Mariah Oxford interviews Steve Kahn: The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship, and the Hunt

Steve Kahn’s essays about life in Alaska have been appearing in print since the late Jay Hammond first sent one off to Alaska magazine without Kahn’s knowledge. You can read 23 of these essays in his newly published collection, The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship, and the Hunt.  The journey spans fifty years and thousands of miles, through the Farewell Burn fire, the last king crab season in Kodiak Island waters, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Kahn offers engaging accounts of his experiences, and insight into his relationships with people, animals, and the natural world around him.  49 Writers volunteer Mariah Oxford interviewed Kahn about this new collection. Thanks go to University of Nebraska press for providing a preview copy.  Steve Kahn and Anne Coray will be signing their books this Friday, Nov. 5, from 6 – 8 p.m. at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, new home of the 49 Writers First Friday book signings.

Your stories strike me as very poetical, as if they were written to be read aloud. Does this phrasing come naturally, or did you find yourself doing a lot of wordsmithing? Have you ever tried your hand at poetry?

I actually won a goose back in the late 70s for a “poem”(end-rhyme verse) that I wrote for a contest. (Ruben Gaines, Alaska’s first state poet laureate, read it on the radio!) But most of my attempts at poetry have been fairly foul. I leave that genre to my wife, Anne Coray. Anne has an incredible sense of music in her writing—something, I like to think, permeates the walls of our cabin and occasionally finds its way into my prose. The poetical passages in my first drafts come easily when I’m in the right mood, but they are almost always revised/shortened. I try to follow one astute reader’s advice that those passages be kept to a minimum in prose so they don’t overwhelm the narrative. Too much music can be a disruption, and it’s usually better to infuse bits and pieces so the reader doesn’t lose the thread of the story. It’s also true that poetical passages often seem brilliant when I first write them down, but when I go back and reread them they aren’t all that hot. It’s easy to be trite when waxing poetic.

One theme that runs through your stories is the relationships you’ve built with others, including a deep respect for those mentors in your life who taught you about various aspects of outdoor life and livelihood. Who are your literary mentors?

As far as writers who have influenced me: John Haines for the mythic sense that his poetry and prose achieve with spare and exacting language. Ted Kerasote for his thoughtful examinations of outdoor ethics (everyone should read Blood Ties.) Nick Jans for really nailing the Alaskan experience. Barry Lopez, especially for the imagination and music of his early work. Anne is the biggest single influence on my writing. She is not only a talented writer of both poetry and prose but also a demanding teacher and ruthless editor. She forces me to examine both word choices and content. Since we live in a small cabin at Lake Clark and we don’t get many visitors, I’ve been enrolled in sort of a high-residency, cabin-school writing program. Of course, at least I get to sleep with the teacher.

Do you feel you could give advice or mentor other writers who are trying to translate their Alaskan experiences to the page? What would that advice be? I

 think that many other authors are better suited to be mentors. I’ve made great strides as a writer but I still have a lot to learn. If pressed, I’d say don’t force ideas into the story. Allow yourself to be open to surprises that might arise during the process. Read as much as you can. This is really important. I think it was Richard Chiappone who commented that you can only be as good as the writers you’re reading. Be selective and be willing to give up hard-earned sentences, paragraphs, or pages if they just don’t work for one reason or another. That’s not easy, but it is liberating to find you can cut out wonderful passages and have the story benefit from their removal. Always have others read your work. Stand your ground if you feel strongly about something, but be willing to let things go if the criticism is valid and you trust the reader.

The Hard Way Home spans decades of your life, but you describe scenes and events as if they happened just yesterday. You include details about the weather, your mood, and physical sensations, like the feeling of backpack straps on your shoulders. I’m curious if you recall these specific details oryour journal entries are the main source, or you’ve recreated scenes based on the years of experience you have in the outdoors.

