Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Next Big Thing

"The Next Big Thing" is a viral self-interview sent through the ether chain-letter-style by writers, to spotlight new or forthcoming projects. My friend, poet Mira Rosenthal, tagged me for the interview; you can read Mira's interview here.

What is the working title of the book?
The Gyre

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The compost heap of my subconscious, I suppose. More specifically, the idea was born the moment I stepped off of a Beaver bush plane into the peculiar, unforgettable light of an arctic summer. For two weeks I rafted down the Canning River in northern Alaska. We watched foxes, owls, bears, and even saw a wolf make its way across the vast tundralands. By the end of the trip I had no words to express the way that landscape had changed me, and I took that as a writerly challenge. At that point, even though I had not yet developed the story elements that would become The Gyre, I knew I would write a book whose heart is in the far north. I wrote a little bit about that trip to Alaska here and here.

What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction set in a version of the past (which is not really past).

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Hmm, I’m going to skip this one. I don’t want to provide a replacement for the wonderful work of a reader’s imagination at play with a writer’s intention.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Three wildly different people ride their ambition (both worldly and spiritual) north to Spitsbergen, where they become sun crazed in summer, enchanted by the aurora in winter, and altogether enmeshed by the strange layers of folklore present even in the most remote, arctic archipelago.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About three years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I am motivated by a desire to contribute to a literature of the arctic that does not center around themes of exploration.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
There’s an ax fight!

Also, I made a video about The Gyre as part of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to raise money for an amazing research and writing residency I’ll be doing this summer. Check it out!

You can contribute to the project here.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Hopefully represented by my current agent.

My tagged writers for next week

The wonderful poet Caroline Goodwin, who also looks northward — to Alaska — in some of her work.

Exuberance is Beauty: William Blake and the Brooks Range

When I sat down to write a few words about my journey to the Brooks Range in Alaska, I stared at the blank screen for a ridiculous amount of time. Finally, a random memory lodged itself in my mind. I couldn’t shake it, so in a writerly leap of faith this account of Alaska’s remotest region begins ten years ago on a crowded London subway.
            I was studying literature. Specifically, I was on my way home from a pub crawl, when I pulled out a copy of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was a halfhearted attempt to prepare for class, but as I read the poem I felt as if a beloved friend had just slid into the seat next to me: How do you know but ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? Across a span of 300 years, this voice articulated ecstatic wonder toward the world: The howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are all portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. Blake’s exultation appealed to something essential inside my own heart. Exuberance is Beauty! said he, and I agreed.
The following week, I turned in a paper on the subject of Blake, but when the professor handed it back to me he had a blatant expression of scorn on his face: “Chalk up another one for Blake. That’s the sad thing about Blake fans: they all think they’re the only one.” I was crushed by this dismissal. Apparently my identification with Blake was a tired cliché.
            I sense the legacy of this incident in moments when I hesitate to speak freely and deeply about what moves me. And here’s where the Alaskan wilderness comes in:  When we travel in a wild landscape, our "normal" ways of thinking are quickly replaced by a soul-scouring rapture that will clarify our understanding of human nature as well as the environment around us. My journey in Alaska was filled with this rapture and exuberance. I believe we humans are in great need of these sensations, and it is out of a sense of urgency that I describe my experience here.
            We had flown in from all corners of the country for an eleven-day trip on the Canning River. We were eight people in two rafts, all wearing binoculars. During sunlit nights, we sat on tundra ridges watching semi-palmated plover and short-eared owls. Infinitely changing angles of light took our breath away, and we had run out of words to express our amazement at where we were. Observing a wolf, we wondered what we humans thought we were doing on the planet.
On the ninth day we spotted a bird’s nest from the river. High on a cliff face, the nest was massive and disheveled and held three gyrfalcon chicks: two sleeping, one tottering around the periphery. They were huge bumbling things, fuzzy gray with blue-tinted old man’s faces. The tottering one settled down and regarded us with one eye open. The two sleepers awoke, and all of us by the river gasped as the chicks bumped each other and nearly knocked the totterer out of the nest. We worried when one of them choked on the stringy remnants of a meal. They stretched their winglets. They cried out for food. They fell asleep, leaning precariously near the edge of the only world they knew. We rooted for them with all our might. We were a line of comrades in rain pants and goofy smiles: two teachers, a man who led African safaris, a metal sculptor from New York City, a retired lawyer and two guides who were as excited as we were. Our world became the world of the chicks, creatures that would eventually fly over tundra and snow, over that part of the map we call "refuge" and the part we call "petroleum reserve."
            Who are we if we cannot protect what is fragile? What have we become if we do not speak out for the things that ignite our rapture and evoke our love? We will live in that hell we create when we know what is right yet we go on living as if we do not. He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence, says Blake, and I agree.
My cynical professor had it exactly backwards: it is not sad, but amazing that Blake’s words (not to mention experiences of the wild) empower us with passion. Our rapture is a compass by which to direct our energies. By following this instrument, we will steer ourselves back to a life in which we do what is closest to our nature: we love and delight in each nest of chicks as if they were our own blood. We protect their home as if our own children lived there.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Send a Novelist to the Far North!

I have been invited to join The Arctic Circle's 2013 arts-and-science-driven expeditionary residency aboard a 150-foot ice-breaking schooner. For two weeks this summer, we'll sail the coastal waters of Svalbard, a remote archipelago in northern Norway just 10 degrees from the North Pole. Almost unbelievably, Svalbard is the setting for my new novel-in-progress, which I've been working on for the past three years. I'm running a grassroots fundraising campaign via Kickstarter to raise money for The Arctic Circle participant fee.

This video describes my new book, The Gyre, The Arctic Circle, and what I hope to accomplish with this amazing opportunity. By becoming a supporter of this project, you will receive a nifty gift, my eternal gratitude, and you'll receive updates as the adventure approaches. Here is the link to the main page for my Kickstarter campaign, where you can donate and read more.