I don’t know how it happens but every now and then my name swims up out of the ether to materialize in front of groups like the Alaska Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers, who then invite me to give a speech at their annual conference. So in October 2021 I did.
Writing North of the Fifty-three
Greetings to the Alaska Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers, and thank you for inviting me to speak at your annual conference and trade show! All the credit goes to COVID-19 for making it happen a year late.
I will say that your invitation triggered a little psychological trauma on my part. All I know about insurance is that if I don’t have it disaster is sure to strike. If I don’t have car insurance I’m certain that I’ll wreck my car. If I don’t have home insurance I’m certain my house will burn down. if I don’t have liability insurance someone staying in my guest cabin and who WAS a friend of mine will slip and fall on the stairs and sue me for everything I own. If I don’t have health insurance—actually I didn’t for over thirty years, so let’s not even go there.
So I drove up to Soldotna to have lunch with my insurance agent, Nancy Field, so I could ask her: What on earth do I have to say that is going to be of any interest to your people? Whereupon she very kindly explained the difference between her model of insurance, which is State Farm’s, and yours, which is as independent insurance agents and brokers. She has the backing of an international organization that fronts things like advertising and training, whereas your kind of agent goes it alone.
This made my ears perk right up. You’re my kind of people. I go it alone, too. By that I mean to say that while I was once a totally traditionally published author, published by one of the remaining Big Four publishers in New York City, I have since…stepped out on them. I now have a sort of hybrid publishing model that includes publishing independently in e in some parts of the world and publishing traditionally in print and in e in other parts of the world.
So I thought I’d talk to you about being an independently published writer. That speech had a lot of technical terms in it like “backlist” and “sell-through percentages” and “e-royalties.” I had Nancy read the speech and she said, a little piteously, “Do you have an opening joke?”
You owe Nancy big time for saving you from that speech.
So instead, I thought I’d talk about what it’s like to write from Alaska, what I call “Writing North of the 53.”. For sure you can relate to that, because it happens to all of us Alaskans, those misconceptions and misperceptions we deal with daily because we live north of the 53rd latitude. Like when I worked for BP on the North Slope back in the day and the Sohio guy calling from Houston wanted to know why it cost so much to fly summer hires over from Barrow and Nuiqsut and Kaktovik. “Why can’t you just put them on a bus?” he said.
As a beginning author in Alaska, I tried for years to get an agent because “everybody” told me that the way the publishing game worked was you got an agent who then got you a publisher. “Everybody” didn’t tell me that if you’re trying to get an agent from Alaska, the difficulty compounds geometrically, like interest owed to a loan shark. My manuscripts returned regularly like little homing pigeons accompanied by letters which read, “Alaska? Where is that?” and “Alaska? Is that, like, you know, a state?” My favorite letter came from a New York City agent who said, “Your manuscript is wonderful and I would love to represent you. Unfortunately, I only represent American authors.”
It’s funny now. It wasn’t then. I wound up getting a publisher first and an agent after, but the, let’s say the distinction of coming from Alaska continues to present me with interesting experiences. Like on the book tour when I went into a radio station for an interview and the show’s host greeted me with a bellowed, “WELL I SEE SUSAN BUTCHER JUST KILLED ANOTHER DOG!”
This guy, who I caught on right away was an animal rights activist, carried on and on about how HE owned dogs and HE didn’t kill any of them and how the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was an ABOMINATION and a DISGRACE and anyone who condoned it was a MURDERER. He was between me and the door, so there wasn’t a whole lot I could do except ride it out.
Here’s an item of interest of which I bet you were previously unaware. I certainly was, and it’s this: Any Alaskan author on tour is regarded as an expert on any Alaskan subject. It doesn’t matter that I’m as white as you can get without bleach, I’m supposed to know all about Alaska Natives. It doesn’t matter that it’s 29 years since I set foot in Prudhoe Bay, I’m supposed to know all about oil fields. It doesn’t matter that it’s been 57 years since I set foot on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Alaska, I’m supposed to know all about the long-term effect of the Exxon Valdez spill on Copper River kings.
It’s not stupidity, it’s ignorance. They simply have no idea of the economic or social or cultural or even geographic realities of Alaska. They think of Alaska and they think of bears and Denali and Sarah Palin, and that’s about it. And love her or hate her, Sarah Palin focused attention on Alaska in a way we have never before experienced. A few years back the New York Times ran a story about the Emmonak Women’s Shelter and the shelter’s Facebook page was deluged with irritated people who wanted to donate and couldn’t get any response. I hopped on in a comment to explaine that Emmonak was in the Alaska Bush, and that their village probably had one internet connection, which was probably dial-up, and to please be patient.
The distances between communities in Alaska is difficult to explain to Outsiders. You say to them, Alaska is twice the size of Texas. They say, uh-huh. You say to them, if you lay a map of Alaska over a map of the contiguous forty-eight states, Alaska overlaps both borders and both coasts. They say, uh-huh. You say to them, Anchorage is four time zones and five thousand miles away from New York City. They say, uh-huh. (The first call I got from a NYC editor came at 4am Alaska time. It was 8am her time, what was the problem?) You tell them Anchorage is only a 3-hour plane ride from Seattle and they say “Only!?”
