Jeremy Pataky interviews Tom Kizzia on Pilgrim's Wilderness

Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness has just been named a Top 10 Recommended Book for July by Barnes & Noble and a Top 10 Best Book of July by the Apple Store. Here, Jeremy Pataky interviews the author.

While Bob Hale, or “Papa Pilgrim”, ultimately became infamous for his deceitful and abusive nature, the drama surounding his family touches a wide array of political, psychological, and religious nerves. When did you consciously decide to expand on your work as a reporter covering the Pilgrim’s showdown with the National Park Service and write a full-blown book, and why did the story seem important to tell?

This was a book that started with a bulldozer in a national park. In that sense, the original newspaper stories naturally introduced some of those big themes you refer to, themes of wilderness and modern attitudes toward nature and the mythology of American pioneering. It was only after I interviewed Papa Pilgrim over the phone, and found his self-presentation to be weirdly fascinating, that I decided I should try to go meet him. And after I rode out to the old copper mine to meet his family, one thing led to another, until the family and the father had become the main focus.

For a long time, of course, I had no idea where the family story was headed. They guarded their secrets well. After my big profile stories ran in the Anchorage Daily News in late 2003, people asked if I was planning a book. I told them not until I saw what the last chapter was going to be. Because I knew there was going to be another chapter. And when the criminal charges against Papa Pilgrim emerged, it almost seemed too dark to pursue beyond the newspaper. I had no plans for a book until I got to know the “Pilgrim” kids better and learned their story of conscience and compassion. That gave me a surprise ending. So I started working on a book proposal.

Writing the book manuscript over a three-year period, I went through this whole process again of sorting out the family story and the big political/historical issues. My first draft tried to be a Big Alaska Book, full of reporting about the history of Alaska’s national parks and McCarthy/Kennicott and my own Alaska memoir. I ended up cutting that whole manuscript by one-third, throwing out entire chapters. It wasn’t easy, but I came to trust that I was working with an unusual story that carried all the big themes easily.

That said, I will add that without the trappings of mythology and Americana, without the Alaska wilderness setting and the post-modern playing with those ideas that Papa Pilgrim specialized in, I might not have tried to make a book out of the story of a family that turned into a cult. 

Was it easy to decide exactly how to integrate your own first-person experiences and observations into the narrative?

No, it was really hard. I naturally hesitated to use the first-person, as a newspaper veteran. Then I let go and poured out a lot of memoir. Most of that got cut. But I wanted to keep one sedimentary layer of the book in first-person. I looked at how others had done that – books like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, which uses a personal story to reflect on the reported story.

In my book, it was factually accurate and part of the story that Papa Pilgrim had previously kept reporters at bay but let me approach his homestead as a cabin owner in the McCarthy area (even though he would soon enough become media-giddy). Putting myself in the foreground midway through the book explained things about my understanding of the area, allowed first-person observation of several scenes, and introduced some interesting back and forth between Pilgrim and me as we played each other in a Joe McGinniss/Janet Malcolm way.

It also seemed vital, the more I wrote, to provide the reader with an external perspective on the family’s own take on their story of bondage and deliverance, which they saw as a kind of Christian allegory, or maybe an Old Testament tale written by God. And in the end the personal passages were more about my wife, Sally, than about me. I realized I could couch my own love of wilderness as love of my wife, and her passing added to the lost-world mood of the McCarthy/Kennicott setting, the glacial grinding of time and the loss of our pioneer dreams.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness can be read, in part, as a story about storytelling – the narrative is propelled by Pilgrim’s contorted biblical exegisis and his letters, and by the local bimonthly newspaper Wrangell St. Elias News. Your own early reporting for the ADN helped trigger national attention in land rights circles. In parsing through these and other threads, did you learn anything about how people conceive stories, and did writing this book reveal or change anything about your own critical or creative process?

