"This is one of the funnier, more intriguing books I have read in a long time. The author has an amazing ability to intertwine his adventures into the unsolved mysteries of SE Alaska." --Chip M., Amazon Reviewer.
I first came across Bjorn Dihle's writing when I was doing research for my series of blog posts about Thomas Bay, Alaska and the legendary Kushtaka (see categories Monster Busting and History). There was a lot more on the subject than I expected, but Bjorn's account was by far the most enjoyable. I wound up reading everything I could find online written by him. I also sent him an email via the paper he wrote for, The Juneau Empire, and was surprised and delighted when he responded.
We wrote back and forth for a while, some of the time about the book he was in the process of writing, "Haunted Inside Passage," some of the time about our various adventures in the wilderness. Then one day I got an email by someone named Mary Catharine Martin, or MC, as she preferred to be called. She said she'd read my blog and wanted to tap me for writing a column in the paper she edited, Capital City Weekly. As it turned out, she'd been introduced to my blog by her boyfriend, Bjorn Dihle. (For more on MC, click on April 2017 under Archives.)
When I mentioned it to him, thanking him for the opportunity, he shrugged it off and said that all he did was show her my blog, my writing did the rest. This is typical Bjorn, more kind and generous than he likes to reveal. He usually disguises it with his sense of the absurd, which is highlighted in all of his writing, including "Haunted Inside Passage," and in my interview with him below. (For more on "Haunted Inside Passage" see the category Books.)
ADOW: What made you decide to write Haunted Inside Passage in anecdotal form, inserting yourself and your experiences into the text? (That's always my favorite book of this type, it makes me feel like I'm part of the adventure.)
Bjorn Dihle: The short answer is I'm basically a three-year-old boy trapped in a grown man's body that wants to be the center of attention. The long answer is I appreciate narratives like Hunter S. Thompson's and other nontraditional writers [such as Milan Kundera and his "Book of Laughter and Forgetting"]. Take "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a classic whose basis lies in Thompson being sent to cover an off-road motor race. The story is as much or more about Thompson's antics and reflections as it is about the subject matter he's supposed to be writing about.
For "Haunted Inside Passage," I wanted to create a narrative that would both entertain readers and give them a decent portrayal of aspects of Southeast Alaska history. To do that I interjected my own absurd riffing to counter the weight of often dark history. By making it personal I hoped to inject more life in the narrative.
"I remember one commercial fishing captain I worked for, a kind but tightly strung man, who threatened to throw me overboard when he caught me whistling.
"'You'll summon a storm!' he yelled.
"'I'm sorry,' I said, peeling a banana.
"'You brought a banana aboard! That's bad luck!' he squealed, swinging a salmon gaff at the fruit. 'Throw it overboard and go wash your hands with bleach!'
"....I learned a lot that season about what you can and can't do on a boat. For instance, gingers have no souls and have been the doom of many a fisherman. Bananas are the devil's fruit and have doomed many mariners. Certain words and phrases like 'drown' and 'good luck' must never be said on a boat and can lead to doom."
ADOW: What age were you, what made you realize, SE Alaska was like no other place on earth?
BD: Pretty early, I suppose. There's a 1,500 square mile icefield on one side of my home and an archipelago full of brown bears on the other. All that country is open to explore, which is an incredible gift to an introvert suffering from wanderlust like me. I spent a number of summers in Montana when I was a kid and would always miss the fishing, hunting, and woods of Alaska. Montana is great but still pales in comparison if you love wild places.
ADOW: How do your girlfriend, MC, and your dog, Fen, feel about how they are portrayed in the book?
BD: They're both considering suing me. My golden retriever, Fen, is particularly distraught. I'm trying to bribe her back with red wine and prime rib dinners and long beach walks but a silence as vast as the Great Wall of China has grown between us. We're currently going to family counseling but MC gets so mad during these sessions that she throws books, chairs and, once even me against the wall.
"On a dark December day, I walked with my golden retriever, Fenrir, past the ruins of the Treadwell Mine. Still a puppy, 'Fen' chased seagulls in the ocean's surf while I moped along behind. My girlfriend, MC, and I named her after the wolf in Norse mythology that killed Odin and destroyed the world. Her aptitude for apocalyptic behavior has proved low thus far, though she occasionally jumped on frightened strangers to lick them and drank voraciously from the toilet no matter how hard we tried to discipline her. MC was the bad cop and I was the pushover in our dog rearing."
