Write About the Place You Miss: Leslie Hsu Oh Interviews Leigh Newman, Author of ‘Still Points North’

 by Leslie Hsu Oh (Army Corps of Engineers)

“Part adventure story, part love story, part homecoming, Still Points North is a page-turning memoir that explores both belonging and exile, and the difference between how to survive and knowing how to truly live. Still Points North is a love letter to an unconventional Alaskan childhood of endurance and affection, one that teaches us that no matter where you go in life, the truest tests of courage are the chances you take.” – amazon.com

Newman_Still-Points-North

When I first met Leigh Newman at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, I felt like I found my long lost sister. We are both raising small children in an urban setting (New York for her, Washington, D.C. for me) when we hope to pass on the values we learned in the wilderness. In Still Points North, out now in paperback from Shorefast Editions, Newman writes with tenderness about searching for identity and the difference between how to survive and knowing how to truly live. It was a finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle John Leonard Prize. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in One Story, Tin House, The New York Times Modern Love and Sunday Book Review, Fiction, Vogue, O The Oprah Magazine, Sunset, Real Simple and Bookforum. She currently serves as Books Editor of Oprah.com and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

The first time I read Still Points North, by the time I got near the end, I flipped through the last few pages impatient to find out whether this self-reliant/self-exiled travel writer would choose marriage or divorce. We are all dying to know if you are still married to Lawrence, for how long, how old are your kids, and what is his reaction to this book and comments readers have made about him? Does he come with you on book tours?

Wow! You’re right. I should included a follow-up insert. Yes, Law and I are still married. We have two kids, both boys. One is 9 and the other 5. As for Lawrence’s reaction to the book: he loves the reader comments; he comes off great!

Since our military readers tend to move around a lot too, they can relate to “no matter where I’ve traveled or lived, when people ask where I’m from, the first thing I do is ask them where they’re from” and “how long do you have to live somewhere for it to be home?” What tips can you offer those that are homesick? How have you and your husband reconciled moments in your marriage when you disagreed on where to live?

Well, my husband and I are always disagreeing about where to live. I want to live in Alaska, Idaho, Salt Lake City, Portland, Montana, Wyoming, New Orleans, or Central America. He wants to live in New York. We have not resolved this AT ALL. His small business is based in New York and almost impossible to relocate, and so that pretty much determined where we live. I’m not mad about it—but I am…silent.

About the homesickness? Visit as much as you can. And write a book about the place you miss. It’s not an ideal solution, but that’s all I’ve got.

img-leigh-newman_134429810612author Leigh Newman,http://www.interviewmagazine.com

At the end of your book, you drop teasers like “mugged at knifepoint by a transvestite (long story, another book)….drifting until you end up on camelback at the border of Libya (long story, another book).” Well, which book are you working on? And if you aren’t working on these stories, can you please tell us what happened?

I’m working on a book of short stories about Anchorage—and that weird existence between the city and the wilderness. Most of it is about dreamers, dazzled and deluded and crashing to earth. Not unlike myself.
The stories you’re talking about are part of a book I may never write…I ‘m not sure. It’s about very dumb things I did and survived.

In your book trailer, you say “by age eight, I could land a 40 pound king salmon, dig out an outhouse, patch a wader.” Will your kids be able to make similar claims? As a mother raising a nine-year-old, six-year-old, and one-year-old in the Washington DC area, I’m often frustrated that I can’t give my children experiences like hiking with crampons on a glacier at the age of two when we lived in Alaska. I too have photos from my childhood like the one on the cover of the book (your sassy pose beside your father who is repairing something in front of his floatplane and your dog Jasmine) and those you shared in various interviews (you as an infant bouncing up and down in a pack n’ play in the woods beside a tent) which I’m trying to capture for my kids now. What have you done to make sure your kids have the same experiences you did with your dad?

