Wild Ideas : A Guest-post by Mary Katzke

Welcome to Mary Katzke, our February Featured Writer.

I was unsettled this morning because when we were rapidly packing to head to Alyeska for ski camp I found yet more fallen leaves from my prize tree. They flutter down noisily this time of year, and each time I think I will lose her. There were three spread across the living room floor and I stepped on them in the dark. They sound like potato chips when you do that. She started with a seed. My son, then three, and the one who will ski while I write in lobbies and hotels and coffee shops, put the seeds in his little pockets when we were in Belize in ‘03. He always had that habit- clinging to small objects for days at a time. Once he found a coffee bean on the kitchen floor and held it in day care from morning till dinner before I discovered it. This time the object of comfort happened to be seeds of a mahogany tree. They come in pecan-like pods and then crack open to papery dragon fly wings. “Helicopters” he called them, because they spiral when you toss them in the air. They slipped through customs in his little pockets and I found them while doing the laundry.

I planted all of them one day while he was napping. Tucked them in beside a philodendron and forgot about them. It was probably April or so. One day there she was, the bright green trifecta of avocado-like leaves, six inches tall. After she got to be three feet tall, I transplanted her and she grew to six feet. Then I put her in a pot twice as large and she grew to nine feet tall. “Will we have to leave her when we move?” my son asked, dwarfed by her size. Last winter, we left for three weeks and she was near a drafty door during a temperature plunge. All but one shoot died. Who was I to think a rain forest tree could live in Alaska’s winter anyway? But it was a wild idea to try, and one that continually reminds me that sometimes you just have to give things a chance. Even when the leaves fall, all is not lost. She survived. I love surprises like that.

So when I first read Kathryn Harrison’s “The Seal Wife”, I was very taken with the imagery and the tone of her writing. Haunting, penetrating. I had never seen Anchorage through those eyes, the eyes of a young frontiersman with a hungry spirit back when it was just a tent city in the mud by Ship Creek. A man driven by trying to predict the volatile weather for the US government, and by the “edge of the earth opportunities” that all of us have tasted somewhere in our journeys here. And not insignificantly, driven by pure lust for a range of women that a 26 year-old man might be expected to have in such circumstances. No family, no real friends, money in his pocket, with the thrust of new inventions fueling his pride.

So I wrote to her by way of her book publisher back when I first read it- in 2003, about the same time I planted the mahogany seeds. She didn’t respond, nor did her agent. Now, several films later, a few screenwriting awards down the trail, a good crash course in the film incentive program, and inspired by tropical trees growing in Alaska, I reached out again. Thanks to the net that wasn’t so indirect as last time. She responded- in less than 4 minutes. Yes, she wrote. She would love to see her work on screen. Yes, “you make a compelling argument to be the one to do it.” A few more emails- letting her know fireweed isn’t orange, and light questions to test how much I could wiggle with the text (she is open to this) and then the FedEx arrived with the official paperwork from ICM. That is the moment the option became real. Also the moment the clock started to tick. Nine months to do something. The obvious parallel in this agreement between women isn’t lost on me.

Such a responsibility. First step is to re-read, and highlight scenes, and start to figure out where the story should begin, and how it will arc and what will not translate well from page to screen. It isn’t long before doubt starts to creep in. This beautiful internal journey of a young man on the frontier in search of wild ideas and the inner soul richness of love, which turns to obsession, is outrageously challenging to visualize. What was I thinking? Will I have to move away and start a new career if I can’t do this after all? As many times as I have made my mark (About Face or Intuition or Sea of Oil), sadly, I have also missed (Pen Pals, Tuesday Morning Coffee).

Then I think, the tree. The tree. The Tree. Nurture. Not overly complex, not overly cast or set. Doable. Nine months. A reasonable goal. Europeans will love it even in the U.S. doesn’t dine on subtleties. Maybe the inter-racial sex will lure a few repressed New Yorkers.

FADE IN: Anchorage, 1915.
Mary Katzke has produced over 30 documentaries and feature films. She was interviewed at 49 writers a year ago about her recent film, About Face.

4 thoughts on “Wild Ideas : A Guest-post by Mary Katzke”

  1. Lovely book! I can't wait to see the film and only hope they won't cast Leonardo as the young soldier / scientist or Koreans as Aleuts.

  2. What terrific news to know you are working on a screen adaption of K.Harrison's novel. You will give this project loving, careful attention. I wish you all the best with this, Mary.

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