In All Ways Rich

Skagway, site of this year’s North Words Writers Symposium

You have a fine idea for a book, a nonfiction narrative that weaves the riveting stories of three men whose lives intersected when they reinvented themselves during the Klondike Gold Rush. Recording their journeys, the three left notes, letters, and journals. There’s only one tiny problem: all three are liars.

During his keynote address to the North Words Writers Symposium last Saturday, New York Times bestseller and Edgar Award winner Howard Blum described the dilemma writing his latest of his nine books, The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, released April 26 by Random House and under development as a major motion picture with Twentieth Century Fox. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting while at the New York Times, Blum is no stranger to truth. But as anyone who has combed through “firsthand” gold rush accounts will attest, the same Klondike-era penchant for reinvention that became the theme for Blum’s book makes fact-finding tricky.

Speaking to the energetic and talented North Words writing gang, Blum noted that his latest book was born from his own childhood memories of playing cowboys in what were then the woods near his East Coast home. “Development could take over our playground,” he said. “But they couldn’t bulldoze my imagination.”

Chasing the story of cowboy detective Charlie Siringo, Blum discovered the Klondike was the perfect narrative territory to explore: unique, compelling, and exotic. In addition to Siringo, there was George Carmack, “deeply flawed, overwhelmed by the isolation.” There was notorious con man Soapy Smith, “at the end of his line.” Together, the three were “iconic but inflated,” full of “self-serving fabrications and blatant lies.” But at least they gave access, as Blum put it, to their version of the truth.

Among the universal admonishments cast upon writers is to seek and speak truth. But whose truth? In what version? Judgments must be made, as Blum pointed out, to achieve a “fully sustaining and compelling narrative” while remaining anchored to truth.” These questions and these judgments were among the topics that sprang up during the engaging North Words sessions last week. They are the same questions, the same judgments, that Kim Rich will explore in our Memoir Weekend June 24-27.

Sifting. Extracting. Balancing. Juggling. When it comes to narrative truth, where and how do you find it?
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