Leigh Newman’s first book, a memoir, was Still Points North (Dial Press, 2013), which was a finalist for the National Book Critic Circle’s John Leonard Prize. Not long after the book’s publication, I interviewed Leigh for Baltimore Fishbowl.
Now Leigh’s second book, a short story collection entitled Nobody Gets Out Alive (Scribner, April 12, 2022), is here. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly writes, “The author’s crisp portrayal of the Alaskan landscape and rugged culture holds the collection—and its magnetic characters—together.”
The stories are as expansive and vivid and complex as Alaska itself. Among other themes, the stories explore the tension between an older, flintier generation of Alaskans and the younger people moving in—softer people, with all kinds of literal and metaphorical bumper guards to protect them (and their children) from hard edges. The characters face a wide variety of dangers, wild and mundane alike. Some of them are threatened with running out of one thing or another—of food or gas, time or patience.
Reading the book feels like being flown around Alaska in a floatplane piloted by Leigh. With each story, Leigh drops you off in a new place/life/era and says she’ll be back to collect you in a few days. She waves, the plane takes off, and you’re left to explore. For those of us who’ve barely gone more than five miles from home since March 2020, it’s exhilarating to be somewhere entirely new.
Leigh spent part of her childhood in Baltimore, having moved here with her mother after her parents divorced. School vacations were spent in Alaska with her father. She attended Roland Park Country School, which is my alma mater too. Though Leigh and I were two grades apart, we had one major thing in common: We worshipped the same English teachers. (We still do!)
I was happy for another chance to interview Leigh—who now lives in the New York City area—in this forum.
BFB: Some of these stories were originally published in The Paris Review, Harper’s, etc. Others are appearing here for the first time. Can you describe how this collection came together?
LN: I started with the title story, “Nobody Gets Out Alive.” I had written a memoir and written a novel that never made it out of the drawer. But I had always wanted to write a short story—one where I didn’t have panic at the end, one where I knew when to get in and out, one that made sense in that way that Flannery O’Connor and Edward P. Jones made sense—full of life and detail and real, old-fashioned plot.
So in 2014, I tried it. I wrote about a couple who has a wedding in Alaska, and everything goes wrong. The bride flirts with her childhood boyfriend, the husband fixates on a mastodon skull that is displayed in the living room—a huge fossil discovered by the retreat of the glaciers and the impact of global warming. Heartbreak ensues. And the realities of marriage. The bride and groom run off with a tusk and a lifetime of issues.
BFB: When you and I discussed your first book here in 2013, you mentioned that you were just beginning to fully appreciate the value of collaboration (between editors and writers, for instance). In what ways did other people’s feedback influence these stories?
LN: All the best writers I know send out drafts to other writers. And the reason it takes me so long to send out drafts is that I worry and fuss and think everything has to be perfect before anyone can see it. And yet the way to get to perfection is through feedback. Part of writing this book was self-discipline. I made myself send that first story to Fiona Maazel, who is a terrific, sentence-obsessed writer and freelance editor. I was sick with worry, pukey. This is what she wrote back to me: “Your stories are terrific. I love them. They are full of wise, generous observations about people and relationships. They are sensitive and smart and attuned to the subtle things in life that make things feel pressing and hard and beautiful. They are wry and sweet and sad. You should be proud of yourself. I am.”
Just having one person—one!—confirm I was not insane, misguided, or delusional allowed me to write the next story.
BFB: Some characters appear in more than one story. Were such character recurrences something you envisioned from the start of this collection, or did you come to this idea over time?
LN: I work moment by moment. In the first story, I fell in love with Katrina, the very unkind, brilliant, confused bride. So then I wrote her a story about her childhood in the Alaskan backcountry with her best friend Jamie Donovan, doing a float trip down a remote river. Jamie’s dad—who plays a big part in that story—led me to her little sister, who ends up caring for their opioid-addicted, emotionally scarred mom in yet another story, “Valley of the Moon.” And that’s how it went. I met people in each story, I liked them and wrote them their own story as a kind of love letter. Also, almost all the stories take place on a suburban lake in Anchorage where everybody knows one another, either from town or from hunting and fishing and climbing mountains. Which is how many people in Alaska live, on the seam between the strip mall and the isolated, roadless wilderness.
BFB: You have a great ear for different characters’ vernacular. Do you keep a notebook of phrases, or do they just quietly set up camp in your mind, waiting to be called into service?
LN: I don’t plan anything ever. But I do think that most of my understanding as to why a person might do what they do or behave the way they behave has to do with how they speak. Dialogue is character. And soul! My mother often says, “You’re plucking on my nerves,” which is so different than my dad, who says, “Honey, that goddamn snow in your barrel will end up blowing a hole in your face.” Most everyone I have ever met has a singular way of talking. Sadly, I don’t know how I talk. And maybe that’s a good thing or I would start editing myself into a lifetime of silence.
BFB: The collection ends with a rich story set much earlier than the rest, in 1915, as Anchorage was being founded. Can you talk about why you chose to end the book this way?
LN: A lot of the reviews that have come out about the book discuss “the hardscrabble realism” of the stories. That makes sense to me. I have single mothers fleeing the Lower 48 through Canada with a tube of cheap gold flake. I have girls let loose in the wild with a shotgun and a box of Cheez-Its.
But some of the stories are different—born of some lunatic desire to challenge myself. For example, a magical realism story about a psychic who lives in an escort establishment in Anchorage during the height of the pipeline boom. And a historical number about an heiress who is exiled to Alaska for being a lesbian, supervised by a broke, lovestruck male engineer. I had never written a historical story and was thrilled by the costumes and details and lavish, joyous exuberance of it all: kerosene lanterns, tents, an old-fashioned dessert called a fool. What I found was that there were so many timely parallels, between today’s opioid addiction and turn-of-the last-century laudanum, between the oil industry and the construction of the railroad for coal. As well as the dreams of why people come to Alaska, seeking freedom and adventure and shiny, brave new versions of themselves. At the end of the story, the broke, lovestruck male engineer designs a city that will end up being Anchorage and plans a manmade lake that will become the lake where all the other people in the stories—set from 1981 to 2018—later live, without even knowing that it was named after his father, a gambler back in Oklahoma who was “a drop too Choctaw to be white.” Seems not just Alaskan but very American to me.
Come to the Ivy Bookshop’s patio at 6 p.m. on April 29, 2022, to hear Leigh in conversation with fiction writer Don Lee, whose latest story collection, The Partition, will be released on May 10, 2022.