Leigh Newman’s Great Alaskan Childhood–Newman upper-cases that term throughout her new memoir, Still Points North: Surviving the World’s Greatest Alaskan Childhood–may feel, to some readers, not-so-great. There are moments when her doctor father, recently divorced from her mother, doesn’t exactly know what to do with his mischievous daughter, so she runs around with no shirt or underwear. She and her mother fought “all the time” when Newman was a child. “All this yelling and smashing and crying, though, is easier than sitting down at the picnic table, eating my salmon with Dad and Abbie, as if our Great Alaskan World is perfumed with happiness and blueberries,” Newman writes.
But the sadness that appears in this intimate, often funny memoir about a childhood divided between the rugged vastness of Alaska and the Outside (which is anywhere that is not Alaska, according to Alaskans) in Baltimore with her troubled mother feels confessional, not vindictive. Newman, who is the deputy editor at oprah.com and writes a popular column there, has a love for Alaska that is infectious:
In the summer, we fished the drainpipe creek, wandering into rushing, shoulder-high water – and didn’t drown. In the fall, we raced out into the chilled clear daylight, jumping up to slap the duck carcasses strung across our garages, aging like laundry drying on a line. A poof of falling dead feathers and we were gone – building a spruce-bough tepee, kicking the can, longing for winter and the Iditarod when we cheered the sled teams on from the end of the street.
Still Points North is worth reading for its warm love for an often strange (if not forbidding) state disconnected from mainland America. But it’s also worth spending time with the “tiny runtish girl, with twiggy fingers and a dense rind of dirt on my elbows and knees” at the heart of the story. I met up with Newman in Brooklyn and asked her how she decided to reveal the story of her upbringing.
I think your characters are my favorite thing about this book, the way you make them memorable by revealing telling details about them. When you decided to write this story, did you always know which details of their personalities you would put in the book?
I didn’t even decide to write this book. I love how you said, ‘when you decided to write this book.’ I didn’t decide anything! I always had written fiction and not memoir. I wrote the book because I wrote a novel that I threw myself into for 3 years and it didn’t work. No one saw it. I went to [writing colony] Yaddo and I was up there and in a bad way, very depressed. I had written a food essay for Tin House about Alaskan food and my dad and trying to cook caribou. My dad would send me these big chunks of unidentifiable frozen meat and I would make chicken fried caribou and I wrote this funny essay about me and my dad and I was happy about it. And I thought, ‘Maybe I should write more about Alaska because that’s the only thing that’s made me happy in a long time.’ And of course writing memoir does not make you happy.
And so I started writing about Alaska. Those first 60 pages have not changed. That was very much the starting point of the book. But this idea of Phillip Lopate’s about how to make the character out of yourself when you’re writing nonfiction, which he does in a great, self-deprecating way: There was a certain bravado, a brio-filled person that I attached myself to–which is very much me. It’s one of the things I love most about Karen Russell’s writing. I wanted to feel this joy and exuberance and power–those are all things I feel about Alaska. Those things started taking a hold of me, and it was like my dad and his friends were around the campfire and they were talking in that great storyteller voice I grew up with. I can not tell you how many times I was sitting in the back of a pickup truck in some tiny town of about two people with some dead animal and my dad would be telling these stories about how they can land a plane on a glacier. Or I was involved with them and we were in the plane and they’d say, ‘Should we land here? We probably can’t. Should we land on the ocean?’
And then you would throw up.
Then I would throw up.
That storytelling makes it into the book because although there’s a structure to this book, one of the nice things about it is that you take tangents and veer off and tell stories and I felt at points that maybe this book was just an excuse to tell stories.
One thing I knew, if I was going to bother to write a memoir and expose my life in this way, which I was incredibly uncomfortable with–I do not come from people who talk about their feelings–I wanted to make a story that was readable and stay-up-at-night reading. There were a number of children’s books I related to as I was writing it: Laura Ingalls Wilder (she has a much more delicate touch to her than I do). There’s another book called Julie of the Wolves and I wanted it to read in that way. Anything that slowed us down or wasn’t the best writing should go. So what happened is that I wrote a 350-page book and the beginning was great and the ending was great but the middle part was just ‘pfffft.’ So my editor pulled that part out, 120 pages, in the middle. That left us with a love letter to Alaska and then a love story between me and my husband.
What does your family think about this book?
I was very clear to my family about the book. When I had a draft I was proud of, I gave it to them before I gave it to my editor. And I wanted them to go through and see if there was anything that upset them and there were some things that upset them. And I actually changed those things. My mother didn’t really have any changes. My father is very smart and he’s a good reader and the things he didn’t like were also the things that were a little maudlin or self-pitying…and it created a more subtle and thoughtful book. I asked for their permission, both of them. They both gave it to me and said, ‘We’re private people and we don’t feel like talking about anything but we love the book.’ It was tough; I did not realize how much I had shown. That was scary for all of us. I wanted to celebrate my parents and I wanted it to be a memoir where I displayed the love that was shown me and the closeness and intimacy that was shown me. It wasn’t going to be about making people look bad. That was not my experience and that’s just not how I’m wired. I wanted to write a book out of love.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.