ADOW: If you were to write another book set in Alaska, what would it be about?
BD: I have a book of hunting, fishing, and outdoor humor stories called "Never Cry Halibut" being published next year. I'm considering writing a book about the relationship between people and brown bears. It's a subject that fascinates me--I love "nature" and exploring the ideas of things that scare us and, well, brown bears definitely scare just about everyone. I'm really hoping to bring sexy back to nature with writing that book.
I have other book ideas too and will choose one after summer winds down. Right now the only thing I'm working on is a novel about UFO conspiracy culture that's more of a cathartic sinful indulgence than anything else. MC no longer wants to hear my jokes so I just write them into that book to entertain myself.
According to the prologue in "Haunted Inside Passage" Bjorn was advised by a friend that he'd never get anywhere as a writer if he didn't make it "sexy." In his cover letter to the publisher who eventually put out his book, Bjorn claims: "I made it clear my book could only be optioned into a film if Tom Hardy played me and Scarlett Johansson played my girlfriend, MC, an incredibly intelligent writer whose one flaw is that she's clumsy and burns herself whenever she tries to cook."
He also claims he's intesnely shy, with the exception of "that time at my little brother's wedding in Newfoundland when I challenged 300 or 400 Canadians at the reception to a tag-team wrestling match against me and the groom. (All I remember is yelling, 'We will destroy you, Canada!' before my speech was prematurely ended.)"
ADOW: The bio on the back of the book says that after surviving a cruel childhood nickname you went on to find success as a writer, commerical fisherman, teacher, and wilderness guide. Can you share with us what you did to overcome this early heartbreak in order to soar to such lofty heights?
BD: I hunted down everyone who ever made fun of me and set fire to their homes, slashed the tires of their cars, and blackmailed them with naked photographs.
One guy--T-Rod, a big jock who was particularly merciless--I abducted and left duct taped to a flagpole at a motorcycle gang revival with a cardboard sign that read "I love my Prius."
ADOW: Duct tape. So Alaskan. Can you please give us more details about the interesting quote on the back cover: "Bjorn taught me how to love again." The quote is credited to Sasquatch.
BD: We all have our histories. Let's just say I spent a lot of my twenties wandering alone in wild places. I was lonely....What happened in the wilderness stays in the wilderness....
Lest you think "Haunted Inside Passage" is pure comedy--it's definitely not, detailing some of the more poignant, haunting, unhappy, and unexplained events in SE Alaskan history--here's a final excerpt that shows Bjorn's serious writing chops and his more contemplative side.
"The swirling gray dimmed as we, afraid to travel any farther, dug a snow shelter and pitched our tent. After dinner, I stared up into the darkness, listened to the storm, and thought about glaciers. They're challenging and otherworldly, moving like a living thing, break open with yawning crevasses, and jumble into treacherous icefalls. Glaciers can inspire a visceral dread. I felt like a self-sentenced criminal, imprisoned in the Pleistocene Epoch. Before dawn, I crawled out of my cocoon and was buffeted by winds as I studied the nebulous wind. A ground blizzard raged, but the clouds had vanished to reveal towering mountains and a canopy of stars. An eerie expanse of white seracs, blue where the wind had exposed the ice, surrounded us. We made coffee and broke camp as mountains slowly came to life with the flush of dawn....Staring out at the the distant white of Atlin Lake surrounded by the dark blur of taiga, I thought of glaciers not as desolate geographic features, but instead as titans that created and destroyed the world."
Bjorn writes "Haunted Inside Passage" with humor, but with sensitivity, too, and reveals that he has a listening ear, people feel comfortable sharing some of their most disguieting experiences with him. On subjects that could be milked for cheap sensationalism, Bjorn unerringly finds the human aspect, the part that touches you and makes you wonder and care, and hope, one day, to learn the answers.
NOTE: All photos are by Bjorn Dihle, except the fifth one by Mary Catharine Martin and the first one, by me.
A slow but steady siren cycled between a low pitch and a high frequency. The siren was coming from the direction of town and had to be loud enough in order for it to filter all the way up the mountain to the construction site.
