January 9, 2011

Alaska: An inspiring place for writers and readers

A million caribou, and 600,000 people – that’s Alaska, a spacious state where most of us are very happy to know we are still outnumbered by large, wild animals. That includes bears. I live in the state’s largest city, Anchorage, a congested metropolis that is like Anyplace USA– except for the fact that a bear once poked its head into my open window as I sat, typing. I shouted at it, thinking it was just a neighborhood dog, until I looked closer and did a double-take. It was just as startled as I was.
In Alaska, we’re grateful that bears and salmon still thrive. And we’re humbled by the scenery, the weather, the darkness of winter.
But even though the scale of nature is grand and the human footprint is light in this state, human storytelling is strong. You might be surprised to know that we seem to have more writers per capita than many other states. Among our stars are writers like Nancy Lord, who has a new book out this month, Early Warming, about climate change – which all Alaskans are observing firsthand. We have a fantastic state writer laureate, the poet and memoirist Peggy Shumaker. We have many other authors who write about wilderness with humor and poignancy, from Sherry Simpson (the Accidental Explorer) to Bill Streever (Cold) to Bill Sherwonit (Living with Wildness).
We have just as many writers whose work has no clear, direct connection to nature or place. David Marusek is a top science fiction writer we’re proud to call one of our own.
My own fiction focuses on artistic and political themes. My debut novel, The Spanish Bow, tells the story of two musicians – a cellist and a pianist – whose rising fame forces them into conflict with the tumultuous politics of 20th century Europe. My next novel, The Discus Thrower (Soho Press, 2012) tells the story of a young, German art curator whose life is changed by an everything-goes-wrong road trip through Italy, in 1938.
These novels have very little to do with where I live, but my life as a writer has everything to do with where I live. Alaska is big enough to have great cultural and artistic opportunities, and small enough that it’s possible to get to know one’s fellow writers. That’s a wonderful thing. To forge even more personal connections, author Deb Vanasse and I founded a collaborative blog in 2009, 49 Writers http://www.49writers.blogspot.com/  which features guest-posts by AK writers of every genre. We also founded a nonprofit organization, the 49 Alaska Writing Center http://www.49writingcenter.org/ that offers creative writing classes, retreats, and events. In our minds, Alaska has already earned its place on the national literary map, but we’re happy to keep spreading the word. Visit us in person or online and see what our state – a place of wild beauty and a 10,000-year-old storytelling tradition -- has to offer.


  1. Interesting insight into an area vastly different and with unique challenges for living and writing.
    Most of us don't live in a place where we get an up close and personal visit from a bear. They are common in my area, though I haven't had any coming in the window.

  2. I'm watching the old Northern Exposure series. I've heard Alaska is even more "unique" than the series. Do you agree? I love watching N.E.!
    Nora LeDuc

  3. I have never been to Alaska!! I enjoyed learning a little bit about it from your post. I live in the South, and do not know if I could survive with the coldness. I bet it is very beautiful there, and all the wild animals sounds great.

  4. Thank you, Andromeda for telling us about one of the most beautiful states in this country. The magnificent beauty of Alaska is hard to describe, even for a writer. I want to add Dana Stabenow to the cadre of Alaska writers. A native Alaskan, her wonderful Kate Shugak mysteries are excellent, as well as her other books. Good luck to you and your writing.

  5. I love Alaska. I am not sure I would enjoy living there but I would love to visit during the wintertime.

  6. Thanks for mentioning Dana Stabenow -- yes, she is another of our most admired and prolific writers, and a really nice person on top of that.

    As for Northern Exposure -- you'll hear Alaskans complain about any portrayal of our state, but I think the series was amazingly close to the mark. We really do have those kinds of characters here.

    Thanks to everyone for their comments!

  7. I really liked MEN IN TREES, too. Fun show about Alaska. My dad was stationed there in WWII. Have you ever read THE THOUSAND MILE WAR. Most fascinating.

  8. Thank you for sharing about your wonderful state. I had the opportunity to visit a few years ago and was amazed by the beauty and grandeur of Alaska.


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