Kellie Doherty interviews Deb Vanasse, author of Cold Spell

Tell us about your background.

I’m a full-time writer. To supplement my income, I work as a freelance editor (developmental and proofreading), and I teach creative writing workshops. My undergraduate degree is in English, and I have a Master of Arts in Humanities.

I live on Hiland Mountain, outside of Anchorage (in Eagle
River, actually), but I also spend as much time as possible at my husband’s
cabin on the Matanuska River, overlooking the Matanuska Glacier. Before moving
to Anchorage, I lived in Fairbanks for twenty years, and before that, I lived
in Southwestern Alaska, in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: Nunapitchuk, Tuluksak,
Akiachak, Bethel.

How did you get into writing?

Like most writers, I’ve always loved books and language. At
first, writing books—especially fiction—seemed too lofty a goal, so I studied
journalism. But then I switched colleges and ended up at a school with an awful
journalism program, so I became an English major. The more I studied
literature, the more I wanted to write fiction. But when my college advisor
asked how I planned to make a living as a novelist, I couldn’t say. He steered
me into teaching, but I never let go of my ambition to write fiction. I decided
I’d teach twenty years and retire (as you used to be able to do in Alaska), and
then I’d do what I really wanted, which was to write books.
Deb Vanasse

Why an Alaskan book?

I’m very taken by place, and this is the place I know best.
And I think Alaska’s ready for more literary/book club fiction set in our
state. Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves
set the standard for all of us in that regard. So I’m hugely excited that the
official book launch for Cold Spell
is going to be Oct. 3–6 with Seth, who’s launching a new book of his own, a
children’s book. It’s fun to be swapping places—he’s the one known for literary
fiction, and I’m known for children’s books.
How was the publishing experience for you?
Cold Spell is my
fourteenth published book, so I’ve had lots of different experiences in
publishing: agented, unagented, big publisher, small press, and now,
independent publishing. For Cold Spell, I had what I consider an ideal
arrangement: a traditional press published the softcover edition, while I
retained rights to the other editions—ebooks, audio books, foreign rights. It’s
up to me now to prove to the print publisher that by my active promotion of
those other rights, we’ll sell more print copies than we would have otherwise.
You wrote quite a few children’s books. Why such a detour
with Cold Spell?

Cold Spell is the novel I always aspired to write, the sort
of book I love to read, with intriguing characters, evocative prose, and a
compelling storyline. In that sense, the children’s books were the detour; I
fell into writing them without really intending to. I enjoy the challenge of children’s
books—in many ways, kids tolerate a lot less in terms of sloppiness than adult
readers will. And I love interacting with kids. But my desire was to write a
well-received novel for grown-ups. It feels great to have finally done that!
Why did you have both Sylvie and Ruth so interested in the

My characters are an unruly bunch—if I tried to “have” them
do anything, they’d turn right around and do something completely different.
For the most part, I discover who they are and what interests them by seeing
what they do on the page. If I knew from the start what they’d do, I’m afraid
I’d get bored with them, and that would carry over to the reader. So it wasn’t
until Ruth tore that photo out of the magazine that I knew she had an odd
obsession with the glacier, and it wasn’t until Sylvie arrived at the glacier
that I saw how her mother’s obsession was going to affect her, despite her best
efforts to resist it.
What was the significance of Kenny and Ruth’s relationship?

I suppose it’s another of my flaws as a writer—it’s
certainly not very efficient—but I rarely know what anything in a story
signifies until after it’s on the page. And in the case of Kenny and Ruth’s
relationship, I don’t know that it signifies anything. I suppose on some level
I’m interested in sexual politics, in that I’m intrigued by the ways women rely
on sexuality when other avenues to power elude them. In the triangle involving
Kenny, Ruth, and Sylvie, there’s a lot of that going on.
What was the inspiration for the trucker?

David Vann (an author I hugely admire) wrote that Cold Spell
is Greek tragedy; that while you like Ruth and Sylvie and hope they won’t hurt
each other, you know that they will. An extension of that is that they also seem
destined to harm themselves. When Sylvie feels powerless, she asserts herself
sexually. You can only do so much of that before you get into trouble. The
trucker is trouble.
Brody and Sylvie seem to have a tenuous relationship. Why
did you decide to have their relationship disintegrate, only to resume?

If only I could decide such things, writing would be so much
easier. Brody and Sylvie made their moves on the page, and I tried not to be a
knucklehead about seeing the obvious, so that in revision, I could clarify what
was going on. In retrospect, I think Brody works in opposition to the trucker.
He’s vulnerable, though he doesn’t want to be, and it’s through him that Sylvie
lets herself become vulnerable, which in turn helps her emerge from her
preoccupation with herself.
What do you do to overcome writer’s block?

I always hate saying this, because it seems like I’ll jinx
it, but in truth, I’ve never had writer’s block. I think writer’s block is
strongly connected to a fear of failure, and while I’ve certainly failed often
in life, I’ve never had much fear of it. I can generally write my way through
stuck points; in fact, a bigger problem for me is forging ahead in a story when
I should have stopped to assess whether it was heading in the best possible
Are there any more books in the works?

Always! I’ve just finished a narrative nonfiction manuscript
that I worked on during roughly the same time period in which I wrote Cold Spell, a biography of Kate Carmack,
an integral but overlooked figure in Klondike gold rush history. When I was
well into the draft, I realized that this book would be the first non-academic
rendering of the gold rush from the perspective of those who were there first,
Alaska Natives and the First Nations of the Yukon, so I wanted to make sure it
was as accurate and compelling as possible. I’m also working on a book for
writers: What Every Author Should Know.
What words of wisdom would you give to a writer?

With any luck, the book I mentioned, What Every Author Should Know, will impart 85,000 words of wisdom! One
of the most important, in my reckoning, is to persevere. Writing is hard work.
At every turn, you encounter discouragement. If you give in to it, you’re done.
You write the best book you can, and then you make it better. You don’t quit.

Founder of Running Fox Books and co-founder of 49 Writers, Deb Vanasse has authored twelve books, the latest of which is Cold Spell. Deb is currently working on a narrative nonfiction book called Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold. She lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier.

49 Writers member Kellie Doherty, who has volunteered for us for several years–most recently as a blog interviewer, is leaving Alaska soon to pursue her Master’s in Publishing. We wish Kellie well in her new endeavors and thank her for her many contributions behind the scenes.
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