I just do the best I can. I try to go up with the kids once a year. This year we’re going to Fairbanks to go snow machining with my brother, who lives in a dry cabin. Other years, we’ve gone fishing, camping , skiing. The Alaska I grew up is kind of gone for me now—my dad no longer flies so we use cars and boats to get into the bush, which is a totally different experience. Powerful but different. I also just try to teach them all the skills they will need. They both ski, fish and do archery.

One of the things I loved about your book was the parenting tips that surface here and there. For example, “Ask kids about feelings. Specific ones. Mad. Sad. Broken Heart.” Do you have any tips for moms who are or dream of being travel writers?

Leave the kids with dad. Go. Come back with big present. It will be happifying for you and inspirational for your kids. Show them how you want to live.

Newman, Leigh. Still Points North: One Alaskan Childhood, One Grown-Up World, One Long Journey Home. The Dial Press (Random House), 2013.

——————

Buy Still Points North

About the author:

Growing up in the wilds of Alaska, seven-year-old Leigh Newman spent her time landing silver salmon, hiking glaciers, and flying in a single-prop plane. But her life split in two when her parents unexpectedly divorced, requiring her to spend summers on the tundra with her “Great Alaskan” father and the school year in Baltimore with her more urbane mother.

Navigating the fraught terrain of her family’s unraveling, Newman did what any outdoorsman would do: She adapted. With her father she fished remote rivers, hunted caribou, and packed her own shotgun shells. With her mother she memorized the names of antique furniture, composed proper bread-and-butter notes, and studied Latin poetry at a private girl’s school. Charting her way through these two very different worlds, Newman learned to never get attached to people or places, and to leave others before they left her. As an adult, she explored the most distant reaches of the globe as a travel writer, yet had difficulty navigating the far more foreign landscape of love and marriage.

In vivid, astonishing prose, Newman reveals how a child torn between two homes becomes a woman who both fears and idealizes connection, how a need for independence can morph into isolation, and how even the most guarded heart can still long for understanding. Still Points North is a love letter to an unconventional Alaskan childhood of endurance and affection, one that teaches us that no matter where you go in life, the truest tests of courage are the chances you take, not with bears and blizzards, but with other people. (amazon.com)

About the reviewer:

Oh_fiveLeslie Hsu Oh lived in Alaska for seven years while her husband worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She has hiked, white water rafted, spelunked, and rode on horseback through nearly eighty of the national parks, memorials, and monuments in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

Her writing and photography has appeared or is forthcoming in Cirque, First Alaskans Magazine, Fourth Genre, Kids These Days!, Novel Adventures, Rosebud Magazine, Stoneboat, Under the Sun, Native Peoples Magazine, and elsewhere. “Between the Lines” (a chapter adapted from her memoir-in-progress, Fireweed) was named among the distinguished stories of the year by Best American Essays.

She earned an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative nonfiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she currently teaches, and a masters from Harvard University. She is the recipient of the Rasmuson Individual Artist Award, the first Julius B. Richmond Young Leader in Public Health Award, the first National Award for Excellence in Public Health Leadership, the Sun Memorial Award for exemplifying a commitment to improving the health and well-being of people in underserved populations, and the Schweitzer Award for reverence for life.

Oh_fourOh_threeThe Ohs in Alaska

After losing both her mother and brother to liver cancer caused by hepatitis B (a disease preventable by vaccine), she founded an award-winning grassroots nonprofit called The Hepatitis B Initiative in 1997 that is still running today in several states.

Military Writers at AWP

This past week, I was lucky enough to get to an annual gathering I’ve wanted to attend for years: the Association of Writing Programs conference, held this year in Minneapolis, MN. You can read a tongue-in-cheek synopsis of it here (“As a whole, they did not seem to be outdoorsy people”), but basically it is a conference for book-world people, primarily folks who attended one of the many writing graduate programs in this country. I forwarded this New Yorker article to several family members, including my dad, who wrote back, “Are you really glued to the blue screen, typing away in frustration, downing slugs of Jack Daniels, and hiding behind sunglasses?” I had to laugh. Of course not — like a lot of writers, I spend my days tending to small children, reading furtively while chili bubbles on the stove, and waking up at 4 a.m. to work on a novel.

