Same scene, different story

Dear returning reader,

In Wednesday’s letter, I wrote about our recent caribou hunting trip. I described the small details — the sights and sounds of the river.

When my husband Sam got home that evening, he read the letter. “It’s nice,” he said. “I like it.” But then he chuckled, and said he told his coworkers a different version of events. Same hunting trip, same characters, setting and plot, but Sam’s telling was a comedy of errors.

It began the day before we left. As Sam drove to town to get supplies, he heard an ominous sound from his truck. The brakes were going out. He called me at the bookstore, said he wasn’t sure how this was going to work out, but he would try to replace the brakes that afternoon. There was no way we could make the 150-mile drive, pulling the boat, if he didn’t fix the problem.

Which, much to my admiration, he did in about an hour, with the only help coming from our two daughters. First hurdle cleared.

At home, we hurriedly gathered all of our gear and food, working late into the night. We rose the next morning at 5 a.m., bundled up the girls and hooked up the boat trailer.

There, in the pitch dark of our driveway, we realized that the trailer lights weren’t working. No brake lights. No taillights. Sam followed the wires and came to a connection where, when he tugged ever so gently, the entire line fell apart. After much searching, he found his tools in the shed and began rewiring. It was cold and dark. I held the flashlight for Sam while the girls waited, half-asleep, in the house. After a half hour or so, he had all the wires mended. We turned on the truck, tested the lights — now we had no trailer lights, AND no truck lights.

“We blew a fuse,” Sam said. Fuses, and any other store-bought items, are 30 miles the opposite direction of caribou. But by now it was nearly light (not part of the plan.) Sam said we would head north, and if someone came up behind us, we would turn on our turn signal (which we miraculously still had) and pull safely off the road. Next hurdle cleared, kind of.

Until we arrived at the boat launch, more than 150 miles from home and in the middle of nowhere, and our 12-year-old daughter hopped out of the truck in her flimsy Converse shoes.

Note Sam's hip waders drying by the fire, my manly sized rubber boots, and my daughter's Converses.

“Where are your boots?” I asked.

“What?” she said with an expression only a middle school girl can give you. “You didn’t bring them for me?” It was  37 degrees. There could be rain, snow, sleet, and at the very least freezing river water. So I gave her my new insulated rubber boots, which are about three sizes too big for her, and I took Sam’s rubber boots, which are about 6 sizes two big for me, and Sam wore his leaky hip waders. The only one of us in appropriate foot gear was our 4-year-old, who as sweet as she is isn’t much help in launching or landing the boat. But another hurdle was cleared, albeit with cold, clumsy feet.

We got in the boat and turned up river. When we stopped to scout for caribou, we saw dozens of big, beautiful grayling swimming in the clear water below us.

“I want to catch a fish!” our youngest announced excitedly. She has her very own pink fishing rod, which she is very handy at casting and reeling. She loves fishing. It was part of the goal of this trip — we could caribou hunt, and Rori could catch some fish. Except, in the flurry of the morning, we forgot all the fishing gear. Even Rori’s hot pink fishing rod. Rori scowled and stared over the boat’s edge, watching 50 fish swim by.

For the next hours, all was how I described in my last letter — burbling river water, eagle feathers and bear tracks, all beautiful and amazing. Evening approached, and we started a campfire. We hadn’t seen a single caribou, despite all the tracks, but we knew they could come along any time. We got out our dinner — hot dogs, buns. “Where’s the ketchup?” Grace asked.

Sam looked at me. I looked back. “Mustard?” he asked, kind of sadly. Apparently fishing rods and hunting boots weren’t all that were forgotten — we had also left the condiments at home.

But at dusk, not long after we finished our meal, Sam whispered loudly “Caribou!” and we proceeded to shoot one, field dress it, and bring it back to camp just before we lost all light. We left the meat on the sand bar, just the other side of the river from camp, and during the night the monstrously huge bear that had left his tracks along the river did not come visit us or the meat. We stayed warm enough in the tent, and Sam dried his wool socks and hip waders beside the campfire. In the middle of the night, we heard coyotes yipping and the northern lights were out in all their majesty.

In the end, all things forgotten were, well, forgotten.




A hunting we will go

Dear adventurous reader,

Sam follows caribou tracks along the bank.

During the weekend, my husband and I decided to take the family on a trip north. The purpose, ostensibly, was to go caribou hunting. We packed a tent, sleeping bags, food, rifles, and warm clothes for all of us. For our youngest daughter we brought full snow gear — snow pants, parka, boots, mittens. Although it hadn’t snowed yet, we suspected it would be well below freezing.

