In November of last year, my friend Bjorn Dihle, author of "Never Cry Halibut" and "Haunted Inside Passage" (See Authors and Books categories), wrote: "Have you ever considered [writing] a 'tell-some' memoir?" He added, "You have a real good story to tell that I think would resonate."
For as long as I've been a writer, which has been most of my life, people have told me I need to write my family's story, of moving out to the burned cannery in an extremely remote area of SE Alaska where we built a home with our own hands and rarely saw other people. But I always dismissed these urgings because the idea didn't excite me. It was normal to me, the way anyone's childhood is normal to them. It wasn't until I began writing this blog and people contacted me to tell me how amazed and thrilled they were by our lifestyle and history that I began to see it through their eyes.
Bjorn's encouragement came at just the right time. He didn't limit it to just words, though. In February of this year he generously wrote to his editor, introducing me and the story I had to tell, assuring her that I was a "thoughtful and talented writer."
His editor responded favorably and he sent me his publisher's proposal form. Following it's guidelines closely, I wrote up a detailed proposal, including a chapter by chapter breakdown of a book I'd never really given any thought to until then, and sent it off that same day.
A week later Bjorn's editor responded, telling me that they were definitely interested in my proposal and that they believed I had a great story to tell. It just had to go through an upcoming acquisitions meeting before they could tell me anything definite.
In March the editor wrote: "I'm reaching out in regards 'Raised in Ruins,' the book proposal you had sent last month. We just had our acquisitions meeting and were really interested in the book and the unique story you have to tell. We also think your blog is fantastic!"
I hadn't written a single word of the actual book yet, but as soon as I received this message I began to write about our first day in our future home:
"Our uncovered skiff, about the length of a Volkswagen Beetle, was a speck.
"The world was big, I knew that from school lessons. But the wilderness was bigger. There was no end to it. We were the only humans in it as we sped across the gigantic white cloud reflections.
"...In the photos of our first visit to the cannery ruins my dad is behind us kids as we explore; he's pushing the skiff off and anchoring it in the current of the creek so that it won't go dry as the tide recedes. Jamie is watching over the two little ones while my sister and I, blonde hair gleaming, stand together out in front. The bay stretches out behind us kids and my dad to a shimmering, hazy horizon, as if we've stepped through a curtain into another dimension, into a different experience of time."
I've since written the first three chapters, but I still have a long way to go. Thankfully, I have plenty of time.
The publishing director, who has patiently and kindly helped me through the negotiation process, wrote: "We are thrilled at the prospect of publishing your remarkable story....we're looking at publishing the book in 2020."
That gives me plenty of time to write, revise, re-write, and polish it. I'll continue to share this adventure with all of you. I want to thank everyone who reads my blog, and especially those people who have contacted me and changed how I see and think about my family's Alaskan story.
And I want to give a special thank you to Bjorn, and to Mike in Mongolia who helped me understand contract negotiations, Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Agency for his time and encouragement, and everyone else who's helped in large and small ways to get my writing career to this point.
Most of all, thanks to my family for sharing this journey and giving me so much to write about.
All during the journey coming home it was beautiful sunny weather right until the last few hours on the ferry when the clouds enclosed the mountains and dropped the ceiling. Rain ran down the tall windows in the observation lounge obscuring the view of the Inside Passage and, while the other pasengers grumbled, I smiled.
"I'm almost home."
I stepped outside into the fresh, rainy wind and watched as the point of land where I live moved sternward. I could easily imagine my parents in their floathouse, tucked out of sight of the stormy strait. My mom would be coloring in her rocking chair while my dad battled the poor signal to check or order something online. The house would be cozy with a wood fire in the stove. In my floathouse behind theirs my Maine Coon Katya would be hunched in a ball, grumbling to herself because I wasn't there to start a fire, or tuck her up, or generally make her feel like the center of the universe, which she knows is her due.
The rain lifted a little as we entered Tongass Narrows and approached Ketchikan. We passed close by the shipyard where my brother Robin works and I took pictures, hoping I'd get a glimpse of him. But as I was taking pictures a woman stopped next to me and asked if that was a ferry and what it was doing up there on land.
