This is what a writer’s desk looks like

Of course, I write in Word. But for one beta reader/editor, the old-school way was easier.

I have a working title for my in-progress nonfiction writing, but “the Irene book” is what I’ve been calling the story of Irene Sherman. It’s so compelling and wide-ranging that I’ve been immersed in it for more than a year. One day in fall 2022, I rolled back from my desk, walked into the other room, and tentatively told my husband, “I think it’s done…” We both stared at each other, like, “Really?”

Though Irene was decades older than I, we shared her hometown of Fairbanks. An early newspaper called the gold-rush community the “haunts of the wild beast.” I loved that description, for the people and the animals, so I’m using it as my working title. My own story of settling there in 1978 is entwined with Irene’s, who arrived at St. Matthew’s Hospital (now long gone) in 1911. Irene and her family are the stars, and mine is a supporting role. It’s the story of two families, really, decades apart yet overlapping in the post-Pipeline years, the challenges she overcame, and the long-lost relatives who came to me looking for Irene, or those who knew her. The narrative is laced with mysteries that arose as I researched. Several respected readers have combed through the manuscript, and I’m genuinely proud of it.

And now, getting the Irene book published requires a different kind of tenacity. (Interesting how “tentative” and “tenacious” look like fraternal twins.) In my industry right now, a hot topic for un-agented authors is deciding whether to pursue the traditional route of signing with a publishing house versus personally investing in one’s book through indie publishing services (which might include Kickstarter).

Both routes have their benefits, but I’ve routinely published traditionally. I had a friendly relationship with a California-based publisher, and there was interest in this story, and then the floor fell out when I learned that they’d been sold. The gears stopped moving. Now I’m starting over in the search for an agent or publisher. Help!

I’ll keep you posted on how things progress, and if you have any suggestions for representation or publishing, would you let me know? I’ve had many, many requests from people who want to buy the book NOW, so there’s a wide market already. Send me an email or a PM on Facebook if you have a good lead, okay?

Can’t wait for the next steps!

P.S. In case you’re wondering, those pups on my computer screen are Flower, left, and Willow, brilliantly illustrated by my talented sister-in-law, Julie Sigwart. Thanks again, Julie.

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Question of the day: How’s the Irene book coming?

In July 2022, I was in Fairbanks for Golden Days, the city’s celebration of its gold-rush roots. I try to get up there every year, and I’ll never forget how the Grande Parade of 1978 made us feel like our new hometown was throwing a welcome party. That’s when I first saw Irene Sherman bicycling her adult-sized three-wheeled bike in the parade, layered up in secondhand clothes, and topped with a broad-rimmed bonnet. The answer: Almost there!

(Erick Hill/1988 ADN photo)

I’d learn that Irene dressed like that pretty much every day, as she marched around Fairbanks and shouted out her greetings and enjoyed her beer stops. I always wondered about her family, and in time I would learn more.

You may know that I’ve spent the last year working on a creative nonfiction book about Irene Sherman, who called herself the Queen of Fairbanks. As I wrote, my own stories were interwoven with hers, sometimes decades apart, sometimes very similar. I’ve also included narrative about how I researched her story, digging up the long-lost details about Irene’s life.

During the July trip up to Fairbanks, I was invited to share some of my Irene research at a couple of venues, both with appreciative audiences–many of whom knew and remembered Irene well. Still, they all learned new, intriguing facts about the Queen. My talk was titled “I Think There Were Seven of Us,” and subtitled “Untold Stories of the Queen of Fairbanks.” In it, I introduced the audience to Irene’s siblings that she’d never met, when and where they were born, and what had happened to them. I recounted the true stories of how and why she was burned so badly as a child, and what happened to her in the years when she was a ward of the Territory of Alaska.

After months of deep research and amazing contributions from her old friends, I’m pleased to say the book is done. (But don’t rush to Barnes & Noble yet.) In fact, in advance of my trip in July, an advance piece in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner invited folks to my speaking engagements and included some background on Irene. Unfortunately, readers concluded that I’d have Irene books for sale, ready to sign. Well, no. Over and over, in emails and in person, I apologized that the book was still an unpublished manuscript. Still, my heart was stirred to hear from so many people, all of them eager readers.

