Over the years many students have asked me about my life and how I came to write certain books. Below I have answered some of those questions. Others are featured on my Tips for Writers page. Comments about particular books can be found on their individual pages here on the web site.
When did you decide to become a writer?
I grew up loving books but I didn’t consider myself a writer. I read the Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew mysteries, Sue Barton, Student Nurse, Anne of Green Gables, and Little Women. I think I read every biography the Manito Library had in its collection. We didn’t have computers back then and even though I watched TV, there was only one in the house and I had to negotiate with my brothers and sisters to get to watch my favorite shows like Mickey Mouse Club and the Donna Reed show.
When I began teaching secondary language arts in 1974(!) I started dreaming about writing a young adult novel. I signed up for a correspondence course on writing for children, and wrote some stories and articles but didn’t try to publish them. Then about twenty years ago I taught 9th grade composition to a group of disinterested student writers. I had a much easier time getting students to read novels or perform drama.
So I took a writing course for teachers and the instructor said that if we were going to teach writing, we needed to write. Not necessarily to publish, but to experience the process. That summer I got so excited about my own writing that I wanted to do more. After our children were born, I stopped teaching full time and began writing books.
What was the first thing you got published and how did you react?
I had several nonfiction magazine and newspaper articles published which pleased me no end. But I was thrilled to have my first book come out at the age of forty. Entitled Friendship Across Arctic Waters: Alaska Boy Scouts Visit Their Soviet Neighbors, it told the story of the Nome, Alaska, Cub Scouts who traveled to the town of Provideniya in the Russian Far East in 1989 when it was still a Communist country. The Cold War was starting to thaw and Alaskans were connecting with their eastern Soviet neighbors, who lived only 200 miles away, across the Bering Sea.
The boys stayed with the Young Pioneers and we all got to experience the wonderful people of the then Soviet Far East. They were so much friendlier than the ogres I had imagined while growing up during the Cold War. Back then we considered the Russians our most dangerous enemies.
Do you enjoy writing?
Yes, most of the time. I love it on the days when my ideas are flowing or I get a good review or a book is finished (like my novel Free Radical which came out after eight years of tinkering!) My favorite part of writing is researching and thinking up new ideas for my stories. Actually putting the words down can be exhausting at times, probably for you, too.
What is the favorite book that you have written?
Asking an author what their favorite book is is like asking a parent who their favorite child is or a teacher who their favorite student is. Every one is special in a different way. Gold Star Sister is special because I am very much like the main character Carrie – very curious, too curious sometimes. I described Carrie as having red hair and freckles like my daughter. I also love to study the history of World War II and that became part of the book, too. I had two special friends who died of cancer and I dedicated the book to them.
Free Radical is special because it took a long time to come to life and it has many of my son’s baseball and childhood stories in it. Gold Rush Women is an important book to me because before our book was published not much had been written about the courageous women of the northern gold rushes.
But the book I am most in love with would be the book I am currently working on because I spend time with it almost every day, even though the world hasn’t seen it yet.
Does your family have pets?
We have had a variety of pets over the years – a dog, a turtle, fish, a rabbit, even lizards. We’ve tried them all. To be honest, I am not an animal person, so I want the other family members to take care of the pets. This has not always happened. I came to really love dogs when writing Gold Rush Dogs, so it’s not hopeless! I definitely would have wanted a dog during the gold rush and I wouldn’t have minded feeding her because I would have appreciated her companionship and protection. Dogs were more reliable than men!
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I love to visit schools and talk to students. I miss teaching, so it helps me still feel like a teacher and I get to meet the people who read my books. I volunteer in my children’s activities – their classrooms where I help teach writing, in Girl Scouts, with their sport teams, and at my church. I meet regularly with my writing group. We respond to each other’s stories. I also teach writing at Eastern Washington University and enjoy working with student writers. I like to speak at conferences because I get to think about what I know and believe about writing and network with writers at different stages in their careers.
I like to spend time with my ninety-three year-old mother because I know time is precious. I also like to workout because it keeps me active and my energy high. I run, cross-country ski, bike, backpack, and go to yoga classes. Growing up and in college I was a competitive swimmer. My favorite race was the 50-meter breaststroke. I used to love to watch my children play sports and perform in concerts. But they are all grown up now, so we hang out when we can. My husband is a serious runner and if I am not in the race, I like to watch him run. I love music and play the piano and sing. I cannot go to sleep at night unless I read for a while. Reading for me is the most relaxing thing in the world.
Why do you choose to write books about Alaska?
Because I lived in Alaska for twenty-four years and that’s where I started my writing career and where my ideas first came from. After college I moved to Alaska and served as a Jesuit Volunteer at St. Mary’s, a boarding high school for Yup’ik Eskimo students in western Alaska. It was my first teaching job and an incredible experience to learn firsthand about a traditional culture. I met my husband there and we later moved to Fairbanks where we both worked as teachers. In 1998, when my husband retired as a principal, we moved to Spokane to be closer to family and warmer winters.
I have always included memories of Spokane in my stories. But now living back in the Pacific Northwest I am especially interested in subjects related to this area, i.e. the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I have written a picture book manuscript about Sacajawea and the slave York on the trip.
I do know that Alaska will always be part of me and my writing.
Why do you write for children and not adults?
Because I still feel like a kid inside and I loved my years teaching. Writing for young people helps me keep that alive. I enjoy meeting students, teachers, and librarians, the readers of my books.
People will sometimes ask, When are you going to write an adult book?
I know I could. But I don’t want to. I have enough ideas for younger readers and I certainly don’t want to try and learn the publishing side of adult books. I’ve got my hands full as it is.
I have always loved novels and teenagers, so it’s great to put the two together. I remember being a teen so vividly. There are so are many events and conflicts which relate to that period of life and yet no matter how depressing, there is still hope. I taught high school and middle school for ten years and before that always worked with kids teaching swimming and life guarding, so teens and reading have always been a part of my life. Now I visit schools and am raising two teens, so young adults remain close to my heart.
Where do you get your ideas for a story and characters?
In the first draft of a story, my characters are sometimes loosely based on real people. But as the writing progresses, the characters evolve into their own people. The story line starts with something I’ve read or experienced. In my first novel, To the Summit, seventeen-year-old Sarah Janson climbs Denali (Mt. McKinley) with her father. I used to watch Denali from a viewpoint in Fairbanks and wonder what it would be like to climb it and if a teenager could do it. I decided to write about it.
First, I did a great deal of research on mountain climbing. I interviewed climbers, read books about mountain climbing, watched videos about Denali, and even tried on climbing gear. I wanted to make sure that a seventeen-year-old could actually complete the trip. Indeed they can. Since To the Summit was written both a thirteen-year-old girl and boy have climbed Denali.
All three of my novels (To the Summit, Gold Star Sister, and Free Radical) examine the relationships in families. I think it’s important for parents and children to do activities together. That’s why cross-country skiing and summer backpacking trips are special in our family. Growing up, my family used to go camping, water skiing, and play golf and tennis. I have many fond memories of those times.