At a recent book show, a proper-looking older woman asked if this book would make her blush. I assured her that in Alaska, indecent exposure didn't make a person blush, it made them dead!
I had always wanted to write a mystery, but was hopelessly hung up on youthful reading of Sherlock Holmes. I knew I needed my own detective! I took my own advice to many student writers: write what you know! My father had been an Episcopal priest who moved us to Nenana, Alaska, near the exact center of the state, near Fairbanks and Denali National Park.
I used the outline of my father for the character of my priest protagonist, Father Hardy. I set him in the mid-1950s, when we arrived there, and recreated the rough-and-tumble territorial environment I remembered so vividly.
In Gold We Trust
In 1957 I was nine years old, standing on the riverbank at Nenana for the last departure of the Steamboat Nenana (photos on the Nenana page).
I remember they had to fold-in-half the steamboat's tall, single smokestack to fit under the Nenana railroad bridge.
They took the Nenana to Fairbanks to put ashore permanently as a tourist attraction. In real life at least, I missed the chance for a voyage.
But I didn't miss the chance to send Father Hardy, Evie, and their friends on a perilous Nenana steamboat voyage down the Tanana and Yukon rivers. I folded a childhood "true" story of stolen steamboat gold into a cat-and-mouse tale of love and loss, survival and vengeance long denied.
Come on along. We'll have our own last voyage.
There's a railroad bridge at Nenana, one of the town's defining views back then and today. There's also a highway bridge now, but we had to take cars on a small paddle-wheel ferry in summer or drive the ice road in the winter. Walking? That meant a narrow-seeming plank walkway alongside the railroad tracks and far too close to passing trains. And though I dared myself, I don't think I was ever able to ride my bike across.
Completed in 1923, the Mears railroad bridge was the second-longest single-span truss bridge in the world, more than 700 feet long and nosebleed high. Or at least it seemed that way to me.
I never know what will happen when I start a book. I just come up with a beginning that I like, and that I think will be attractive to readers, and I start. But that said, I always knew that in some book, Father Hardy would have to willingly step off that bridge.
Hearing that, someone always asks "Does he die?" I tell them if he did, it would be a short book and tough to continue the series.
It’s funny how odd moments stick. Moments that might have seemed pretty ordinary as they ticked past.
Nearly all of my early memories center in Nenana, Alaska. The year was 1955 and I was seven years old. I remember carefully clutching the pipe handrail, stretching my legs down the train’s steel steps.
We’d ridden the rails all the way across country from Boston, flown on a thunderous, propeller-driven Pan Am airliner from Seattle, finally landing in Fairbanks. After a long, day-bright, sleepless night, we rode the train south sixty more miles to Nenana.
To quote John Denver, ‘I’d come home, to a place I’d never been before.’
Much of what happens to Will in “Cheechako,” happened to us. The book opens when Will goes to see his first Tanana River breakup. He spots a trapped on the ice, sure to be chewed to bits and washed away. Readers always ask, where did I get the idea? It happened this way.
At my first breakup, someone shouted, “Look, a dog out on the ice.” I looked and sure enough, there was a dog. It was mine.
I met Billie, now my wife, when we were both new-kid sophomores at Sitka High School in Southeast Alaska.
I had left Nenana two years earlier to attend St. Andrew’s, a boarding school in Tennessee.
Billie was a logging camp girl. Her dad worked in the camp and school for her was by correspondence course. Her great stories included float plane rides, calving salt-water glaciers and water skiing around great gray whales, smelling their fishy breath. Later, her brother the pilot made national news when a whale breeched right in his path as he lifted off the water in his float plane.
If you’ve already read Float Monkeys, you know I took advantage of many of those great tales. If you haven’t read it, you’re in for a treat.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be George Attla, AKA the Huslia Hustler. I wanted to be a winning dogsledder, just like him, and I wanted a nickname.
Sitting down to write the third Cheechako novel, Musher, brought back a blizzard of early dogsled memories. And not just listening to the North American Grand Championships on the radio.
We had a sled dog named Chena, an amazing puller, a wheel dog, definitely not a leader. When I was nine or ten, all we could do was line him up at one end of town and let him spot a dog six or eight blocks away — the other end of town — and off we’d go, my two brothers and I all on one dogsled.
Later, older, with friends, we’d hook up maybe three dogs and explore trails on the river ice or through the woods near town. I admit I loved ‘dog power!’ Slipping the tether, that first powerful pull. The soft swish of sled runners along the snowy trail. The pure joy of dogs thrilled to run, long pink tongues reaching to lap powdery snow along the way.
Writing Musher put me back on trails I loved.