Great question. I’m glad you noticed the storytelling aspects. All that just kind of emerged, as I was pondering how to tell their story and realized the family was convinced it was a story being told by a Higher Being with a definite purpose. My narrative design had to incorporate their narrative design. There were times when I had just to get out of the way, however, to shake my head and say, “Well, that certainly worked out nicely for the story. Thanks, Whoever.” Then as you say there were all these smaller narratives at work as people tried to project their own version of events, for political or other reasons. One of Robert Hale’s greatest skills was to rewrite history. He would twist a story and retell that version so many times in the cabin that his children couldn’t sort fact from fiction.

Tom Kizzia

Between your personal connections to McCarthy and the window into its community that you gained through research, do you have predictions about how this book will be received by the rural community it spotlights as opposed to the national audience of readers?

Now you’re toying with me. You know the community out there better than I do, and will have a better sense of whether I’ve put my foot in a bucket with anyone. It can be hard to write honestly about people you care about, people you hope will like you. I tried to keep in mind that my first allegiance was to my reader – not to a “national audience,” but to the individual ideal reader somewhere out there, who was asking to be transported into this world. This is something all writers grapple with, even fiction writers drawing from real life.

That doesn’t mean I could make things up or get things wrong. I think I carry a somewhat heavier burden on this score, coming out of a newspaper career. Some of the narrative non-fiction I looked at to prepare myself for this project turned out to be astonishingly loose with actual facts.

There may well be facts and attributed motivations in my book that individuals in the Wrangells will take issue with. I hope people in McCarthy, and the Hale and Buckingham families, will realize that this is one writer’s version of McCarthy and what happened there. I was probably uniquely perched to write it, being only slightly part of the community and having a newsman’s motivation to be nosier than is normally considered polite in a small town.

I’ll give away one secretand it was the secret to much of my success during my newspaper career. There were people who knew the subject and the community far better than I did, people who trusted me and were willing to bounce around ideas, some of whom show up in the book little or not at all. Having invisible sources like that has always helped me to write with more confidence and in a stronger voice.

What’s next for Pilgrim’s Wilderness? Any talk of film rights? And what are your plans for promoting this book?

No peep from Hollywood. Right now I’m just bobbing along on this river, promoting the book when asked. Crown has been aggressive at getting the word out, which is great. Between uncorrected proofs and early hardbacks for review and giveaways, they’ve distributed hundreds of books already – almost more than Holt’s entire press run for The Wake of the Unseen Object, my first book. (One of the coolest things about
Pilgrim’s Wilderness is that I am now able to toss out that luscious phrase, “my first book.”)

Like most publishers these days, I guess, Crown doesn’t think book tours sell many books, unless you’re a celebrity author. I’ve arranged some travel on my own to the Lower 48 over the next few months, and Crown has been very good about helping set up bookstore events in the cities on my itinerary. I’ve picked up my social media game but I could do better.

One problem I’ve encountered is that I never developed a good “elevator pitch.” The Pilgrim Family saga is big and sprawling, and there’s a lot to explain about McCarthy and Alaska before it starts to make sense. It’s hard to express concisely. The problem is that, for the past three or four years, whenever anyone in Alaska asked what I was
working on, all I had to say was “the inside story of the Pilgrim Family,” and
their eyes would get wide and they’d say, “Ooh, I can’t wait to read that.”

Jeremy Pataky is a poet and writer based in McCarthy and Anchorage, and a founding 49 Writers board member.   

Tom Kizzia will discuss the book and story on July 2, 2013 at 7 pm at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center as part of the Museum’s History series. Free admission followed with book signing.

1 thought on “Jeremy Pataky interviews Tom Kizzia on Pilgrim's Wilderness”

  1. Long ago, I discovered your phrase, roughly, that the break between Upper and Lower Kalskag was the same gap as that between Rome and Constantinople. I read these lines in the Bethel library… time passed and I did not know where I found them… not until one of the first pieces on the Pilgrim book referenced Wake of the Unseen Object… then, I knew I had it – I think 13 years had passed since I captured the phrase. In the meantime, I'd been assigned to the split Kalskags and, when traveling, often reflected on your brilliant characterization. Finally, I own a copy of the book and look forward to Pilgrim's Wilderness.

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