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Impressive episode on the Interior including sound and silence in Denali, the saga of "the Fairbanks Four" and life at Crazy Dog Kennels. You can hear my "Letter to Fairbanks" at the 47 minute mark. For the record, I have never been a bush pilot, I am a former aircraft dispatcher who worked for a bush commuter (and wrote about it) based in Fairbanks. I suppose "bush pilot" sounds a lot sexier though.
You can read my full letter (it got edited just a bit) here. I now cover Alaska aviation for Alaska Dispatch.
Someone I do not know made a trailer for MAP and posted it on You Tube! Here it is in all of its wonderfulness - I'm mighty impressed.
My friend John Hitz was twenty-eight when he died, nearly twenty years ago, in a snow machine accident. I don't always tell people this when I show his picture because the part of his story I'm telling then is about flying out of Fairbanks up to Liberator Lake in a Cessna 206. I tell the part of his flying story that fits with the larger narrative of Alaska aviation I am sharing. I wrote a book, I put together a slide show, I talk to people about the "dangerous game of flying in Alaska". I show this picture of my friend John and the 206 he flew one beautiful winter afternoon and every time I show it, I miss John all over again.
But I rarely tell anyone that.
John was working as a co-pilot for a company called Brooks Airfuel when the picture was taken. They flew fuel in DC3s, DC4s and a DC6 to villages across Alaska. The planes were new during World War II but durable fifty years later in a way that few other aircraft are; they still fly all over the world. John used to talk about the switches and levers in the cockpit, the complexity of operating the huge radial engines. The job was dirty and the hours were long and in the cold it could be miserable but John enjoyed flying for Brooks just like he enjoyed flying at the Company which is when we met.
The flight to Liberator Lake was about a mine operation in need of fuel. The lake was the landing strip and the DC4 weighed 40,000 pounds empty. John was sent out in the 206 to test the ice and make sure it was strong enough to handle the big plane. He told this story to us later always aware of the absurdity of the flight, the danger, and its immense appeal. "Of course the ice was strong enough!" he always said. "Of course!" And the weather was good and the plane flew well and sitting on the wing, gassing up to go home, someone took his picture. We found it later, packing up his apartment for his parents. We made a dozen copies, one for each of us, so we would never forget him.
As if any of us could.
John's picture is at the end of my slide show, part of a group of pictures of friends on the job that I click through while reading from my book about why we all come north, why we ended up at the Company, why we stayed. I'm 43 now and when I tell these stories they are about who I was then, my distant wayward youth. But John is forever 28 and smiling back at me as only he could; as only he ever will.
Nine months before he died, John bought a brand new Nissan pickup, fire engine red; he called it Roy. When his parents came up from Nebraska to claim him, the truck posed a problem. Getting it out of Fairbanks in January was difficult and expensive. So in the days after we met in the worst possible circumstances, I bought John's truck from his parents. Through nearly fifteen years of marriage, through four dogs, a son and now a book, John's truck has been as constant as his photo. Last week my husband, who knew John before me and carries his own memories, told me it looks like the transmission might be shot*. This is long overdue; at twenty years old and with 130,000+ miles, John's truck is long past this sort of expensive repair. The rear bumper was damaged years ago when I was in Florida and the bed is rusted through in areas where John loaded his snow machine on the day he bought it. The truck is no longer shiny and new, yet I can not imagine my life without it. It's mine, but still it's his and together it's every moment we all had in Alaska.
John would have sold the truck long ago I'm sure, purchased something newer with room maybe for a family. He might even have lost the snapshot of Liberator Lake. Putting a small part of John's story in my book and keeping his picture in my slide show are, I know, quiet little acts of futility. I can not bring back my friend. Let me write that again so I believe it - I can not bring him back. John Hitz is gone o
I found out yesterday that MAP has gone into a second printing! This was something I was hoping to achieve in the first year so to get there now, with the summer only starting, is pretty darn cool. I'm working with my close friend/publicist* on several other places to contact about the book (aviation museums right now) so we have big plans to see the sales continue. This was a really big hurdle for me - the book has legs! - and it gives me a lot of excitement as I start cranking out pages on the next book.
