Andromeda Romano-Lax | An interview with Caroline Van Hemert, author of “The Sun is a Compass”

49 Writers and the Anchorage Museum present a talk and book signing with Caroline Van Hemert on Wednesday, March 20 from 7-8:30 PM for her newly released book, a memoir that blends Alaska adventure, natural history and personal narrative. Hear stories about her 4,000-mile wilderness journey from the Pacific rainforest to the Chukchi Sea. Her research and expeditions have been featured by the New York Times and other major media outlets. Event to be held at the Anchorage Museum. Event is free; use the museum’s 7th Ave entrance. The author is also appearing at Fireside Books for a ticketed dinner event on Thursday, March 21 and at the UAA Campus Bookstore Monday, March 25 from 4-6 PM.

Caroline found time to speak with Andromeda, who was fortunate to read an early draft of the book.

Your book tells the story of an amazing 4,000-mile journey with your husband, by rowboat, ski, foot, raft and canoe. Then after finishing the trip in 2012, you faced the task of writing a memoir about it. Did you always plan to write a book? Which of the two journeys was harder, or how would you compare them? 

I had always wanted to return to writing after a relatively long hiatus. For the five years preceding our trip, I immersed myself in biology research in pursuit of my PhD and had effectively trained myself out of creative writing (thanks to the very dry and scripted convention of scientific writing). The trip seemed like a logical way back in, and I kept a journal religiously along the way with the intention of using this material in a future book project. The journals ended up having relatively little utility besides fact checking, but were my first critical step in committing to this book. Hmm, which one was harder, traveling 4,000 miles under my own power or writing about it? Writing, of course! (Though I may have disagreed while being stalked by a predatory bear in the Brooks Range or wading through mud to my thighs on the Mackenzie Delta.) On our trip, the immediacy of each day’s needs overshadowed many of my doubts. I had a clear goal, and the only way to reach it was to keep moving. With writing, as we all know, there is ample opportunity for self-doubt and no guarantee that a project will ever come to fruition. During the process of writing the book, I spent many days feeling defeated and wondering why I was compelled to do this impossible thing. But what the two experiences shared in common was a lesson in endurance—of the body and the mind. I now know I can walk the length of the Brooks Range or rewrite a chapter thirty three times and still come out the other end mostly intact.

Related to this, I’m curious about the process of writing and how it shapes our sense of a journey. Did you feel like meaning came from the trip itself, or was it in writing about the trip that you fully came to understand it or actively shape it into something with more tangible meaning, both for you and for readers?  

Excellent question. I think both parts of the process are important. The trip itself certainly carried a lot of inherent meaning, whether or not I ever decided to write about it. But the ability to understand and articulate how our journey influenced my perspectives on science, wilderness, love, and family has come about through the act of writing. It’s also allowed me to fix certain experiences in my memory by revisiting them again and again. One unexpected gift of taking on this project has been the growing connections I’ve made with other writers. I’ve begun to tap into a community of like-minded people who believe that words can shape our world.

On top of adventuring and writing, you’re an active researcher and mother of two young children. How do you blend these roles?

Not always gracefully! The reality is that there simply isn’t enough time in the day to do my various jobs (including parenting) as well as I’d like, while still being present in the act of living. This year is unique in that we’re taking a family sabbatical to travel and live remotely, though I am also continuing my work as a biologist and writer. So my days naturally take on a certain level of chaos—respond to a work email, clean up the spilled milk from lunch, finish a magazine pitch, read the tractor book to my sons for the fifteenth time, and finally throw up my hands and go for a run or ski. Fortunately I have a very supportive partner, as none of this would be possible without Pat’s help. I’ve also found that becoming a mother has increased my writing efficiency greatly. Before my older son was born, I thought I needed a good night’s sleep, an ideal work space, and the right creative juju to write a decent paragraph. I quickly learned that a good pair of earplugs and a cup of strong coffee do the job just as well. Although my boys (ages 2 and 4) have little concept of quiet time, I can’t dismiss the important role they play in my writing life. They often drag me away from my desk to show me small moments of discovery and wonder that tell a story we all want to hear.

You mentioned the importance of finding out what your story was really about before you could shape it properly. How did you finally get clarity on that key question?

Often, it seems that writers are so close to their subject when a writing project begins that it’s difficult to have the perspective needed to tap into the heart of a story. This was also the case for me with The Sun is a Compass. I began writing shortly after we’d finished the 6-month, 4,000-mile journey that forms the narrative structure of the book. I hadn’t yet figured out exactly what that experience meant to me or how I’d learned and changed from it, much less what it might mean to readers in their own lives. So I started writing in the easiest, and often least interesting, way by telling the story as it happened, from beginning to end. After several drafts, it seemed that my scenes were working—they were rich with action, tension, and imagery—but the book still lacked a compelling reason for why I had taken such a journey in the first place. Only after several key readers pointed out this omission did I begin to ask myself the very same question. Why? What was unique about my reasons for going? What was universal? Later, my agent asked me a simple, and seemingly unrelated, question about bird migration. In this way, birds found their way back into the book, much like they have at so many other turns in my life. 

Having a strong opening is essential at so many stages: getting an agent, finding a publisher, and ultimately getting readers. Can you tell us about your current opening and perhaps also about some wrong openings you tried or the revision process that helped you nail down the opening you’re now using? 

A book’s opening is one of those critical decisions that a savvy reader can help direct, and redirect if and when we take a wrong turn. The Sun is a Compass opens with a scene of my husband and I swimming the Chandalar River in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska. There’s drama in the physical act of swimming a big Arctic river, but, more importantly, the prologue highlights the very personal stakes and rewards of our journey. My first opening was in media res, like the current one, but it was a rowing scene from the Inside Passage. The selection was partially a reflection of my initial inability to see beyond simple chronology. I was juggling a number of structural challenges with backstory and I hadn’t even considered further complicating the chronology. However, several readers pointed out that the rowing opening I had selected was not only lacking tension (at least compared to other events during our trip), but also misrepresented the central relationship in the book. It was written decently, and stood alone fine, but simply didn’t do the work it needed to as an opening. Andromeda deserves special credit for flagging as important the scene I ultimately chose (swimming the Chandalar River). Later, after I’d made more substantial revisions to the book, I was able to see what other key elements should be integrated into the prologue, which included birds, as well as my motivations for the journey. 

We hope to see you at one of Van Hemert’s events. To see photos and read more about her many journeys, visit her website. Invite your friends to the Museum event via the launch’s Facebook event.

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