Between Alaska and Baltimore: An Interview with Acclaimed Memoirist Leigh Newman

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Leigh Newman and I were two among the legions of blue-uniformed girls at Baltimore’s Roland Park Country School in the late 1980s. She was a couple of years behind me, a condition that sometimes renders younger girls invisible, but Leigh was never that. Despite being quiet, she was both luminous and likable. I was happy to reconnect with Leigh in our 30s, through the New York/Baltimore writing circuit. And I was even happier to read her lyrical, honest memoir Still Points North: Surviving the World’s Greatest Alaskan Childhood (Dial Press, March 2013).

Your title and epigraph come from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Dear, My Compass.” Bishop is also known for her poem “The Fish.” I was interested in how fish and fishing work as a metaphor in Still Points North. Was that something you came to during the course of the writing, or did you have it in mind from the start?

I work sentence to sentence, which really means breath to breath, freak-out to freak-out. I never have anything in mind from the start, and I wish it were otherwise. So the fish just came naturally, in the fumble to find the story. Their inclusion makes sense, though. Growing up in Alaska, fishing was how my dad and I spoke, how we cried, how we survived in the wilderness of my family’s unraveling. There were a few years there where—I hate to say it—we could only connect or express grief in our lives by killing things, be they salmon or ducks or caribou. I didn’t understand what we were doing at the time, how my dad was trying to make me feel better, to teach me who he was and how to be competent and capable. As a kid, it’s a powerful thing to reel in a king or a humpy or even fat ugly freshwater pike (see: The Fish). It makes you feel like “Master of the Big Scary World,” which is excellent for the ego when the reality is: you are a small person without very much say in how things go.

As a writer, however, my lack of plan did cause me to miss all the juicy fish metaphors, especially with regard to salmon. Salmon are born, leave home, survive dangers in the open ocean, then come home again. I never once discussed this life cycle with regards to my own history…though the plot of the book follows that trajectory exactly.

You have an interesting relationship to advice because of your natural tendency toward self-reliance. Even habitually self-reliant people like you (and me too) will occasionally long for a trusted advisor. On your wedding day, for instance, you write about wishing that someone would confirm the rightness of your decision to marry. In a Los Angeles Review of Books interview with Michael Kimball, you explained that, when you had second thoughts about publishing this memoir, your agent 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.” This seemed striking; it’s as if he stepped in and did for the book what you wanted someone to do for your marriage—to offer a third-person perspective, a reasoned endorsement. Other than this moment with the agent, how much advice did you receive (and accept) during the book’s path to publication? And how much did self-reliance continue to play a role?

Self-reliance is one of those things that every Alaskan must learn to survive, and it’s a wonderful quality, because all of us need to believe and understand that we can figure out most things on our own, whether that’s hooking up a Blu-ray player that’s been pre-programmed in Danish (as mine was) or traveling around the Moscow subway systems (with all the signs in Cyrillic). It’s confidence boosting and, with it in your makeup, fear has trouble taking hold of your daily actions. But, in my case, traveling between Alaska and Baltimore at age seven, figuring out so many things on my own, I think that self-reliance morphed into a kind of self-exile. And I had to teach myself to get over that. Which sounds very obvious and not very intelligent but it took me a long, long time to understand that other people were a good thing, when it came to marriage, happiness, and— well, books. For Still Points, I wrote a lot of sloppy, long, meandering drafts. My editor Jennifer Smith at Dial was the one who kept (gently) pointing me in the right direction. Her comments really woke me up to the values of collaboration, even when that meant cutting out 120 pages (an excruciating process). The same went for her editorial assistant, Hannah, who weighed in on key points. Once I let them in, I had to let everybody in—agents, PR people, other writers. They all had good ideas, ones better than my own. It’s kind of shocking when you think about how talented and insightful people can be when you offer them the chance to help you.

Your writing is so lyrical and moving, and you’re a great evoker of scene and place. At times, your sentences are lengthy and loaded with specifics. These big, wild sentences remind me of your portrait of Alaska itself. Do you think that being from Alaska influences how you write?

Thank you, Elisabeth. That is a very lovely thing to say. And I need a minute just to deal with it. But…I will say that I believe growing up in the wilderness can make just about anybody into a writer or composer or business titan. There’s just so much time to daydream, standing in a river or climbing up a mountain. And as you’re daydreaming, you’re smelling the fish eggs, you’re listening to the skuttle of shale underfoot. And you’re also trying to be aware enough to keep alive. And this combination of sensation and logic is so powerful to anyone, but it’s even more powerful to a kid. It is a very different existence than watching TV and raising your hand. You are living in a living painting, and that impresses itself on your imagination and your decisions for the rest of your life.

