Questions from Robert Hahn in March 2012 for a Publisher’s Weekly article on regional mysteries.
Q: Kate Shugak began as an investigator in Anchorage but you’ve really allowed her to cover the whole state in a manner unlike that of any other Alaskan crime fiction writer. How do you manage to encompass such a vast area with such vastly different environments?
Air travel. Seriously, although of course it also has to do with Kate’s life experience. She was born Alaska Native, raised partly in a white family, and then sent away to school in one of Alaska’s larger cities, Fairbanks. Because of this, she is able to cross cultural, geographical and ethnic divides in a way few of her generation can. She’s equally comfortable sitting down to maqtaq or mac and cheese, and she has no problem playing Monopoly with the kids of whatever village she’s stuck in until the blizzard stops and her plane can get in. Her work experience (her BA in criminal justice, her year at Quantico, her five years with the Anchorage D.A.) gives her entree into the white world, while her family background (Aleut, Park rat) gives her credibility in the world of the Alaskan Bush.
Q: One of the most interesting elements of the series to me is Kate’s continuing recognition and acknowledgement of her Aleut heritage and your adroit handling of that rich heritage as well as the problems of Alaska’s Native Americans. If that isn’t part of your own heritage how have you (seemingly) made it your own?
I was raised in an Alaskan village, and spent my childhood around Aleuts. My best friend is Aleut-Filipino (also known as Jalapeno). I watched and I listened. I still do.
Q: How do you manage to write so authoritatively about Alaska’s bush country, urban environments, fishing boats and, of course, the 20 million acres of the Park?
My hometown village had (and has) a population of 300. It’s on the edge of what is now the Kenai Fjords National Park. There is no road, you can only get there by boat or plane. I worked on the TransAlaska Pipeline and in the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay. I wrote a column for Alaska magazine where I spent five years traveling around Alaska and writing about it. I grab every opportunity that comes my way to go anywhere and everywhere in Alaska. I do my best to adhere to that old writer’s dictum: Write what you know.
Q: Alaska’s many natural resources provide conflict in some of your novels from minerals (A Night Too Dark) to commercial fishing (Killing Grounds), oil (A Fine and Bitter Snow) etc. Is it difficult to avoid being too one-sided or “preachy” when dealing with these issues?
Very, and I can only hope and pray I rein in that impulse most of the time. On the other hand, conflict is storytelling. Take the Suulutaq Mine, a world-class gold mine recently discovered in Kate’s back yard. The Suulutaq is of course based on the Pebble Mine, a real gold mine recently discovered right across Cook Inlet from where I live. The discovery is located upstream of the best commercial salmon-fishing area in the world, Bristol Bay. Strip mining is not an environment-friendly activity. The Pebble mine is the single most divisive issue in Alaska today, pitting miners against fishermen and developers against environmentalists. Of course I picked up the Pebble and put it down in Kate’s Park. I’m a practicing opportunist, I use what the universe so kindly offers.
Q: The inhabitants of the Park are remarkably eccentric – even those who belong there, not to mention those incomers who don’t belong – those who are committing “suicide by Alaska. Are many of them created from real life prototypes?
If anything, I dumb down the eccentricities. If I based my characters on real Alaskans, no one would believe them. Would you believe a guy who, coming out of an unfriendly divorce in which he and his wife had to split the house, proceeded to saw the house in half? Although I keep meaning to use that one in a book someday.
Q: Do you think Alaska, at least as represented by the Park area, is unique in the degree to which people both value their independence and need to rely on one another to survive?
I think all of Bush Alaska is. Mostly it’s the distance involved, first from the rest of the world, and then itself from the rest of Alaska. Alaska is three-plus hours on a plane from Seattle, and four time zones from New York. Bush Alaska is as much as an $800, three-hour flight from Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city. When you’re stuck out in the wilderness with no road, no running water, and no regularly scheduled airline, your first asset is yourself. You have to be capable. And then you have to be there for your neighbors, because they are your second asset. There are Alaskan villages who don’t see a representative of state or federal government for months and maybe even years at a time. Once in a while they see a state trooper, but that’s usually only when there is trouble of a criminal kind. They’re on their own.
Full article here.