“I’ve still got a couple more chapters to write,” I said repeatedly. “I’m sure you’ll see notice when we have a real book.”

A few days ago, on October 1, I met with an editor who is interested in the book, and our talks are beginning. At the Alaska Writer’s Guild conference that weekend, I was awarded “Most Promising Manuscript” from faculty members. For me, it was confirmation that the last year of travel and writing was well-spent.

So, what’s next? Traditional publishing takes a long time. But naturally, I want this tribute to the Queen to land in just the right hands, so I will be patient and hope you will, too. I guarantee that when we have a release date, I’ll be broadcasting it widely and loudly!

Meanwhile, thanks for your kind notes and words of support.

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A Sukdu for the Dena’ina Children

The Lake and Peninsula School District in southwestern Alaska brilliantly partnered with many creative people to publish a book just for their students.

I love writing and editing books, but another area of mine is book development, when I get to coordinate all aspects of putting together a quality book written by someone else. I don’t do many by choice, because my own work keeps me occupied. But once in a while an exceptional book development project comes along that I can’t resist.

Early this summer, I said yes to this grant-funded project from the Lake and Peninsula School District. They had a vision for a book specifically for the children who are learning to speak their Dena’ina language region in southwestern Alaska—around the Lake Clark and Lake Iliamna area. They’ve also created a language app to support their work in getting more kids to learn the language of their ancestors. This book is full of Dena’ina words with an English translation on the first use of a word. Afterward, just the Native word appears in the text. I’m learning some things myself!

In this text, Dena’ina elder Mary Delkittie and Larissa Eknaty were the latest storytellers in a chain reaching back for uncountable generations. This ancient story (or sukdu) is known as Ch’ggaggashla, which in English means “Little Chickadee.” His story is an adventure with kind of grisly parts—reminding me of some original Grimm Brothers stories.

My role began when I was contacted by Amber Kresl, District Early Learning Coordinator & Reading Specialist for the school district based in King Salmon, Alaska. They had targeted their CHILD grant money to create a book. CHILD stands for “Cultural Heritage Improves Learning & Development.” The funds came through the Office of Elementary & Secondary Education: Alaska Native Education Program.

With the grant money, Amber Kresl contracted with a local artist to paint the illustrations and sought someone like me to help pull the pieces together into a book. Beth Hill was both illustrator and cultural coordinator. She also reviewed our work with the elders before it went to press to ensure it passed muster. It did. Ch’ggaggashla is on the press today and soon each child in the district will get a free 32-page picture book. It has no ISBN number because it’s not for sale—free only for their kids.

In the old days, this kind of project would have been called a vanity or corporate project. Now it’s an “indy.” There are more and more of independent publishers and access to publishing has given us many more voices. I’m glad they called me, so I could use my skills and contacts to make it the best book possible. Thank you, Amber, for the invitation, to Beth, for your gorgeous art and direction on cultural matters. And thank you to Kelley Dodd, for your design work, and to the folks at Friesens in Canada for putting this very short run on your presses. It looks like a first-class “real” book for some first-class kids in Bush Alaska!

Thankful to be a part of it!

P.S. For you who are following, I’m still in progress writing my Rasmuson project book about Irene Sherman of Fairbanks. I’m going to start showing the manuscript to publishers soon. Great feedback from early readers and those who attended my two history talks in Fairbanks during Golden Days. Many came to each event thinking they could buy the book there. I hated to disappoint, but it’s still in progress. The many queries have resulted in a good way to measure interest, and I’m glad to pass that along to prospective publishers, too. Stay tuned…

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CBC Honor for Bobbie

We just received glad news that the Children’s Book Council has selected Bobbie the Wonder Dog for its Summer 2022 Showcase: “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Bobbie and the other selected titles for Summer 2022 are now live on the CBC website and will be featured from June through September.

