Build, hike, plant, climb — time to do it all

Dear sunny reader,

The mad frenzy of summer in Alaska has officially begun. 

Sleep? Who needs it? We’ve got gardens to tend, houses to build, fish to catch, and mountains to climb.

Our neighbors, the Baers, have already put a new roof on their home. And to clarify, because I know sane people in other places actually hire someone to do these sorts of things, when I say they put on a new roof, I mean THEY put on a new roof. As in the two of them ripped off the old shingles and plywood, put a massive blue tarp over it, and hoped it wouldn’t rain while they rebuilt the whole thing.

Another one of our good friends is a farmer, which means he is in full-on frenzy mode. The fields are now free of snow and the summer sun has begun to dry up the mud, so he is riding the tractor, planting night and day until the hundreds of acres are ready to sprout potato plants.

Across the way, our other neighbors just returned from their spring bear guiding trips. My dad is booming logs out of a pile in his yard, and my mom is studying for her MFA residency in poetry. She also teamed up with some other artists last weekend to lead an outdoor retreat in creativity, and she went for a hike with my brother near a local ski resort. She said the smell of the sun-warmed hemlock forest was delightful.

Sam, my husband, put on a dive suit and helped install a salmon weir on the Deshka River as part of his job as a fishery biologist, and in his off-hours he took out a window in our house and built our first staircase.

In the meantime, I tilled up our garden, hauled buckets of water from a creek, and planted cabbage, kale, broccoli, carrots, turnips and a few flowers, and set up my pea fence. Last night at 11 or so, I stood on our back porch. The sun had just set, so it was the soft blue of twilight. Looking out over the garden, I admired the neat rows of moist soil and lovely little seedlings. Then I saw the currants I had forgotten to transplant.

But today is a new day. We’re thinking about fertilizing the rhubarb, finishing the Sheetrock in the stairwell, and transplanting the currant bushes, as well as a lilac and mountain ash. We need to feed the chickens, water the garden. Oh, and we’re planning to climb up to the mountain behind our house to check out a little patch of snow that has lingered in the sun.

Our oldest daughter is worried we won’t have time to do it all, but I reminded her – we’ve got all day, and all night.

Happy summer!



Everything changes to stay the same

Dear dedicated reader,

When THE SNOW CHILD first began to move toward publication, I got two seemingly conflicting impressions from seasoned authors. Some told me that publication would change my life. Others warned me it would change nothing at all. After this past week, I’ve come to a conclusion — they were both right.

I spent several days in New York City during Book Expo America, one of the world’s largest publishing events. When I was first invited, I fretted over what to wear and what I would say. Once I got there, I was struck by an important realization – I was among my own people. People who love books.

During this whirlwind trip to New York, I talked with the editors of some of my favorite books. I visited with booksellers from around the country – Colorado to California, New York to Ohio.  I talked with sales representatives, who help get books into stores. I met publishing CEOs and directors of publicity and marketing.  I even had a chance to visit with Malcolm Jones, the book reporter for Newsweek Magazine,who had his own memoir, LITTLE BOY BLUES, published last year.

What did we talk about? Books. What books to recommend to middle school readers like my daughter. What book we had read most recently and loved wholeheartedly. What it’s like to have hundreds of books pass before you, whether you’re a reviewer or a bookseller, and know there is never enough time or space for all of them.

I also got to have dinner with some amazing authors:

  • Pete Hamill. His newest novel is TABLOID CITY and he was recently interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. His writing evokes a deep, loving knowledge of New York City.
  • Josh Bazell. His second novel, WILD THING, comes out around the same time as my book in February. I recently read his first novel, BEAT THE REAPER, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so did both.
  • Luis Urrea. The critically acclaimed author of THE HUMMINGBIRD’S DAUGHTER and several other books. His newest novel is QUEEN OF AMERICA, a fantastic, historical story of a saint making her way through the United States.
  • Ayad Akhtar. He wrote AMERICAN DERVISH, a moving novel that I think will contribute to an important national discussion. Ayad also happens to be an actor starring in the HBO movie Too Big To Fail.
  • Chad Harbach. His debut novel THE ART OF FIELDING is one of the most surprising and wonderful love stories I’ve read in a while, and I don’t even know anything about baseball.

