If you liked Ordinary Wolves…

First, our thanks to all who weighed in with insights, comments, and questions during our book club discussion of Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves. I’ve come away enriched, and I love knowing that readers can keep returning to ponder these threads in our archives.

A couple of great Alaskan titles came up during our discussion. Today I’d like to add another: Flight of the Goose by Lesley Thomas, a book I learned of through the 49 writers community. I stumbled a bit with the first few pages (as I also did with Straley’s The Big Both Ways), but the tale soon drew me in. The setting and some of the themes are reminiscent of Ordinary Wolves, though the style and vision differ enough to make it a great companion read. Kayuqtuq,the protagonist is an Inupiaq woman, an aspiring shaman. “I wanted to explain we were good actors up north,” she says, “who hid our feelings because others were so good at hearing the unspoken. We were mimics who could lie with our gestures, laying false trails to survive.”

Because it was published by a press I didn’t recongize, I might never have picked up Flight of the Goose. That would have been my loss. Later I’ll be posting about the changes plowing through publishing these days – how they affect all of us as authors and readers, how some of our assumptions about big and small and known and unknown and self are being stirred and shaken and washed away. But first, a chat with author Lesley Thomas:

Flight of the Goose feels epic in its vision. Tell us about how the story evolved.

“Epic” is a nice word. I’ve also seen “The author fell prey to writer intoxication” or “A ten pound door stop.” But you mean epic not as length, maybe. I looked up “epic” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_poetry – and I do have elements of an archaic epic. My novel opens in media res with both protagonists “in the middle of things” and “at their lowest point”. It begins with an invocation and statement of the theme, uses epithets, moves over a vast landscape, with divine intervention in human affairs and heroes that embody the values of the two civilizations. Both my heroes are on a quest, face adversaries and return (or not) transformed.

Many threads converged to weave me into an epic novelist. Such stories are in my blood and upbringing. My dreams are mostly mythic, with animal guides, time travel, shapeshifters, heroes, battles, poetry. My parents were itinerant and literary and always on a big quest, bringing my many brothers and me along with no regard for contemporary childrearing practices, thank god. We lived tragicomic epic adventures on homesteads, in a coastal Northwest Alaskan village, on a salmon troller in Southeast Alaska, and on subsistence trips in the Interior taiga and coastal tundra, immersed in powerful landscapes infused with multicultural archetypes and meaning. We were often in danger. We encountered amazing, storybook-like characters in old-time Alaska, and, of course, mysterious ruins and bears. Mom made us learn survival skills, animal lore and writing — my first epic composed at seven was the quest of a migratory goose. We had no TV, but crates of classics, world mythology (of note were Bering Strait hero tales illustrated by George Agapuk), and ethnographies of hunter gatherers. This was formative material for when we weren’t outside exploring the wilds with no adult supervision.

Storytellers also abounded in diverse family branches. Grandfather from the Norwegian Arctic wrote epics in which we starred – the antagonist was a wolverine or evil sea-captain. My great grandmother was a Metis/Scot who grew up in the NW rainforest and a great orator. My blood father was from Mountain People stock and told humorous yarns and cartooned sociopolitical satires. My first stepdad (also a bush pilot) was a journalist for the Juneau Empire as well the perpetual writer of the great Alaskan novel, and Mom was a poet and novelist. Professors of history lectured at family gatherings. My Inupiaq stepdad took me hunting and scared me with supernatural tales, and his mom taught me about nomadic life on Seward Peninsula and her spiritual journey. Later, living in Norwegian, Israeli, Japanese and Taiwanese families, I listened to old people’s personal epics. I took mental notes and started writing about the tragic clash of cultures and ecological destruction, the cross pollination and alliances, redemption. At first it was sci fi or “speculative fiction.”

