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Interview with Becky Saleeby   1 comment

becky_saleebyTell us something about yourself.

I have lived in Alaska for almost 32 years, so it is home to me. My children were born and raised here. My husband, Bruce, and I are both retired archaeologists who had the good fortune of making a living here, doing what we loved best. We did fieldwork everywhere from the North Slope down to Southeast. We even spent one winter of fieldwork deep in the forests of Prince of Wales Island with a four-year-old in tow!

 

That’s exciting and so very Alaskan, isn’t it? Our ordinary lives are adventures. Searching for Isaiah John is your first published fiction, but you have a long history of non-fiction writing in your university career. So, were you like me, writing fiction for your own entertainment in your spare time, or was this book your first foray into fiction writing?

I really admire people like you who have the passion to write fiction in your spare time. While I was working, my mind was too numb from writing non-fiction during the day to even attempt jotting down notes for a story. Besides that, I really didn’t know HOW to write fiction. Thanks to the wonderful teachers and classes at 49 Writers, I learned another craft in my 60s!

I’ve heard really good things about 49 Writers. I’m going to drop you off in a remote cabin on an Alaskan river and come back in a week. It’s summer, you have food and plenty of bug spray — the necessities of life — and I tell you to bring three books with you. What are those three books?

So glad you asked!  I recently organized all the books in my fiction bookshelf according to a five star system. There were only a few I considered worthy of five stars. Here are three of them: The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng; Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks; and anything by Barbara Kingsolver.

What are you passionate about?

Like all mothers, I am passionate about my kids. Now that they are grown, I’ve been able to make room for the other interests that lurked in the shadows. It’s hard to say whether I am more passionate about writing or about gardening. Of course in Alaska I can be a gardener for six month and then switch over to writing in the fall and winter. Another passion is learning Spanish, which has not come as easily as the other two, though I do keep plugging away on it and am still taking classes.

Searching for Isaiah John is a story within a story that explores Fairbanks just before the Pipeline boom (1968) along with Alaska in the 1920s. Of course, Fairbanks is my hometown. Where did you come up with the concept?

It was a concept that developed over three years of intense writing. At first, I concentrated on Lydia’s story during the 1920s, but later, the life of Jacob Tao began to be just as interesting to me.

Becky-saleeby SearchingWhy did you pick those time periods? Especially Fairbanks 1968 — that would be what my mother called “the shadow time” — no longer the fascinating gold camp that has been written into legend, but not yet the oil boom town.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time period when the Alaska Natives were beginning to have a powerful voice in the politics and economy of the state. I originally chose this time period so my character Lydia, whose heyday was in the 1920s, would still be alive (in a fictional sense!) and could tell her story to Jacob Tao. When I realized what a wealth of information there was out there about the land claims era, I was happy to delve into this time period too.

Tell me about Jacob Tao.

Jacob Tao is a character I wrestled with for six drafts before I puzzled him out. He is a laid-back, sixties-kind-of-guy, who enjoys basketball and teaching and drinking beer. He is not a hero, though he does an extraordinarily kind deed for his mysterious neighbor Lydia.  He has the type of curiosity that drives people to search and find the answers to difficult questions even when there is nothing in it from them. He is a composite of so many people.

Tell me about Lydia Galloway.

Lydia is a mysterious one, right until the end of the book. It took me a long time to figure out her motivations. The key to Lydia’s character is this: once she wants something, she will move heaven and earth to get it. I will let the reader decide whether such focus is a positive or negative characteristic or may a little of both.

Talk about the setting of the book — the villages, Fairbanks and how the Tanana River forms a backdrop to the tale.

I loved living in Fairbanks for six years and go back to visit whenever I can. When I first flew into town in June of 1983 and saw absolutely no sign of roads or houses or other vestiges of “civilization” until we had almost landed, I knew it would be my kind of town. The fact that it is also a university town is an enormous advantage. The Tanana River is the thread that ties the landscape together, summer and winter, but it is a vast lonely place. Maybe that is why I am so attracted to it.

What are your literary plans for the future?

Right now I am working on a second novel which is set in Guatemala.  I had to figure out a way to combine my love of Spanish and Latin American culture with creative writing.  Going there to do “research” is also fantastic.

Searching for Isaiah John is available through Amazon in print only.  It definitely evokes an Alaska that I am familiar with and that I wish more people really knew about. Check it out.

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