Leslie Hsu Oh interviews Don Rearden: The Raven’s Gift

Over Snow City’s crabby omelets and their world famous Pecan Sticky Bun, Don and his wife, Annette, took me on the exciting ride of a debut novelist. As you may have heard, 49 Writers Board President Don Rearden has a thriller coming out on January 25, 2011: The Raven’s Gift. I had the privilege of getting a sneak peek and for days, I couldn’t sleep. As Seth Kantner says, “If you’re not scared, be scared: Don Rearden’s The Raven’s Gift will propel you pell-mell into a terrifying future of plague on the Alaskan tundra – all too real if you’ve talked with elders who survived 1917 – all too frightening if you have sense to know this future can start five minutes from now.” To see what other reviewers are saying about The Raven’s Gift and read the first chapter, check out http://www.donrearden.com./

Don is also a talented screenwriter, poet, and Assistant Professor of Developmental Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He’ll be a featured author along with Bill Streever and publisher Kent Sturgis at our “Resolve to Write” salon-style gathering on Friday, Jan. 14 (by invitation to members and volunteers; there’s still time to join). He’ll also be teaching Alaskan Screenwriting 101 starting March 15, 2011 from 7-9pm for 49 Writers, visit our website to register now.

Having travelled among Alaska Native villages, I think what makes your novel marketable is that readers get a chance to experience what it’s like to work and live on the tundra. How much of your novel was grounded upon your own personal experience of growing up and working in the bush?

In so many ways my worldview and the way I live my life today was largely shaped by life in southwest Alaska. This novel is informed by those experiences as much as my day to day life is — my childhood on the tundra made me who I am today. To grow up amongst a family of storytellers, in a culture of storytellers, is pretty special. The connection between my earliest experiences writing and my early days trying to negotiate my strange role as a white boy in a Yup’ik world is intimately connected. The plus side? While I can’t afford to fly home every time I get homesick, I can sit down at the computer and be back on the tundra or the Kuskokwim River as soon as my fingers hit the keyboard.

The structure of The Raven’s Gift reminds me of TV shows like The Event or Lost, where the scenes flash forward and back and out of sequence. Did this come naturally? Did your background in screenwriting and poetry play a role?

The structure of the novel presented itself to me that way from the outset. I first met the main characters in a horrible situation, and then I wanted to see how they got to that point and what brought them together. While the story is set in the past, three separate timelines are weaved together. In many ways I think this is similar to the traditional stories I grew up with. A story just occurred, it happened a few days back, or the event took place ak’a tamaani, long ago. As for the different mode of writing that I dabble in, I suppose that my screenwriting and poetry writing play a role in that I hope my imagery can successfully paint a picture of the place and the struggles the characters face.

I was impressed to learn that The Raven’s Gift took you a year to write and is being published nearly intact to the way you originally wrote it. What writing processes work for you? Do you have a system, like a certain number of pages per day?

The first draft took roughly a year or so to write. I am pretty manic about writing. Spurts and fits. Sometimes just an hour or two here or there or on those perfect Alaskan spring days, the hours will roll with the sun across the horizon and the pages begin to stack up. I’m far too impatient of a writer to spend years and years on a single draft of a novel. My process is probably something like a tundra blizzard. I start slow, and build momentum, reach a blinding and furious pace, and then suddenly I’m done.

In your author’s note, you mention that Harold Napoleon’s Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being influenced The Raven’s Gift. According to Napoleon, young people are advised by elders to nallunguarluku, “to pretend it didn’t happen.” He says that to this day nallunguaq, better not to talk about it, remains a way of dealing with problems or unpleasant occurrences in Yup’ik life. In The Raven’s Gift, John Morgan encourages his student Alex to “write how you feel and share this burden.” How do you respect nallunguaq in your writing while also showing others how to overcome it?

Napoleon’s book is such an important work. It was a transformative piece of writing for me. I grew up with this idea of pretending the bad stuff didn’t happen. After the number of people you know who have killed themselves reaches deep into the double digits, you begin to wonder if the choice to not talk about the bad things is the really the way to go. Creative writing has, for as long as I can remember, been my way to deal with the loss of so many friends to suicide, accidents, murder, and substance abuse. Perhaps writing about such loss is my way of following the rules of not talking, or am I defying them? I don’t know. I do know that I’ve grown weary of bad news from home. I see writing and creativity as a way for people to deal with what is happening in rural Alaska. Writing, art, music. Perhaps the arts can open a dialog, or just be the dialog itself.

In The Raven’s Gift, the old woman and the blind girl both tell Yup’ik oral narratives like Big Mouth Baby to John Morgan. Cultural appropriation is certainly something I worry about anytime I write about Alaska Natives. How did you handle cultural appropriation?

I first heard the story of the Big Mouth Baby when I was in second grade. It haunted me and continues to. I’ve been hearing and sharing versions of that story with Yup’ik and non-Yup’ik audiences since then. It is true that I worry a little about being criticized for cultural appropriation, but to be honest, I am more worried about the stories disappearing themselves. I guess I’m willing to take that risk. I’m worried that the stories are being lost, replaced with SpongeBob and the latest gaming system. The Yup’ik stories within my novels and my other writing are more important and more meaningful than I could ever hope to create in any piece of my fiction. I can only hope that in sharing those stories I do them and those who have told them for millennia justice.

John Morgan asks his students to read a Howard Zinn essay that used excerpts from Columbus’s journals and write a letter to Columbus, an assignment I recognized from your Introduction to College Writing syllabus. Do you feel teaching drains or fills the creative well for your own work?

Both. Sometimes the weight of all those essays I need to comment on feels like too much, but at the same time I really love sharing the power of creativity and writing with students. I feel like I am a perpetual student of writing myself. I can tell you that once the spring semester ends, and all my grades are in, that is when I sit on my porch in the spring sun and usually write like a maniac for days on end.

It’s rare to find mentorship in the writing world and you have been one of the most generous colleagues that I have met. Why do you think it’s important to help a fellow writer? Have mentors played a role in your career?

Thanks for the kind words! I probably learn as much about writing when mentoring as I do actually writing. Perhaps this is why we mentor other writers and why others choose to mentor us? I have been incredibly fortunate in my writing career to have some major league mentors and coaches. I was just a kid who grew up on the tundra and wanted to write. Many experienced writers were kind enough to share their wisdom and guidance with me and I feel I owe it to them to pass that tradition along. I have so much yet to learn, and along the way I hope to share as much of that knowledge as I can with other young writers.

4 thoughts on “Leslie Hsu Oh interviews Don Rearden: The Raven’s Gift”

  1. I have read the first Chapter to Raven's Gift and I am looking forward to getting the book either for my Nook or in hardcopy. Also, I am signed up for the Screenwriting class in March. See everyone there. Looking forward to it.

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Great interview and an excellent interviewer-interviewee match! (I enjoyed that Leslie knew enough about Don's teaching, life, and AK issues, including cultural appropriation, to add those extra questions and insights.) Congrats again, Don!

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