Oct 13, 2011

Paying it forward with Heather Lende

In honor of Alaska Book Week, I'm interviewing Heather Lende,  an author whose considerable talent with words is matched by her generosity, kindness and quiet humility. Through her lyrical writing and focus on small-town life, she is Alaska's version of Garrison Keillor...only way better looking.  Her books, If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name and Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, are ones to curl up with at night and feature stories you'll savor long after you read the last page.

1. You're from the east coast. Talk about how living in Haines (pop. 2,271)is different than New York. (NOTE: You can get to Haines by ferry, by driving through Canada or taking a small plane.)

Let's see. Haines is about as different from suburban NYC as a place can be - in lots of ways. In New York, bears and moose are in the zoo and here we eat them. Also in New York, you buy bagels and lox and here we make them. There's more, too - in bigger places people live with like-minded neighbors. They send their chidlren to school with other children who have the same values, socio-economic standing, etc. In Haines because we're so small, this is all mixed up. One public school is a great leveler, as is one clinic, one golf course, one gym, one boat harbor...you know?

best thing about living in Haines:
The people, the isolation and its extreme environment/location.
 Okay, actually there is also a great library, bookstore, public radio station, pool, new school, theater, weekly independent paper and in the summer, great places to eat.

and worst thing:

Fall in Haines, AK
 The people, the isolation and its extreme environment/location.

2. Your obituary writing is a key component behind your story making. Tell us how writing obits has trained you to be a better writer.

In all ways. In school they say to write what you know or show, don't tell. Well, what does that mean? When I write obituaries, my one unspoken question is 'prove it.' That is why I don't write: 'she was nice.' I write: 'every Christmas for 37 years she baked cookies for the crew at the post office.' I also think that writing obituaries teaches you to listen carefully and get all the details right. You don't want to spell someone's name wrong in the last thing that's written about them. For me, writing is more about paying attention and being fundamentally curious than anything else I'm not a great writer in 'each sentence sings' kind of way. It's the stories I tell.

 And I have been very very lucky to write about a long list of diverse and interesting subjects (and sources) through my work. It has also given me a huge amount of empathy. People are loved for all kinds of reasons, by all kinds of people and when you write an obituary, you're always looking for the good in people.  I've been criticized for that but I'd rather add a positive voice to the world than a negative one.

3. I've said this to you before - you are the mistress of the lyrical, meaningful ending. How do you do this so consistently? Do the words just 'come' or are you missing chunks of hair trying to find the right phrase?

I feel very strongly that if you write what many people read, you have an obligation to say something more than what you think about the new picture on the Cheerios box. That's journaling. Writing is taking that observation and making it mean something - or actually, realizing that something so normal, so un-newsworthy, as much of my material is - has meaning. It is not so much a deliberate way to write a piece as it is my way of thinking and observing.

4. Both of your books have been on shelves for a while.  Is it easier or harder to keep up promotion momentum than it was with your first book?

View from Haines
 I'm very lucky in that my publisher promotes my books so I don't have to. What I have done (at their advice) has been pretty easy once I got over my initial terror. I maintain a web site and blog and Facebook presence. It also makes any promotion I have to do much easier. I can say 'just take that interview off my site' or picture or whatever. I don't have to spend time saying stuff I've already said again.

5. What are your favorite book promotion tactics?

The ones I have liked the most are the radio tours my publisher has booked for the launch of the paperbacks. It is so nice to stay home and answer quick questions Sometimes it can be pretty funny, though, since the time change hangs me up. I have had calls at 4 a.m. and sort of bolted up and said God knows what to some person I haven't caught the name of. Mainly, I find the best thing and most rewarding book promotion (not sure it's the right word since it doesn't sell more books) is talking to book clubs and classes via Skype. It's easy and fun and I'm always amazed at how appreciative the audience is to talk to a 'real author.' It's a huge gift to me that they're interested and yet they act like I'm doing them a favor. I still can't quite believe that.

6. You write about people you live with in a small town. How do you avoid offense?

Haines boat harbor

I don't know. I hope I do. I do, however, always do my best to write about people in a way that first transcends some local issue - that has a wider significance in the point I'm trying to make and to me personally. In other words, this is my story so I share how their action in words, life, etc., impacted mine, rather than tell their story for them. And I do it in the same way I write obituaries - in the way they would like and that their friends and family agree with. So I wouldn't quote someone's enemy saying: "She shot at me everytime I cut through her yard and  was crazy as a loon." Instead I'd have her best friend say, "She was a real character; she'd actually shoot at trespassers. Thank goodness she couldn't hit the broad side of a boat shed." It's the same thing, just a different way to say it.

