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I used to have a friend in Flagstaff whose favorite expression was “horse dung and gun smoke.” No, he wasn’t always talking about me. But when I see what other people write about themselves, I know exactly what he means.
About myself, I try to write only what I know to be true, at least in some sense. Still, I do recommend that you keep your boots on.
Where am I from?
I have always believed that my real parents were wealthy, genteel folk, possibly attached to a foreign embassy, and that they must have had very good reasons for placing me with the family who raised me. Or maybe a nurse named Buttercup switched me with another baby in the hospital where I was born. An explanation like this is all I can imagine that would account for why I am now and have always been so very different from my family. Ask any of them; no one can figure it.
Consider it established, in any case, that through no fault of my own I was raised among kindly, poor, and church-going people in the woods northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska. If you started walking north through the woods from our shack, you could reach the Yukon River, or the Arctic Ocean, without meeting another human. (Theoretically, that is. You’d probably bump into my dad.)
What was my family like?
My parents were good Christian folk in the days when fundamentalism was a gentler and simpler dogma than it is today. They were kindly but stern, and they believed—as a character in one of my books says—that children were put on earth to do chores and to memorize the scriptures.
I have one sister, much older than I, whose name is Blue. She tormented me, as it was her duty to do, and she had ridiculous ideas like Fabian was better than Jerry Lee Lewis. My father, the old man of the mountains, taught us a respect for wilderness, how to use a knife and gun, how to skin a rabbit, and the importance of scraping the frost from the seat in the outhouse. My mother ordered our clothes each autumn from the Sears catalog, taught us to sing, to sew, and to follow around behind my father, cleaning up the wreck he always made of things.
On my father’s side of the family, some of my cousins are Ojibwe, and from that connection I learned a love for Native American stories and cultures, some of which appear in my books. One of these Ojibwe cousins was like a grandmother to us. Together, she and I wrote two picture books based on traditional stories that her grandfather taught her. (The second one of these books bit the dust in a corporate shoot out in 1997. Long story.) She was a peach, and I loved her dearly. She may be the only one of my family who agreed with me in both politics and religion.
So it's complicated. To call my parents conservative would be an insult to conservative people---you see that a lot in Alaska---but I turned out to be a tax-and-spend liberal. Who knew? The other thing is, I know I've let them down by not following their path of faith. I'm not happy about it, but that's the way it goes in families, isn't it? I come from good people, but somehow I just developed some ways about me that ain't quite right.
What was I like as a child?
I could recite the “Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “Gunga Din,” and whole chapters of the Bible before I was twelve. Snowshoes, guns, furs, and hand tools were as common to me as Legos. For a while, I had a dog team, but I did a bad job of training them and we parted ways. I did fine in school, but I wasn’t smart enough to push myself. I made my share of social mistakes. With girls. You know.
Where do my writing ideas come from?
See, the thing is, there’s nothing special about where ideas begin. It’s what they become that’s important. You begin from your own experience (what else is there?), and you mix it with as much imagination as you can.
What’s my writing process like?
It’s a lot like fun, but then again it’s a lot like work. You know. Creating anything gives you real pleasure—even if you know it isn’t perfect—but it takes patience and discipline and humility to keep going.
When I’m writing anything that’s very long, I try to work on it every day, and just make progress. I write slowly, and I go back through the writing again and again. Gradually, I get things into a shape that I like. With fiction, I tend to think in scenes—a big one here, a little one there—and I let them stay separate for a while. Then I go back and string the scenes together like points in a spiderweb. When everything’s connected, then I know I’m done.
What do I do for a living?
I have worked in scholarly publishing since 1986, and I’ve been Director of the Utah State University Press since 1993. Part of what I need to do for this kind of job is to write chapters and articles for academic audiences on subjects like folklore, composition, and literature. That's a different sort of writing---more like writing for school---but it's fun in its own way. You can see some of those writings if you like. There’s a list of them somewhere on this website.
Do I have kids?
Yes, Nancy and Isaac. They're great, and I like them better every day.
The charming and brilliant Dr. Sylvia Read, a professor of elementary education. (This means, in case you didn't know, that she teaches college students how to become really good school teachers.)
Do I visit schools and talk to students?
Yes. Love to do that.
Who’s my favorite character in Harry Potter?
Hermione. No contest.