The Wrangell Mountains, topped with fresh snow.

We loaded everything into the back of our pickup truck, hitched our boat trailer, and drove north through river valleys and alpine tundra. Then we launched the boat into clear-running water, and headed up river.

My daughter's small hand beside a brown bear track in the river mud.

When I say we were “ostensibly” going on a caribou hunting trip, I mean to say that hunting trips are rarely about only the hunt itself. We  go in search of moose or bear or caribou. We hope, at the end of the trip, to have meat for the winter.

Wild swans take flight from the river.

But more than anything we hope to grab some last bit of autumn. We go in search of surprises, big and small. An eagle feather caught in a spruce branch. Brown bear tracks in the mud. Grayling darting beneath our boat. A small group of caribou passing by camp at dusk.

A young bull moose watches us from the birch trees.

A good book shared around the campfire. The sounds of the wilderness filling our ears as we sleep — coyotes yipping along the hillside, the river burbling over rocks and logs. Hot oatmeal in the morning, dotted with cranberries gathered from the tundra bushes behind our tent.

Our oldest daughter reads The Wizard of Oz aloud to the rest of us.

When we returned home last night, we brought caribou meat. But to say we had just been gone hunting doesn’t say enough.



The gift of a poetree

Dear grateful reader,

There are many things I’m grateful for — my family, my home here in Alaska, the people who are helping my book find its way into the world. I’m thankful for good books, delicious meals shared with good friends, caring neighbors, a hot bath at the end of a hard day.

I’m also grateful for the people and organizations that support art in its many forms. Libraries. Performing arts centers. Nonprofit foundations that assist artists and writers. Together they all help make our world a more interesting place. Yet I mostly take them for granted, and when I do consider how much I appreciate their efforts, I am unable to think of a fitting way to say “Thank you!” except to maybe write a donation check or help with a community project.

But several of my friends recently linked to this website on Facebook, and I thought — now that’s gratitude! An anonymous artist in Scotland has been leaving paper/book sculptures at libraries and artist institutions. The first was a tree made of paper, dubbed a “poetree” and left as a gift at the Scottish Poetry Library. Attached was a note:

It started with your name @byleaveswelive and became a tree.… … We know that a library is so much more than a building full of books… a book is so much more than pages full of words.… This is for you in support of libraries, books, words, ideas….. a gesture (poetic maybe?)

More sculptures followed — a gramophone, a miniature theater, all made of ornately cut and shaped paper and secretly left at various institutions.

Reading about these anonymous gift, I was filled with such admiration. This artist clearly was not seeking fame or fortune. The gifts were given out of true generosity and gratitude.

Several years ago I heard Alaskan author John Straley speak at a conference. He said he writes poems and gives them to loved ones at Christmas. I was reminded that art can be personal and generous — it doesn’t have to always be about seeking an audience.




Dear kind reader,

Thanks to the assistance of my father-in-law, Jim Ivey, I have several new readers in Florida. Welcome! I hope you enjoy my letters.

In earlier letters I have mentioned how much I love getting comments. It makes writing all the more fun when I hear from you. And you don’t have to limit your comments to the matters at hand. If you ever want to share a good book you are reading, or your own interesting Alaska story, or if you ever have any questions for me about Alaska or my novel, please write in.

Autumn is at its pinnacle here. The birch and cottonwood trees are golden, the alpine tundra is red, and the mountains are often topped with snow in the mornings. Inevitably the glacier wind will begin to blow all the color from the trees. But Mother Nature seems to be holding her breath for the moment, and the land is aglow.



On the drive home last week.


Voir à La Fille De L’Hiver

Bonjour mes amis du livre,

Of the foreign editions of The Snow Child, I have been most looking forward to seeing the French copy. I took four years of high school French. Both my parents spoke a little French as I was growing up — my dad spent part of his childhood in France. And, perhaps this needn’t even be said, I would love to go there some day.

So I was so excited when Tracy Williams with Little, Brown and Co. forwarded this cover from Fleuve Noir to me earlier this week:

I have to say, I love it. And not just because it’s my French cover. I love the snowy scene, which is so evocative of winter in Alaska. And the girl and the fox lend such movement and excitement to the image. The title translates into The Daughter of Winter, which I also think is lovely.

Alas, it has been 20 years since my last French lesson, and I’m afraid many of Madame Koivunen’s lessons have slipped my mind. In fact, a few years ago a French couple came into Fireside Books. I could catch words here and there as they looked over the shelves and talked with each other, and I said so to my coworker.