And what did I talk about with these novelist superstars? Books, of course.

The truth is, if it weren’t for THE SNOW CHILD, I would never have had this opportunity. I had stepped into an entirely new, exciting world where you chat with renowned editors and dine with famous authors.

For about 12 hours. Then I got on an airplane, and I came home.

Where, thank goodness, everything is how I left it. My husband, Sam, is still working on our house, building walls and hanging Sheetrock. My daughters are still excited to see me and to find out what treasures I brought in my suitcase from the big city. The chickens are still clucking around the yard, and the tadpoles are still growing in the aquarium.

There are also still dishes to be washed and seedlings to be watered. The checkbook needs balancing, and no one did the laundry while I was away. My mom and I still talked on the phone at 9 a.m., and I still had to remember to get a moose roast out to thaw for dinner. The sun is shining, and will continue to do so until 11 tonight. The cottonwood trees are suddenly fully clothed in green leaves, and the snow is melting off the mountainsides.  Yesterday, Sam spotted one of the first king salmon of the season while he was out on the river.

Everything changed, and everything is still the same. What a wonderful feeling.



Home Sweet Home

Dear reader,

Just a quick note today to say I’m back from my New York City trip. I had a fabulous, whirlwind visit. And when I got back home,  summertime green had erupted all over Alaska. What a perfect welcome back.

I have lots to share with you, but right now I’ve got to unpack, water the garden seedlings, feed the chickens, and wrap myself in the comfort and quiet of my own home.

More soon —


Feathered locusts

Dear loyal reader,

I admit it – I’m somewhat of a romantic. I daydream about my home becoming a kind of Eden, where the golden retriever lounges on the porch, wildflowers bloom along the hill, chickens cluck about the yard, and strawberries ripen in the sun.

Reality isn’t as idyllic. They failed to mention it in THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA or ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE.  Or if they did, I skimmed over it in with my rose-tinted glasses. But there is a dark side to paradise.

True, chickens are productive members of a farmish life. During the height of summer, we get as many as seven or eight fresh eggs a day, and because of the different breeds in our 12-chicken flock, the eggs come in blues, greens, tans, and speckled browns. They are beautiful, and flavorful.

And when we are feeling more pragmatic than sentimental, chickens make an excellent dinner. Keep in mind that “free range” also means “tougher than hell.” But that’s why we have a pressure cooker.

In addition to being productive and delicious, however, chickens possess another prominent characteristic – they will eat anything. Absolutely anything. They are like feathered locusts.

In Eden, that means they eat the leftover table scraps and the unwanted weeds and bugs in the yard. Here in the real world, though, it means they eat everything else, too.

I’m not always quick on the uptake. Last summer I planted two raised beds with strawberry plants. I watched the flowers bloom and tiny green strawberries appear. And, just as they began to ripen, disappear.

In the meantime, there were other mysterious goings-ons. Like the rhubarb plants whose leaves were riddled with bite-sized holes.

And then it struck me. Chickens! As they free-ranged their way across our yard, they were consuming everything. Including just-ripened strawberries and rhubarb plants. Yes I know, rhubarb leaves are supposed to be toxic. Our chickens appear to be perfectly healthy eating machines.

I announced loudly off the back porch that if they attacked my plants again, we would be having chicken for dinner, with a strawberry glaze. The flock seemed unfazed. My dad later suggested it might be easier to just put a fence around the strawberry beds.

So this past week, when I noticed the strawberry and rhubarb plants emerging from the moist soil, I got out the heavy artillery. I will not relinquish Eden! Our chickens WILL free range, and our strawberries WILL be fruitful. I spent most of an afternoon erecting around the strawberries what I learned at the local hardware store is called “welded wire fencing.” And tomorrow I will do the same to some of our many rhubarb plants. Be forewarned, chickens – the free-range smorgasbord has been closed!



