From Our Archives: 49 Writers Interview with Willie Hensley, author of Fifty Miles from Tomorrow

Willie Hensley

Back in
2009, we caught up with Inupiat elder and activist Willie Hensley as he was
preparing for his first book tour for Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the
Real People.
Fifty Miles from
 is your first book. What inspired you to write it?
I wrote Fifty
Miles from Tomorrow
, in part, to inspire our own people to tell their
story and to convey their knowledge of culture, history and the natural
universe–that we didn’t need our story to be filtered through people from the
Tell us how the process of writing was for you.
What were the greatest challenges, and how did you overcome them?
I was fortunate to have a good editor who took my early
writing and described what she thought would be a successful way to write for
me. My sentences tended to be too long and I didn’t realize how much my early
cultural upbringing affected how I wrote. It is very hard for an Inupiaq to
take credit for anything due to our understanding that it takes many people to
create success. I didn’t find the writing too difficult and I did very little
rewriting. I tried to describe the images in my life and my feelings and
recollections of the various stages and efforts in my life.
Memoir is a tough genre, because you end up telling
truths that may cause some discomfort for people you love. How did you resolve
these issues when crafting your story?
Very early on I realized there were painful experiences
that our people felt uncomfortable in expressing. We have lived in a harsh
universe and for over ten thousand years, we learned to suffer through
difficult circumstances without becoming whiners. To me, it was important that
I not only try to describe our way of life before great changes began to
occur–it was also important for us to expose the human toll of government and
missionary policies and practices on our people. Before I started the book, I
called my relatives to let know that I was going to write a book and they
encouraged me–painful subjects and all.
What has been most rewarding about seeing your
project through to completion?
The reward is the result. I never in my wildest imagination
thought that I could write. The thought that I could write something that
others will find worth their time and money is exhilarating. Also, I wanted our
own people to know that despite my college degree and succession of good jobs
and experiences, I also had to deal with my own adjustments to difficult
circumstances that we all have faced due to forces beyond our control. I also
am proud of that fact that other Americans and the world will have a book that
sheds some light on a part of America that people know virtually nothing about.
What creative work has engaged you since finishing
the book?
I had to work on the book at night, weekends, holidays and
on planes–as I had not retired at the time I was writing. Since then, I have
retired and tried to learn to be less driven–now beginning the effort to help
my publisher publicize the book. I will spend most of January and the first
quarter on the road. If the book sells reasonably, my publisher has first
option on another book. I have not decided what the subject might be but I have
some thoughts. I am not like most writers who are “driven” to write.
I would like to try a novel.

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