Alaskan author Heather Lende writes with transparency, beauty, and a deep sense of truth. Her first book, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, is a remarkable tribute to the spirited Alaskan community of Haines. Here, Lende talks about both her first book and her latest venture, a collection of true stories from Haines that celebrate matters of faith.

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name is in its sixth printing, a marvelous accomplishment for a non-fiction book about a small town in Alaska. What do you most enjoy about its success?

Well, I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. Certainly being noticed as a real writer now is nice, and being able to support myself some is a good thing. But to tell you the truth, my life is very much the same as it was before the book, and the only time I feel different is when I leave home for a book club talk, or a lecture, like the one I recently gave in Fairbanks. When I got home I told my husband I was sort of famous up there, and that I filled a hall. He said that was nice, and I said it was too, but we both agree it is a good thing I don’t live in a place where people think that.

You’ve been compared to authors Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Garrison Keillor. Which authors have influenced you most, and in what ways?

That’s pretty heady stuff, as I admire all of them. I think that when I started writing the authors that appealed to me where the ones that wrote about where they lived in a way that made me interested, even though I’d never been there. Marjorie Rawlings wroteTthe Yearling, but my favorite book of hers is Cross Creek, about her years as an orange farmer in Florida. E.B. White’s Maine essays, Calvin Trillin’s food stories, and the poetry of Robert Frost, Mary Oliver & Jane Kenyon all influenced me. I read a lot of all kinds of things, I love James Lee Burke, Ellen Gilchrist, Larry McMurtry, Ivan Doig, Anne Tyler– And of course Annie Lamott, I mean, I’m still taking writing “Bird by Bird”. Also, I really like John Gould, a former columnist for the Christian Science Monitor.

Living in a small, isolated community, to what extent do you miss interaction with other writers?

I didn’t at first, because I didn’t really think I was enough of a writer to have writer-ly friends. But lately I have been missing that, and I have applied to the low residency MFA in creative writing at UAA in large part because I do want some writer friends.

Your book beautifully explores the sense of community in Haines. How has the community reacted to being the subject of a book?

People like it, I think. When it first came out the bookstore gave a percentage of the cover price to Hospice of Haines, and they raised about 2,000 dollars. Before I wrote the book, even though I had a Anchorage Daily News column and had been on NPR often, people here didn’t know that I wrote about them so much—we don’t get many copies of the Daily News here, and the radio ran local news when my commentaries were on—so the book was a surprise. Now, some people are more careful what they say in front of me, and others want me to write about them. I write obituaries, and I had one nice elderly lady tell me it was too bad her husband hadn’t died sooner, because then he would have been in my book. Also, a truck hit me right at the same time the book came out (I got my first copy when I was in a nursing home in Seattle) so the Haines community was extra kind and generous.

Tell us a bit about the process of writing If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name. When did you start thinking about writing the book, and what compelled you to press forward with the project? How long did you spend in the various stages of writing? What did you most and least enjoy?

The book came about because an editor at Algonquin Books heard me on NPR and called to ask if I wanted to write a book. The initial idea was to publish a collection of radio and newspaper pieces. But I had wanted to write about writing obituaries, and a few years before had actually proposed such a book to an Alaskan publisher, but was told no one would be interested in reading about death, and since there was only 2,000 people in Haines even if everyone in town bought a copy the book would still lose money, so I was a little shy, to say the least, about mentioning my dream “death” book to the new editor. But I did send her a few of the essays that would later be in the book, mixed in with the others, and luckily, she liked what I call my death pieces, and she and I worked hard to mix them in with the life pieces. It took four years, working mostly in the winter, going back and forth to re-write and shape each chapter as a stand-alone essay, but also so they read like a kind of narrative. I spent more time re-writing than writing, and that is both the most enjoyable part and the most frustrating part. I learned a lot, and I really, really like my editor, and am very pleased that we worked so well together. I think she made me a better writer, and I know she taught me how to write longer. When I wrote for radio and newspaper,s everything was measured by the word and kept very short.

Tell us a bit about your most recent book project.

The good news is that I have the same editor, and that it is more true stories about life in Haines. This time the focus is not on obituaries, but on faith—not just religious, but the things we believe in that we can’t prove, with chapter titles from the Book of Common Prayer to set the tone in the reader’s heat and heart. There is also my own life-changing accident and then my mother’s death, so the last few years have been a faith journey for me too. This book has been put together less collaboratively than the last one, mainly because I was taught well the first time. This time, instead of using short radio and newspaper pieces and putting them together and re-writing them, I still used my newspaper columns as jumping off places, but I had the book in mind from beginning, which was easier, I think. I recently gave my editor the whole manuscript and we are editing from there, rather than one chapter at a time, and instead of a year to do it, I’m hoping it will only be a few months worth of changes. I don’t have a title yet, but that doesn’t worry me, since I didn’t have a title for the last one either- The publisher came up with it after someone in the Algonquin office joked that if they lived in Haines I’d know their name—and that seemed to work out very well. Mostly, I have been very fortunate, since I know so many very good writers who haven’t had the breaks I have. I’m grateful for the opportunity Algonquin Books has given me, and at the same time, I work very hard to give them my best efforts.

Scroll to Top