A writer’s haberdashery

Dear debonair reader,

Unlike my grandmother, I’m not much of a shoe girl. I buy them when I need them, and I don’t generally appreciate them on an aesthetic level. But hats are another thing. I have an embarrassingly large collection, and I’m always on the look-out for new acquisitions. Because of my lifestyle, they are mostly of the felted/fleeced/woolen ski hat type. But over the years I have branched out into sun hats and even a few dress hats.

But it is a lonely endeavor.

For inspiration and emotional support, I went in search of famous hatted (not HATED, but HATTED) writers, and mostly had to go to previous generations. But weren’t they gorgeous?

Karen Blixen, pen name Isak Dinesen

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Among more modern authors, men seemed to be the most likely hat wearers.

Stephen King

Chinua Achebe

Ball caps and berets are all fine and good — but I own a few already.

Looking to the poets, I hoped to find a new hat that would speak to a certain writerly style and “je ne sais quoi.”

Mary Oliver

I’m pretty sure I already have that one, Ms. Oliver.

I did find one of my very favorite authors wearing some surprising thing on her head that might be a hat. I’m not exactly sure what to make of it.

Louise Erdrich

Isn’t that a crow or raven on top of her head? Ah well. I think, for now, I’ll stick with my knitted ski hats.



Homo sapiens alaskana

Dear devoted reader,

During my first trip to visit my publisher in New York City, I was talking with one of the editors when, in passing, he said something about Alaska being somewhat exotic.

“Oh, I don’t know. Not really,” I said. “I mean we have our Wal-Marts and Targets and McDonalds.” We went on to talk about skiing and traveling. Then I mentioned we had just returned from our annual caribou hunting trip. We had traveled to what is called the “North Slope” near the Arctic Ocean and brought back several caribou.

“You hunted caribou?” he asked.

“Sure. It’s our meat for the year,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s kind of exotic.”

And I knew he was right. In most parts of America, people don’t go caribou hunting for their family vacation.

But here among other Alaskans, we are not exotic. We are actually kind of run-of-the-mill. We have neighbors who eat exclusively from the garden and the wild. They store their cabbages, beets, potatoes and other vegetables in a large root cellar. Salmon, moose, wild berries. That’s pretty much it. They also built their small log cabin with lumber they milled themselves off their land.

Up and down the road, you can also find big-screen TVs, hot tubs, and hybrid cars. And most of us straddle a kind of middle ground. Many of us raise gardens and farm animals, harvest wild berries, and fill our freezer with salmon. Alaskans who don’t hunt will rarely turn down a moose roast if one is offered, and like in Lake Wobegon, people are apt to find zucchinis at their doorstep when harvest comes.

We live too far out to have it delivered, but some Fridays as a treat we bring pizza home from town. We top it with caribou pepperoni and watch a movie from Netflix. Other nights, dinner might be moose steak, potatoes from our friend’s field, a salad from our garden, and homegrown rhubarb in a pie for dessert.

True, my husband runs a 50-mile trapline each winter in glacier country. And it’s also true that I once shot a black bear off our front porch and turned it into hot dogs. Our place is like many modern Alaskan “homesteads” – a nearly finished house, a stack of firewood to be split, a garden that gets munched by moose occasionally, and an incredible view of the mountains. But my kids also love macaroni and cheese and SpongeBob Squarepants DVDs. And I have a weakness for good espresso and the gourmet chocolates made at a local shop.

It’s a similar line I straddle when writing this blog. I hope to share some of what makes our home unique. But the journalist in me also wants to paint an accurate picture.

And I promise to tell you about the black bear on the porch.



Braving Twitterland

Dear tweeting reader,

For years I wore a badge of honor – no social networking for me. I didn’t care how hard anyone, whether it be agent, editor, publisher, or friend, pushed me, I would resist. I would not become one of THOSE  people.

Funny thing, no one pushed. So then, like a reluctant toddler with a strange meal in front of her, I got curious. I started poking around on Facebook and Twitter. “Well, maybe I’ll just try it for a bit,” I thought. “But if I hate it, I’m quitting. No one can make me eat this if I hate it.”

