A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Writing What She Knew

This year I've been preparing for Alaska Book Week by reacquainting myself with the works of Elsa Pedersen, an Alaska writer, now passed on, who still inspires me when I begin to think this whole writing business is just too hard and I ought to spend my time on something more productive, like Facebook.

Long before the phrase "young adult literature" materialized, Elsa Pedersen was writing for young people. Her career began in 1948 with a magazine article for “Alaska Life.” She soon moved into writing stories for youth, and eventually books. Victory at  Bear Cove was the first of eleven historical and contemporary novels, all but one set in Alaska. Several sold quite well nationally. Fisherman's Choice and House Upon a Rock were Junior Literary Guild selections, and the New York Times listed Cook Inlet Decision among its best 100 books for young people in 1963. She also wrote nonfiction: a book about Alaska for school children, dozens of articles for adults, a memoir, and co-authored two local histories.

Elsa Pedersen's first novel for young adults,
published in 1958, was followed
by ten more over the next decade.
Her writing focused, per the old adage, on what she knew: homesteading and fishing on Kachemak Bay. When she wasn't writing, she was working at homesteading chores, such as helping her first husband, Ted, to clear acres of old-growth spruce by hand with cross-cut saws and axes at their stake in Bear Cove, and later, hiring on as a bookkeeper at canneries in Seldovia in an often desperate attempt to stay afloat financially. When working for the canneries, she arose at 4:30 or 5 to get in two hours of writing before her work day. (Ouch! So what's my excuse?)

As someone who has been writing since before the Internet, I can fully imagine the solitary commitment to her craft that writing from her homestead at Bear Cove required. All correspondence with editors and other writers took place by snail mail, of course — in this case, very snail, as mail arrived by boat or plane only sporadically at best. Manuscripts were produced without the benefit of spell-check or cut-and-paste. Critique group? Forget it. There was no one to critique with even if she’d wanted to. (She didn’t.)

Published in 1969, Petticoat Fisherman
features a young woman coming of age
as she navigates a fishing boat on Kachemak 
as well as social expectations of the time.
Pedersen’s approach to writing sounds distinctly old-school today. She makes it clear in her memoir that she was opposed to discussing her work-in-progress, stating “Writing is an extremely personal affair and as far as I’m concerned is not a debatable subject.” She did not believe in writing workshops and critique groups, which she characterizes as “the blind leading the blind” and warns may foster “a subtle atmosphere of ‘You praise my work, I’ll praise yours’” or even “jealousy and malice.” Point taken!

Written after the Good Friday Earthquake of 1964,
House Upon a Rock tells the story of a young man,
his family, and community dealing with the event
and its aftermath in a fictional coastal village.

Finding balance between the focused solitude of writing and participation in society (face-to-face or virtual) seems to be part of every writer’s journey over time. Although writing was clearly not a social activity for Pedersen, she eventually left the isolation of Bear Cove for the relative civilization of a rural community on the road system. If she were alive today, I can't help wondering if she'd embrace the connectivity of the Internet, with all its access to the world, or if the onslaught of blogging, tweeting, blurbing, and “liking" might drive her to reconsider the merits of isolation.

My take-away from a brief look at Elsa Pedersen’s life and career is perseverance: she wrote to publish and she wrote because she was driven to write. Sometimes, with luck, the two coincided.