Interviewed by Nita Noveno
When Leigh Newman walked into Jimmys no. 43 this past June to read at Sunday Salon, she looked sun-kissed and at ease. She’d just spent the day with her family in a remote area of Fire Island. The author of Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home (The Dial Press, March 2013), Leigh is no stranger to far-flung places. She is the third fellow Alaskan I have met in the twenty years I’ve lived in NYC. Needless to say, I was excited to meet her and listen to her story. She didn’t disappoint. The evening of the Salon, she read from a scene about fishing as child, observing that “humpies” (humpback or pink salmon) were considered the baloney of salmon–this is when I knew she was the real deal–and called her father, “The Great Alaskan Dad”. Witty and poignant, Leigh shared some observations about her writing and life.
Nita Noveno: It is such a beautifully written, personal story of family, loss, and survival. Was it a challenge to write in the voice of a child? What were some of your other challenges in writing the memoir?
Leigh Newman: Thank you so much for such generous words. I’m so honored.
As for the child’s voice, this came very naturally to me. Most of my Alaskan childhood and my parents’ divorce were suspended in some kind of viscous memory fluid. Mostly, I just wrote what was there. And it was all there—since I had never talked about what had happened with other. I had told myself the story over and over, starting at the age of 7. So I knew it pretty well.
I also think there is something about growing up in the wilderness that makes you semi-ignorant for the rest of your life—and I mean semi-ignorant in the most wonderful of ways. Growing up with mud and trees and fish, having that as your language as creates such a tactile, emotional way of thinking, one that’s very childlike. You don’t develop the articulation and intellectualization. Either you can eat it or you can feel it. Sometimes both at the same time.
Nita: Your grandmothers were such interesting characters with colorful and profound stories of their own. Can you tell me more about them?
Leigh: On my mother’s side, I had one grandmother who was borderline personality full blood Creek Indian, who lived down in the swamps of Alabama and never got past second grade and happened to marry a black sheep Baltimore socialite in the 1920s. And on my father’s side, I had an eccentric, loving, hilarious, diehard West Coat woman who raised five kids, hunted ducks, fished for salmon, and survived a lot of tragedy including the death of her husband and child. Both were huge forces in my life. And I think we need to consider grandparents as much as memoir when it comes to memoir, because memoir is usually not just our own stories, they are most often portraits of a family. In my case, most of the action takes place in Alaska, but why my family was that far north, that faraway was very much a function of our extended family—both in what we valued (the outdoors, freedom) and what we were running from (grief and insanity).
Nita: Had you read anything in particular, any Alaskan literature for example, that informed or influenced your writing of this book?
Leigh: Heck yes! Robert Service poems. The classic memoir Road Song by Natalie Kusz, about her family homesteading and the dogs that attacked her. But most of the inspiration came from what I think of as Alaskan campfire narrative. Just about anybody who grows up in that state can tell a story. It’s what you do at night, any time more than two people get together.
Nita: You faced plenty of dangers in the Alaskan outdoors: bear and moose, potential small plane crash, near drowning. Then, there are the vivid memories of your freedom in this wild landscape. Do you have any other favorite Alaskan experiences that didn’t make it into the final story?
Leigh: About 1500. The time squirrels invaded our cabin, the weather went to soup and we all almost went crazy. The time the psycho from the Lower 48 moved in next door. The time Dad climbed a glacier with me as a baby in a backpack—and didn’t know it was glacier and didn’t understand why all the people down below were screaming at him. The time I shot my first duck. The time we went sheep hunting in the Wrangells and it was so perfect, you can’t tell a story about it because nothing went wrong. (Every story needs a little trouble—or there’s no tension.)
Nita: At one point in the book, you compare New York City to Alaska, two places that couldn’t be more disparate, but where one has to survive the elements. You write, “Somebody, somewhere with a PhD and an interest in human paradoxes has got to be charting the official relationship between danger and dreamers” because both places are full of dangers and dreamers. Have you gained any more insight on this relationship or is it something you continue to explore in your writing?
Leigh: I explore it in my writing. And I explore it in my life. And sometimes, it makes you suffer. And sometimes it’s the only way to survive.
Leigh Newman’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times Modern Love section, Fiction, New York Tyrant, Vogue, Real Simple, O The Oprah Magazine, and Bookforum. She is the deputy editor of Oprah.com where she writes about books and happiness, and an editor-at-large for the indie press Black Balloon Publishing.