So here I am. Tweeting. Blogging. Facebooking. And I have to say, it’s a lot of fun. But of all the new avenues I’m exploring, Twitter is by far the most surprising and weirdest. You’re limited to 140 characters, so it’s like a social networking haiku. And there are thousands upon thousands of possible listeners and speakers.

I started tossing one-liners out into the fray, not entirely sure who might be listening. I began following a few people, a few people signed up to follow me. Before I knew it I had a little community that includes me, my editor, my publisher, some fantastic writers, a few old friends, my mom, and a brown bear in Denali.

Some of my favorite comments are funny. DenaliBear tweets about his life on the tundra, at least I think it’s a “he.”

Denali Bear — Two inches of snow in the park today. Maybe I should go back to bed till next summer. 11 May

And I also follow Conan O’Brien on Twitter, since I don’t have television reception.

Conan O’Brien — Borders books filed for bankruptcy. How do you sleep at night, Angry Birds?

Twitter is also a great way to find out what other writers are reading, including Alaska’s own Don Rearden.

Don Rearden @nprbooks Favorite short stories? I’m a big fan of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things they Carried”

But there is a surprising, heartwarming aspect to Twitter that I didn’t expect. Fellow authors are encouraging me, and I have a chance to speak out for authors I’m enjoying.

Urrealism Luis Urrea — Missing my newspaper days while finishing up @petehamillnyc’s Tabloid City. Also loving @EowynIvey’s The Snow Child. #beaprep #fridayreads

Eowyn Ivey — Ditto @Urrealism Tabloid City @petehamillnyc made me miss my news days, too. Now at end of Queen of America — fantastic story! #fridayreads

And in some small way I feel closer to the crew at Little, Brown & Co., my publisher.

Little, Brown and Co — Team Little, Brown: Amanda made awesome PB/chocolate/cornflake/peanut brownie treats. They’re in her cube, while they last. #lbeditor

Eowyn Ivey– @littlebrown Hmm. It would go so well with my coffee. But I suppose 3,000 miles from AK to NYC too far for to go for awesome brownie treats.

Amanda T — @EowynIvey Don’t worry, I’ll have a secret stash of baked goods for you at BEA.

One of the reasons I resisted social networking is because I didn’t want to do the hard sell. I didn’t want to be out there pushing my wares like a street vendor with a trench coat. “Pssst. I’ve got some books over here. Cheap books. Come on, take a look.”

But I see that I can come at it from a different angle. It can be about supporting other authors, cheering on other people, making new friends, and sharing a few laughs along the way.

Logging out,


Why write

Dear artistic reader,

As a part of a recent grant application, I had to come up with an artist’s statement. I decided I couldn’t do it. I’m not an artist. I’m a writer. A former newspaper reporter turned novelist. And even if I were to imagine myself an artist, what kind of statement am I trying to make? More importantly, what exactly IS an artist’s statement?

As is often the case when I want to avoid writing, I turned to Google. This was one of the first references that came up …

“Why do I have to write an artist statement? It’s stupid. If I wanted to write to express myself I would have been a writer.”

Ummm, wait a second. Somehow both of us, artist and writer, think we shouldn’t have to do this – the artist because she’s not a writer, and the writer because she’s not an artist.

But I was serious about the grant application, so I contemplated and typed and deleted and started over again. As I worked on it, I considered my roots. I come from two families of readers and writers. My husband joked when we were dating in high school that our house was like a library. When my parents did turn on the TV, we all read books and magazines even as we eyed the program occasionally.

So maybe my brain was preset to love the written word. My mom is a poet. Perhaps I inherited her ear for language, or maybe she taught me as she read me stories and poems.

Eventually I came up with a single page that described where I had been and where I hoped to go with my writing, with my art. And I ended with two sentences that felt right:

“As a writer, this is where I find the joy – in the work. I want to weave stories and sculpt characters. I want to put the world of my mind to the page, and invite others to inhabit it.”