The symptoms you report having had during certain especially fraught periods—for instance, the rash, the weight loss—communicate as much to the reader about what you were feeling in those periods as your descriptions themselves do. These were profound somatic responses to emotional turbulence. You describe having difficulty expressing or thinking through emotions sometimes. What was it like, undertaking a memoir while also being someone with a conflicted relationship to emotion? Did writing this book change your relationship to emotion in any way?

I’m not going to lie here. I’m still not what I would call an emotion connoisseur. I was probably the last person on earth that should have written a memoir. I didn’t talk about my past much or at all, even to people that knew me well. And I certainly didn’t want to talk about my parents’ divorce or my own divorce. Who would want to talk about that? I think the way I was able to get through the book was to believe that I was writing about something else, that I was writing a book about fishing and hunting and traveling the world. Denial is not always a bad thing. And it never lasts. And once that misconception had fallen aside and I had to reckon with what I was doing, that was painful and ugly. I had to relive all the stuff I didn’t even want to have lived in the first place. But I knew I had something to say, about love and about survival. And writing the book I didn’t want to write made me put it all into words, which, for a writer, is just another way of saying that you’re making something real.

Although I fell in love with reading and writing early on, it took me a long time to “come out” as an aspiring writer, even to myself. Did you know when we were in school together that you wanted to be a writer, or did that realization come later?

Oh. I could not allow myself that. I would hand over short stories to a teacher at Roland Park Country who we will call Mrs. Green. She was so kind. She read them all. They were dreadful. But to me they were like underaged smoking, something private and dark and not allowed. That notion didn’t really go away throughout college and my twenties. I wrote in secret. And I always supported myself and worked full-time. I always knew I wanted to be a writer—but wanting does not get you there, with writing or anything else. I needed to do more of it, and not just between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., when I was so tired all I did was write, delete, write, delete. So I think it’s when you say, hey, I’m going to make real time for this, time that is going to cost me money and security and fun and friends and success and birthday parties, when you own up to being a writer in this way and bring it out in the open, when you’d risk total and public failure, that you start becoming a writer. I still work full-time at an office. I sit at my little cubicle. But I just think about my other writing as a full and valid part of my life, not as some hidden, unjustified hobby.

Your move from Alaska to Baltimore as a child with divorcing parents meant a lot of adjustment, not just to private-school East Coast life but to life with a newly single mom whose moods were sometimes unpredictable. I loved the story of your getting picked up by the police for fishing in the Homeland Ponds after school on a Wednesday when all the other kids seemed to have gone off to something called dancing class. How often do you get back to Baltimore now, and what do you feel when you’re here?

I feel great drunken love for that city. Baltimore was my Paris as a kid. It exposed me to the world—to museums and goldfish ponds and horses and steeplechases and city streets with real live sidewalks! It still exists in my mind in this way, a great grand dame kind of town. At the same time, my mom worked in Head Start and I spent a lot of time in struggling neighborhoods like Cherry Hill, met all kinds of people I would have never met otherwise, and learned about all kind of things—poverty and struggle and inequality—firsthand, and I’m grateful for it, for how it shaped my adult beliefs. One of the best decisions my mom ever made was to keep us living within the city limits, to expose us to all parts of Baltimore, Fells Point to Bolton Hill, the downtown library (she used to drop me off on Saturdays) to Roland Park and Hampden. I love taking my own kids down to the B&O Museum or the streetcar museum or baseball games on the light rail. We get down a lot, especially in the summer. My mother and I struggled there when I was a kid; we were a single mom and only child and that world was not set up for us to have an easy experience. But both of us have changed and the city itself has changed. Baltimore is so much more open and cosmopolitan now. So many writers and artists and academics and people from foreign countries have moved there, plus the influx of Washingtonians. It’s very rich city, when you look at its own very distinct character and eccentricity mixing with these new cultural influences. Okay, now I will stop talking. But the point is: I still think of Baltimore as home, I long for it, and I have been known to call up real estate agents and pester them about such-and-such house that I really should not be looking for late at night, online.

 

 

Leigh will be appearing with Michael Kimball at Atomic Books on Thursday, March 28, at 7 p.m. She’ll also be on a panel with Tim Wendel at the CityLit Festival on April 13 at 11 a.m. in the Poe Room, Central Branch, Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Leigh Newman’s memoir Still Points North—set in Maryland and Alaska—has just been released by Dial Press. She is the Deputy Editor of Oprah.com, where she writes about books, life, happiness, survival, and—on rare, lucky days—food. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in One StoryTin HouseThe New York Times “Modern Love” and “City” sections, Fiction, O The Oprah Magazine, Oprah.com, Condé Nast Brides, Condé Nast Concierge, and Bookforum, among other publications. Her work has been anthologized in Crown’s The Collected Traveler book series, My Parents Were Awesome (Villard, 2011), and City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, 2010).

You can find out more about Leigh at her website.



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