I explained that it was indeed a ferry and that the shipyard more often than not had one of the Marine Highway System's ships in dry dock to repair and paint all year around.
"Do you know someone there, is that why you're taking all those pictures?" When I explained she said, "Shouldn't you wave?"
I duly waved and got in trouble for it within minutes. Robin texted me. "You are blinder than Dad. Lol. I was nowhere in the vicinity that you were waving to!!!! Lmao."
"Just for the tally books," I texted back, quoting a favorite family movie that we re-watched a million times as kids, "where were you?"
"I will show you in your camera! You took a picture of right were I was."
Which he did as soon as he picked me up from the ferry terminal, which was right next door to the shipyard. In the picture there's a blue building about in the center with a red spot in the row of windows. Robin was the red spot. He'd unfurled a San Francisco 49ers flag to catch my eye. He said the people around him wondered what on earth he was doing, but he didn't let that stop him.
The floatplane ride home was direct with no stops along the way, which is unusual. I asked for ear plugs since there wasn't an extra headset and the engine, as anyone who's ridden in the cockpit of a small plane knows, was deafening.
On my side was Cleveland Peninsula which had, in the last few years, been massively clear cut by a logging operation. The mountains were naked and scarred by logging roads, but already I saw that the roads--only a few years old--were overgrown with shrubs of new growth, or washed out by streams, or blocked by landslides.
When we'd first moved to Alaska, logging was a booming industry and everywhere you looked you'd see such naked hillsides, but now they were rare.
I ticked off the familiar points on the chart in my head as we flew north toward home: Niblack, False Island, Ship Island, Three Islands--and then there was the communications tower standing incongruously amidst miles of evergreens that marked Meyers Chuck.
The pilot circled above the village and I looked toward the north, toward the point of land where I live, and saw the white scar my dad's skiff was cutting through the water as he headed for "the Chuck" as it's known locally, to pick me up.
The pilot came in from the south, his pontoons splashing onto the water just past the island my sister had bought and will be building on later this summer: MAD Island, as it's now known.
As we taxiied toward the dock it was possible to speak again and the pilot pointed out Cassie, the village's post mistress, at the dock. "I wonder what she's doing? It's not mail day. Steve's in Wrangell, working on the boat," he added, mentioning Cassie's husband. It made me smile to think how up-to-date he was on all the local gossip, even though he lived in Ketchikan. It just showed how small SE Alaska's world was.
My dad picked me up and Cassie opened the post office for us to pick up last week's mail. We stopped back at my brother's floathouse and gave him the shopping he'd asked me to do while I waited for my plane to leave Ketchikan. Then we headed home.
It had taken days for me to travel from Juneau to our tiny little outpost, but there it finally was as we turned the corner into our little bight.
It's that time of the year when bears are everywhere. Thirteen-year-old A.C. Darden who comes and stays with us frequently told me that the day before she came to visit there was a black bear down on the dock at the nearby village. Fortunately there aren't that many tourist vessels in yet and the summer people are still sparse so there was no interaction.
My dad, A.C.'s brother, and I went over to work on the dam a few days ago and found that a bear had been there, too. While I was gone the bear had ripped the pump off the dam and chomped into almost every piece of plastic around, including oil jugs and the container we use to prime the pump. Fortunately he didn't bite the pump itself, or the waterline. He did carry off our can of ether, though, that we use to get the balky pump engine started. I pictured him passed out somewhere in the woods after puncturing the can.
Apparently, though, it didn't keep him down for long--either that or there's another bear around--because two days ago my dad saw a black bear near the beach that has a good signal, where I go to send my blog posts.
Not wanting to make the bear's acquaintance, even though I go everywhere with a .44 strapped to my hip these days, I've decided to just send off this short blog post explaining why my longer post about my trip back from Juneau will be delayed--it's on a bear hold.
(If you want to read about what took me to Juneau and the trip up there here's a link to my column that talks about it: http://juneauempire.com/capitalcityweekly/ccw-columns/2018-05-23/alaska-real: wilderness-nanny-interrupted.)
Sorry for the shortness of this post, but I have to use as few photos as possible so it will send from my house. I'm willing to brave deep snow, gales, and pouring rain to send off blog posts, but I'm not willing to face this:
Tara Neilson (ADOW)