“Say something in French to them!” She kept prodding me during their visit. “Come on! They’re leaving,” she said as they headed out the door.

I saw my chance slipping away, so I burst out, “Bonjour!”

To which the lovely French woman gave a small, sweet smile, waved her hand and, with a slight raise of her eyebrows, said “Au revoir?” as if to ask “Didn’t you mean goodbye instead of hello?”

Ah well. I’m not sure how much of La Fille de L’Hiver I’ll actually be able to read, but I can’t wait to give it a try.

A la votre!


P.S. Thought I’d raise the copy-editing challenge for my mom, Julie LeMay, this week by throwing in a bit of French. 🙂

Pickly peas, real and imagined

Dear hungry reader,

Part way through my novel, The Snow Child, a neighbor named Esther brings the main character a jar of pickled peas. We have some friends who make pickled peas, and they are delicious. But this fall, for the first time ever, I decided to make them myself.

My 4-year-old daughter and I went down to the garden and filled a gallon bucket with peas from the vines. Then, over the weekend, I convinced everyone in the family to help with the pickling process.

We gathered at our counter. Aurora picked the stems and leaves off the peas, I lined them up in the jars, Grace sprinkled in the dill, pepper flakes and cayenne (easy does it, per Mr. Baer), and Sam poured in the boiling apple cider and salt water. Then we put on the lids, lowered the jars into a giant pot and set them to boiling.

Half an hour later, we were forking steaming, spicy hot peas into our mouths. They were delicious, and potent. More of an appetizer to have along with some good bread or wheat crackers. Aurora turned them down with a wrinkle of her nose — she’s more of a meat-and-potatoes girl.

Last week, I tweeted about how I was going to make them:

Just harvested peas from the garden. Going to make my first batch of spicy pickled peas. Wish Esther was here to help. Life Imitating Art.

To which Chicago bookseller Nathan Dunbar, who has read an advanced reader copy of my novel, replied:

you could watch while Esther whizzed through it.

And I tweeted back:

Ha! She’d take over the kitchen! Imagining is actually making me feel a little dizzy, like when I look at an optical illusion.

It was such a wonderful, strange experience to be talking about this character, and her cooking, as if she were a real person instead of a creation of my imagination. And it made me wonder what Esther would think of our pickled peas.



Dank u wel

Dear kind readers,

Thank you all for your wonderful quotes. You’ve inspired me through and through, not just with the words themselves, but by your love of literature. Such fabulous books you all read!

In fact, you have so inspired me, I’m going to keep my letter brief today and try to spend some time working on a writing project.

But I do want to share this amazing cover with you – my Dutch editor Liesbeth Botman with Artemis & Co sent it to me this morning. Kind Van Sneeuw will be published in Holland in January.




Where inspiration waits

Dear inspiring reader,

I’m tired today.

I could blame it on staying up late these past few nights, working on our house.  (We bought a fixer-upper recreational cabin several years ago and have been steadily turning it into a real home while we live in it. We’re doing almost all the work ourselves — framing, Sheetrocking, wiring, plumbing, painting. It’s as challenging, rewarding, and exhausting as it sounds.)

I could also blame it on my second career as a novelist, which yields new avenues of challenging, rewarding, and exhausting work. I could blame it on the shortening days, the cooler weather. The daily, relentless chores. Parenting. Housekeeping.

But the truth is, I can’t blame this sort of fatigue on too much work or not enough sleep. This is a creative fatigue, the sense that I have nothing to say, and if I did, I’d be too tired and uninspired to write it. Sleep doesn’t fix it. Neither does whining, as tempting as it is.

I have to go back to the books. The ones that give me goosebumps, the ones that make my heart shudder, the ones that make me hope to be a writer.

At noon the next day they rode into the pueblo of Encantada at the foot of the low range of pollarded mountains they’d been skirting and the first thing they saw was Blevins’ pistol sticking out of the back pocket of a man bent over into the engine compartment of a Dodge car.All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

These waters, thought Quoyle, haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorers gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog’s throat. Bawling into salt broth. Vikings down the cracking winds, steering through fog by the polarized light of sun-stones. The Inuit in skin boats, breathing, breathing, rhythmic suck of frigid air, iced paddles dipping, spray freezing, sleek back rising, jostle, the boat torn, spiraling down. — The Shipping News, Annie Proulx

“Is dying hard, Daddy?” “No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.” They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. The sun was coming up over the hills. A bass jumped, making a circle in the water. Nick trailed his hand in the water. It felt warm in the sharp chill of the morning. — The Complete Short Stories, Ernest Hemingway

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy. — A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

What are your favorite lines, from a book, a song, a poem, that make you want to keep going?




