Leigh and I first met working on a piece of mine about a dog named Waffles. Today we got to sit down and talk about her astonishing new memoir, Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home—Karen Russell, author of Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Swamplandia.
Karen Russell: I’m always interested in what happens when kids escape the big people in charge. You were left to your own devices on the tundra as child. How you think that affected you?
Leigh Newman: Knowing how to take care of yourself in the wilderness was the biggest lesson my dad ever taught me—and one he taught me over and over. He wanted me to know what to do if I ran into a grizzly or if I needed to make a fire or if I fell into a river (float downstream, feet first). I don’t think he was alone in this. Self-reliance is the greatest Alaskan quality. You see it in just about every Alaskan you meet, whether they happened to be hunting for food for the winter or figuring out how to build an outhouse. For me it was a crucial skill after my parent’s divorce, when I began commuting between my mother and father at age seven, flying 5,000 miles between Anchorage and Baltimore, Maryland.
KR: You tell a lot of survival stories about bears in your tent and airplanes falling out of the sky, but there's a lot of family stuff too, about your parent's divorce. How do the two subjects relate?
LN: Well, I’m never going to say that not dying isn’t wonderful. It is! None of us wants to die. But I do think surviving takes a lot of out of you. Once the Super Cub has restarted or the bear has wandered off and it appears that you will get to live a little more, the impulse is to keep going—not to stop and talk and share your feelings. And when it came to my parent’s divorce and my mom’s depression and breakdowns, I think we may have approached these events as if they were plane crash. We got out of the wreck of our family, stunned, and just kept marching on. Our situation took place, for the most part, in the wilderness, so in that sense it was extreme, but I think there are many, many people out there in the world who have used this same approach in more domesticated settings. It leads to competency—you are marching after all—but I’m not sure if it leads to happiness.
KR: You write a lot of short fiction, why did you write a memoir instead of novel?
LN: A memoir was probably the last thing on earth I’d ever want to do. But generally speaking, those are probably the things that you most need to do.
KR: One of the biggest surprises in the Still Points North is the love story between you and your husband. How did that get in a book about Alaska?
LN: The book, to me, was always meant as a love letter to Alaska and to my family, despite our many struggles. I was lucky enough to grow up in place I not just adored but revered. And when I left home, I look all those lessons from the wilderness with me—not just on my travels around the world, but in my relationships. So poor Lawrence not only had deal with my semi-feral sense of independence and all consuming, gut-knotting terror of marriage, but also various wacko Alaskan “tests” I created. Like eating rare mallard. Or finishing a 13k cross-country ski in the pitch black at 10 below zero.