A Chat With Melinda Moustakis
Earlier this month I fell in love with Melinda Moustakis’ award winning collection of short stories ‘Bear Down Bear North’ that was published in September. The stories focus the Alaskan homesteading, trapping and fishing traditions around the Kanai River-some of the harshest landscape in the world, and the unbreakable, tough, people that live there.
Often brutal in its description of Alaskan family life, the stories in the book cover three generations of survivors in sparse, lyrical prose that shall send a shiver down your spine and is perfect for a night snuggled by the fire.
I was really pleased when Melinda agreed to talk to me about the book, and her talent and enthusiasm shines through throughout. This is a writer worth watching, and I cannot wait for her next offering.
BE : What made you decide to focus your writing on Alaska and especially the people who feature in your stories lives?MM: I was born in Fairbanks and my grandparents homesteaded in Alaska and my parents grew up in Anchorage. Then we moved to California when I was very young and I grew up hearing all these fantastic stories about Alaska. They stayed with me. And we would go up to Alaska and visit family and go fishing. Then about seven years ago I started going up more regularly in the summers to go with fishing with my uncle, Sonny, who is an expert fisherman and the storyteller in my family. I fell in love with fishing and with fishing stories. All of these factors combined–the love of fishing, being on the river, the almost mythological family stories about Alaska–and converged in my work when I started to take writing classes and started to take writing more seriously. I found my voice as a writer when I focused on the landscape of Alaska and all these stories I had inherited. These stories and stories my uncle tells me and experiences I have while fishing are the often the spark that starts a piece of fiction–but by the end, the initial spark has been completely transformed into something else. It’s as if I am given a kernel of truth, a diamond, and then it is my task to build the coal around it, to build the story that will make that diamond transform and sparkle like it’s never sparkled before.
BE: So do you see your work as a re-telling of old stories, a celebration of the culture you’ve inherited, or an exploration of how a landscape affects a culture?MM: I don’t know if I could ever presume to represent a culture. I would say “a re-telling and re-imagining of old stories, a celebration of the stories I’ve inherited and experienced, and an exploration of how landscape affects character and voice.” In terms of representation, my goal was to be truthful about both the majesty and the darker undercurrents of the Alaskan wilderness and the people who live there. The true test of the book is how it will be received by my family and other Alaskan readers–and so far there has been an incredibly warm reception. I didn’t want Bear Down, Bear North to be considered “another touristy book” about Alaska. I wanted every word, every story, to be saturated in Alaska, to be authentic. In many ways, a book can be an author’s love letter sent out into the world. This book is a love letter about Alaska–and this love, this relationship, is full of paradoxes: complicated and sharp and dark and light-humoured and heart-lifting and heart-breaking and biting and tender. I would use the same terms to describe the relationships between the characters in the book as well.
BE: I agree, I read it as a ‘love letter to Alaska’ as well, even though the character’s lives aren’t always romantic, but very realistic. Your characters go through an awful lot over the course of the stories, was any of it difficult to write?MM: I did not want to romanticize the Alaskan wilderness or these characters and so I had to address brutality and violence. There were many parts of the book that were difficult to write because children were in danger. The story “Bite” was especially difficult for me to write for this reason. Also, while writing this book, these characters furnished my imagination, became beloved, and so placing them in harm’s way or knowing they would harm each other was devastating. I remember, while writing “Some Other Animal,” that imagining losing one’s mother became overwhelming, the loss unfathomable. I have to be moved while writing a story for it to be any good and I think that is the only way I can know the reader might be moved as well.
There are also certain story structures that were especially challenging for me. For example, “Point MacKenzie,” which includes the perspectives of five children, was maddening to write in terms of structure and emotional content. That story took intense concentration and a lot of time, but I knew the story had to include all five voices.
BE: Your stories are so wells structured-you obviously spend a lot of time on that aspect of your writing, which as a reader you forget because your work is so lyrical! I loved the sparseness of some of your prose, if that makes sense. I particularly enjoyed the five aspects in “Point MacKenzie”, as the voices of the children informed the story more. How do you go about building up the bricks of the story, do you start with the structure, or do you have phrases that you know you want to use already stashed away?MM: I thought, briefly, that I was going to be a poet when I was taking creative classes in college. But all my poems included narrative and then fiction took over. You might call my writing failed poetry or lyrical fiction. I enjoy writing toward a structure because my brain feels so scattered at times–structure allows me to unravel the tangled ball of odds and ends and find the overall narrative arc. But I’m glad you said that as a reader you forgot about the structure which means the story pulled you in. This is my goal. I want readers to come away from a story feeling a swell of emotion because they have connected with the characters, not “That was an interesting structure.” I usually don’t start with a structure in mind. I have to have a character’s voice in my head, a point of view, or an image to write to when I start a story–as if I have to find the structure and rhythm of the line before I discover the structure of the scene and then the structure of the entire story. Sometimes I have a line of dialogue or an image stashed away, sometimes a moment, sometimes a strange map or running list of all of these things.
BE: Within the various storied there are clear links, stories told by different members of the same family or at different times in a person’s life for example. One thing I really enjoyed was discovering different aspects throughout the different stories, for example in “The Last Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show”, it is mentioned that when her husband proposed he made her go to the AA, this immediately made me remember in the earlier story “Miners and Trappers” where Gracie finds her brother Jack in the cabin her wanting to swig back the vodka. Do you have entire families’ histories in your head? I suppose what I’m asking is, is there room for a prose novel about the family?MM: The book could have been called a “novel-in-stories” because the stories are all linked together and cover three generations of one homesteading family. I do have entire family histories in my brain. At the beginning, I didn’t know that I was writing a book about one entire family. But I kept returning to the characters and their lives and I will continue to return to them for future projects. So there is room for a novel, I believe, perhaps even a number of them.
BE: Good! I have to admit I completely fell in love with Gracie and Jack!
MM: Gracie and Jack were the first characters to take a hold of me—“The Weight of You” was really the start of this whole project
BE: One of my favourite things about the book was how accessible it was. I live in a city in England, and have never been fishing in my life and yet immediately became swept up in the Alaskan landscape and even the (very intricate) descriptions of fishing and the technical terms used didn’t put me off the writing- what’s the reception been like in Alaska amongst the people who it describes?
MM: The reception from my family and other Alaskans has been fantastic. I actually go up to Alaska in October for Alaska book week and will see more how it is received. But Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch did articles on me and the book when I was in Alaska fishing this summer and both reporters read the book and loved it and told me they were thrilled to read a book about Alaska that felt authentic. Alaskans are the true reader test for the book and it meant a lot to me that my family enjoyed the book and that press in Alaska had really connected with the stories.
Bear Down Bear North is out now