Dana Stabenow, interviewed by Jan Burke
Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes" -- intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.
These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature Dana Stabenow interviewed by Jan Burke.
Dana Stabenow was born in Anchorage, Alaska on March 27, 1952, and raised on a 75-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska. She graduated from Seldovia High School in 1969 and put herself through college working as an egg grader, bookkeeper and expediter for Whitney-Fidalgo Seafoods in Anchorage. Dana received a B.A. in journalism from the University of Alaska in 1973.
After graduation and a four-month backpacking trip to Europe, Dana worked for Alyeska Pipeline at Galbraith Lake and later for British Petroleum at Prudhoe Bay. At the age of 30, Dana enrolled in UAA's MFA program; her goal was "to sell a book before I went broke and I just barely made it": Second Star was bought by Ace Science Fiction in 1990. She wrote two other science fiction books, A Handful of Stars and Red Planet Run, but is best known for her 12-book Kate Shugak mystery series (book 13, A Grave Denied, will be published in September 2003). Her first Shugak book, A Cold Day for Murder, won the Edgar award for Best Original Paperback in 1993. She also writes a series about Alaska state trooper Liam Campbell; the most recent Campbell book, Better to Rest, was published in 2002.
Jan Burke: Your novels are rightly praised for their strong sense of place, and no one who has spent time around you could doubt your love of Alaska. Big though it may be, though, do you ever feel confined by that setting? And, a separate question, really, do you find that some people see these books as "Alaska books" rather than judging them on their other merits?
Dana Stabenow: My knee-jerk reaction is to say "Absolutely not!" But if that's the case, I ask myself, why do I have an eighty-page outline/ synopsis of an historical novel set on the Silk Road between Cathay and England from 1322-27? I must want to get out of Alaska at some point, if only for one book.
I swore a mighty oath years ago that I'd stop writing a series if the characters ever went stale on me. We all know authors who should have, and I didn't (and don't) want to be one of them. I worry more about the characters going stale than I do the setting. Alaska never fails.
JB: Ernest Hemingway once said that the best way to become a writer was to have an unhappy childhood. Maybe he was commenting on his efforts as a parent -- I'm not sure. You seem to have strong ties to your parents. Did your childhood contribute in any way to your becoming a writer? Were you a writer from childhood?
DS: I was raised in a single parent home by a non-traditional mother -- translated into English, that means I grew up in rural Alaska, for five years of that on a fish tender on which my mother was deckhand, at a time when there were no women deckhands in the Gulf of Alaska. Yeah, I wrote, even then, stories about lucky kids who lived on shore and didn't have to hide under the galley table when the weather got rough.
It wasn't that I was influenced to become a writer per se, it was that my mother raised me to believe there was nothing I couldn't do. This was more by example than direct pedagogy: There wasn't anything she couldn't do (or nothing she would admit to). You'll notice most of my novels feature strong women characters who believe there is nothing they... well, you get the idea.
JB: What begins a novel for you? A theme? A plot idea? Characters? Do you work from an outline or other structure?
DS: The setting. Always and ever, the setting. The Kate Shugak series came out of a visit I made to the Wrangell-St. Elias Park. The Liam Campbell novels came out of a true event, yes, but I didn't start writing them until I picked a place to set them. The Star Svensdotter novels were written because I was pissed off about the Challenger disaster and I wanted to travel off planet so bad I could taste it, and Red Planet Run specifically because I figured it was the only way I'd ever get to Mars. My historical novel is the result of reading The Adventures of Marco Polo, from which I never recovered, and from which I won't until I write that book. The setting. Always and ever, the setting. I like "you are there" novels: How does it look? smell? sound? taste? feel? The best novels activate all the senses.
JB: You once told an interviewer who asked if you were a Native Alaskan that you are "about as white as you can get without bleach." Do you ever hear from Native Alaskans about the Kate Shugak series? Did you ever feel hesitation about writing about a Native Alaskan character?
DS: This question always drives me nuts. I wonder if a groundling ever shouted up at Shakespeare during a performance of Othello -- "Hey, Shake, how do the Moors feel about you writing a brother?" No, I haven't had negative feedback from Alaska Natives about a white woman writing a Native character(s), although I don't personally know every one of the 27,000+ Alaska Natives who live here, and there's bound to be one or two that aren't happy with me. The best compliment I ever got was in a lit class at Alaska Pacific University, where a young Yupik woman named Stephanie from New Stoyahuk said in a small, shy voice, "I love Kate because Kate speaks up!" If Stephanie likes Kate, I'm doing something right.
By the way, I'm not black, I'm not a Vietnam vet, and I still have both my legs. Oh, and I'm not a man, either. Why does no one ever ask me if the Moors are upset about my writing Bobby Clark?
I hate PC. In case, you know, you couldn't tell.
JB: What's the most difficult part of the novel for you as a writer? What comes easiest?
DS: The beginning of the novel is hands down the worst time of any given year of my life. It doesn't matter if I've got a ten-page outline, I'm sitting there staring at a blank page with an equally blank mind, thinking, oh my god, I did this to myself again? The only way I manage to get words down on paper at all is to give myself a quota, five pages or whatever a day, and forbid myself to get up until they are done. And stick to it, no excuses, no pardons, no reprieves, no absolutions.
The easiest part is the rewrite, it's all downhill from there, zooooom!
JB: Do you finish every novel you begin? If not, how many unfinished manuscripts do you have on hand? Any unpublished novels that might get dusted off and sent around?
