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Alaskan writers' New York City takeover

Laurel Andrews
Writers Heather Lende, Tom Kizzia and Arlitia Jones are bringing home some major writing honors from New York City. Lende’s and Kizza's books are climbing the New York Times bestseller list, and Jones is flying back from New York with honors and a new licensing agreement for her one-act play “Tornado.” Creative Commons photo courtesy Shutterhacks (Flickr)

Alaskans are making waves in the literary world this week.

Writers Heather Lende, Tom Kizzia and Arlitia Jones are bringing home some major writing honors from New York City. Lende’s and Kizza's books are climbing the New York Times bestseller list, and Jones is flying back from New York with honors and a new licensing agreement for her one-act play “Tornado.”

Rising high on New York Times Bestseller List

“If You Lived Here I Would Know Your Name,” Heather Lende’s 2005 non-fiction book about her life growing up in small-town Alaska, has risen from No. 17 to No. 7 on the New York Times best seller list for nonfiction e-books during the past three weeks.

The honor is “nice to know,” Lende said from her home in Haines on Monday. Her family lives in New York, and relatives are especially excited to flip open the New York Times and find her name nestled among other literary talents on the bestseller list.

The climbing books sales are due to a promotional offer devised by her publishing company, Algonquin Books. The company set up a promotional offer where it offered the book for $1.99 among select e-book retailers. It “started doing really well,” first on Kindle and then with other e-book retailers, said online marketing manager Debra Linn. From there, the book began to climb up the New York Times bestseller list. “We were just thrilled," Linn said.

Algonquin couldn’t comment on how many books have been sold through the promotion, but thanks to the publishing company’s strategy, Lende’s book has edged out David Sedaris’ “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” which sits at No. 8 on the list. 

Lende’s book is also sitting at No. 20 on the bestseller list for combined print and e-book nonfiction. Coming in right behind her at No. 21 is another Alaskan author, Tom Kizzia of Homer, whose new book "Pilgrim’s Wilderness" explores the life of the infamous Alaskan known as Papa Pilgrim.

Yet despite the honors that come with having her book on a bestseller list for three weeks, Lende expressed some trepidation. She’s in the process of completing her third book, and with a deadline fast approaching, having her first book do so well now is in some ways a double-edged sword. First, there’s the distraction of the publicity, and an increase in emails to which she takes the time to respond.

Lende feels like she should “have a party or something,” but “I’ve got stuff to do,” she laughed.

Then, there’s the pressure. Will the book she’s racing to complete be as good as what she’s already done?

Her agent, Elizabeth Wales, thinks so. Her third book is “so timely, and so Heather,” Wales said.

Lende said that she’s trying not to make a big deal of it, and focus instead on pushing forward with her work. In the end, you can’t listen to either the critics or the praise, or “you’ll go crazy,” she said.

The experience has also opened up her mind to the power of reaching a broader audience through e-readers. Lende prefers “real books,” small towns and communities, and local bookstores, but this experience has shown her the “phenomenal” power of advertising on platforms such as Amazon, and the great potential for Alaskan writers to reach audiences far and wide through e-books.

Wales said the book has sold more than 60,000 copies, but wasn’t sure how many additional copies had been sold via the e-book promotion.

Lende is staying humble, despite accolades and praise, though. Being on a best-seller list “doesn’t change your life or anything -- you do the same thing you always do,” she said.

“There’s more to write -- that’s life.”

“Tornado” earns accolades

Anchorage playwright Arlitia Jones has nabbed a different New York honor this week. Jones left New York City on Monday after spending two weeks at the Samuel French Off Off Broadway festival, where her play “Tornado” was one of six selected for showcase, inclusion in an upcoming anthology, and licensing.

The Samuel French Off Off Broadway short play festival is New York City’s oldest-running short-play festival, started in 1975, according to its website. Some 900 plays are submitted every year, whittled down to 30 finalists and, eventually, six winners.

Jones wrote “Tornado,” a play about a father trying to buy a football uniform for his son, during what she called a “Friday night write” session: Jones comes home from work, puts on a pot of coffee, and writes until she falls asleep, somewhere around 2 or 3 a.m.

The idea for the play came after talking to an actor friend who is large in stature and is subsequently passed up for lots of leading roles.

Jones thought, “What kind of role can I write for him that’s not a big, doofy guy?” Spun from this question was the character of the father, a quasi-famous linebacker who wants to buy his son a football jersey. 

Two secrets are revealed at the end of the 12-minute production. “One shoe drops, then the other,” she said.

Seeing the play performed live was “very emotional,” Jones said. 

The 100-seat audience was “very sad and openly crying,” when the first secret was revealed. With the second secret, “they openly gasped,” she said.

The best part of the show was the “incredible sense of connection” between all the viewers. “We’re humans and we hurt and feel for each other,” Jones said. “That’s what it is, and it’s really powerful.”

Jones was already heading to New York for the Lincoln Center Theater Director's Lab, where she met directors and other playwrights from across the world. That's where she heard that her play was chosen as a festival finalist. The Director's Lab was another “amazing experience” that Jones has under her belt from this trip, where her plays were given extensive review by directors and other writers.

“It was life changing,” Jones said.

Back home, little has changed for Jones, despite the accolades and experience. “The position that I’m always in is: I’m working on a play, and it has to be a good play.”

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com