One of the biggest takeaways from AWP for me was that the writing world has changed, and while there are still those lone artists who can indulge their penchant for whiskey and alone-time, there are also plenty of writers who might, say, be planning their family’s next military move, or showing up at 5:30 a.m. for PRT, or jotting down port-a-potty graffiti in an Afghan FOB as notes for their next novel. The military crew was, if not loud and proud, certainly present and dignified and welcoming and warm, more so than I ever could have dreamed.

I was thrown right into the thing by filling in for another author — the illustrious Cara Hoffman, whose novel Be Safe I Love You portrays the homecoming of a young, female Iraq War veteran — on a panel called “Women Writing War.” I’d found out about the vacancy 24 hours before and spent the 3-hour plane ride writing an endless ream of complete crap which I read over at 10 p.m. the night before, ripped to shreds, and re-wrote overnight just in time for the panel.

11150179_10204956967102694_5767012842447453526_nMe, Jehanne Dubrow, Emily Gray Tedrowe, and Katey Schultz. I’m not worthy!

Hopefully I had something worthwhile to add to the conversation, although I stuttered a bit and could not hold a candle to my fellow panelists, Emily Gray Tedrowe (author of the recently-released Blue Stars, about two women tending loved ones at Walter Reed and reviewed on this blog here); Jehanne Dubrow, poet and professor and navy spouse, whose collection Stateside was reviewed on this blog back in October; and Katey Schultz, a fiction-writing idol of mine and author of the collection Flashes of War. We each presented for 10-15 minutes, talking about the female perspective on these recent wars, the role military spouses have played in recording and re-imagining these wars (that was my part), and the ways that women writers are imagining their way into situations they may not have experienced firsthand themselves, such as direct combat.

IMG_4003The Laminated Badge of Courage

While I was reading, I saw another hero(ine) of mine, Siobhan Fallon, sneak into the room and take a side seat. She was just in time to hear me read aloud from a short story of hers that I love, “Into the Break.” I wanted desperately to shout to the audience that she was here among us, but I restrained myself and just read her excerpt, which was very funny in a darkly comical way, and she confessed later that she’d never heard her own work read aloud and enjoyed seeing how the audience, unaware of her presence, laughed in all the right places. I also got to read some excerpts from Flashes of War and a fantastic poem by Jehanne called “On the Erotics of Deployment,” which I got to conclude with the fabulous line: “I’ll be the fruit kept edible on ice.”

After my own panel, I followed Siobhan to her first presentation, on a panel called ‘No Country for Good Old Boys: The Remaking of the Masculine in Contemporary American Fiction.’ She presented alongside Ben Percy, Kim Barnes, Shann Ray, and Alan Heathcock. I had never heard Ben Percy speak aloud before, and his voice was so unexpectedly low that it rattled light fixtures on the ceiling. Adopting a rather amusing, macho persona, he claimed that he writes with his testicles. The audience laughed. Percy, who once wore a “pregnancy suit” for 9 weeks, is comfortable messin’ with his masculinity.

Siobhan, a slightly less audacious (but certainly riveting) presence, shared the ways she mined life on Ft. Hood to write the male characters in her stories — not just male characters, but some of the most macho of the male, combat soldiers in an Army MOS that is still closed to women. She learned a lot, she confessed, by listening to conversations at an on-base Taco Bell. Whatever she did, it worked, because that book is genius.

siobhan_me_AWPSiobhan Fallon and me. Can’t say I’m loving that angle on my schnozz, but I loved spending so much time with Siobhan!

Things just kept getting better as the war writers’ unofficial fearless leader, Lt. Col. Peter Molin, arrived. We all gathered around him, filled with well-deserved adoration. Peter runs a blog called Time Now, which discusses war literature, art, and film — a blog I’ve mentioned and linked to here many times before. He set up a fantastic dinner on Friday night for the military writers, where I got to rub elbows with luminaries way out of my league.