Flight of the Goose incubated for decades but hatched suddenly. It was when I’d settled to raise a child in a big city, teaching English. This may sound schizoid, but the ending and beginning hit me as a vision while I was hiking, like a burning bush. I ran home to record a flood of imagery I could barely keep up with. I had to find the media res but it was easy, the bulk was written in a few weeks (the revisions took years). Material came in dreams, bird auguries, oracles, it fell out of books in synchronicities and chance meetings and many trips to Nome. The motive – late at night after chores – in part was to escape grading five-paragraph essays but also to get back to the landscape and the culture and family I missed. Fiction to me is like soul flight or a hallucinatory, hypnotic state – it removes me utterly to another world, yet it is legal and safe and is a free and easy way to travel. I had no money to travel.

I wrote also to process all I’d experienced growing up that lay in wait in my unconscious; I was studying Jungian ideas then, but had no money to try psychotherapy. Raising a daughter seemed to trigger what was buried and wanted to be brought to light and turned over like an artifact, and the novel was a way to do that. But just as important a motive: I am idealistic with an ecologist’s training, and the rapacious destruction in the 80s and 90s to the Mother, to indigeneous cultures, made me want to take action, and I was too shy to go out and be a rabble rouser.

Anyway, the urge to write this novel was like a Calling or what a salmon feels to go upriver, something I couldn’t resist.

Recently at 49 writers we discussed different perspectives on writers treading carefully on cultural ground. What are your thoughts on this complex issue?

I wanted to write about the changes that came to Northwest Alaska, –social, environmental, economic, religious– that all go together in reality, and I wanted to look at how they affect the small communities I am connected with. But the story wanted to be told through the intersection of two cultures, so the Muse sent one protagonist from the Inupiaq culture and one from the Euro-American.

I know some say you can’t fictionalize another culture, and there is some truth in that. I don’t have wise advice to give writers, but at least, you don’t want to characterize people as “the Other” who have historically been so wronged. I think a reparation of heightened sensitivity and respect is owed. Tread on that thin ice or knife’s edge with care. But non-Native writers shouldn’t fear creating non-white characters, or the story ends up being racist – and bland – from lack of representation. Nor should non-Anglo characters be just like whites, or mere sidekicks, or so noble and likeable they have no depth. (A great manual is African-American Nisi Shawl’s “Writing the Other”).

My relatives cautioned me “Whatever you do, don’t make your Inupiaq characters all the same!” They said it made them so mad. I wouldn’t have made that mistake, since it’s easy for me to see the diversity and range of humanity even in a tiny village. My outsider status is different because Inupiaq culture helped form me, I internalized values and assimilated young. Growing up, I was in and out of Inupiaq village households being taught lessons any kid would learn. Besides input from my Inupiaq step-father (and his mother), I got it all my life from friends, mentors, and my three brothers’ Inupiaq and Siberian Yupik in-laws. To get that voice right was a challenge I took very seriously. If I didn’t get it right, I’d be in so much trouble.

The western Alaska Native readers I’ve talked to say I caught reality really well. Elders tell me the story brings them back to that period. Younger Native readers tell me the story moves them, in particular those in cross-cultural families. The book also has fans from other parts of the world — East Asia, India, Africa, Latin America…and apparently I walked the knife’s edge safely.

I understand there’s some talk of your story making its way toward film. What can you tell us about that?

There’s strong interest. I can’t give details yet but can say it would be filmed in NW Alaska, would remain true to the story and have Native Alaskan actors. The birdman, however, might be changed to a blonde from Chicago, I don’t know why. The story might be brought into 2009 to make filming easier, and we could just use our current wars instead of the Vietnam war. The other elements of oil drilling and climate change, species loss are still here, far worse.

Tell us about your current project. Do you envision it coming to market in a similar way, or do you have other plans?

My next book will no doubt be epic, though my agent wants something trimmer. One project is set in the borderland of my own ancestors, the Sami and Viking, and one is a thriller in the circumpolar north. I’d like to get published by a high status press, for more cash. I could fly more to New York, where my daughter lives. But I’d get way more flack from my relatives, who already tease me as a city slicker.

1 thought on “If you liked Ordinary Wolves…”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Another interesting interview that extended conversations about culture, identity, and writing about rural Alaska. Thanks Deb and Lesley!

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