Bobbie’s true account really is one of the most enduring love stories. In the summer of 1923, this Scotch collie, a working dog on a farm, joined his people for a long cross-country trip, from Silverton, Oregon, to Wolcott, Indiana. He became separated from them and couldn’t be found before they had to drive home. So, Bobbie followed his instincts and started walking West. And he walked and walked. Six months to the day and nearly 3,000 miles later, a thin and mangy-looking dog limped down the main street of Silverton leaving a trail of spotty blood from his worn paws. When he saw his man, Bobbie was re-energized with free-flowing licks and frantic kisses. In the papers, they called him the “Love Dog.” And wasn’t that the truth? What else could be such a powerful motivator?

Silverton, Oregon, still celebrates Bobbie through its annual Pet Parade each spring. For the book launch, I was privileged to join the parade, and it was so fun to meet Bobbie’s lookalike, Quincy the collie from Portland.

You can find Bobbie the Wonder Dog: A True Story through your favorite book outlet, by title or in a search by my name. I loved writing it, and I know illustrator Cary Porter enjoyed himself immensely, too. We hope you love sharing it with the kids in your life. (Or heck, just get one for yourself!)

Have a great summer!

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Signed books for Christmas!

I am so excited to return to the Arts & Crafts Emporium at the Dena’ina Center in downtown Anchorage. So many events were cancelled last year, and coming back feels good. The A&C Emporium is a one-stop shopping experience that supports dozens of local small businesses. Yes, we’ll be following safety protocols for Covid.

Please come down on Saturday, Nov. 20, from 10 to 6, and Sunday, Nov. 21, from 11 to 5. You’ll find me in booth number 409. (Think “She’s real fine, my 409.”)

I’ll have my best-selling titles for kids and adults, plus a couple of new books that were released in 2019 and 2020. They need their time in the sun!

This annual gathering usually draws thousands. We probably won’t break attendance records this year, but we know you smart shoppers will walk out of there with gifts that are ready to wrap (arriving on time and without shipping concerns!). In my case, I love to sign and personalize my books for your friends and family. Besides that, it’s warming to meet my readers in person.

Many, many talented vendors will be in attendance, so mark your calendars.

Saturday, Nov. 20, from 10 am to 6 pm
Sunday, Nov. 21, from 11 am to 5 pm

600 W 7th Ave, Anchorage, AK 99501

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That Unwritten Book

Lately I was asked to define art, something I normally wouldn’t attempt. Writing doesn’t feel like art (though I know it is), perhaps because of my journalism years before I entered book publishing. So what is art, and what drives the creative process? For me, creative expression is fueled by a persistent idea. One that will not leave me alone until I act on it. The fact is, I’ve been quietly obsessed about a certain book idea for more than twenty years. It’s been simmering on the back burner while I wrote other books that needed writing.

This month came the wonderful announcement that I could actually focus on that unwritten book. I was among thirty-five Alaskans named as recipients of Individual Artist Awards from the Rasmuson Foundation. It’s not that I didn’t expect it–I mean, I did apply and create a proposal–but I didn’t expect it. When I got the call, I smiled, swallowed, and told my friends who were sitting nearby, “Oh, man. Now I’ve got to write that book!”

“That book” is the story of Irene Sherman, a woman who was well-known to the people of Fairbanks, Alaska, for most of the 20th century. Irene came along in 1911, born to the daughter of a hotelier who’d married a gold miner/trapper. The romantic part of the story ends there, however. At age five, Irene was disfigured by fire and suffered significant scarring on her hands, arms, torso, and face. People spoke of a cabin fire and Irene’s heroic role in saving herself and others. Was it true? The story had been embellished through the decades. By 1988, the elder Irene was a mainstay on the streets of town, a brash bag lady dressed in layers of clothing, wrapped up in a dirty parka cinched with a worn leather belt. She was loud, opinionated, and thirsty for a free beer any time of day, feared as well as treasured by the locals. As a magazine writer in the late 1980s, I followed Irene to learn her story.

