A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Interview with Debby Dahl Edwardson

A while ago I wrote about Blessing's Bead, a wonderful novel by Barrow resident Debby Dahl Edwardson. Debbie has been kind enough to answer some questions about her writing life. Her next book, My Name is Not Easy, is going to press soon with Marshall Cavendish.

Debby, I know you’ve lived in Barrow for over 30 years. I’m curious about what brought you there in the first place. It is rather out of the way for casual visiting! Would you mind talking about how and why you first came to Alaska; where else in Alaska you spent time; and how/why you got to Barrow?

I came to Alaska for adventure. I had just graduated from college in Colorado. A group of us were living in New Mexico and decided to drive north to Alaska to work on the Pipeline. For me it became a journey of discovery that has yet to end. I ended up in Barrow because my husband is Inupiaq and Barrow is his home. I moved to Barrow sight unseen, in fact, knowing that it would become my permanent home. It was February of 1980—a time of intense cold and blindingly bright sun. A strong, resilient and ultimately joyful people were bringing in sled loads of caribou and piling huge blocks of crystalline ice outside there homes for drinking water. I was enchanted.

You and I share a common denominator in that as young adults we both spent time in Scandinavia before coming to Alaska – you in Norway, I in Sweden. My time in Sweden was a strong influence in turning my interest northward to Alaska. Was that the case for you, too?

I guess that growing up in Minnesota, living in Norway and settling in Alaska have all fed into my identity as a northerner. My family instilled in me a fierce pride in my Norwegian heritage. My husband, who is Inupiaq, is also part Norwegian so for us there is always a sense of strong Norwegian-Alaskan ties.

Do you maintain connections with people in Norway? Snakker du norsk? (I think I just asked if you speak Norwegian.)

Ya, Jeg snakker norsk, men det har vært lenge siden… no, sadly I have pretty much lost connection with most of the people I knew in Norway. And although I have always wanted to go back, seven children and a busy life have sent me in other directions. My oldest daughter, who is a filmmaker, was invited to present her work at a Sámi film festival in Northern Norway several years ago. This daughter was also an exchange student in Sweden and my youngest daughter was an exchange student in Denmark—so in a way we have extended our Scandinavian connections. And I did actually receive a surprise email form a Norwegian classmate, recently.

He said he was waiting for a bus, listening to his ipod, and when the song “Bye, Bye Miss America Pie” came on and he remembered, suddenly, the first time he’d heard the song. It was played for him by an American Girl by the name of Debby Dahl. He had seen my website and remembered me.

The ways in which the internet connects us are truly amazing.

Living anywhere in Alaska – even Anchorage – is different from living in the Lower 48 states. For most people it requires some adjustment and the learning of new skills. It seems to me that living above the Arctic Circle and marrying into the Inupiaq culture would require significant adjustment and learning, including a non-Western language. Was that difficult for you? How long did it take for you to feel that this was home?

I was thinking of this when I was at Disneyworld recently, attending the NCTE/ALAN conference. It seemed like such an alien place to me! The truth is, that at this point in my life I often face culture shock when I travel south.

I think that living in Norway and learning another culture and language prepared me for the Inupiaq cultural immersion experience that has shaped me into the person I am today. And truly, there was a lot about the Inupiaq worldview that just made sense to me. It helped, also, that I had a good teacher, a cultural mentor who taught me to see the world through his eyes. I married this man.

The odd thing about Alaska was that I never intended to make it my permanent home. I’ve always had wanderlust and I used to think I would just keep traveling and experiencing all the wonderful places the world has to offer. Even after I had married into the culture and lived here a long time, part of me was still keenly aware of the fact that I was living far from my home. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day I realized that I was home, in every sense of the word. I actually consider myself to be bicultural at this point. The benefit of this is that I don’t really have to do a lot of research for the books I write—my life itself is the research!

About the book: Where did you get the idea for the bead as a motif to span the generations and unite the two main characters in the novel? Is there a real-life bead that inspired you?

There is a real life bead. In fact the bead on the cover of the book is the real bead that inspired the use of the fictional bead in the story. It was given to my husband and had belonged to an old woman in Point Hope. He was told him it would protect him. I’ve known and been fascinated by trade beads for many years, especially the Russian blues, which were indeed considered very valuable.

Authors usually have little or no control over the covers for their books. Is there a story behind the cover of Blessing’s Bead? I find the photograph of the girl to be evocative, almost haunting. Or was it arranged by editors and art directors? How do you feel about the cover?

Ah, now here’s a story! In fact the girl on the cover of the book is my middle daughter, Susan, whose Inupiaq name is Aaluk (as is one of the book’s main characters.) How did this happen? Well, although it is indeed unusual, my editor, Melanie Kroupa, then at Farrar Straus and Giroux, involved me every step of the way on the cover design. When it became clear that they wanted to do a photo cover—I started sending photos of local Barrow girls (my nieces) who I thought looked the part. None of them had quite the right expression, however. Out of desperation, I staged a photo shoot with my daughter who is an actress and could, I knew, get in character. However, neither she nor I thought she looked “Inupiaq enough.” The full story of the cover—and my thoughts about it, which are actually kind of complex, can be found here.


  1. Ann,
    This is a fascinating interview. I should have crossed paths with Debby when we lived in Barrow (1987-89), but I can't place her. How interesting to hear her reactions to living there for so many years and about her new book. Thanks for sharing insights from another Alaska author like yourself.

  2. You're welcome! For a state with such a low population, Alaska is home to many interesting people, some of whom are also wonderful writers, like Debby.
    I was thinking I should include a map in case readers don't realize where Barrow is. You can't get much farther north!