It is true, and concise. My own statement as an artist.

Then this last week I stumbled for the first time across a friend’s blog, appropriately called Scribbler’s Quest. And what Morgan Hale said rang very true.

“The fact is, if you call yourself a writer it’s because you quite simply don’t have a choice … nobody would willingly choose this kind of life. You spend years, working on something that sometimes you’re the only one who sees. You get very little support, and sometimes you’re outright told to do something “real” with your life. You have to work, very hard, for hours at a time, for no pay and with no promise of ever getting paid.”

Now there’s a true artist statement. I write because I have to. Because it’s who I am. Sometimes it’s hard, even frightening. Often it leaves me lonely and unsure. And every once in a while it offers a jolt of pure joy. Much like life.



Goodbye night

Dear tireless reader,

This week in Barrow, Alaska, the sun will rise one last time and not go down again until August. Twenty-four hours of daylight, all summer long.

We live hundreds of miles south of Barrow, but even here in Southcentral Alaska, the days are growing long. Last night the sun didn’t set until 10:30 p.m., and it was back up at 5 this morning. Once we hit summer solstice in June, we will have just over four hours of “night”, but even then the dark isn’t really dark. It’s a kind of long twilight.

A midnight sunset on Alaska's Arctic slope during a caribou hunting trip.

This drives some people nuts. In the summers, they have to darken their rooms with blanket-style curtains and still the chirping of songbirds at midnight keeps them awake. Then, when the black nights of winter return, some find it gloomy and depressing.

But I love the extremes of this place. It might help that I grew up here. I do sleep less in the summer. This time of year, we find ourselves working on projects until 9 at night without realizing the hour. Once summer is in full swing, we’ll be weeding the garden at 10 p.m. and letting the kids run around in the yard until 11. The next morning, we won’t be as tired as we should. Partly because it will be light well before we crack open our eyes.

Summer in Alaska is a time to go, go, go. Some days we will rise at 4 a.m. to go king salmon fishing, sipping coffee in the pickup truck as we tow the boat to the landing. Other nights we’ll drink homebrew and play bocce ball on a neighbor’s lawn until midnight. I push away the fatigue, knowing that once winter comes, I’ll have plenty of time to sleep.

One summer when my husband and I were back home from college, he stayed up all night helping a friend bring in his hay crop. I remember standing in the field at 3 a.m., robins calling from the trees, the sky that tender, pale blue. I knew I was home.



Friday Hodgepodge

Dear steadfast reader,

In Alaska this week, breakup arrived in full force. For people who live Outside (as in “not in Alaska”), breakup is our equivalent of spring. Don’t picture crocuses, cherry blossoms, and a gentle, warm breeze. Instead think mud, slush, rain mixed with snow, the first hatch of mosquitoes, and huge blocks of ice floating down the rivers.

While it might sound like a great way to kick off the weekend, hitching a ride on one of those giant ice cubes could apparently land you in jail.

And for the gambling types, you missed your chance to bet on when the ice would go out on the Tanana River. The winners took home thousands of dollars … from the losers.

Through a more pastoral lens, breakup also brings millions of migratory birds back home to Alaska, because of course this is home. Sandhill cranes, snow geese, mallard ducks, and many other species are gathering in local farmers’ fields. And soon, the breeding pair of swans will return to our nearby lake.

In bookish news, I confess that over the past couple of years I have become somewhat of a blog hound. Here are some of my favorite finds:

  • Even if you don’t relish Russian novels, or 12-hour theater performances, I still think you’ll get some laughs out of this several-part review by Elif Batuman for The Paris Review blog. I wouldn’t normally put “Dostoevsky” and “side-splittingly funny” in the same sentence, but here it is.
  • This is where you’ll find out the truth about what I’m doing when I’m “working on my novel.” Tahereh Mafi’s blog is terrific, but this one struck particularly close to home.
  • And in honor of Mother’s Day, an oldie but goodie from one of my favorite bloggers, The Rejectionist.  WARNING:  contains words of a more colorful nature.

Happy weekend!


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