Yes. The next book. (But nothing more on that as I hate to count chickens before they hatch. Especially literary ones.)
I'm Alaska-bound next week and shall do my best not to bore you with pictures of mountains and rivers and moose. (See the Events page for some Anchorage plans.) Expect some excited comments about discoveries deep in the UAF stacks however - love that library and can't wait to have hours spent working in it.
*Best move I ever made was getting someone to help me with the publicity and marketing. She has been invaluable both for my sanity and the book's sales.
This is a moment my eighteen-year old newbie pilot self didn't even dare dream about. From the December/January issue currently on the newstands:
"There are two ways to tell a flying story: the truth and what everyone wants to hear," Colleen Mondor writes in The Map of My Dead Pilots. "You can't have it both ways."
In describing commercial flying in Alaska, instead of the story you want to hear, she rivets you with compelling non-fiction. Mondor spent four years in the 1990s as an operations dispatcher at one of the small indie airlines tethering the state's remote towns and villages to civilization. Map provides an artful and contemplative recounting of the experience in language as terse as a cockpit voice recording.
Pick any thankless, dead-end gig you ever worked in the Lower 48. Add under-maintained aircraft, double-digit sub-zero temperatures, plus the occasional need to brandish a handgun on the company chief pilot next to you in the cockpit. There are no 9 a.m. conferences in H.R. here. Mondor's world consists of the Bosses, the Owners, and the Company: the "saggy chairs, scratched desks, timed-out airplanes and pissed-off agents." Pilots desperate to move on and those with nothing to come back for. Most of all, there's weather.
The narrative is inhabited by ghosts: a new hire at the dead end of a box canyon, "the good pilot" who flew a Navajo into the Yukon River, and many others. Mondor pores over the cartography of pilot error, overdue flights and "probable cause unknown." Nobody gets closure, nothing emerges unscathed - not the romantic image of Alaskan bush flying, not the writer's own job description: Dispatchers "always lied about the load," she writes of signing off on cargo planes hundreds of pounds over takeoff weight.
At intervals, corpses pop out of caskets in transit, obstinate nuns try to bump a teenage overdose victim off a medevac flight, and sled dogs make just awful air freight. And the time clock ticks on us all.
Writers are frequently advised not to quit their day jobs. Be grateful Colleen Mondor did, then wrote about it.
...And I couldn't be more pleased. I've been reading Air & Space since I was 19; this is really a moment for me.
What arrived on my doorstep just a short time ago.
And here's the dedication:
I dearly wish my father, grandmother and Uncle Ben were here to see this - they believed in me for so long. It was pretty awesome to call my mom tonight though, and share the moment with her. Lots of stuff to do still (LOTS of stuff to do) but this moment is mine forever and I'm really loving it.
My book is out. (Pause for confetti tossing in the air.)
It is actually not officially due out until the 22nd but the local store has gotten their copies and amazon is shipping and Powells shows it in their remote warehouse and available for online ordering so I think it is safe to say that my book is out. I actually signed the first few copies the other day at the local store and that was very cool. So I did it, I wrote a book and I got an agent and my agent sold it to a very good publisher and the publisher has gotten my book into the stores. After all these years, I made it this far. And now, well, now that's pretty much it.
The Millions had a piece up last week about self-published authors and I thought it was interesting how many of them commented about the work they had to do marketing their books and how that was one aspect of traditional publishing they missed. I don't disagree with the work they have to do but really, I don't see much difference between their situation and my own. The only thing I have going for me is the cachet that an actual publisher gives me - it certainly removes any bias that a bookstore or reviewer might have against self-published authors from our conversations. But as far as traditional publishing helping me get the word out on my book - well, that has not happened. In fact, very little has happened in that regard at all.
My publisher has sent out lots of press releases to all the traditional newspapers and magazines - to a long list of publications that we thought would be especially interested in The Map of My Dead Pilots. We targeted outdoorsy publications, aviation ones, regional ones, etc. There has been no response from any of them, not one. I also sent out my own letters with postcards both of the book cover and cool AK flying pics hoping that might help. Nothing. I can understand no response from the bigger publications (although it is still frustrating how many of them will write exaggerated articles about Alaska flying but not even request a review copy of a book about someone who was actually involved in the profession) (Grrrr) but we have received no response from even the Anchorage Daily News or ALASKA magazine. The only thing I can figure is that they all ignore most of what they get - both in the mail and electronically and as someone who receives many book review requests every single day I can understand that. But what do I do about this for my book? How do I break through and get heard? At this point, I just don't know.