Prig looked over at his work crew, "Tsunami warning!"
Instantly, the workers hopped down from their machinery, tossed their hard hats on the ground, and high-fived each other....
Prig jumped into his truck, rolled down the window and said, "It's a while since we've had one of these, Jim. I'm not about to miss it."
Thus begins the emblematic scene in TSUNAMI WARNING, Brent Purvis's screwball sequel to his SE Alaskan humorous mystery MINK ISLAND (as written about in a previous post).
Is this an accurate reaction of SE Alaskans to a threat of tsunami? I have to admit that, because we get them so frequently, we can tend to become inured to the danger. When my family first moved here we had our first experience with the consequences of living in one of the earth's most active earthquake zones. We hadn't heard a warning on the VHF radio (the jury is out on whether it would have affected our actions if we had) but we did notice an incredibly low tide. In the classic what-not-to-do-in-the-event-of-a-tsunami scenario, we all ran right down to inspect the never before exposed seabed. Some of us even swam from a drop off we hadn't known existed.
Fortunately for us, this wasn't a case of the water being sucked out by an off-shore, building destructive wave. It was simply an extra low tide, which--as a character in Brent's book accurately points out--is the usual outcome of an earthquake and tsunami warning in this area.
After another major earthquake centered in northern Alaska and felt as far away as New Orleans, we saw some whirlpool-like behavior close to my parents' floathouse, which I happened to be visiting at the time. The house cracked and shook as a series of small, powerful waves assaulted it. My dad was coming home in the skiff and, out of a flat calm bay, saw one of the waves crest in front of him. It didn't strike either my mom or I to do anything more than continue chatting and observe the mild chaos with a coffee mug in hand.
Then, on October 27, 2012 we got hit by a seven point earthquake centered in British Columbia, not that far away. We felt it very strongly and realized that for once we should probably take a tsunami warning seriously--at least, if only to see where we were at in terms of an emergency evacuation drill.
So we gathered gear--our time was not good on this--and straggled along through the chilly, windy night, climbing over rocks and drift logs, my parents both using canes, to hike up the nearest elevation, the hill our water tank sat on.
It wasn't until I was halfway up this hill that I realized I'd forgotten to pack my inhaler and I was having a full-blown asthma attack from the cold wind. Probably, I thought, a good thing to have on hand during an emergency evacuation. We arrived at the top of the hill and waited in a howling, northerly gale with windchill at 8 degrees Farenheit. It was a full moon night, with the light shining through the thrashing trees. We figured we were more in danger of a tree falling on us than a tsunami, but we dutifully watched the water in the bight to see if it suddenly got sucked out. I think we were all a little disappointed when it didn't.
We had the handheld VHF radio on channel 16 (the hailing and distress frequency) and listened to the Coast Guard give the tsunami warning every fifteen minutes. There was no chatter, no emergencies called. The radio was eerily silent.
When the deadline passed we headed for home, fairly stiff from our long, cold vigil. In the meantime the tide had come in and cut us off from the houses so I walked a half sunk log to my parents' float and then took the skiff to pick them up as they leaned on their canes, their packs at their feet, on the rocky shore. We all ended up with a mild case of hypothermia and an even worse case of feeling like our emergency response time sucked.
We heard later that there was a 6-inch wave in Ketchikan, a 2-footer in Craig (where Brent's books are set) that did some mild damage, and a five-footer in Hawaii.
Then a year later when a series of powerful earthquakes struck, centered right off Craig, we realized that it was time to make a stab at being responsible. The hill that we'd sheltered on in the previous evacuation attempt wouldn't have been high enough in the event of a thirty-foot tsunami, which the experts all predicted would be most likely in our area. Knowing that if the worst did happen that we'd be cut off from help for days or longer, we decided to build steps up our tallest hillside and put a small rowing skiff and supplies inside a tote and garbage can at the top of it.
We even tested it out during one of the big aftershocks, once again in the middle of the night, with a little snow falling. Once again our response time sucked. But hey, we did better than my brother who lives in the nearby village. He told us he felt the shock, but just rolled over and went back to sleep, figuring that if the tsunami struck, his floathouse would ride it out and he'd wake up--a la, the Wizard of Oz--in a new location. Hopefully with a better view.
