On June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we have been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.
This week we’re chatting with Leigh Newman, author of the memoir Still Points North, recently published by Dial Press. Leigh Newman made her One Story debut back in 2005 with her story, “Listening for Marianne.”
While the spotlight setting of Leigh Newman’s memoir Still Points North is the Alaskan countryside where she spent summers with her father, her story is one that anyone who’s navigated the choppy waters of adolescence will appreciate. Written with the clear eyes of an adult and the boundless elation of a child at heart, it’s a moving and vivid account of one woman fording the rivers of her own family history and living to tell the tale.
1. Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
I was on the Brooklyn Heights promenade. I had a 3 week old newborn in a sling and a 3 year old son in the stroller. Both were very mad that day and badly positioned in their little fabric child-prisons. And yet…I chose to pick up the phone. As they wailed and fussed and raged, my agent quickly and professionally mentioned that three editors wanted to talk to me. My face fell off. I was unemployed, under-financed and totally over-hormoned. I wanted to weep but I don’t do that in public. Instead I talked to my agent for 3 minutes, hung up, and kept marching down the tidy brick path home. There, in our living room, I did a dance with my impressionable young children that’s best left to the imagination. Think of a gnashing of teeth, only joyful and with the occasional botched cartwheel. We topped it all off with a truly astonishing amount of gummy worms.
2. This is a memoir, rather than fiction. How did you decide to write it and do you approach the two mediums differently?
Failure can force your hand—right into a success or another star-spangled, soul-disfiguring failure. Because, of course, there’s momentum in failure, a rolling desperation that occurs in its wake—which either inspires you to do better or to just dive faster and more extravagantly towards to the bottom. Still Points North came directly out of that feeling. Prior to it, I had spent four years on writing a novel, and that novel was a bust. I couldn’t fix it and I was too afraid to start a new one and so I did the one option left, which is an option that most Alaskans are familiar with: do the thing you very much don’t want to do that might just save your life. In the wilderness culture that I grew up with, this is a literal sentiment: you have to dive into the cold fast-moving river and save the floating-away floatplane or lie there in a tent without moving until the bear attacks or wanders off. But here, it was metaphorical. I had to write a book I didn’t want to write or end the whole idea of writing. ….And so I wrote… all the while, screaming yuck. Who wants to talk about themselves? Not me. Not the people I grew up with. But as it turned out, I had a lot to say about king salmon and grizzlies and alders and homemade fish smokers and brave loving complicated families that fall apart. Because whether it’s a memoir or novel, there’s not really a difference in terms of how you tell the story. What you tell is different, because it’s life not fiction. But the way you tell it is the same. You show it, except when you have tell it. You get specific. You keep the good stuff and cut the rest.
3. The book spans a wide swath of time, from the summer after your parents’ divorce, when you’re eight, to when you’re grown up with children and a family of your own, with your relationship with your father acting as the through-line. What was it like to revisit these different periods of your life? Were some more fun or more painful than others?
Well, the parts about our unpressurized single-prop plane getting up to 20,000 feet and almost falling out the sky or about our dinky raft getting swamped in a rapid-filled canyon (with us in it) or about the bear that paid me an early morning visit were fun to write. There is joy to all that always-almost-dying that you do in the wilderness—provided that you survive. Writing about my dad and I tromping around in hip boots and fishing was also fun. I miss that life. The parts about my family falling to pieces, however, my own marriage falling to pieces, my mother’s breakdown and her other assorted mental issues were not so fun. I don’t want to sound flip. But they were not fun at all. I write at dawn, before anybody gets up and those were some dark mornings. Probably what kept me going was a maniacal feeling I had that if you write a memoir, you have to go all the way, otherwise the risk of exposure isn’t worth it. And there was a wee bit of grace. The people I was writing about loved me, and I loved them. I was lucky in this, despite all the mess and upheaval. And as I wrote, I began to fall in love with them, to fall in love with all of my family in the deep and all consuming way we usually reserve for romance.
4. There are beautiful descriptions throughout of the Alaskan wilderness. You live in New York now, a very different sort of place. Did you do anything particular to get yourself into that setting while writing? Revisit old pictures or take trips back?
I think I’m always in that setting, even when my body is somewhere else. So I didn’t look at anything except the slideshows in my mind. In fact, I was afraid of looking at anything—memoirs in general, or books of any kind about Alaska or websites about Alaska— because I suspected I would end up being so impressed with other people’s flora and fauna and nouns and adjectives and experiences, I would end up writing and thinking like them.
5. What was the revision process like for you? Do you have any advice for writers currently working on a book manuscript?
I had a great editor. She is brilliant and her name is Jen Smith. She did what every writer wants: she edited. And her process was show up at lunch and sort of explain very casually over midtown sushi what was going right…and wrong. She could do this in about 3 sentences. That’s all she needed. First the beginning was working, but the rest not so much. Then the beginning and end were working, but the middle not so much. And then I began working on the middle….. seasons changed, saplings turned to trees, little baby ducks grew up into fat big ducks, icebergs melted. And still the middle was not working. In fact, it was horrible. So Jen and her assistant Hannah (also an awesome editor) suggested we cut it. Just pull it out. And so….we did, we pulled 120 pages out of the center of the book. What was left were two stories—the love letter to my dad and the love story of me and my husband—positioned side by side, which let the reader make the connection between the two, without the book having to explain things overly. I love that! It’s perfect, which I can say because I didn’t think it up and I can’t take any credit for it. So listen to your editor. One other rule: read her comments, wait 3 days, then respond. On day one, they seem like madness. On day three, genius.
6. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Deb Ball?
The stairs. I find great comfort in NOT taking that elevator.