Growing up, Leigh Newman lived her summers in Alaska, hunting caribou and trekking glaciers with her Great Alaskan Dad. The school year was spent with her silk-blouse-buttoned-up mother in Baltimore. With Dad, she’d gut salmon; with Mom, she’d be dropped off at a private girls’ school to study Latin poetry. To survive in either environment, she learned how to adapt. Constantly braced for massive change, she grew skilled at adjusting on the fly.
Yet the survival skills she developed in childhood did not always serve her well as an adult. Guarded and detached, her defense mechanisms often got in the way of having successful relationships. She runs away, flounders, is aimless, meets a patient man, marries him, then leaves him due to a restlessness she can’t quite name.
How does independence morph into exile? How does surviving—literally—become a way of life? These are the central questions which Newman eventually asks herself and tries to answer in Still Points North, her terrific new memoir. A blend of sharp humor and gorgeous prose, Newman’s journey back home sets itself apart from the flood of books that have recently hit the market by including the reader on the ride.
I recently spoke with her at a Brooklyn café over buttery quiches and hoppy beer.
(You can catch Newman reading this evening at Tin House’s WORLD BOOK NIGHT kick-off party in Portland.)
Aspen Matis: I am always curious about the process a writer goes through transitioning from writing fiction to memoir. Was it a difficult leap for you?
Leigh Newman: I feel like when I was writing fiction, it was harder for me, because I think so much about all the other books I’ve read and whether this sentence was original enough. Or where I was going, or what this was supposed to be like. In many ways, it was crippling for me. But with nonfiction, I didn’t feel like an editor. I felt like I was in a movie. You know, a movie I’d been watching for a very long time, quietly, with nobody else. But now there was a piece of paper with me. So I was writing down the movie.
When I finished, after about two years, and I was due to turn in my whole manuscript – again – I knocked over a cup of coffee, and shorted my computer out. I had woken up early in the morning, and I’d put the cup of coffee here, and I didn’t have one of those tops, and my husband got me this idiotic chair from Staples with wheels, and I pushed it out, and I got up and the chair came back and knocked over the coffee, all over my computer. That was unfortunate, and a dark day. I don’t have any sense of humor about it to this day. But you’re supposed to.
AM: That’s every writer’s worst nightmare. How did you recover from that? Were you able to get the bulk of the manuscript back?
LN: I memorize every sentence I have ever written. I can see even the slightest alteration to them. So if I go back I can go, “Umm. Something happened with that there.” So I could go back and redo it. It was just painstaking, time consuming, exhausting, and it all felt so pitch-dark and futile.
I’m not one of those writers that called up their editor to chat, or like their publicist to see how they’re doing. I never talk to anybody. I would just, like, go, write, write, write, and be like, “Here.”
AM: When did you know you had a real story to tell?
LN: How you tell the story involves basically what you don’t tell. There’s whole angles of stuff that you leave behind. So, what’s the thru-line of what you’re talking about? I wrote a lot that didn’t apply and had to cut it out. I had to cut out a hundred and twenty pages from the center of the book. I was bitter about it. But I also was relieved. The book was sagging. Cutting the middle created two structures. Out of two – one was about the year my parents’ marriage fell apart. And the other one was about the year I met my husband and left him three months later. So it was like two divorces. Next to each other. A divorce buffet.
Then I made the decision I didn’t want to do a lot of explaining. I was just going to lay these two dead fish on the table and let people make their own assumptions about them. But that did not come until I’d already written just about everything that ever happened, ever, and then cut out anything that wasn’t making the book move forward. So that was my one rule. If the reader wasn’t engaged, we’d have to cut and then make it work some other way.
AM: Was there a great deal of back and worth with your editor about what to keep in and take out. Was there a fear of her cutting your voice out of the manuscript?
LN: No. She recognized it. There was no giant earthquake. I didn’t become addicted to drugs and neither did anybody else. I don’t think you need to have roman candles of tragedy going off for a memoir. But when I was talking to the editors and we were selling the book, there were like four editors I was talking to on the phone, they recognized this was going to be a tone-poem based on voice. Jen Smith is my editor and a humongous, giant horseshoe of golden gravy was poured on my head when I got connected with her.
AM: I was amazed at how quickly you immersed us in the world of Alaska. I loved your descriptions of the landscape. The foothills across the shore from your house are “sheathed in fireweed purples and alder greens,” and you describe a section of the wilderness you deemed your secret spot as “almost tropical, overgrown with lush, jewel-green alders and small, wet patches of darker green moss. The water is slow and deep, the silence total, except for the occasional ripple or splash of jumping fish…” How did you capture your childhood so vividly? Did you study old photos?
LN: No, we didn’t have any photos of that time. My mom was a big picture taker, and she compulsively photographed everything, which is a weird kind of addiction. She was ahead of the curve on that one. But at the time it was weird, back then. My dad wasn’t going around taking pictures of our depressing lives. Usually you take photographs when things are going well. But how did I remember without pictures? You spend so much time not remembering that it’s exhausting. I don’t even think you realize that you’re being exhausted by it.
No, I didn’t look at anything. This is my native habitat. When you’re a child and you grow up in a natural environment, that natural environment impresses itself. Your presence is very flush against that past.
AM: Where does the cover photo come from?
LN: This was taken in the yard that I describe of the house where the roof – where the railroad ties are falling in. That was our yard, the extent of our yard. Because we bought that property before we he had a house. It’s just a mudslide that we bought. The plane was not discussed in the book actually. I have memories of vomiting in that plane. That dog was named Jasmine. That was not a typical dog, and it is a weird dog that is in this picture. It was wrong for the world. It was not meant to live in Alaska.
