Interview with mystery writer and poet John Straley : “I’m still putting a lot of ravens in my books…”

Publisher’s Weekly called THE BIG BOTH WAYS “understated and vivid.” The Denver Post compared it to Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH.

John Straley’s newest mystery takes place mostly in a dory traveling the Inside Passage, and before you think, you can’t row the Inside Passage in a dory, take note that Straley based the premise on his talks with an elder Alaskan, Robert DeArmond, who had done exactly that.

I’ll have more to say about Straley’s book starting tomorrow (please stop by and comment!) but for now, let me introduce the author.

Andromeda: Many readers are familiar with your Cecil Younger series. Tell me about your new direction with THE BIG BOTH WAYS. It’s written in third person; it has a 1930s feel, not just in terms of the story but somehow in the storytelling also. I also read that it took longer to write. What prompted this new direction and what was the writing process like, including any particular pleasures or challenges?

John Straley: In 1983-84 I spent a lot of time in the Pioneers Home in Sitka. I was asked by a therapist and a group of residents to put together a collection of stories. I did interviews and spent time just visiting with residents who had been born in the beginning of the 20th Century. This was my graduate school in Alaskan history, culture and folklore. I grew fascinated in the territorial history. Almost all of the Cecil Younger books acknowledge that generation of Alaskans. DEATH AND THE LANGUAGE OF HAPPINESS was directly inspired by that history.
When I looked for a new series I wanted to build a historical foundation for my own little boardwalk town. So I went back to the Pioneer Home and worked with Robert DeArmond who at 97 is a preeminent historian who had also rowed a dory down the Inside Passage in 1933. It took seven years to write this book partly because I had to rid myself of the Cecil first person voice and partly because of the enjoyment I took in the research.

And yes. I hope someday to write another Cecil book. I love that voice. It just wasn’t right for my new book.

Andromeda: You have a long, positive track record as an award-winning author. At the same time, I’ve heard from other well-established authors that the post-debut years can be tricky in terms of marketing, or being pigeonholed within a certain genre, just to name two challenges. How has your writing and publishing life evolved over the years? (And do you still, as I read in one interview, manage to write 2000 words a day, five days a week?)

John Straley: I’ve lucked into my writing career. I came to Alaska in 1977 and worked for the Forest Service. In the early eighties I was offered a job as an investigator for a law firm. I worked as a Private Investigator all over the state, doing mostly criminal defense investigations. It was (and still is) fascinating work and I thought others might be interested in some of the things I both learned and imagined while doing this wild work. My first book sold reasonably well and raised a lot of expectations for future sales. But I never broke into the upper level of sales, and after a good run of six novels published and promoted by a major publisher, my editor at Bantam suggested that I try a new approach. She described this new approach as “more crime, fewer ravens.”

I have spent my share of time complaining about the publishing world but the truth is, it’s an amazing privilege to be published at all. I’ve done books with small houses and big ones. Each has its own perils and rewards but at the end of the day it’s a humbling experience when I get the news that I’ve sold something to someone who wants to edit, design, market, print, ship, store and deliver something I wrote to a bookstore. It’s incredible.

But I’m still putting a lot of ravens in my books. I can’t write for some imagined market. Not that I don’t want to for some kind of artsy-sticking-to-my-guns reason. I mean, I really can’t. That’s the truth of it. So, it’s not surprising that I’m not with a huge house anymore. I feel blessed to have hooked up with Alaska Northwest Books and hope we can have a profitable relationship by selling my weird raven laden crime stories and making money together. Only time and fortune will tell.

As to my process: I can be disciplined when I have to, but these days I don’t write two thousand words every day. I write two thousand words a day when I’m working on a rough draft of a novel. Then, when I revise the rough draft I carve out a number of hours I can spend and try to stick to that. I’m back working as a criminal defense investigator now so I’m working long hours at my day job and squeeze in three hours a day when I’m in harness to meet a deadline.

Andromeda: Not to harp on the negative (especially given the wonderful atttitude you’ve shared here), but… Print reviews are way down; even the Daily News has slimmed all of its content; the internet is flourishing but writers still have a hard time connecting with readers. What challenges or opportunities do you see ahead? Any ideas for our Alaska authors’ community as a whole?

John Straley: My advice to Alaska writers is to read as much as you can. Read widely and with an open mind. Don’t get into the trap of selling yourself as a “real Alaskan” out to prove your credentials. I’m not sure what a real Alaskan is but I’m sure that there is no one person who can represent the entire state. The details gained from an attentive mind will make your work unique. Leave the labeling to others.

Also when writing about Alaska, be gentle with your editors and readers. It’s not their fault that they are ignorant of your experience in this wild country. They need some land marks. They need help with understanding the size and scale of the place. They need help understanding the differences in geography and cultures of this vast region. Alaska is an easy place to sound smug about. It doesn’t help your reader get into the dream world of your story if you are constantly bludgeoning them with your superior knowledge. I’m only giving the advice I have to constantly give myself, and in so doing may be revealing more about myself than I intend.

As far as connecting with an audience, the Internet is going to open opportunities. Blogs like this one will help you find your audience. I think the new successful Alaskan writers will be internet savvy while at the same time understanding their own pre-tech history.

I also recommend reading your work aloud when ever you can. I’m thinking new technology will create better markets for audio files and formats for our stories. I think youtube or its inheritor will create new literary opportunities. These forms will mature and grow. But I’m sure that clarity, accuracy, and an awareness of the lyrical beauty of words will always be virtues no matter the medium.

Andromeda: Tell us about your new poetry book.

John Straley: My new book of poetry came out in the middle of October. It’s called THE RISING AND THE RAIN. It’s a collection of poems from the last fifteen years. Poetry was my first love. I left high school wanting to be a farmer and poet. (Two wacky career choices…my eventual profession as a private investigator was another.) I write poems for friends and special occasions: weddings, funerals and births. I also have belonged to a far flung poetry group of nine poets who share their poems during the winter. We write a poem a month and share the poems just with each other. John Reinhard, formerly of UAF got it started and invited me in. Just that simple discipline of writing a poem a month went a long way to making that book possible. (Note, we’ll share one of John’s poems in a post later this week.)

Andromeda: Share some highlights or anecdotes from your recently completed term as Alaska State Writer.

John: I loved being the Writer Laureate. I had a chance to travel to places in the State I hadn’t been. Each laureate is supposed to have a program to promote literacy around the state. I chose to speak to young people about using their personal experience to create a discipline of writing. It was a simple message that what you actually see, hear, smell and experience right here and right now in Alaska can be the basis for great literature. I found the most receptive students to be in the jails and detention centers. I tried to encourage urban and rural kids and teachers alike. I gave a prize each year for Sitka’s high school juniors and seniors in Sitka. I would like to someday take such a prize statewide.
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