DS: Let us say that it is my intention to finish every novel I've begun. Like I said, I've got eighty pages of an historical novel featuring Marco Polo's granddaughter that I'm going to have to write on spec because publishers are such weenies they don't want me to write anything but mysteries for them. But short of being hit by a bus, I'll finish it.
Writing pays my rent. If I didn't write, I'd have to get another job. I'd hate to have to do that.
JB: You write two mystery series, each with its own strengths and its own tone. Is there a major shifting of internal gears as you move between them? Is life around the Stabenow abode different when you are writing about Kate or Liam?
DS: Kate's more of an outlaw than Liam is. When I'm writing Kate, there is always a quality of "Gee, I wish I'd said that." When I'm writing Liam, I'm constantly having to remind myself that he's a straight arrow. Kate let a murderer get away in A Fatal Thaw, she terrorized another in Breakup, she nearly sold a third into slavery in Hunter's Moon, and I'm still nervous about what she might do to Pastor Seabolt from Play With Fire if she gets the chance. Liam would never do any of those things.
Hmmm. Well. Define "never."
JB: You're one of the most well-read writers I know, and your enthusiasm for books is evident. I have fond memories of talking about books with you in Toronto, you've been in a book group for more than a decade, and I don't think I know anyone else who sponsors book clubs on their Web site. What have you read lately that you've loved? Are there certain comfort reads you return to again and again? If so, what draws you back to them?
DS: I grew up reading popular fiction, Georgette Heyer and Nevil Shute and Anya Seton and Thomas B. Costain, essentially everyone published in cheap paperbacks in the 50s and 60s, back when narrative meant something. I go back to them all the time to remind myself of the right way to tell the tale.
Lately, I notice I've been reading less and less fiction and more and more non-fiction, probably in part because so much modern fiction is so horribly over-written. I like Annie Proulx but god forbid she writes a sentence you could parse. Recently, I read Cod by Mark Kurlansky, a delightful concentration of 1,000 years of history into 233 pages, witty, wise, well-written, everything you've ever wanted in a book.
JB: You've written science fiction, and I understand that you miss Mars. What other places and times do you long to write about?
DS: I want to go to the moons of Jupiter. Right now. I mean it, get out there and fire up the ship, in the immortal words of Alan Shepherd, "Light this candle!"
When I get the chance (freely translated, that means sucker some publisher into paying for them), I want to write three more Svensdotter novels featuring Star's son Leif, Charlie's kids, and the twins.
JB: What's your favorite episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"? Why?
DS: "Favorite episode?" As in the singular? You mean I get only one? Jeeze, Burke, you're supposed to be a friend of mine. Oh, all right [feet held to the fire, sweating bullets, screaming with pain], I guess it has to be the musical episode, "Once More With Feeling." The whole series is simply phenomenal. I learn something about writing from every episode.
JB: About this genre -- is there something especially attractive about writing crime fiction? What's at the heart of a good novel of crime fiction? How do you think crime fiction will change over the next decade? Will it need to change?
DS: Simply put, it's the eternal struggle of good versus evil, and the attractive thing about writing (and reading) crime fiction is that, unlike in real life, good usually wins. Dorothy L. Sayers said that detective fiction was the purest form of fiction we have, for that reason. Crime fiction offers a relief from real life, where the crooks get off on technicalities or through deals made with the cops and courts or just plain don't get caught. I don't see that changing.
JB: You began your mystery writing career with A Cold Day for Murder, a book that won an Edgar for Best Paperback Original. Did getting that award so early on give you more confidence? Did it make any difference at all to you as a writer?
DS: Truthfully? Winning the Edgar scared the shit out of me. It's a lot to live up to, to win the biggest award right out of the chute. It's like winning the Iditarod the first time you step foot on a dogsled. I found myself coming up with ways to explain it -- "It was the Alaska thing, so exotic the committee couldn't resist" or "The competition wasn't that stiff that year" or "They made a mistake, they actually meant to vote for A Cold Day in Hell by T. Other Writer." In the end, I wrapped the Edgar in an old pillowcase and tucked it back behind my income tax files. If it's not looking at me I don't have to think about it. Kind of like my taxes.
JB: What did you interrupt to answer these questions? What are you working on today?
DS: A short story called "Wreck Rights" and the first chapter of the 14th Kate Shugak novel, which will be called A Taint In The Blood.
JB: You've edited an anthology and now you're working on another. Do you enjoy that role? Has it changed the way you approach your own writing, or you relationship with your editor?
DS: I've edited two anthologies so far, one of short crime fiction and another of non-fiction essays by Alaskan women about life up here, to be published in April 2003. I've always respected editors and I know without doubt that I've never published a book that hasn't been made better by a rigorous editorial process, but I have a whole new appreciation for both now. Editing isn't easy, especially when those damn writers won't do what you tell them to.
I'm now working on another anthology, Wild Crime, featuring stories set in rural or wild places (Laurie King gave me one set in Borneo, Mike Doogan one set on Amchitka, gotta love that), and I'm putting together a fourth with stories featuring murder in a fantasy setting. Hey, if it was easy, everybody'd be doing it.
JB: Were you the sort of kid who got in trouble for not resisting dares? Are you an adventurous adult? Does that affect your writing?
DS: I always push it a little, that comes with breathing in and breathing out. My feeling is always to ask for everything I can get. They, whoever they are -- my agent, my editors, my characters -- can only say no. And you bet this affects my writing. If I made a habit of playing it safe, Jack Morgan would have survived Hunter's Moon.
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