LEIGH NEWMAN AND I have known each other as writers for years, so I knew little bits about her childhood, but I never knew the extent of it. I never knew it was her great Alaskan childhood until I read her new memoir, Still Points North. I’m thinking mostly of the different ways she almost died — grizzly bears, hypothermia, almost falling out of a flying prop plane, actually falling out of a raft in some serious rapids in a canyon, getting caught in an updraft and turning blue from lack of oxygen, a house that almost burns down… Naturally, I had a few questions.
Michael Kimball: Did you know how crazy any of this was when it was happening?
Leigh Newman: Uh, no. In fact, I’m not sure if I think it was crazy even now. We all grow up with what we think of as normal. The idea of writing a memoir had come out a lot in my life — not from me, but from editors, who had heard a few details about Alaska or some of my other adventures and said, “You should write that down.” But my standard response for years was: nothing that interesting happened to me. I had the mistaken idea that you had to have been addicted to a drug or had a horrible, abusive childhood to write a memoir. And I was still under that mistaken assumption that everybody grew up in the bush, running around in hip boots. For me, the most interesting thing — the thing I still can’t figure out yet — about all these almost fatal experiences was the role of fear. I can’t say I wasn’t afraid of bears, planes falling out of the sky, rapids, fire, etc. I was always afraid. But I wasn’t afraid long-term. It didn’t stick with me after the incident. I didn’t get nightmares or resist going back out there. I always had some probably misguided, child-brain idea that it would all be all right and we would survive. I trusted my father completely in that respect, for him to fix it all, and he always did. And if he didn’t, I sometimes fixed it. And then we just went on.
MK: I’m still imagining growing up with the possibility of being eaten by a bear. Some of my childhood was rough, but I didn’t have anything like that. But whether that was crazy or not, probably the defining episode in the memoir, in your life, is a domestic one. Your mismatched parents divorce and the world is never the same for you — the school year in Baltimore and the summers in Alaska. Could you talk about those extremes?
LN: One of my favorite threads of the memoir — though I love exploring this same topic in fiction — is that intersection between the wild (as in wilderness) and domestic. By favorite, I mean the kind of topic that defines your life.
To that end, living between my parents was rough. It wasn’t the two cultures, though that had a very large role. In Alaska, yes, I was hunting and fishing and flying around (versus Baltimore and girl’s school and lacrosse and cucumber sandwiches). But it was also the different extremes of the family situations. My dad remarried and had kids and a wife he loved. He also had a lot of money and was comfortable. Everything was dipped in ease. And with my mom, there was mental illness and not a lot of money and a lot of anxiety and loneliness. So it was hard to rejigger my whole being, moving between the tw...read more