Author interview-Shannon Huffman Polson, author of “North of Hope”

Several weeks ago, Shannon Huffman Polson’s book North of Hope was featured on Why The Writing Works. Today’s post is an interview Shannon kindly agreed to, taking time out of her very busy schedule to answer a few questions.

North of Hope

WTWW: Your memoir North of Hope A Daughter’s Arctic Journey is a very personal story through grief. How difficult was it to not only write this book, but then release it out into the world?

SHP:Writing memoir is a funny thing in that you may include some memories that are so intimate you may only have shared them with a spouse, but I think it’s this willingness to be vulnerable to write toward the truth of the work that is the heart of writing, what allows a book to connect to a more universal human experience. This connection is the whole purpose of writing a book. It’s also important to remember that a book has limitations; 250 pages is not the same as an experience or a life. One of the most difficult things is crafting the narrative, deciding what must be included and what (no matter how important it seems) must be left out in service to the story. I think it’s important for both writers and readers to remember the possibilities but also the limitations of a narrative.

WTWW: Your web address is A Border Life (dot) com and on your website your state you “write about the difficulties of navigating borders.” Why borders? What other borders do you hope to explore?

SHP: The idea of edges and borders has always held me. The idea of “a border life” comes from Thoreau (“with regard to nature, I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays…”- Thoreau, Walking) When I first started writing seriously, one of the tensions I felt most strongly, and still do, was that of life in the city, where work has required I, and now my family, live most of our time, set against life in a more rural setting, the strengths and weaknesses of both. I think a third book might look at this more deeply. I am also aware of borders of life and death, of self and other, of women and men, as those that we are forced to live with every day. I love the idea of the ecotone as well, the border between ecosystems that is a transition area, a place where two ecosystems integrate. Borders are infrequently as hard and fast as they are drawn on maps or held in arguments, and I think this area on the edge, this requirement of integration, is where the possibilities for our own growth lie.
WTWW: You end your book with an afterword about the dangers the fragile ecosystem of the coastal arctic plain face from development. What do we stand to lose if this ecosystem is developed?

SHP: We would love one of our very last wild places, and that part of us that can hold a place as sacred. There is only a tiny percentage of the Alaskan coastline that is undeveloped, and it’s a tragedy that we can’t agree to protect it. Now, of course, the threats are much more complex, from the rapid changes occurring due to warming in the Arctic areas which changes this fragile landscape in unimaginable ways, both on land and in the sea where there is no longer sea ice (where even I experienced it in 2006.) This puts whole ecosystems and the animals and birds that rely on them at risk. What we don’t seem to see is that in our connection to wilderness, it puts us at risk too.

Wilderness is so much more than a place on the map; it is a place in our consciousness, a place that allows us to understand the fullness of potential and possibility, and love in all it’s terrible and beautiful forms. I am afraid of the way our culture seems to be losing the ability to see the sacred, in wilderness, in each other. Our connection to the wilderness, felt or not, is both body and soul. When we destroy the wilderness, we are destroying ourselves.
WTWW: Any other writing projects you’d like to discuss?

SHP: The book I’m working on now is exploring ideas that come from my experience as one of the first women to fly attack helicopters after the combat exclusion clause was lifted in 1993. I’m not yet clear what the key themes will be; certainly connection and aloneness, narrative inclusion and exclusion, and men and women, though I’m constantly surprised at what comes up as I do my work, so I’m not yet prepared to give a full answer about it, but it’s both terribly risky and exciting. Stay tuned!
WTWW:  What are your interests outside of writing?

SHP: I‘m an avid chorister, and sing with an incredible group in Seattle called Seattle Pro Musica. I love to hike, backpack, and ski— nordic, alpine and backcountry. I love spending time outside in Washington and Alaska, or anywhere, with my family, my husband and two happy active boys. That’s most of it!

WTWW:  Anything else you’d like to discuss?

SHP: Thank you for having me visit your blog community!

Thank you, Shannon!

Connect with Shannon:
Website

Twitter

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Facebook

If you wish to read more of her writing, Shannon also contributes to Image Journal’s Good Letters blog.

 

 

The Snow Child

post by Cheryl Russell

The Snow Child “Mabel had known there would be silence. That was the point, after all…No pad of small feet on wooden stairs worn smooth by generations…[a]ll those sounds of her failure and regret would be left behind, and in their place there would be silence”(1). So begins The Snow Child, the debut novel (and one of three books in the final running for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction) from author Eowyn Ivey.

Mabel’s unresolved grief over the death of a premature baby that “looked more like a fairy changeling” (4) combined with the approach of her second Alaskan winter has driven her to despair. The use of the phrase ‘fairy changeling’ is an early hint to the novel’s fairytale aspects. Mabel used to believe “in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses,” (5) words which add to the fairytale aspects of the story. But the writing isn’t all fairytale. Ivey also anchors the reader in the novel’s setting.

Ivey also anchors the reader in the harsh, barren, yet beautiful setting of the Alaskan wilderness in the early part of the 20th century. As Mabel makes her way home after a failed suicide attempt at the river, she sees her surroundings as “a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all” (9).  While there are still hints of fairytale—beauty—Ivey introduces a solid harshness to her novel by anchoring the reader into the setting. Ivey begins to anchor the reader into the setting when she describes Mabel’s reaction to the on-coming winter, Mabel’s second, which means this time around, Mabel knows what to expect; cold like death, glacial winds, and “[d]arkness so complete even the pale-lit hours would be choked” (4).

