Los Angeles Review Interview
This 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Review fiction editor is on-line here and reprinted below.
Q and A with Nancy Lord
An Interview with Nancy Lord
In our 9th issue, Fiction Editor Stefanie Freele interviewed Alaska Writer Laureate Nancy Lord about writing, the wild, and the world. Below is a portion of their discussion.
SF: What is life like as the Writer Laureate of Alaska?
NL: I’ve just turned my “laurel crown” over to the next Writer Laureate, poet and lyric essayist Peggy Shumaker. Alaska’s Writer Laureate, who’s appointed by our state arts council, serves a two-year term and is the equivalent of the poet laureate in other states and nationally. It’s an honorary position, and the idea generally is to promote Alaska writers and writing. There’s a small travel budget to help get around in our huge state. Each of our Writers Laureate is asked to develop a particular project. I’ve had a lot of involvement with my local library, including chairing a successful capital campaign to fund a new building a few years ago, so my project involved visiting libraries around the state for multiple purposes—presenting readings, talks, and workshops, and also meeting with their boards or “friends” groups to encourage them with fundraising and share my town’s experience in planning and funding a new building. Most community libraries in our state have been starved for funding in recent years, but the Alaska Legislature recently created a funding mechanism so they can begin to expand and modernize.
I like to quote the political writer Joe Klein, who wrote, “Libraries are places where we writers go after we die, if we’re lucky. We’re going to live on through libraries. But there is also something more. In addition to being a place that we go after we die—if we are lucky—libraries are also the place where a great many writers are born.” That was certainly true for me. As a child growing up in New Hampshire, my local library and the bookmobile that came to my neighborhood opened up the world to me, fed my curiosity, and helped shape me as an independent thinker who would one day write my way into understanding.
SF: Your collection The Man Who Swam with Beavers was, as you say in your acknowledgements, “largely inspired by the titles and themes of stories belonging to Native Americans, particularly Alaska’s Athabaskans.” What can you say about the transformation from an Athabaskan story to a Lord story?
NL: I was not at all interested in retelling traditional stories, which has frequently been done, often without permission or respect to the originals. I think, instead, that there’s a great deal of wisdom in traditional stories which, after all, were usually told for teaching purposes: This is how one should live, or this will be the result of bad behavior. I live in Athabaskan territory and have always tried to be a student of that culture, on the theory that the stories, language, and overall culture belong to this place in the same way that the plants and animals do and I ought to be “grounded” with them if I’m going to be at home in my adopted place. So my intent was to try to respectfully draw upon some of that ancient wisdom in my creation of contemporary stories.
Many of my stories work as fables; they have some magical properties and present “lessons” in a way similar to the source stories. Many, both the source stories and mine, deal with transformations—in literal ways, as people turn into animals or otherwise become other than they were. That, of course, is a characteristic of all stories; things happen, and the main character changes somehow by the end.
In some cases, I worked quite directly with themes (a man making a transforming journey in “The Man Who Went Through Everything”) and in other cases my inspiration came from an image or even just the suggestion of a title (“The Attainable Border of the Birds”). The settings of my stories are largely urban and American—another form of transformation, from Alaskan and Native American cultures into today’s dominant one (as, for example, relocating the concept of “counting coup” to the touch of an urban installation artist in “Candace Counts Coup”).
SF: One of the techniques I admire so much in your fiction is your ability to close with a fabulous ending, and often a hopeful ending, which seems rare in modern fiction. How do you it? What elements are in the successful modern ending and/or in your endings? How important is the ending to you?
NL: Wow. Thanks for saying that. The hardest part of a story to get right, at least for me, is the ending. My goal is that it both be surprising and seem inevitable. I hate “trick” endings, sentimental endings, endings where nothing has changed, and endings that are tied up too neatly—and try to avoid those in my work. I like to think that a great ending leaves the reader with something to think about, something that might carry over to the next day or longer. For me, this usually means a visual or at least sensory image—something a reader can really latch onto and hold in his or her mind. This may be something that ticks the story upward emotionally, but I certainly don’t try to achieve a “happy ending.”
Perhaps because of their fable-like nature in The Man Who Swam with Beavers, these stories have more hope in them, more sense of a positive transformation, than other stories I’ve written. Your question has sent me back to the book, and I do see that pattern of hopefulness, a brightening at the end of most of the stories—not something I intentionally strove for but maybe a direct result of the instructional fable form. Certainly much of contemporary fiction, perhaps in fear of being sentimental or too simple—or simply representing the larger culture—tends toward darker, less resolved endings.
SF: In your most recent book, a collection of essays titled Rock, Water, Wild: An Alaskan Life, you explore the importance of place, nature, global change etc. In the book you ask, “…whether we’re willing to commit ourselves to life all the way around our one watery, interflowing globe.” What would it take for such a global commitment to turn around the mistreatment of our planet?
NL: Well, I’m afraid I’ve become a pessimist in this regard. I don’t think our global community of seven billion humans is capable of reining in its growth and destructive practices, and it appears that we’ve already reached a number of tipping points that mean conditions on Earth will soon be very different than they’ve been. Recycling plastic bottles and changing light bulbs only go so far, and we face mass extinctions, water shortages, displaced people, and conflicts and wars caused by competition for resources.
One of my gripes with the writing about climate change and other environmental insults is that writers seem to feel they need to end with some kind of hope. I know I spoke to hope earlier—and hope is a good thing—but so many books end with something like, if we turn down thermostats and ride our bikes, we can solve this problem. We should do those things because they’re the right things to do, and doing them might help us feel better, might improve our local communities, and might possibly build a groundswell our political leaders would pay attention to—but the real change that needs to happen needs to take place on a global level, beginning with a limit to human population growth and a sharp reduction in the consumption of resources.
SF: As a writer dedicated to exploring and admiring the northern wilderness, ecosystems, and cultures, you’ve investigated and revealed many changes in the northern wilderness—in some places, even the extreme change or loss of cultures, languages, forests, salmon, etc. How frail is our earth and humanity?
NL: I’m lucky to live in a place where indigenous cultures still flourish—if not in the same way as they did before Europeans arrived—and the natural environment is always very present, both inspiring and threatening around us. As a writer I’m able to draw upon both sources to try to understand connections and relationships and to create work that at least asks questions about what we know, what we choose as values, what the past tells us and the future might hold. In my writing I try not to be polemical and offer judgments or answers—despite what you might think from the answer to your question above—but to ask questions and encourage readers to think for themselves. Well, okay, I do try to guide their thinking. James Baldwin once said, “The purpose of all art is to lay bare the questions that have been obscured by the answers.” So, rather than try to answer your question, I’ll default and say, that’s one of the questions I try to pose with my writing. What are the connections between the health of the Earth and our survival as people? What does cultural loss mean? How important are wild salmon? Just how resilient are natural systems and cultures, and what actions increase resilience? How do we want to live our lives?
In one of the essays in Rock, Water, Wild, I wrote that the greeting in the Athabaskan language, which is native to where I live, is Yaghali du? It means, literally, Is it good? Not How are you? but Is it good? This emphasis suggests to me a more holistic way of looking at what’s important, something less anthropocentric and individualistic. I hope that by sharing this with readers they might ask themselves something similar when they meet one another and when they look out upon the world.
The full text of Freele’s interview with Lord can be found in Issue 9 of The Los Angeles Review.