Writing a book, not a reality show knockoff

By John R. Moses

The last time I started a never-completed novel based in Alaska I had no problem adding in examples of the wild behaviors I often saw in my rural region. While it made for snappy copy, one person who doesn’t live in Alaska but was kind enough to review a sample chapter wrote back, “That seems a little unrealistic. Do people really act like that? Could that actually happen?” The answer was, “Yes.”

People do, sometimes, make poor life decisions, some of which become fatal in freezing temperatures or near rushing or icy rivers. Those behaviors happen everywhere, not just in Alaska. But we are under a microscope now. For at least another 15 minutes, TV shows about “real” Alaska life SELL. Some tourists do ask us what kind of money we accept. Some ask if Northern Lights come on after sunset. How much responsibility should those writing stories about Alaska have for educating people about our state and the conditions here, good and bad? For me, the answer is a lot, maybe in part because I’m a journalist and in part because I myself am a transplant whose whole first year living here full-time (starting in the fall of 2006) was a steep learning curve.

I find myself with an extra filter: I don’t want my book to read like an exploitative reality show.

Just a few years ago, before Sarah Palin and “Flying Wild Alaska,” and even before I’d seen an episode of “Alaska State Troopers,” I’d have had no problem ramping-up some of the quirkier aspects of life in rural and urban Alaska. In one town I know of a mayor in the transfer area or town dump shooting nuisance bears. The thought of that being a normal way to go, … that doesn’t cross the mind of folks raised in California suburbs or inner-city anywhere. As I understand it, that mayor was not just out taking pot-shots. Transfer stations in rural areas have big fences and all attempts are made to keep bears from becoming acclimated to humans and human food waste. The saying here is a fed bear is a dead bear.

On Sunday I watched the trooper show and I saw all the worst behaviors the producers could capture dragged out for display. On one recent episode a Fairbanks woman told the camera crew it was her third time on the show. Pretty soon she’ll have her own series.

So, as I plot my next plotline I’m challenging myself to incorporate my experiences in a way to show how unique this state is without trying to make it into a shameless spectacle.

While I don’t want to ramp things up, I also don’t want to pretend that living anywhere in Alaska is a lot like living in the Continental United States. I live in Juneau, a place with more than 30,000 people. I ran a newsroom in Benicia, Calif., which also had more than 30,000 residents. Juneau has the Gastineau Channel, Benicia has the Carquinez Strait. Both towns have a Carrs-Safeway, same basic supermarket.  That’s where the similarities end, pretty much.

Benicia has opossums and occasionally someone thinks they’ve seen a wildcat in the rolling, grassy hills not eaten by subdivisions.

Peacocks live by the golf course next door in Vallejo. In Juneau, bears sit on my porch and rip into trash bins. Huge, beautiful mountains seem to crash into the channel, houses clustered on hills and avalanche chutes clearly visible on the slopes high above downtown. Benicia lives in the shadow of a refinery that processes crude oil. Juneau’s gasoline comes from other places, we have no refinery in this part of the state. When barges are hampered by weather or otherwise delayed, store shelves can start to go bare.

I miss my friends in Benicia and its downtown farmer’s markets and parades, then I go out to get the mail and see dall sheep as specks on Mount Juneau just below the snow line. I can celebrate the strengths and differences of both towns. Now, to get back to work.

When I was a teen I sat in front of a typewriter with a blank page of paper and saw the potential for that piece of paper to become the start of a great book. That feeling hasn’t changed decades later, even though I’ll be looking into the blank MS Word file on my computer screen. And it still isn’t any easier to fill that page, and the ones to come, with a great book.

Here I go again.

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