Shehla Anjum interviews Julia Scully: Outside Passage

A roadhouse at Taylor, in the isolated Kougarok gold mining area north of Nome is the setting for part of Outside Passage, Julia Scully’s memoir of her turbulent, adventurous childhood in Alaska during the 1940’s. After her father’s suicide in San Francisco and two years spent in orphanages, Julia and her sister re-joined their mother in Alaska where she had gone in a desperate attempt to earn a living. At the roadhouse, 11-year-old Scully served whiskey and danced with the rough, but fatherly gold miners. In spite of sometimes primitive conditions and hardships, she managed to find a unique beauty in the barren surroundings there and in Nome where the family spent their winters.  

After graduating from Nome High School, Scully attended Stanford University and went on to a successful career in publishing, including 20 years as Editor of Modern Photography.

Outside Passage was published to wide critical acclaim, including a full-page lead review in the N.Y. Times Book Review and being named by as one of the top biographies of the year.

What was the impetus to write about your time in Nome, especially after so many decades had passed?

I struggled to write the story of my unusual, traumatic childhood for many years. While I didn’t fully understand the reason for the insistent urge until I had actually written it, I believe the main impetus was to try to make sense of my early experiences by shaping them into a coherent narrative.  

What was your writing process for Outside Passage?
At first, I wondered how I could form a meaningful story when my memories seemed to consist of little more than unconnected fragments.  But, as I tried to express each deeply felt memory, the effort inevitably called up other memories from the same period.  There were many, many tries and rewrites along the way until I was satisfied that I had conveyed the heart of each experience.
Why did you write Outside Passage in the present tense?
I felt it made the story more immediate.
How did your background in photography influence the writing of Outside Passage?
Many people commented that Outside Passage was a very visual book – that the descriptions are like photographs.  That surely is due to my background in photography.
Outside Passage ends with you questioning if you should go back to Nome for a visit. Why didn’t you want to come back?
Once my mother left Nome, I had almost no connections there.  Also, I have never been one to want to re-visit the past (except in the form of writing about it).
In what way did your time in Nome shape what you did later and who you became?
I am sure that my childhood in Nome as well as at Taylor in my mother’s roadhouse shaped my life in many ways.  For one thing, dealing with that rugged existence prepared me for many other kinds of difficulties in life and instilled in me the kind of perseverance and determination that are a hallmark of frontier life.  New York may seem the other end of the world from Nome (and, in most ways, it is) but in coming here alone and facing the competition and odds of making it in the publishing world, those qualities served me well.
Do you have plans to write a follow-up to Outside Passage?
I have written an as yet unpublished memoir.  Not exactly a follow-up to Outside Passage, as it deals with a later period of my life.  And I am currently at work on another memoir dealing with my long career in photographic publishing.

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