Irene Sherman posed at her ramshackle home for this painting by Janet Kruskamp. Print sales benefitted the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital’s burn unit.

That story in digital form can be found under the Newspaper Writing tab on this website. As a pdf, it has been a touchstone of truth whenever speculators go sideways while remembering Irene Sherman. The experience of spending time with her, researching the archives, interviewing those who knew her well and quietly saw to her needs–all of it made for one of the most profound, well-recognized pieces I’ve written. I had a couple of breath-taking moments of discovery while researching and shattering the myths. The story won awards. I thought I was done. Irene died in 1995 and the old pioneer cemetery in Fairbanks was reopened for one last interment. Front-page news. Life goes on.

And then in January 2019, I received an email from a stranger who introduced herself and said her husband was related to Irene through his mother. That lady had been adopted away from the birth mother she shared with Irene. The sisters never met, never knew each other. And there were other siblings they’d heard about.

Follow-up conversations and exchanges of information had me so stirred up that I began to think more about a book. Although Irene’s memory wasn’t ironclad, she had told me that her mother had birthed seven children. I’d learned that two had died in horrific circumstances through which Irene lived. The others were all adopted out.

Where were they and what had their lives been like? How was it that siblings who were raised in different states, unaware of each other, had such similar behaviors? I did some early research before applying for the Rasmuson grant. And I’ve been intrigued by some of the answers, frustrated by the loose ends, and eager to dig deeper. I’m so grateful to the Rasmuson Foundation and its support of the arts, for worthy non-profits, and for equipping leadership in Alaska. This amazing opportunity has revived me. Time to write that book.

To see the full list of recipients for the 2021 awards, click here. Congratulations to my fellow IAA awardees.

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Not a Selfie Kind of Gal

When I was asked to create a minute-long video about the release of Bobbie the Wonder Dog in its softbound edition, my first reaction was stage fright. I’m the one in the family who takes the pics, and I rarely turn the camera around. Nonetheless, I love this story so much that I dove in for a brief promotional video. Click HERE to watch it on YouTube.

Also, the publisher has uploaded a mini-documentary of Bobbie’s story on YouTube, including 1924 scenes from when he starred in his own movie! The movie-makers had the Brazier family reenact preparations for their big driving trip from Oregon to Indiana, and that was the genuine Bobbie playing himself. After making his epic walk back from Indiana to Oregon, Bobbie started a new chapter in his life. No more a farm dog. Now he was a superstar. Click HERE to watch that great video.

Bobbie attracted crowds wherever he toured. Everyone wanted to touch the Wonder Dog.

I’ve loved reading notes from young readers who’ve been inspired by Bobbie’s “never give up” attitude.

And a special thanks to all of you in the Pandemic Readers Tribe! Readers gonna read, pandemic or not.

To order books, you can go online or visit your favorite local bookstore.

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Hardbound or softbound?

Most libraries and schools prefer to buy hardbound editions of children’s picture books. So do families with kids who are a bit rough on books. Some people pick hardbound books because they’re building a nice kidlit collection, or other little ones are in line to handle those books.

These thoughts came to mind recently when West Margin Press advised that they will be releasing a softbound edition of Bobbie the Wonder Dog (one of my favorite stories, by the way) in April 2021. So while I’m sad to see that beautiful hardcover go out of print (get yours now!), Bobbie will still be going strong in a softbound version. It’s been nearly a century since Bobbie’s remarkable walk across the country. In the winter of 1923-24, this hardy Scotch collie walked thousands of miles to reunite with his family, from Indiana to Oregon, after they accidentally separated during a vacation. The story is all the more moving because it’s true.

In Alaska, the decision about what edition to buy has to do with how our population more than doubles in a typical summer. The 2020 summer was anything but normal, but usually more than a million tourists visit our state between September and May. We love showing off where we live and the visitors boost the economy while making memories. Those visitors buy books! Many are grandparents who’re roaming the world in retirement; some are families with the kids along; then there are the singles with beloved nieces and nephews. And that’s where the hardbound/softbound question comes into play. Someone like me, who often meets readers and signs books at market stalls and other events, knows instantly that tourists are careful about how much their gifts weigh. So often I meet them after their tour company has possession of their checked bags, and now it’s just the carry-on to contend with. Softbound books can win out in those debates.