There is less money out there to promote books like mine (mid list debut author) and more noise to compete against. Not only are there still the high dollar books sucking all the marketing oxygen out of the room (this will never change) but now there are a million self-published authors sending out emails on their indy publications and they are filling up inboxes left and right as well. I have not even gotten a response from emails to bookstores in Western Washington and Oregon. Not from indy bookstores, not from B&N, not from university bookstores. Not one response from my carefully worded email that provides a brief description of my book, a mention of my starred Booklist review (the only formal review I have received), a bit about my background and links to my web site with more info on the book. It's a good letter - I've been reading these from other authors long enough to know it is a good letter - but it has been universally ignored. Again, I assume because there are so many people bombarding bookstores that they just aren't interested unless they know you personally. (I have talked to folks in person - and every single time received business cards for the person to contact via email about my book. And thus into the black hole I fall.) (At this point it is actually getting pretty funny.)
The only people who have agreed to write about my book are people
Jenny D. emailed me a question the other day about MAP and how I came to write about my father in the midst of a memoir of Alaska aviation. She posted my response which is more about the surprises writers find in the act of writing then anything else. I can chart exactly how my father's death came to be in this book (as I explained to Jenny) but while it seems obvious in retrospect, at the time it was utterly unexpected. I never really believed authors when they claimed to be surprised by their writing - I mean sure, you can change your mind along the way but being totally surprised by something you create? It didn't make any sense. And then, over the course, of a few days I wrote myself in and out of some memories that I never planned to revisit on the printed page.
I thus bow down to all authors everywhere who I previous scoffed at.
In other news, keep your eyes peeled for the new issue of Rolling Stone (with "The Voice" cast on the cover) for its truly unbelievable article about the cluster of suicides at a high school district in Michele Bachmann's area. It stretches the bounds of belief to know that GBLTQ teens could have been treated this way with the full complicity of school officials.
I have never believed more how much the "It Gets Better" project matters.
I have many things I have to write. This does not include the next book, or the fun book project that is not the next book but a sensible diversion when stuck on the next book, or the short story which is following the other story that is done but needs tweaking. No, none of those things are what this is about as I have many things I have to write for MAP. The next few months are all in service to MAP and while I guerilla market appropriate publications with PR postcards (all of which have wicked cool Alaskany pics on one side and quotes & book info on the other), well, I also have to write many essays. So that's what I'm doing and here are the subjects I'm noodling with:
1. Nome - as in, Nome is dealing with a new gold rush while also having a unique aviation history and the location of the furthest north prison in the US. (We used to fly prisoners in there.) (I'm not making that up.)
2. "Testostereality" or Alaska as reality tv sees it as opposed to how I know it. (To include the information of a mid-air collision caused by a former co-worker who always believed he was a bigger man than anyone else but managed to kill himself and two innocent guys in the other aircraft in a totally preventable accident.)
3. The awkward and yet predictable phone conversations with the guys you wrote about in your book. I just had one last night, it started with "you made me sound like an asshole". The conversation before that (from another friend) was "you made me sound pathetic". In both cases they found the parts of the book not about them to be very affecting and true. I had to talk them through why I found the parts written about them to be true however. (For the record I don't think these guys are pathetic or assholes, and no one else has felt that way either.) (Still. Not easy conversations for sure.)
4. The search for an Alaskan aviation writer from decades ago. This person will remain unnamed because I want to be the one to write about them. I also won't be writing this until I get into the UAF archives this summer. (Here's hoping I find what I'm looking for.)
5. And I'm trying to find my way into writing about researching aviation in Alaska archives. It is such a major topic in the state and has sustained itself as such over the years. So so soooo many articles in newspapers, magazines and journals and so many of them about heroic pilots who gave their lives for the state. It's a fascinating peek at a fairly unique culture but I have to figure out to write this in a way that makes it relevant to folks anywhere. Still working on that, but not giving up.