AM: Do you have a favorite story from your childhood?
LN: My dad and I were flying home, and we got picked up by this air current which is called an updraft, and we got carried up twenty thousand feet. You can’t survive in that level of oxygen. An unpressurized airplane isn’t even supposed to be able to fly up there. It’s supposed to fall out of the sky. I’m not sure exactly why it didn’t. And my dad’s solution was to take the plane and point it straight down towards the earth, hoping that we’d start crashing toward the earth, but that didn’t happen either. Instead, the same wind that took us up took us down really slowly. Though we were pointed directly at the earth, we didn’t go straight down. Because when you reach that point there was only one thing you can do which was hope that we’d crash to the earth. But we didn’t. We went down very slowly.
The interesting thing to me about that was that, even as that was happening, I wasn’t fully aware of the danger because A) I was oxygen deprived and giggling and laughing with my dad the whole time and nothing made any sense and my lips were blue and my hands were blue. And, B) I really had such faith in my father that, even though he was saying, “We’re in a bad situation,” which I don’t think he’d ever said to me before, he was like, “We’re in a bad situation.” It was like, you know, comedy hour. But, um, I trusted him so implicitly – and there is that level of trust that happens when you grow up in that survival climate with the people that are expected to keep you alive.
AM: Have you taken your kids flying?
LN: Yes, I do take my kids flying. I went to Alaska; I took my kids into the bush. It was intense because the younger one was only eighteen months. My dad no longer flies because he has a serious heart condition and had to give up his license. We went up with friends. And that friend had some hearing troubles. I didn’t realize. So the plane ride was a little hairier than I would have liked. I was scared out there, it was exhausting.
AM: Your dad took you on frightening excursions, putting you in situations where you both could have died. What did your dad think of the book? Was he amazed to read how perceptive you were as a kid?
LN: No, I think he was horrified. I think he was upset and really horrified.
AM: But he does seem sweet and loving, too. Like when he pretends the lumpy fish you’ve caught is a state record, and you write, “I smile. It isn’t a real lie that we’re telling each other. It’s a fairytale lie, a fish-tale lie, the kind Great Old Alaskans tell each other…”
LN: I was writing in the tradition of Alaskan storytellers. People get around, have a drink, or a coffee or whatever, and all they do is tell stories. Like around the campfire, in the car. Almost always these stories are about somebody almost dying or in fact dying. So it’s like, “Oh, did ya hear about him. He ran into a moose. He got trampled, yeah?” Or, “Did you hear about Bob?” I’m telling a true one. “He was driving his three-wheeler down the mud and he got stuck and the tide rolled in, and that was the end of Bob.” You know. So that’s what people do. They usually have elaborate, crowd-pleasing stories with lots of details. So I was just writing in the voice that I’d heard all these years.
AM: I have to ask about the fish. Your descriptions of them are some of the funniest passages in the book. Like, “a humpy, the lowest species of salmon in the salmon family, a fish mocked statewide for its swamp-creature looks and lack of intelligence.” The idea that a fish would be mocked, that people would care so much about a fish to mock it, it’s foreign to most of us.
LN: I’m a terrible snob about fish. I got kicked out of a fish shop in Brooklyn. I went in and I said, it was like twenty-five dollars for organic salmon and I said, “Can I smell it?” And the guy’s like, “All of our fish is fridge-fresh,” and I was like, “I would really like to smell it.” He asked me to leave. You should know, Aspen, if someone doesn’t let you smell their fish that means their fish is old. And by the way it’s on Court Street.
AM: Can you speak a little about your publishing company, Black Balloon Books? I know from the “About Us” page that you “believe in: good manners, vintage whiskey, and human names for dogs.”
LN: I founded Black Balloon with my friend Elizabeth Koch as I was writing my book. She does most of the operations now. She’s the publisher, and we now have a managing editor who works there full-time. We founded the company because we wanted to publish books that we felt were interesting. We wanted to publish books that fall between the genre lines. The memoir Louise: Amended was about a girl who lost the use of her body, and one chapter would be from her perspective, and the other one would be a fictionalized imagining from the perspective of people looking at her, like her mother watching her put on makeup. Then we’d go back to what was going on in her head, and it would be, like, her boyfriend trying to have sex with her. We just did Maverick Jetpants in the City of Quality, that book did well, got in The New York Times Book Review. That’s a book I spent two years editing. It’s by a young guy named Bill Peters who invented his own language of jokes.
AM: Finally, do you have any advice for people who are writing their first book?
LN: Quit your job man, and go work in a café, work in a restaurant. You have to make that writing time for yourself and it can’t be after a ten-hour day at work. You have to organize your life so that you are given a two-hour period each day where you are not exhausted. Clear the time. Arrange it so that you do carpentry, something that you like so you have a livable wage. Go somewhere more affordable, Portland, Baltimore. My cousin lives in Portland, now. Move to St. Louis. Can’t lives on Won’t Street.
Leigh Newman’s memoir Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-up World, One Long Journey Home came out with Dial Press in March 2013. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times, Fiction, New York Tyrant, and Vogue. She currently serves as Deputy Editor of Oprah.com and as an editor-at-large for the indie press Black Balloon Publishing.
Aspen Matis is a Riggio Honors student at The New School in Greenwich Village, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Tin House, Psychology Today, and elsewhere. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir Knapsacked: A Life Redirected North.