Athough I think Se Alaskans will laugh the hardest at the response of Brent's characters to a tsunami warning, I think anyone who reads this book is going to wind up laughing out loud repeatedly. It is, I think, one of the most perfect examples of screwball comedy I've ever read and destined to become a classic of its type. Southeast Alaskans can all be proud....kind of.
Bent kindly answered some interview questions I emailed him and here are his answers:
1. How long did you live in SE Alaska?
I moved to Ketchikan when I was nine years old. I graduated from Ketchikan High School and went to University of Idaho, but still traveled back to my hometown during summer and Christmas breaks. I lived at home while I applied for teaching jobs, and even subbed at Kayhi a few times in the interim. I guess you can say I considered Ketchikan my home for about 14 year
2. How did you become familiar with POW (Prince of Wales Island, where his stories are set)
My family fished the east side of POW often. Some of my fondest memories happened just off the island's coastline. I remember my dad, brother and I all fighting and landing Kings (salmon)--AT THE SAME TIME. How often does a tripple-whammy happen? Being active in music in high school, I visited the Craig/Klawock area during a SE Honor Band trip. My wife and I also honeymooned at Waterfall Resort [on the island]. (Yes, I took my wife fishing for our honeymoon). with each visit, lasting memories of the seclusion, beautiful scenery and quirky inhabitants became ingrained in my memory.
3. What made you decide to write, especially mysteries?
This is a funny question to me. I am sure that Mrs. Miller, my high school English teacher, would crack up if she knew that I am an author. Let's just say that Language Arts was neither my strong suit, nor my interest while growing up. Right after my son was born (he is now 13), I remember feeling as though, if I left this world right now, there would be nothing I leave behind that he would be able to take with him. This feeling, coupled with the fact that I was a stay-at-home dad the first summer of his life, made me embark on my writing career. I had enjoyed reading funny mysteries (yes, Mrs. Miller, I have actually read a book), and given my lack of mastery of the English language, I figured I had better come up with fascinating characters and a decent whodunit. My first mystery novel took me five years to write. It was horrible.
4. How much research did you do for the books?
A writing mentor of mine, Jim Bernhardt, once gave me the best advice of my young writing career. He told me, "Write what you know." Being that I'm not quite the smartest person in the world, following this advice seriously limited me what I was able to write about. I am a musician, I like to fish, I grew up in SE AK, and I get a kick out of weird people. So my research was not extensive for these books. Certainly the geography of the island, history of some of the towns, road system, certain aspects of floatplanes, salmon canneries, rock blasting and various aspects of the Alaskan State Troopers all had to be researched.
5. Who was the inspiration for Jim and Kram?
I get asked this a lot--especially about Kram. I have friends who try to figure out who they are in my books. This fascinates me. Kram was actually inspired by a combination of several Alaskans (seven, to be exact). Some of Kram's antics are REAL. Alaskans are the best source of material on the planet. Jim share some characteristics with me (cigars, coffee, I don't drink alcohol), but he has many other qualities not related to me (I am married, I have no interest in going into law enforcement and I don't talk to minks).
6. What are some of your favorite misconceptions about SE Alaska?
I used to go down to the docks in Ketchikan during tourist season. My all-time favorite was being asked by a tourist THAT JUST STEPPED OFF THE SHIP, "What's the elevation here?" Also, snow. we get more snow where I live now (Colville, WA) than in SE AK. Ihave never actually seen an igloo.
7. What do you miss most about living in Alaska?
The people. Fishing. Alaskans are hearty, quirky--unique in every way. They are kind and respect your space and privacy. The fishing is fantastic, as long as you don't mind getting wet.
8. Which is your favorite scene in MINK ISLAND? TSUNAMI WARNING?
Mink--the humpy slingshots. I've always wanted to do that.
Tsunami--Kram in the casino with his abductors. I don't think I would want to play roulette with Kram.
9. What is the next Jim and Kram adventure about?
There will be a third book released early next summer. I can't give too much away, but let's just say--you will know a little more about the history of this strange man named Kram.
Thanks, Brent. For my complete reviews of both books, go to Amazon, under Brent's books, and read the reviews for DOA.
Photos: Top, the cover of Brent's book. Bottom, the steps we built, made from sawed off rounds of a cedar log, set in the cliffside up to Tsunami Hill.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)