So three nailed down for sure, one that requires research but will be very cool if I find what I need (the idea is firm) and one that is nebulous but has possibilities. Two are already in process - stalled on Nome needing some facts, but will get those this weekend, in the meantime have worked on another.
On a completely unrelated note, I have an essay mapped out on Kerouac and my family and what it means to be a French Canadian in America. But this has nothing to do with MAP so it languishes at the moment. It shall be lovely when it has its turn though, promise.
I just finalized the travel arrangements for my whirlwind Alaska book tour at the beginning of next month. (See all the dates and times on the Events page.) I have been helped immeasurably by a good friend who is locked into the bookstore industry in the state and I'm quite pleased with how things have turned out. Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks are the three cities in AK and visiting with bookish folks in those locations will go a long way toward getting the word out on MAP. (I also have a radio interview scheduled in Juneau which should be fun - and will reach a lot of listeners.) But it is a big personal leap to make (financially and psychologically) and I'm a wee bit terrified that it all might be a bust.
I mean really - who wants to travel thousands of miles to meet with a grand total of five folks? (This is kind of like flying from Florida to Arizona to Montana in terms of distance.) I'm keeping my expectations very low for sanity's sake but any author who tells you they aren't hoping to meet masses of folks interested in talking about their book is a liar. Walking into those rooms is a daunting thing for sure. It's another step in the publishing process that no one wants to [really] talk about: will an agent like me, will an editor like me, will readers like me and now, will they want to come and talk about my work.
I want to do the best I can for MAP and talking to Alaskan booksellers (who hand sell all the time) is an important thing to do. It's part of my plan to do as much as I can for the book before I embark on heavily writing on the next one later this summer. (I have a lot of research to do on that in the UAF archives first.) It's a calculated risk, a toss of the dice and dollars in the hopes of a solid return. I feel like if I didn't give it a go then I would be sorry later (and second guessing myself) so I'm off.
I'll be tweeting the whole time I'm there, the good, the bad and the spectacularly beautiful (Juneau is amazing). Be sure to follow along (@chasingray) if you want to see the next chapter in this ride.
And tomorrow, back to blogging about other folks' books!
It seems like no one ever writes casual travel diaries anymore. We have an entire box of postcards that were sent to my great grandmother by family members (starting in the 1920s) and I love them. Granted they aren't true travel diaries (there is only so much you can convey in a postcard) but they are still fabulous. So here is my travel diary, which starts with Juneau where I arrived yesterday.
Juneau is our state capitol and a former gold mining town on the water and surrounded by mountains and glaciers. It's pretty spectacular scenery-wise (as you can tell from the pics) but still looks like a frontier town on the ground. (It's built right up against the hills so you have rows and rows of houses that are generally accessible only by steps - so it's like living on a boardwalk all the time!) (without sand or bikinis though).
Yesterday I had a radio interview (it will be broadcast in a week and a half). I have two more interviews today (one is about the event tonight, one is about the book) and this evening I have a slide show & signing for the local bookstore. I am most excited about that and hopeful that I will connect with the bookstore folks so that they will share MAP with their customers and the tourists who come through here every summer.
Hopeful hopeful hopeful!
Last night I had dinner with my old friend Katrina and her husband as well as Juneau author Lynn Schooler. Lynn's most recent book, WALKING HOME, won the 2010 Banff Mountain Festival Book competition for Mountain Literature and it's a great title that manages to blend some Alaska history and a Tracy Kidder "HOUSE" vibe about carving a place out for yourself plus a serious personal hiking adventure. (And he is prepared!!!) We talked about books and publishing and facebook (Lynn posts a photo a day for Juneau - you should friend him for some amazing pics). We talked about frustrations with the business and still doing the writing while trying to figure out the selling. It was a very good time.
Tomorrow I head for Anchorage which also has amazing mountains; we shall see what I can find with my camera there!
[Post pics of an actual glacier (!) and "Sandy Beach" which is where part of the old gold camp is still present and you can see some serious mountains. Juneau is just across the strait.]