Further into the novel, when the reader has experienced more subtle switches between fairy tale and setting, Mabel tries to tell her down-to-earth neighbor Esther about the little blonde girl Mabel saw earlier, and it doesn’t quite go as Mabel planned.  Esther, who has lived in the wilderness far longer than Mabel, knows what isolation and long, dark winters can do to a person’s mental state. Esther also knows there are no little blond girls living in the valley, and in a kind way tells Mabel after long, dark winters people “get down in the dumps, everything is off-kilter and sometimes your mind starts playing tricks on you. You start seeing things…you’ve always wished for,” (78). But Mabel is firm, and explains away the absence of any tracks because of the “blizzard last week covered them all” (78). Esther starts to speak, “Blizzard? There hasn’t been any snow in—“(78), but then she stops.

Ivey maintains this tension between fairy tale and realistic setting throughout the novel—the fairytale never reaches the point of pulling the reader out of the story by being too fantastic, and the strong setting doesn’t overwhelm and destroy the fairy tale. Instead, they combine to form a story that is well-worth multiple reads.

Ivey, Eowyn. The Snow Child. New York: Regan Arthur Books, 2012. Print

 

Accomplishing More with Setting

Accomplishing More with Setting: Landscape in Close Range: Wyoming Stories

by

Rhonda Browning White 

            Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories is a collection of short stories set in the hardscrabble rancher’s world of often-barren Wyoming, though setting is one of the few threads connecting these stories. Their topics vary from that of ancient folkloric legend to the issue of cattle-produced greenhouse gases. There is much for a writer (as well as a discerning reader) to glean from these stories, whether or not their dark and raw subject matter appeals to you.

            First, the setting description caught my attention. The importance of utilizing landscape, scenery and backdrop in writing becomes clearer when we read this collection. Proulx does more than paint a picture with her words; she uses all senses when describing the surroundings in which any of her stories is set. The first paragraph of “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water” provides one such example: “You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country—indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky—provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut” (99). As a reader, I’m immediately drawn into this story, not simply because I’m directly addressed (as “you”), but also because I see the shadows, hear the air hiss, feel the claw in my gut, even receive a sixth-sense spiritual shudder. Despite the fact that the setting for each of these stories is desolate Wyoming land, each description of that land is different; colorful or colorless, fragrant or reeking, arid or muddy. It’s an accomplished writer who can make the reader envision the land as if she has been there, and Proulx achieves that goal.

Proulx, Annie. Close Range: Wyoming Stories. New York: Scribner, 1999. Print.

 

U. G. L. Y.

By Gabrielle Brant Freeman

A few days ago, I was reading Mark Doty’s The Art of Description: World into Word, and I came across his explanation of Richard Diebenkorn’s use of color in his paintings from the 1950’s. Doty explains that Diebenkorn’s abstract representations “look so alive” because of their “Sheer push and pull of shape and line, the restless energy inherent in these masses and their dynamic relations” (67). Given that I am always interested in studying artists I don’t know, and given that Google affords me a reasonable out for not working on what I’m supposed to be doing…namely grading papers…I looked Diebenkorn up and hit “images.” Whoa. Swathes of color, line, swirly thingies. Yes, I said “thingies.”

Since I was strangely attracted to these paintings of…something, I decided to read what others said. Google is magic, you know. And I came across the following line in the blog design journal by blogger Brittany Stiles, “I don’t like things too pretty or too perfect or too planned […]; if something is a little ‘ugly’ or awkward, I tend to like it more, and I find it a lot more interesting.” My immediate thought was Yes! Never have truer words been spoken.

It is with the idea of imperfection or “a little ugly” in mind that I bring Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon: A Vision to my post today. I read this book at the suggestion of writer RT Smith, and let me tell you, I wasn’t too excited about it. Why? I don’t know. Yep. That’s it. Gut instinct. Could not have been more wrong. I fell in love with this book immediately, and I believe it is precisely because its language is a little ugly; it shows perhaps a bit more than we’d like of humanity, and therein lies its truth.

In section II, “The Dream He Never Knew the End Of,” RPW writes:

The face, in the air, hangs.  Large,

Raw-hewn, strong-beaked, the haired mole

Near the nose, to the left, and the left side by firelight

Glazed red, the right in shadow, and under the tumble and tangle

Of dark hair on that head, and under coarse eyebrows,

The eyes, dark, glint as from the unspecifiable

Darkness of a cave.  It is a woman. (7)

This is not a parody of an ugly woman. This is an actual woman, a woman living on the frontier with her sons,  a woman willing and able to slit a man’s throat to ensure her survival and livelihood. It ain’t pretty, but it resonates.

The same woman is described later in the same section in a barely veiled segment comparing the pure rawness of survival mode to sex to the idea of murder for personal gain:

Against firelight, he sees the face of the woman

Lean over, and the lips purse sweet as to bestow a kiss, but

This is not true, and the great glob of spit

Hangs there, glittering, before she lets it fall.

The spit is what softens like silk the passage of steel

On the fine-grained stone.  It whispers.

When she rises, she will hold it in her hand. (10)

This woman is sharpening her blade on a whetstone using her spit. She is fully prepared to kill her paying lodgers in order to further herself and her sons in the American wild. It is at once practical, sensual, brutal, and honest. RPW’s description is beautiful and grotesque, and this is exactly what makes the characters in this narrative poem real; it is exactly what makes them interesting.

In a world of airbrushing, photoshopping, and otherwise making people “perfect,” it is precisely the imperfect, even the monstrous real in this collection that makes me read it again and again. In these “ugly” details lies truth, and that is what compels us to create.

Doty, Mark. The Art of Description: World into Word. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2010.

Stiles, Brittany. “Art History Thursday – Modernism in America.” design journal. 28 Oct. 2010.

13 Sept. 2012. Web.

Warren, Robert Penn. Audubon: A Vision. New York: Random House, 1969.