11012524_10152855442147831_8697189596611112528_nAmong us was the soft-spoken and ever-wise Brian Turner, poet (his ‘Here, Bullet’ was reviewed by Amy Bermudez here on this blog, and his memoir ‘My Life as a Foreign Country’ is reviewed here on Peter’s); beautiful and brave Kayla Williams, Iraq War veteran and author of the memoirs ‘Love My Rifle More Than You‘ and ‘Plenty of Time When We Get Home‘; Teresa Fazio, former Marine and Iraq War veteran and writer, working on a memoir at current; First Couple of War Writing (to quote Peter Molin) Lauren and Colin Halloran; Ben Busch, big-time TV actor (The Wire!)

The Wire Episode #406(there he be, in the middle, looking like The Edge!)

and author of ‘Dust to Dust‘ (also, the son of one of my favorite authors, Frederick Busch, who wrote a novel called ‘Girls’ way before that overblown HBO show)…

…And where was I. Got sidetracked by Ben Busch, as, I suspect, have many nice ladies before me. Just kidding! Alright, so I also got to meet Jerri Bell of 0-Dark-Thirty, a writer and 20-year navy veteran; the Boys from Colorado Springs — Jesse Goolsby, whose much-anticipated novel ‘I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them’ comes out in June; Brandon Lingle, writer, photographer, and staff member at War, Literature, and the Arts; James A. Moad II, novelist, WLA fiction editor, and the main man behind Veteran’s Voices Month, a month dedicated to hearing veterans’ stories:

This project is about bearing the weight of history into the present, like some vast meteor composed of every Veteran’s story, past and present, crashing into a great lake and breaking open. – James Moad on the WLA Blog

SWEET.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the ‘links’ column on this little blog will be growing by leaps and bounds. I met so many other writers whose works I can’t wait to investigate and share, and, dangit, there just isn’t enough time!

Of course, the main focus of this blog remains writing by and pertinent to military spouses and female veterans, so that will help me narrow my scope in the coming weeks and months. But I’m excited. I’m excited about the wisdom and generosity and experience I could identify in every military writer I met at AWP — a sort of genial, slightly-gallows, forgiving good humor that was instantly familiar to me from the best of times I have spent with military people. Our community, when it’s working well, has a distinct feel, and I always enjoy and respect it, but perhaps most of all when it becomes its own little world in a sea of 14,000 writers-at-large.

The Books I Have Yet to Love

IMG_3581

One benefit of starting this blog has been that I’ve been sent many books for review, some of which I might not have heard of otherwise and which ended up being favorite reads of the year for me.

The only drawback — I can’t possibly get around to all of the books I’ve been sent!

Generally, I give myself half a year and if I STILL haven’t been able to read a book, then I know I probably won’t get around to it. I want to say to these dear books, “It’s not you, it’s me!” — because it really is.

My big reading love is literary fiction — I’ve managed to read every novel I’ve been sent (or find a mil spouse reviewer for it). But because this blog is called the Military Spouse Book Review, people often send me nonfiction books to review, thinking I must be one of those history/war-memoir types. I appreciate those books, but if there’s a novel and a history book sitting in the basket by my bed at the same time, well……it’s been nice knowing ya, history book, but that novel is what I’ll end up reading.

Many people out there DO love history books and memoir, however, so for the benefit of those readers I’d like to showcase some terrific-looking books that I just haven’t quite gotten around to, but which YOU, blog reader, may just love. Nonfiction books often make great gifts, because you can tailor them to a person’s interests and I think they are a little less ‘personal’ in taste than novels. Anyway, here are some great books worth taking a look at next time you need a good read or a gift idea for someone in your life.

1. IMPOSSIBLE ODDS: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six, by Jessica Buchanan and Erik Landemalm with Anthony Flacco (Simon and Schuster, 2013).