Speaking for myself and my fellow Alaskan authors, we can’t wait to see you in person again. It’s really fun chatting and signing books at Anchorage’s Saturday Market, and learning about where people have come from on their big trip. We’re hoping to be back in summer 2021. In the meantime, teachers and librarians, shoot me an email if you’re interested in a Zoom or Skype visit. I’d love to share Bobbie’s story.

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Ninja-Worthy Games

See that guy on the book cover? Can you do that? Me neither. Even if you’re the top athlete in your school, I seriously doubt you’ve developed the right muscles, the special balance, or pain tolerance, or downright stamina that you need to accomplish the Alaskan High Kick, as this particular game is called.

Kicking a sealskin ball while doing an upside-down one-handed handstand is one of dozens of challenging games that have been practiced in Alaska for hundreds of years. They’ve changed little, thanks to the elders, senior athletes, and officials who’re intent on keeping their histories and traditional play intact.

My creative partners and I decided it was important to pull together a book for middle-graders and up, to catalog the often-played games today, and how they mirror or remember the Alaska Native ways of subsisting in this part of the world. Certain actions recall strength required for hunting moose, pulling fish, creeping up on seal-breathing holes, and the endurance required to be successful at feeding one’s family from the land, rivers, and ocean.

I was honored to partner with Joni Spiess in writing the book, which was recently released by the Snowy Owl imprint of the University of Alaska Press. Joni has firsthand knowledge as a coach and competitor from Nome who now lives and works in Anchorage. We were joined by the skilled photographer Roy Corral (who has collaborated with me on several other culture-based books). That awesome cover shot is just a taste of what’s inside.

One of my favorite parts of working on this book was enlisting a champion competitor to write the Foreword. Nick Iligutchiak Hanson is best known nationally as the “Eskimo Nina,” whose amazing balance, muscle, and physical endurance is regularly featured as a star of NBC’s American Ninja Warriors. In his Foreword, Nick shares the circumstances of growing up biracial in Alaska’s far northwest and how competing in the Alaska Native Games literally saved his life. His mission now is to pass along his message to depressed or suicidal kids: Through the discipline of sports such as the Alaska Native games, you can find the same meaning and hope as he did.

All of us are pleased that the Native Games are gaining in importance in schools across the state, even incorporated into the curriculum in the Anchorage School District. And that’s why we made sure each game was fully explained . . . plus how to do it yourself. Follow the safety instructions and don’t even try those that are intended for adults, okay? You’ll get there soon enough. In the meantime, listen and learn what the first Alaskans have to share with you, no matter where you live.

You can order a copy through your favorite bookseller, online or in person. Or go directly to the distributor, the University of Colorado Press, by clicking here to connect.

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Every State has a Book

We are thrilled to report that Children of the First People: Fresh Voices of Alaska’s Native Kids has been selected to represent Alaska at the 2020 National Book Festival. The annual festival is sponsored by the Library of Congress, and when I was on the board of the Alaska Center for the Book, I flew to D.C. with another member to greet visitors at the Alaska booth. We brought lots of literacy materials, copies of our state’s featured book, and tourism giveaways. Each state or possession has a table in the great hall–normally–but nothing is normal this year, of course.

The festival is entirely virtual for 2020, so registration and attendance will be through a series of links. Don’t miss a minute of readings, author talks, and interviews with your favorite authors, both national and regional.

Thanks for all your kind words and support for Children of the First People. My creative partner, Roy Corral, and I appreciate you all. It’s a looong way from the Aleutian Islands to Washington, D.C., right, Roy?

The island of Unalaska was one ten locations where we interviewed and photographed one of our Alaska kids. Here’s Roy visited an old WWII site.
Tricia Brown stands upon a big-gun turret, a relic from WWII on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians, an island chain that was attacked by the Japanese.

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