Mary Emerick’s debut novel is a beautifully rendered, moving story about stark lives in a stark place: remote Alaska.
Shelf Unbound: You earned a degree in creative writing but have largely spent your career in other pursuits: you’ve been a wilderness kayaker in Alaska, a firefighter, and you currently work for the US forest service. What prompted you to finally get down to writing a novel?
Mary Emerick: I’ve been writing all my life, with essays and articles published in anthologies and magazines. Longer works were always in the picture, but the time to complete them has not always been there. I’ve been chipping away at this for years. A writer retreat finally allowed me the time to make significant progress. But all in all, it took about five years. Granted, there were months and months in that timeframe where I did nothing on the book, just let it simmer.
Shelf Unbound: A very remote region of Alaska is a main character in the story. What interested you in writing about Alaska and about people living in almost complete isolation?
Emerick: For seven years I was a wilderness kayak ranger, paddling along the shores of Chichagof and Baranof Islands for five days at a time. During those patrols, we would come upon people living remotely at fish weirs, at weather stations, and in very small communities without roads, accessed only by floatplane or boat. The reactions of the people we encountered were fascinating. Mostly they would wave us down, obviously desperate, or at least enthusiastic, about new faces. One time the people we saw on shore vanished into the forest upon seeing us. I have always been intrigued by people who choose to live this way and how their surroundings affect their personality—and perhaps how certain people are attracted to this type of life. Also, this part of Alaska is truly wild. You are always balanced on an edge between disaster and safety. It is a refrain that beats through your bones as you hike, kayak, or fly in this area. It’s a feeling many of us will never experience in our relatively safe lives. I wanted to describe this place as I saw it and experienced it, in the form of a novel.
Shelf Unbound: The main character is a young woman, Winnie, who one day gets in a small boat and leaves her abused mother and her abusive father behind. When she returns a few years later because her father has suffered a horrific bear attack, Winnie thinks: “Now you know. You understand the sudden betrayal of a blow in the night.” That quote is a chilling comment on the abuse she and her mother endured. Why did you choose to write about abuse?
Emerick: Physical abuse is fortunately not something I have personally experienced, though I know others who have experienced it. I did not set out to specifically write about it, but as I wrote the character of Roy, this became a part of his character. And while none of the hunting guides I knew were abusive men, they were fascinating, alpha males who embodied some of the better qualities of Roy—the confident, electric qualities that both draws others to them and enables them to survive in an often harsh landscape. Though the abuse informed the actions of the characters, I did not intend this to be a book primarily about abuse. Rather, I wanted to show how certain people react to the obstacles in their lives, whether it was lashing out, like Roy, defeat but later grace, like Sam, and hidden strength, like Winnie.
Shelf Unbound: Your writing is gorgeous and poetic. It is a counterpoint to the harshness of the story and of the land in which they struggle to make ends. How did your writing style evolve?
Emerick: I still have my travel journals from age 8 when I wrote things like, “Then we looked for elk, but didn’t see any.” I’ve always been writing. In the past, my published essays have mostly all been non-fiction (memoir style). My next work is a memoir. Writing a novel was a departure for me, but I think I carried forward my usual style, which is to integrate landscape, personality and thought. The Southeast Alaska landscape really leant itself to the way I write—it is so hauntingly beautiful and wild. It is hard not to be poetic when you write about it—the land itself is an unspoken poem. I often would close my eyes and think of a particular place and try to do it justice as I described the setting that Winnie and the others traveled through.
Shelf Unbound: A major theme in this book is the environment—both the power of nature and its fragility. Obviously the environment and climate change are hot topics right now, but why did you choose to write about this theme?
Emerick: I have worked in wilderness all of my adult life, starting as a volunteer for the Park Service right after college. In addition, I started backpacking at age five, with parents who were outdoors lovers. I need the peace and solitude I get from the wilderness and it makes me sad that kids today are growing up without that. Since I first worked as a wilderness ranger, the land management agencies’ budgets for recreation and wilderness have been slashed drastically. Trails are disappearing. People are losing the critical sense of ability to encounter and manage risk, to depend upon themselves without technology, or know what it is like to be truly alone. And like it or not, you have to admit that the climate is changing. Especially in Alaska, it is hard to ignore. Southeast Alaska is such a tapestry of wild things and wild places, and is so vulnerable to changes that are occurring over a wide landscape. I fell deeply in love with the place, and I wanted it to be almost a character in the novel, a living, breathing thing. I hope I succeeded.