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 two. Then there was the social part. I didn’t go to school in Alaska, so I didn’t have any friends there, other than the neighbors and one family friend. In Baltimore, I went to school, but I was constantly leaving. All that said, as much as I longed for one stable home and married parents and carpools and all that business, I think the experience really determined the course of my life. I’m comfortable with change, even radical change. I can move in and out of different worlds without much difficulty. And I learned so much from both places — I loved both places. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I just stayed up North and never learned about urban poverty (my mom was a social worker for Head Start in Baltimore) or received the kind of profound classical education that I got on the East Coast. And in turn, I would have hated my life without the freedom and self-reliance of Alaska — and the fun. Fishing is fun. Going deep in the woods with bears and caribou and streams to get your own food and explore is fun. It’s not a mall life. It’s not a Dunkin’ Donuts childhood.
MK: That scene where the little-girl-you clubs a humpy to death is pretty brutal. Do you still fish?
LN: I still fish. I used to fly fish, but I’m dreadful west of the Lower 48. It’s much easier to fish in Alaska; the fish want to get caught. I recently rediscovered spin rods with my son and we go out and slay bluefish and flounders in the Atlantic Ocean. He’s also been up to Alaska and caught a 19-inch rainbow on a dry fly. That was exciting. He’s six! I thought I was going to lose my mind I was so proud. Want to see a picture?
MK: Of course I want to see a picture. Which reminds me, one of the crazy domestic scenes I can’t get out of my head is when the kitchen catches on fire. Here’s this little girl trying to tell her parents the house is on fire, and neither one of them is paying attention. There’s all the parental neglect in that (and there are plenty of other instances in the memoir), but the little girl persists through all of it with the idea that everything is going to be all right. It’s funny and sad and horrifying at the same time — and of course we’re all rooting for this plucky little girl who can fly planes and catch fish, especially since nobody is paying attention. Do you ever think about how we’re all paying attention now — not just your parents, but all us readers too?
LN: Uh, now that the book is done I’m thinking about it. As I wrote it, I was in a bubble. I just didn’t think ahead. Ever. I wrote and that was that. Sometimes I would go back and take out scenes if they didn’t work or misrepresented someone. But for the most part, I just lived in the book as if it were a daydream. It was as real to me as a daydream. I’m not being cute or coy, but I didn’t really think that much about it coming out in the world, about how that would be. Maybe that is denial. Maybe it’s about being really present in what you’re doing and not moving forward. Maybe it’s a combo of the two. But now that the book is making its way to readers, it is a strange feeling. People know me. People I don’t know know me. A woman came up to me yesterday and said, “You’re my new best friend.” I thought, Oh. Right. I told her everything I would tell a friend-to-be, except, of course, I never told my friends any of this stuff. That was the thing about the memoir. Ninety-nine percent of it, I had not told anyone. Something goes on in my mind. I think I’ve communicated myself, but I haven’t. It makes me wonder how much I know about others, the whole unsaid story spooling around in the people I love.
MK: That is one of the beautiful things about the book. The reader senses that — that you’re telling us what hasn’t been told before. We see the writer-you letting your guard down and telling us the difficult things you’ve held back. This makes me think of the toughness that runs through the novel. For instance, the little-girl-you says, “No throwing up … Copilots don’t throw up.” Could you talk about that a little?
LN: Well, it’s something I still think about. You know, a good flash of anger can really take care of most everyday fear. And being tough is like being angry. You’re fighting something when you’re being tough — fighting down the fear or around the fear or fighting the voice in your head that says you can’t do this or you’re too young. To me, this can be a useful exchange. Being tough can help in life, especially if you’re not innately tough, which I’m not. I’m a softie. But I learned to be tough and it’s saved my life over and over, literally and metaphorically. But toughness and the anger it requires are like anything in that they are excellent for you in moderation. For a while in my life, that toughness threatened to take over. I was so angry I didn’t feel fear. That is very different from feeling fear and deciding to tough it out. That’s a kind of emotional corn on your life.
I also think these were weird kinds of trials I put myself though, trying to be so tough. For example, in the plane, I threw up. I have an imbalance in my inner ear — like most people who consistently get motion sickness — and I threw up. I was still tough. I kept going with the throw up on me and didn’t ask to go home or land or be a baby about it — which was tough of me, considering my age. But in my head, at that age, that was weakness and weakness was failure. I was ashamed of it.
MK: Switching gears a little, I knew your fiction long before I knew your nonfiction. And it occurs to me that there are a lot of stories in Still Points North that might not work as fiction. That is, as fiction it might be unbelievable, but as nonfiction it’s amazing. Did you have to get into a different mindset to write this memoir versus, say, short stories?
LN: When I gave this book to my agent, there was a period where I considered pulling it, returning the money and not publishing it. I had so failed to consider the public nature of it — and the end of privacy that would accompany it. But my agent, who is very experienced and a very calm gentleman, said, “This is your book. This is the one that got in the way of all the other ones. Do this and do it now.” What he was talking about — though I had not told him — were all the other times I had tried to write these stories as short stories or as a novel. When I’d done this, something got so worked up inside me, the tone of the writing — not the facts — would get hard and sharp and cartoonish, like Flannery O’Connor in a road rage. I suppose this was because I was arguing with myself in order to write each sentence. I had to have a big fight with my soul just to get down a word. I wrote the memoir because I’d failed to say things I wanted to say in fiction. And I’d failed so badly, in my estimation, that I really had nowhere to go as a writer except somewhere else (because I couldn’t stop writing), and that was nonfiction.
About the mindset, what I think I changed in my approach was the tone. In fiction, I was working with a lot of unsympathetic narrators. Readers would read the stories and say, “Wow that guy is really mean.” In the memoir, I was writing as a child. I was able to bring a vulnerability to the central character. And I was writing about my family, who I love. I was writing from a place of love — not from a place of trying to prove myself as a writer or a hotshot or a smart person. Which is a whole different game.
MK: One last thing: There’s a throwaway reference to a Junior Miss Alaska pageant. Were you ever a beauty pageant kid?
LN: No beauty pageants ever. I was lucky if I got a shirt. I’m not kidding. My dad used to dress me in overalls, as in overalls and nothing — no socks, underwear, shirt — which might have been my idea to begin with, but he went along with it. We went into this doctor’s office on time — I think I was nine — and his nurse was like, “That girl needs a shirt.”