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
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.
author 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:
Leslie 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.
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.