I use all three devices to some extent. I do work from memory, letting the story telling part of my brain exercise its prerogative. I think one big advantage in writing about the outdoors is that I am still living a similar lifestyle. When I write from memory I find that my recall is by-and-large accurate, but selective, when checked against my journals. Most of my journal entries are brief notations of the day’s events, without much reflection included. I’ve actually found it surprising that revisiting the journals usually transports me back to that time, evoking emotions and helping me to recollect physical environs. Forgotten details in the journal entries usually slide back into my active memory with ease when I reread them. You know, those “oh, yeah, I remember that!” moment—which is fun. As far as recreating scenes, I didn’t do much of that, but for example, when I tried to write the last paragraph of the Afterword I was having a difficult time describing the mountains. I was overpowered with the feeling that I wanted to convey, but I just wasn’t “seeing” it. I finally dug out an old photograph and worked from that. I’ve used my journals for inspiration by reading them first (before writing) and, conversely, by writing from memory and then weighing that against my journals. As far as the popularity of keeping/writing from a journal, I think folks have to figure out what works for them. If I kept detailed notes of emotions and observations, I might feel compelled to use more of them than I should. I’m afraid of missing some of the experience of being in the outdoors by spending too much time recording—something akin to a photographer only observing animals, people, or scenery through a lens.

One of the aspects that makes The Hard Way Home compelling is the inclusion of the philosophical – questions about life, man’s place in the world in relation to the outdoors and animals, moral codes regarding hunting. Did the process of writing these stories help you analyze your experiences further, or had you already made many of these conclusions along the way?

My respect for the natural world is deeply rooted, beginning I think, with a feeling of awe and belonging at an early age. But I’m not fixed in my beliefs. There is so much to learn about the environment, and I hope the learning will continue for the rest of my life. Writing is a great tool for organizing one’s thoughts, for qualifying emotional perspectives. Writing helps, but also reading. These examinations lead to some great internal and external discussions, and as a result of the discussions my understanding of my own moral stance becomes clearer.

Regarding hunting, as I’ve gained experience and matured it became more about treating the animals with respect. For example, when I was younger I was full of both insecurities and a desire to “bring back the game.” I might not shoot at an animal because I was afraid I would miss and that would reflect poorly on me. Through the years I saw enough animals wounded that I developed a concern for their welfare. I was more interested in a clean shot because I wanted to minimize the suffering. So, over time I decided if the animal is too far away, or moving too fast, or partially obscured, I wouldn’t fire a shot. I certainly don’t feel like a “wise man of the woods”—just an average guy with a lot of experience continually examining and molding my own beliefs. The internal conflicts still exist. For example, when I shoot a grouse for dinner, I struggle with the sadness I feel for taking a life, the pragmatic knowledge that I would not exist without the death of creatures and some disruption to the environment, and the pleasure I get from eating the meat.

You write “There is something in most of us that seeks a lasting mark of our existence. Maybe one reason for writing down my adventures is to leave a permanent record.” What do you imagine or hope that future generations will come away with when they read your stories?

A renewed feeling of respect and appreciation for the Alaskan environment and a sense of history, of what Alaska was like in the recent past. Also, I really wanted to document some Alaska history that hasn’t, to my knowledge, been covered in literature. For example, offering a personal perspective of the big-game guiding industry beyond just hunting yarns, giving a deck-level view of working on the Exxon Valdez oil spill far outside of Prince William Sound, providing the background story of the Farewell Burn, etc.

Apparently your cooking skills are as creative as your writing. You tell about concocting “Tangcakes” one morning when you found yourself out of the proper ingredients for pancakes. How about that recipe?

Sure, but only share this with good friends with a sense for adventure:

Chill all ingredients to tent temperature (at or below freezing)

2 cups (or so) old pancake mix

2 whatever-sized spoons of almost-rancid vegetable oil

Tang (enough to give the mix a cheery orange cast, ½ cup, maybe)

Break the skim ice in the water bucket

Combine pancake mix, oil, Tang, and water into a thick batter

Pour the mixture into whatever pots (greased!) you have that nestle together

Place on top of kerosene heater on low heat and invert the pots when you think they are half-baked (like this recipe)

Dream of cream cheese frosting


*Note: Tangcakes are best served after a meal of Kippersnacks with scrambled eggs, which is actually another recipe and another story…

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