7. Your blog is also filled with life details. How do you decide what to share and what to keep private?

By the time I write about it, the news is not private to me or my family or friends. For instance, I have not written about my youngest daughter's pregnancy until now because she's not married and it has been a bit emotional. But now that she's four months along and posting photos on Facebook and we're all feeling happy about it, I will. When I do write about it, I will at first try to re-create that initial response to bring the readers alongside me and connect with many other parents who have had similar life-changing moments. 

8. On your first book tour, you mentioned the mystique people assign to being Alaskan. Do you use that? Or are you quick to dispel it?

Both. I'm very proud to be an Alaskan and to know how to do the stuff we do and live the rural Alaskan life. At the same time so much of it - local foods, shopping, volunteering for hospice or the Humane Society, getting outdoors, hanging around with people who disagree with you, sending your kids to public school, using the library - can be done anywhere. Here in Haines, a lot of this happens by default - we have no choice. In bigger places, people who want to live like this can do it. They just have to be more intentional about it. I encourage that.

9. What are you working on right now? Title yet? Or pub date?

I'm finishing a novel, A Hole in the Middle of a Pretty Good Heart. It has been accepted by an agent and needs some small revision before it goes out in the world to hopefully be published (after what no doubt will be a long list of rejections. That is what happens to all good books, right?) Luckily my nonfiction has a good track record and Algonquin Books will be publishing a third book of essays, as yet untitled (and not finished) in about two years.  Also I'm a Woman's Day columnist now and a contributing editor, which means when they say 'jump' I say 'how high?' and I still write local obituaries.

 10. Weirdest thing a reader has ever said to you about your books?

"Too bad my husband didn't die sooner or he would've been in it," speaking of If You Lived Here...

Fast five: (Alaskan version of optional questions - except the salmon recipe request bc I'm on the hunt for new ones.)

Do you prefer moose or caribou?

Sitka black tail deer

Favorite smoked salmon recipe?Creamy smoked salmon fettuccine
Fishing near Haines

Most fish you've ever caught dipnetting? (or gill netting if that's how you roll.)

About 20 gill netting. But the family record is 36. I wasn't on the boat that day. If I had been, I would've quite at 15 - that's my ideal weekly limit.  The smoke house holds about eight fish and I have two big canners. We can eat the rest fresh if the family are home. But after 20 it's crazy. I'm processing fish for days and days.

Biggest vegetable you've ever grown?
Down here we don't grow huge vegetables but my strawberries are the size of plums.

NOTE: Heather specified 'down here' bc Haines is hundreds of miles south of where I live in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Here we are world-renowned for huge veggies. Seriously. Check your Guiness BOWW. We grow cabbages as big as small houses.

What you splurged on using your PFD*? (I'll go first. I'm getting a vacuum sealer. Also we're going to Cancun.)

I gave about half of it to the Haines Library Community Foundation and animal rescue kennel through the PFD Pick, Click & Give charitable gift program. I bought a ticket to Mexico with the rest.

 So we are both sourdoughs, the definition of which is: sour on the weather with enough dough to get out. *snort*

PFD: permanent fund dividend, a yearly cash amount paid to each Alaskan out of the Permanent Fund Endowment. Yup, we get paid to live here. Thanks big oil! :)
And thanks Heather, for hanging out with me today.

Blogs I love:

Anita Grace Howard: she's creative, fun and sophisticated. She posts great book trailers, query success stories and beautiful poems.

Sleuths, Spies & Alibis: A brand-new blog aimed at MG/YA mystery writers and readers.

The Authoress: Her blog, Miss Snark's First Victim, offers monthly agent contests and the upcoming Baker's Dozen auction.


Sarah Pearson said...

Wow, what a fascinating interview, thank you. I think I might like to live in Haines :-)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great interview.

I love the Authoress. I remember the auction from last year. I'm glad she's doing the lottery this year. Definitely less stressful.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Hi! Awesome interview. Count me in as a new Pay It Forward follower! :-)

Matthew MacNish said...

Hi Melodie. I'm here as the co-host from the Pay It Forward blogfest. Thanks so much for signing up.

And I wasn't following your blog until just now, so the fest is working!

Nancy Thompson said...

Oooh, I'll have to check them out! Thanks!

Melissa Sugar said...

Great interview. I am visiting from PIF. Thank you for stopping by my blog. I am glad to know you & will be back to read more after I visit a few more blogs from the blogfest

Talli Roland said...

Fantastic interview. Strawberries the size of plums? Yikes! Yum!

Great choice of blogs.

Pat Hatt said...

Blog hopped here, great interview, sound like great picks and nice trailer too, always thought about doing one, I may have too sooner or later.

Kristen Kittscher said...

Thanks for the shout-out for Sleuths, Spies & Alibis, Melodie. We appreciate love for our fledgling blog:-)

Holly said...

Im a big fan of Heather Lende! Great interview!