Dear kind reader,

Have I ever mentioned how completely blind I am to my own writing mistakes?

Yesterday afternoon I sat down at my laptop to draft my next letter to you. But then something jumped out at me from Friday’s letter. Did I really write that? Does that say “Vanity Fairy”? I blinked hard, looked again. Good grief. And it’s been days since I sent you that letter.

Of course, it’s supposed to have been Vanity Fair, as in one of the most famous magazines in America. I somehow managed to make them sound like a dreadful series of books for preteen girls in which the beautiful, popular fairy bullies the other fairies in her class.

I called my mom.

“Oh no. Did you see that?” I asked her.

She hadn’t. But then through a stifled giggle she said something like, “Oh, and I’ve been meaning to tell you that there’s a typo in one of your comments last week. I’m sorry. I’ve been meaning to point it out, but I just kept forgetting.”

I quickly flipped through the comments and there it was, in response to something the wonderful Biblio-Files blogger Kelly Kegans had written to me, and even more embarrassing than “Vanity Fairy.”

“It’s been so much fun working with you so far,” I wrote, “and your blob is beautifully put together.”

I wanted to disappear under my dining room table. Your blob is beautifully put together? Dear God.

Have I mentioned that my mom is my highly-paid, well-regarded copy editor?

“Is this a hint?” I joked with Mom. “Am I not paying you enough?” As in, isn’t my deep admiration and appreciation and the occasional cappuccino from Vagabond Blues not enough for catching the silly errors in every single thing I send out into the world?

“Yeah,” she said as we both were laughing. “I’m demanding a better salary package. Benefits? Insurance?”

Luckily, we have a sense of humor over these things. I’m really hoping you do, too. To quote Homer Simpson, “Doh!”



Great reads to watch for this month

Dear book-loving reader,

One of my favorite things about working at Fireside Books is the sneak peek I get at books. Publishers send us advance reader copies to help us decide which books to carry in the store. This means I’m often reading books that won’t come out for months.

To my surprise, being a soon-to-be-published author has increased my access to great books. In preparation for a dinner in New York City, I was given several early galleys of books by the other authors attending the event.

Consequently, I’ve got a couple of books I want to recommend to you:

* The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach just came out this week. It’s a novel so firmly rooted in baseball and written with such insightful tenderness that it is about way more than baseball. As I was reading it I flashed on a quote I remember seeing on the cover of a copy of Nabokov’s Lolita, calling it the greatest love story ever written. I liked Lolita. It is phenomenally written. But it is not a love story. The Art of Fielding, however, is one of the greatest, most surprising love stories I’ve ever read. It explores love in its many forms — love of the sport, camaraderie and devotion among the team members, complex and rocky young love, forbidden love.This is one of those rare books I’d recommend to all of my favorite customers at Fireside Books.

* Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born by Keith Gessen. This is a sort of weird hybrid. Not quite a book. A little more than a magazine article. But for those who are interested in a behind-the-scenes look at publishing, it is fascinating. It’s an article that Chad Harbach’s friend Keith Gessen wrote for Vanity Fair. It will appear next month in the magazine, but this is an extended version that is available online in digital form for $1.99. It describes how Harbach worked on The Art of Fielding for 10 years, struggled to find an agent who was interested in representing it, and then ended up getting a $665,000 advance from Little, Brown & Co. It’s a bit like insider gossip, and I have to admit that’s what I found kind of enthralling about it, but it also sheds light on how book deals happen and how publishing is changing. This one isn’t for everyone, but writers, book sellers, and bibliophiles will enjoy it.

* On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry also came out this week. This is the first I’ve read of Barry. The owner of Fireside Books passed the ARC on to me and likened it to The Green Age of Asher Witherow, one of our favorite books. And I agree — it is lyrical and heartbreaking, atmospheric and in ways difficult to read. It is the story of 17 days in the life of Lily Bere, an elderly Irish-American woman who is mourning the death of her grandson. In typical Irish fashion, this sounds like a real downer. But it is the kind of book I adore, one that delves deep into the heart and looks suffering and hardship dead on, but still finds unsentimental beauty, hope, and love. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. It is not a page turner. At times, it is grim. But for people who love great writing, it is definitely one to pick up.

I’m also part way through an advance reader copy of a novel by a fellow Alaskan author, and so far I’m finding it fast-paced, intriguing, funny, and totally absorbing. But I’m just going to tease you with it right now and write more once I’m finished. This one doesn’t come out until February, the same as The Snow Child, so we’ve got some time.

Happy reading!


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