IMG_3584

I’ve read parts of this one and honestly, it’s a thrill ride. Talk about an amazing true-life story: a young humanitarian aid worker is kidnapped by Somali pirates, held hostage for more than three months and finally rescued in the kind of daring, glitch-free SEAL operation we all love to read about.

The rescue took place on January 25th, 2015, just as the president was about to deliver his State of the Union speech. Imagine it: just as he steps onstage, 24 Navy SEALs rush a compound and kill nine terrorists with no harm to the two prisoners who are safely airlifted out on a military rescue chopper.

For any fan of real-life special ops tales or humanitarian missions, this book is sure to please.

2. NO BETTER FRIEND: ONE MAN, ONE DOG, AND THEIR EXTRAORDINARY STORY OF COURAGE AND SURVIVAL IN WWII by Robert Weintraub (Little, Brown & Co., 2015)

IMG_3583

What a sweet story! Read the tale of Judy, America’s only canine P.O.W. in WWII. Judy was the companion of Air Force technician Frank Williams. When they were put in an internment camp together, Judy gave Frank the spark of hope that helped him to survive. She routinely risked her life for prisoners who were being beaten and survived bombings and many other hardships.Oh, Judy! I love you already.

This one is well-written and nicely paced and would please any animal lover or student of the Second World War.

3. THE GOOD SOLDIERS and THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE by David Finkel (Picador, 2009 and 2013)

IMG_3582

About a year ago, I read THE GOOD SOLDIERS and was moved, saddened, and disgusted by the experiences and treatment of soldiers serving on the front lines in Iraq. It’s not a book to take lightly: I was regularly so upset that it was difficult to fall asleep after reading. But it’s necessary knowledge, and anyone who takes war seriously will want to read Finkel’s Pulitzer-prize-winning reportage.

I have not yet tackled its sequel, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE, but Finkel’s writing is so good, so unsparing and so empathetic, that I anticipate it’s as gut-wrenching as people say. It follows the same men profiled in THE GOOD SOLDIERS after they return home from the crucible of wartime. I know that I will make myself read it, because I want to understand and I want to know what is at stake when we commit young people to wage wars far from home.

4. A COOL AND LONELY COURAGE: The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France by Susan Ottaway (Little, Brown, 2013)

IMG_3586

Here’s another fantastic story: that of two sisters, Eileen and Jacqueline Nearne, who both worked sending encoded messages to Allies during WWII.

“While Jacqueline narrowly evaded capture several times,” the jacket reads, “Eileen was tortured by the Gestapo and sent to the infamous Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp. Eventually, this resourceful young woman escaped and found her way to the advancing American army. She was only twenty-three.”

I sure hope this one is made into a movie. Until then — read the book!

5. THE GUNS AT LAST LIGHT: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 by Rick Atkinson (Picador, 2013)

IMG_3588

The Guns at Last Light is the third book in Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, the first book of which won him a Pulitzer Prize. Honestly, as a novel-reader, I cannot imagine reading over 600 pages focusing upon ONE YEAR of the Second World War. Even just looking at it makes me nervous. But for history buffs, the Liberation Trilogy could make an awesome gift.

Also shown above — The Life and Legend of Chris Kyle by Michael J. Mooney (a story everyone knows by now, but fans of the movie might appreciate the book) and Anchor & Flare: A Memoir of Motherhood, Hope, and Service by Kate Braestrup, which is the true story of how Braestrup lost her husband, a police officer, and then had to face her son’s decision to join the Marines. Braestrup is a chaplain to the Maine Game Warden Service, and this book is spiritually-oriented as well as humorous. I plan to read it because I try to review all the books I’m sent that are written by military spouses, veterans, or moms; it’s not out til July of this year so I still have time.

—–

I hope everyone out there is enjoying their own reading as winter (hopefully) wraps up and spring edges around the corner. Summer reading is on the horizon!