Margaret Shand’s To the Summit and Beyond, and Clara Burke’s Dr. Hap. All these you can get from antiquarian web-sites like And the book Jane Jacobs wrote about her aunt, A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska. I have a dream of getting some of them re-printed, along with Baldy of Nome. Then I have to mention the biography of Belinda Mulrooney which came out after our book: Staking Her Claim by Melanie Mayer and Bob DeArmond. Reading this list, someone might want to know why I stopped writing about women…I just didn’t want to be boxed in.

Anything else you’d like to say to readers who love books written in and about Alaska?
I used to think that only Alaskans could really write “authentically” about Alaska. But now I know that that is not necessarily true. Some great books have been written by people who come from elsewhere with a fresh perspective, like John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country. And Gay and Laney Salisbury from New York did a very creditable job with their book on the serum run to Nome, The Cruelest Miles, a topic no Alaskan author wanted to touch, because we all thought it was overdone.

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