It’s not easy being an ambassador for your state when either they don’t believe a word you say, or they simply have no point of reference with which to make what you’re telling them make sense. They want to know what it’s like to climb Denali, and mush the Iditarod, and harpoon a whale, and by the way, what’s up with those Indians using exploding harpoon heads, anyway? I admit that time I did loose my temper enough to reply, “Maybe they think they need an edge against something that weighs a ton a foot. And by the way, don’t come to Alaska and call an Eskimo an Indian. Not a good idea.”
Remember that 97-pound king Les Anderson caught on the Kenai in 1985? The one that still holds the world record? I went to Scotland right afterward and ended up on the Isle of Skye, where the Scots go to fish for salmon. After dinner at the B&B everyone is sitting around visiting, and they asked me where in America was I from, dear. Alaska, I told them. Och weel, Alaska, and weren’t there salmon in Alaska, too, then? I admitted that this was so. Och weel, and how large do you grow them there, then? I brightened, thinking this was my time to shine, and said proudly, “There was a record set on the Kenai River this year, a 97-pound king salmon!”
They looked at me. To a man and a woman every one of them thought I was lying in my teeth. Fortunately they were too polite to say so, so they changed the subject, and I was left to reflect on the unwisdom of bragging about 97-pound kings when they consider catching a 5-pounder their best day ever. If I’d told them we throw the 5-pounders back, they wouldn’t have believed that, either.
So my job as Alaska ambassador to everywhere else was hard enough already, and then George W. Bush got elected, and one of his planks was opening ANWR to oil exploration. For four solid book tours, I wasn’t able to step outside the state without being pounced on by someone who wanted to know all about ANWR.
It began with fans at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale my first evening on the first tour after 2000. How did Alaskans feel about ANWR? I took a deep breath, and said, “Which Alaskans? The Inupiat on Kaktovik? The Gwichin in Arctic Village? The fishermen in Cordova? The people laid off in BP’s latest RIF? The National Park Service wildlife managers? The members of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation? The legislature in Juneau?”
The guy sitting next to me on the plane from Phoenix to Pittsburg the next morning said, “Where you from? Oh, Alaska. What do you think about ANWR?” The television host in Connecticut said, and live, on the air, too, “You’re from Alaska. What do you think about ANWR?” The clerk at the hotel in Washington, D.C., looked at my registration form and said, “Oh, you’re from Alaska. What do you think about ANWR?”
From agents who don’t know where or what Alaska is to radio hosts who have never seen a dog team fight to get into the traces to people who just want to know a little bit more about ANWR than CNN is telling them, everybody has their own opinions about Alaska, always strong ones, and often erroneous. I admit that sometimes my books don’t help. In the third Kate Shugak novel, Dead in the Water, I referred to “pewing” fish, and while I was on another book tour Outside a reader demanded to know what “pewing” was, because she thought a “pew” was something you sat on in church or said when you smelled a skunk. Those too, I said, but a pew in this case was a wooden handle, like a shovel or a rake handle, with a sharp metal prong on one end that deckhands used to stick into the heads of salmon to lift them from the fishing boat onto the tender, a bigger boat which would then take the fish to the cannery.
She was horrified, and I hastened to add that the fish were dead by then, and further that I was dating myself by using “pew” anyway, as pews are no longer in use and fish are now transferred by hand by deckhands wearing monkey gloves. Whereupon she shrieked, “You mean you use gloves made out of MONKEYS?” and stormed out, presumably straight to the nearest chapter of the ASPCA. I’m sure she was next in line behind the radio show host.
And then there was my editor, who was shocked, shocked by a scene I wrote in Play With Fire describing an eagle swooping down and carrying off a tourist’s pet poodle. How could I? she demanded, how could I write something so sick? and she warned me that I would get nasty letters from the Humane Society.
Nasty letters from the Humane Society seemed pretty much a given at this point, so I wrote back and said I was only describing something that had in fact taken place in the Alaskan Bush that very summer, fortunately for all of us with a representative of the media at close hand, who reported it in loving detail on the front page of the next morning’s newspaper.
Hey, to an eagle protein is protein, and if it doesn’t move out of the way fast enough it winds up being an eagle snack. Nature Red In Tooth And Claw, and why were those tourists in Alaska in the first place?
Because it ain’t New York.
It is a state, though. Has been since 1959.
Afterward I gave away some books and did Q&A. It is my experience that these things sink or swim on the quality and quantity of questions asked by the attendees. I didn’t sink. They surprised me by asking a lot of questions about the business of writing, too.
And I asked them for business cards, because every single one of them has to have experience with insurance fraud, and it’s only a tiny step from that to…murder. If one of their war stories resulted in a book, I promised to spell their names correctly in the acknowledgements.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.